Why is it always Orwell o’clock? Why is everything mildly unpleasant about government instantly Orwellian? Why is every banal propaganda effort obviously 1984 sprung to life? Why is it all as crushingly predictable as the Orwell Prize, the outstandingly foreseeable new Churchill And Orwell double biography, and now a new life-size bronze Orwell statue outside the BBC?
There is a simplicity and a clarity to Orwell’s prose. It flows nicely. But there is also nothing special about it other than the fact it has been canonised as the ultimate in English authorial excellence.
This is still very much a surprise to me, because there is just so much wrong with it. Are the violent caricatures of Jews in Down And Out In Paris And London really defending the downtrodden in 1933? Are the rantings (against amongst others, vegetarians) in The Road To Wigan Pier even coherent? Were the baying hysterical yellow people forcing a European into Shooting An Elephant really an appropriate metaphor for colonialism in 1936? Is Julia, the paper-thin vamp in 1984,really a character at all?
Stranger, too, is the idea that George Orwell was a master of prophecy. And this is not merely a matter of a few false calls. Orwell was a man wholly addicted to tub-thumping socialist augury. The gentleman non-pseudonymously known as Eric Blair categorically announced in 1937 that “the upper-middle class is clearly finished.” He predicted in 1941 alone that: the British Empire would be converted into “a socialist federation of states”; the London Stock Exchange would imminently be “torn down”; Britain’s country homes would be transformed into socialist “children’s camps”; and Eton and Harrow faced immediate post-war closure. He was making claims that were childish even for his time. This addiction to announcing the future is why even his oft-quoted and more often imitated 1941 essay England, Your England reads much more like a strange sermon from his own parallel universe belonging to British socialist totalitarians than anything genuinely reflective.
But none of Orwell’s silly predictions would really irritate if the canonisation of 1984 was not a net negative for our political debate. This is not to say the novel is not a decent evocation of Stalinism—it is. It’s just that its lodging itself as the English language’s only universally-read dystopia hampers awareness of what really threatens democracy today. It strikes me as rather glib to say that 1984 is relevant because Orwell was worried about surveillance and “newspeak” words losing their meaning. Orwell’s actual warnings—about homogenization, the destruction of information, a world without wealth and only unlimited powers of the state—are now miles away. If anything, the threats to democracy are the opposite of “Orwellian.”
This is the problem of bringing everything, always, back to Orwell. He has nothing to say about social fragmentation, financialisation, ethnic splintering, unaccountable corporations, offshore kleptocrats, or echo chambers, to name but a few. Instead, he leaves too many political minds forever chasing, Quixote-like, the totalitarian windmill of untrammeled state power. They ignore the real anemic state before their eyes, which struggles to keep up with corporate algorithms, is unable to fulfil its promises, or tax the super-rich.
Orwell was no visionary when it comes to economics, either. Recall his Floating Fortresses in 1984, explicitly designed to eat up the surplus production of a population. His inability to meaningfully reflect on the dynamics of capitalism (beyond moralising condemnation), let alone imagine a consumer society, is a fascinating wooly mammoth frozen in ice from the postwar era. It is a reminder of how utterly written-off by European intellectuals the market economy was immediately after the war - and what a shock the 1950s consumerist takeoff in living standards proved to be.
Most of the Orwell cult only irritates, but one thing legitimately grates: the idea of Eric Blair as a monument to British decency... read more: