By Stuart Jeffries


(The Guardian, January 23, 2013)


. . . . Excerpt . . . .


. . . . Try this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Orwell writes of the 20th century as the period in which “human equality became technically possible” and in which, simultaneously “practices which had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations – not only become common again, but were tolerated by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive”. In our era of extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo, massive expenditure on foreign wars, this doesn’t seem so irrelevant. We don’t have public executions, you might retort. Yes, but given how much we like the spectacle of others suffering, that might only be a matter of time – hangings downloadable to your funky new Google glasses.

Or consider how Julia earns her living in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She works for Pornosec, nicknamed Muck House, “which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles”. If Julia were alive today, she might well have been an editor on Fifty Shades of Grey or at least working on its multi-platform global branding; what was it Julia calls it? Oh yes, “ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.”

True, today’s muck houses have multiplied beyond Orwell’s imaginings. Porn is ubiquitous. The sexual commodification of women’s and girls’ bodies is so commonplace as to pass scarcely noticed, and TV or internet porn are accessible at the push of a button. We don’t yet have the “feelies“, Huxley’s cinemas in Brave New World – where the cinema spectator is titillated by the images and by what sounds like a vibrating seat. But, as with public executions, only a fool would rule out the possibility.

Labour’s shadow health minister Diane Abbott, for instance, this week worried that Britain was becoming “increasingly pornified … It’s hyper-sexualised British culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another, and are encouraged to objectify themselves,” she said. What academic Richard Rorty took to be the most hideous thing about Orwell’s vision of 1984 was that it was a world in which human solidarity was made impossible. When we objectify someone sexually – that is, when we treat someone as less than human – then human solidarity is surely impossible. Perhaps if Orwell were alive today, he might be writing about that. Not so much “I told you so”, as “This is far worse than I imagined”.

[Orwell’s] vision of the capitalistic commodification of human experience surely captures something of our glum times. “There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally,” he wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means.” If Orwell’s 1984 speaks to 2013 it is in such passages. As Orwell’s late biographer Bernard Crick put it: “He really did believe that capitalism controls the ‘proles‘, the common people, not by physical oppression, but by bread and circuses, as it were, by cultural debasement, ‘dumbing down’ as we now say.”

Or consider another passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell describes a feature of life on Airstrip One (Britain). “The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention.” Orwell would have recognised a lot of things from his dystopia in our world – not just the lottery, but the loss of privacy through intruding technology, the degradation of language, the waging of proxy wars by superpowers, the disappearance and sequestration of political dissidents.

Indeed, there’s a better game to play with Orwell than “What would he be writing about were he alive?”. It’s called “What did he get right?”. To be sure, Orwell said that what he wrote in his dystopian novels were warnings rather than predictions, but let’s forget about that for a moment. [Orwell biographer D.J.] Taylor says: “He got a lot of things right – deforestation, the national lottery, the loss of privacy at the hands of intruding technology, the suborning of the proletariat with porn.”

But surely the most important thing he got right is that gap between the fact that “human equality became technically possible” and the deepening human inequality that is our reality. [Adam] Stock [an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University] says he’s looking forward to a new film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was reported to be in the pipeline last year, especially if it topically deals with “the wealth gap and social inequality in the text between the lives of the impoverished ‘proles’, who comprise the vast majority of the population of Oceania, and the shadowy elite of privileged inner Party members, with their servants, luxurious apartments and black market gourmet foodstuffs.”

It’s surely not just me who, reading this, thinks of the government telling us, in the brazen untruth akin to O’Brien convincing Winston Smith that two plus two equals five, that we’re all in this together. Perhaps 2013 isn’t so different from Nineteen Eighty-Four.