The renewal of interest in George Orwell’s 1984 came soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January. I remember thinking the book seemed a bit wide of the mark as a touchstone for the U.S. of 2017. This was only a passing impression, not particularly thought through. I’d read the book before – in 1984, in fact, during a similar collective stocktaking. Back then, of course, it was hard to avoid reflecting on how the book might and might not speak to the moment. But even after rereading it recently, I am still left with the question: why Orwell, now?
Of course, there are some relatively clear answers to that question. Much of the novel’s lasting import has to do with its prescient naming of nefarious, information-age techniques of government, fairly nascent when it was published in 1949. So, the incident that apparently sparked much of the novel’s current interest - Kellyanne Conway’s revelation that along with Trump we’d inaugurated a new era of “alternative facts” - was apropos. Conway’s blithe eloquence prompted an extended admonition from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times cataloguing all the ways Trump and his camp’s aspirational totalitarianism were quickly making Orwell’s literally out-dated novel into a latter day “must read.”
But to see in Orwell a prophet of our information age, it will help to first situate him within another age, now seemingly gone by: the Cold War. 1984 might even be called that era’s inaugural text; it was Orwell, after all, who gave the Cold War its name (in a letter to a friend). And the specter he raises of world-wide totalitarianism even predates Hannah Arendt’s landmark study of The Origins of Totalitarianism by a few years.
So, like many prophets, Orwell depicted a future that spoke directly to currents stirring in his own world. One remarkable feature of the novel in this light is that his fictional 1984 (the year, that is) postdates an historical juncture that the Cold War itself was – thankfully – successful in forestalling: a nuclear holocaust. In 1949, nuclear annihilation seemed to many an inevitability. But in proposing such an event as a premise to the rise of the Party, Orwell bypasses any direct depiction of that horror. What he does instead is describe a world that could survive it. To do so, he looked across the next thirty years, which in 1949 may well have seemed an eternity, and bids us envision a society that has survived a war arguably worse than the world war just passed. Not implausibly, humanity has by then erected a totalitarianism so complete that Max Weber might well have characterized it as the rationalized solution ne plus ultra to “the problem of meaning.”
Finding meaning is the crux of Winston Smith’s familiar heroic journey, which he understands as achieving the salvation of his love for Julia and of the lasting power of factual truth. His antagonist, the Party in the person of O’Brien, tells Winston directly that his struggle is futile:
“You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean from the stream of history.”
As O’Brien explains, the Party’s guiding imperative is to eradicate any sense that personal experience and knowledge, which is where Winston locates his humanity (and as Orwell’s presumed audience would understand it), has some irreducible value. Orwell suggests in the final pages that the Party succeeds, in Julia’s and Winston’s cases, by demonstrating to them both in the same moment that the only constancy is their animal will to survive, not their love or the truth. In other words, the Party has developed the political, cultural, economic and technological means to eradicate ‘man’s search for meaning’ (Viktor Frankl’s book of this title was published three years before Orwell’s) through an alliance of practical reason and force so pure that it wields control for no end other than its own perpetuation. As O’Brien scoffs to Winston, none of the Party’s immediate forebears - neither Nazis nor Communists – ever “had the courage to recognize their own motives,” namely, that “one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” In brief, “The object of power is power.”
But such totalizing totalitarianism - to coin the cruel pleonasm at the heart of Orwell’s story - is a far cry from the U.S. under Donald Trump. If Trump’s America has totalitarian tendencies, surely they are history’s farcical turn (under Vladimir Putin’s direction) now that the tragedies of Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Russia have left him the stage.
I don’t mean to suggest that dismissal or mockery are the only or even the best reactions to Trump’s sudden power. One of the most frightening realities left in place by the Cold War is the capacity of a single person to wreak a nuclear holocaust that Orwell sees as a proximate cause for the rise of the Party and its will to power. And short of an intentionally inflicted nuclear disaster, Trump, and Trumpism more precisely, are capable of and have already perpetrated all manner of thuggish profiteering and hate mongering. Witnessing the successive debacles of Republican attempts to dismantle the ACA, one might accuse elements in that Party of devotion to persecution for its own sake. And that motive only becomes more naked the more we see how few Party members are left to hold it half-heartedly at bay.
Indeed, however clownish Trump’s Stalinism has been, and however many pockets of resistance there may be left to the immediate devastation being visited on so many by his haphazard malevolence, there are features of Trump’s U.S. that bear close comparison to Big Brother’s Oceania and Stalin’s Russia both. In brief, it is the contrasts that are instructive, and particularly when it comes to the role of information in people’s lives.
Whatever similarities they bore as military-industrial complexes, life in the nations the Warsaw Pact and of the NATO alliance was strikingly different when it came to the social and cultural role of information. Both blocs maintained as much control over the flow of information as they could. But in terms of sheer volume and mobility, the West far outran Communist bloc countries, from the numbers of players in all forms of mass media to the relative freedom they enjoyed from direct oversight by governmental bodies. One might go so far as to say that, comparatively, it was a case of feast and famine on either side of the Iron Curtain, and not only in terms of information but in all the allied goods that either bloc could deploy.
More elegantly, however, the novelist Phillip Roth described the situation thus – in 1984 – on a trip through Czechoslovakia meeting fellow writers: “here [in Prague] nothing goes and everything matters; there [at home in the West] everything goes and nothing matters.”* Clearly, Winston Smith’s London approximates Soviet-era Prague much more than it does Philip Roth’s New York, whether in 1984 or today. In that sense, Orwell offers less than a full meal for anyone (especially in Michiko Kakutani’s readership) hungry to understand the current political and cultural moment. If there are pockets of Soviet style totalitarianism around the world, they do not pose the kind of global threat that Trump and his camp do.
But then what is the danger in Trumpism if not gulags and rooms 101? As Roth suggests, it is the dissipation of mattering – meaning – in a world in which everything goes. Roth’s characterization of the West in 1984 (the year) has been Trump’s mantra for just as long. Another interesting historical conjunction: Trump’s first Tower was finished and opened in 1984. So, yes, Orwell got things wrong as far as this side of the world was concerned, which is why I had that distinct impression that his novel is not exactly the one we need. Brave New World might well be a better candidate in this light.
But insofar as Orwell was concerned with the problem of meaning, we’ll do well to consider the contrasts of his 1984 with our 2017. Though Trump’s methods suggest a desire for total control of information in Soviet manner, his political moment in fact is being buoyed by a tide of information – bad and good – the likes of which humanity has never encountered. We aren’t faced so much with the bland impoverishment of Newspeak as with empty bits of truthiness pressed into super-sized portions of addictive memes. The Party needn’t cow or bludgeon anyone into conformity so much as drown them in a sheer excess of shameless repetition. There is plenty of fear in the U.S. and around the world, but a winning political strategy relies at least as much on simple confirmation bias, the implicit self-satisfaction within which we shelter from the maelstrom of information that renders facts almost as difficult to make out as the number of fingers O’Brien holds up to Winston hapless on the rack.
But as I’ve argued above, Orwell’s novel is not solely or ultimately about the control of information; again, it’s about how and out of what we make meaning, including love. Yes, facts today are more important than ever, but so is the kind of direct human connection Orwell wanted to portray between Winston and Julia (however much we need to question that portrayal, as Susan Henking has reminded us). What we need is the power to shape what information we can rely on into lasting embodiments of meaning. And again, we can turn to Orwell for a lesson. In my experience, his novel reads at times like nothing so much as a fictionalized political treatise. But in the end he is enough of a writer to have delivered us a compelling story about one of the deepest problems we face under any political circumstances. He is clearly concerned about factual truths. But he expressed his concern in a novel, i.e. an elaborate lie, in one manner of looking at it. In sum, as much as he is concerned about facts, he is also concerned with the kind of emotional truth a novel conveys, which is what all the recent readers of 1984 have been reaching for and what, I think, we ourselves will embody in our conversations about the novel: the certainty we share and renew with others that something must matter.
*Roth’s remarks can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/roth-in-his-own-words.html?mcubz=0