Over the last few days I’ve done a fair bit of travelling. Memphis to Chattanooga by bus, then back to Nashville, and the flight home via Detroit. Amongst other things I took the opportunity to re-read George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984”. It’s a book I first read as a student (of course) and I’m sure I read it again at some point. Written in the late 40s, it has always been seen primarily as a critique of the totalitarian societies of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. Big Brother is Stalin and Emmanuel Goldstein is Trotsky. It is seen as a companian piece to “Animal Farm”, another parody of Soviet Russia. But there is so much more to it than that, and it has a very contemporary relevance.
My motivation for re-reading the book was two fold. First, as a bit of inspiration for my own dystopian trilogy, the first part of which is “The Decision” (available on Amazon and Kindle). My society in 2027 is nowhere near as grim or all-pervasive as that of Oceania in “1984”, though I did nick the idea of having a pointless war against a far off enemy from Orwell’s story – mine is in the Ukraine, and is essentially to use up surplus labour, divert refugees and justify authoritarianism at home.
Second, and more pertinently, in this era of post truth and fake news, Brexit and Donald Trump, I felt like “1984” would have resonance. And it sure did. Not because we live in a totalitarian society – we don’t. Nor do we live in a deliberately impoverished one – not yet. But we do live in a surveillance society, and Big Brother gets thrown around these days to describe not only governments, but the tech giants too. The things that struck me most, though, were the parallels with contemporary rewriting of history (and even current events) and the motivations for power.
Ignorance is strength. One of three slogans of The Party. The main character of “1984”, Winston Smith, is employed in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news stories, speeches and the like, in order to make the past consonant with the needs of the present: the infallibility of Big Brother, the predictions matching the outcomes, the country that Oceania is at war with, be it Eurasia or Eastasia (which frequently changes). Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. There’s a chilling resonance in that phrase, when we consider the Brexit experience in the UK. Taking back control. The slogan that summarised the appeal of Brexit for many who voted for it. Let’s set aside the fact that a medium-sized country on the edge of Europe isn’t going to be able to control its destiny in today’s interconnected world by going it alone. Let’s just ask what taking back control actually meant.
The answer of course is complicated, as it would have meant different things to different people. And each individual narrative would be based on a individual version of the past (as well as a vision of the future flowing from it). The past, you see, is a nebulous thing. Some of it is recorded, but it has no tangible existence. It is in people’s minds. Their memories. This is the point O’Brien makes in “1984” as he works on changing Winston’s inner beliefs. Altering his mind so that he ends up loving Big Brother. If you can change the records, keep people in ignorance, and, in the last resort, alter their minds, then you can have everyone believing the same thing.
That’s not to suggest that Brexit was in any way like this; but much of its appeal was and is based on a number of what I would consider false narratives – while acknowledging that they are false to me and many others, but only because of what I and they consider to be the facts. So, for me, the Brexiter politicians have spun a web of lies, distorted the facts, re-invented the past. Taking back control becomes a return to some halcyon era, when Britain ruled the waves/ stood alone against the Nazis/ controlled a vast Empire/ wasn’t under the yolk of dastardly Euro-regulations/ built the world’s ships/ had loads of money for the NHS, etc, etc. Fintan O’Toole’s book, “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain’”, characterises this brilliantly. The British narrative has become one of victimhood, where things are done to us. And we want to get back to when we did things to other people, did what we wanted, without some foreigners telling us we couldn’t do it. Yeah, let’s take back control! Forward to the past! It’s pathetic really – in my view, based on my version of the past. But God knows what goes on in other people’s heads…
The other resonance was about the motive for power. Why do so many people want to take back control? For what end? What’s wrong with influencing the EU from within, as one of the three biggest powers in the organisation (as we have done on many occasions)? What’s wrong with being a member of the world’s biggest trading bloc, one that can compete and cooperate on equal terms with other major economic powers like America and China? What’s wrong with being part of an arrangement that has kept peace on a continent that, for most of history, has been riven by war? I don’t know, that’s for sure. All these things come from what you might call pooled sovereignty. We share power, for the common good. That includes our good. It is not a zero-sum game. In “1984” O’Brien acknowledges that what the Party is always striving for is simply power. It is the end in itself, not the means to ensure something else. Sometimes I think this is actually what politicians (and others) end up striving for. They start with something more – a vision of how the world should be – but end up simply aiming for power. Retaining power. The moment some party or person takes over government they start to plot for re-election. To achieve what? Staying in power, and preventing the other lot having it.
And isn’t the motivation of, let’s say, the hardcore Brexiters just the same? They are happy to see the economy tanking, huge queues at Calais and Dover, trade deals worse than the one we have in the EU, security cooperation undermined, possible instability in Europe as a result of the disruption caused by our leaving, collapse of the Good Friday agreement in Ireland, and so on, because we will have taken back control. Our power will be greatly diminished, compared with being part of the EU collective, but what we have left will be all ours!
Remember though guys, another of the Party’s slogans in “1984”: Freedom is slavery.