Andy Prizeman-Nolan explores the impact of George Orwell's classic novel in the 21st century
Written in 1949 as a bleak insight into the not so distant future, the Britain of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is nothing short of horrifying. Having been assimilated into Oceania, one of three warring global factions, citizens have had their freedoms rescinded, and have been placed under the ever-watchful eye of ‘Big Brother’. The Proles, the novel’s working class, are the only citizens free from the tyrannical oppression of INGSOC, the sinister political party behind Big Brother. Yet precisely because they are kept entrenched in their back-breaking work, and not the terror of Big Brother, the crimes committed by INGSOC go largely unchallenged. The establishment of such a regime can be attributed to two symbolic characters in particular; Big Brother, an object of supreme love and veneration, and Goldstein, a figure symbolising hatred and turmoil.
These two larger-than-life characters are portrayed to the population of Oceania as being complete contrasts. Big Brother is the saviour of the people, guarding their interests against foreign threats, while Goldstein is the enemy, threatening the freedom and rights of the nation. The idea of idolizing one political figure, while deeming the other as vile and detestable is not an entirely alien concept in today’s climate, and it is a well-established theory that in order for a society to thrive, it requires a force against which to strive. Media outlets, especially those with a clear political leaning, often turn to demonizing the opposition to shut out any potential discourse that may clash with their preferred narrative. (Cough, Fake News, Cough.) This inevitably results in an echo-chamber of discussion, where people refuse to believe any sort of ill-spoken accusations against their preferred political figure. Living in an age with such polarizing politicians, we are left with the question as to what kind of world we are living in, and whether Orwell’s work was less a cautionary tale, and more of an apocalyptic prophecy.
The use of propaganda is pivotal in INGSOC’s goal of maintaining their grip over the people. One of the ways in which the government has constructed lies to retain power is how they essentially fabricate constant wars between one of the two other global parties, Eurasia and Eastasia. By doing this, they are distracting the population’s collective gaze away from issues that may be plaguing their own society. They are led to believe that a war is occurring, but it is kept from their shores by their saviour, Big Brother. This has the effect of tricking them into believing that all threats come from external to the regime. One sees this ominously mirrored in Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign speeches, which lay the blame for America’s crime rates almost exclusively at the door of Mexican immigrants. Examples of distractions often overshadowing immediate local or global issues is something that is extremely relevant today. A sensationalist headline can dominate general conversations, which has the effect of distracting the populace from truly pressing matters. Anything that may be detrimental towards the narrative that INGSOC has weaved is completely scrapped, as seen in the work Winston does as part of the Ministry of Truth, altering old newspaper headlines. This is something that’s unfortunately become the case recently, as Boris Johnson has suspended parliament just days after lawmakers have returned from holiday leave, reducing the amount of time they have to potentially block their EU exit, or pass laws to soften the damage a No Deal Brexit would entail. While they can serve as a reprieve from a daunting reality, it is important to ensure that these headlines don’t distract the public from issues that may affect them directly, as doing so would be to surrender their voice to the regime.
Another way in which aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four are leaking into reality is the increase in global surveillance. In a 2013 leak, Edward Snowden revealed information about the NSA ran programme named “PRISM”, which involved mass data collection from the general public, including what was categorized as “dangerous” and “criminal” activities. The act of using surveillance to pry on unruly citizens is prevalent in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is seen in practice when the television in Mr Charrington’s second hand shop is revealed to be a monitor, used to spy on Winston and Julia to observe just how far they would take their rebellious relationship. This information revealed just how vulnerable people’s sensitive information really is, and just how easily government officials can retrieve such information, leaving great potential for such monitoring to increase further. If a governmental power truly wanted to further increase surveillance for any reason, they’re well within their capabilities to do so.
George Orwell’s bleak prediction of the future is certainly within the realms of possibility. Through means of shadowing, propaganda, and oppression, assimilating complete control over a nation overtime is certainly a feasible option for many a governing body, and for some, an increasingly possible reality.