Saturday, July 12, 2008

1984, by George Orwell

So between being the third person to review this bok, and leading off with a picture of the 'cold war unicorns' (I think the red white and blue horn, and the 'angry eyes' are a nice touch), how can anything I write NOT be anticlimactic? Well, I shall have to do my best.

So, here's the weird thing about George Orwell. It's 2008, now, and the world is NOT ruled by Oligarchical Collectivism. Never was really - pretty much, when Orwell talks about how the Russians or Nazis would torture people just long enoug h to get htem to say whatever they wanted them to say? That's really about as far as we got. In fact, I will grudgingly say that to be perfectly honest, we are in many ways much, much more free today than in Orwell's time. Hang it all, if I talked about Russia in the 1950's the way I talk about, say, the Middle East today, I'd be socially ostracized and if I was important enough, possibly jailed. It would be bad. Sexual freedom? Well, THAT prediction is just totally wrong - you can be dirty in a whole mess o' ways now that you couldn't in Orwell's time. The list goes on and on.

Yet, 1984, Animal Farm, these books still feel relevant at some gut level. Why is that?

Well, first of all, it's useful to look at what Orwell got wrong, because he did get somethings wrong.

There are two basic concepts that Orwell was unable to predict in 1984: identity politics (which you saw in things like the rise of religious terrorism, decolonialization, the expulsion of the soviets from Afghanistan, etc, etc, etc), and globalization of telecommunication - ironically two competing forces.

The first of these is identity politics. I think Orwell, at some level knew that he was wrong about this, honestly. When you read 'Goldstein's book' in 1984, for instance, it talks about how Oceania essentially has no culture that it forces upon its subjects, that there is, after all, racial and ethnic equality. Except that the Lingua Franca is English and the official language is Newspeak. Which is sort of exactly like forcing a culuture on people. You teach your people to be afraid fo everything different, and then you pretend there's no difference between, say, a British man and a Brazilian? You teach them to hate the sight of an Eastasian, but expect them to embrace a Polynesian as a brother no different from their own? The sheer mechanics of making a permanent empire are, at this point in history, insurmountable, because at some point in time, you have to conquer, take over, and absorb a whole bunch of cultures with a cultural identity. Orwell, like many people in his time didn't see that, for instance, absorbing the British empire was little victory, because the British empire was dying, already dead really, it just didn't know it. Nations and Empires are born of either revolutionary or conquistadorial zeal, and in this case, Americans and Brits didn't have the sstomach for the first, and teh second breeds resentment and disunity in your colonies - it's the colonies that had the reovlutionary zeal in the late 20th century, a time that saw the birth of so many new, small nations, and the dissolution of so many empires.

The second thing he missed was the revolutionary effect of global, almost universal, cheap communications channels. In a way, he knew this was coming too - the telescreen, after all is a telecommunications network of sorts. But I think what he didn't know was that this growth would happen so quickly, and it would be driven by capitalist-style greed for capital, not oligarchical greed for power. So, AT&T was glad to milk every dollar it could out of as many consumers as possible, by letting them call whoever they wanted. And, since AT&T was out of the control of the oliigarchy, and grew too powerful a threat, it was broken up, and telecommunications now is an Adam Smith Wonderland. In spite of content providers, their communications channels are being used in ways that, frankly, they'd probably rather not HAVE them used. And it's just too big now. The only way to control your peoples' communications is by having no technology whatsoever (think North Korea), in which case your country grows slowly less relevant and powerful with time, or to take on the insurmountable task of filtering all communications, as they try to do, and frankly fail, in China. It's just too big of a task.

But, this is where it gets interesting, because, ironically, while these two forces have created an environment in which 1984 didn't happen, they also create an environment in which 1984-ish scenarios COULD happen. In telecommunications, what you see now is a never-ending arms race between those who would watch, and those who would not be watched. I don't know, yet, what this means, but I do know that at some point, even today, really, it's impossible for a government to effectively watch everyone that could be committing speechcrime. I can encrypt my communications from this computer so effectively that no computer on earth could decrypt them - the United States has gone so far as to make lame attempts at restricting the export of such algorithms, on the premise that they are armaments - yeah, that's not working out so well for them. The only way, then, for the governemnt to control my communications is to categorically deny me the right and ability to use such an algortihm, or to attack the infrastructure, or otherwise to overtly act to prevent my doing what I want. So, when the temptaiton for some individual becomes too great, that's what will have to be done, and that will have unpredictable results.

On the other side of the house: we haven't seen this AS MUCH here in the states because we're too rich, but identity politics is, I would suggest, slowly spelling the end of the nation state as we know it. In a nation like Iraq, we see this already - the power is not in the hands of the government except inasmuch as it is granted by more powerful ethnic groups. Nations are not built around a notion of nationhood, because humanity is no longer really that patriotic to a nation. Even in America, many people cannot decouple their patriotism from, say, their defense of Christianity, or Western Ideals. The United States, as an entity, is neither of these things, its a structure for governing people. And if that governance conflicts with, say, your loyalty to God, at some point, what do you do? What did Timothy McVeigh do? What do Abortion Clinic Bombers do? What do the Militias do? They say the government has deserted 'what it stands for' and it's important to make some competing show of force. This is the sort of thought that ends up in revolution, in the classic, Marxist sense, in many ways. Could this evolve into a Marxist revolution? I don't know, I don't think so, not directly. But it evolved, for instance, into the Taliban, which essentially, has a leftist bent in many ways, or the Leftist movements in South America earlier in the century that were oftentimes highyl influenced by Catholic priests. Identity becomes a symbolic embodiment of grievances - they hate us, they hate use, they hate us because we're ________.

Anyway, I'm mostly just rambling, but the point, to me, is that the real power of 1984 is not in the specifics of how this society is structured, it's in the idea that the same righteous passion that can drive men to overthrow unjust social systems can be harnessed, perverted into something else, something more sinister, and we see this passion all over the world, today. I could say a lot more, I could talk about the laziness of Empires, I could talk about countries like Haiti and Zimbabwe, I could talk about the homogenizing effect of culture, but I've babbled long enough. I read 1984, and the history is bad, but the soul is good (or, rather, genuinely bad).


Amanda said...

I'm SOOOOO glad you're coming to this book club. You see all this political stuff far more clearly than I do.

Byron said...

Jason said, "And if that governance conflicts with, say, your loyalty to God, at some point, what do you do?"

So true. It's not just the religions overseas that scare me. We have a lot of hateful, angry rhetoric coming from religious groups right here in the US. Hate the ACLU because it protects freedom of speech for non-Christians. Hate the atheists and gays, they have angered god and now god is punishing America.

For now, the strong religious beliefs mainly manifest on voting day, and the occasional violent fringe group. And I wonder whether the anger is widespread or if it seems disproportionately large because the angry Christians make the most noise. If a call to arms ever comes, will my seemingly rational neighbors go grab a gun and take to the streets, or will they calmly refuse to do violence just because someone claiming to be speaking for god tells them to? I think it is obvious which I hope it will be.

It seems like there is a fine line between being prepared and being paranoid. Every time a dystopian novel comes up, I wind up being a doomsayer. Well, history repeats itself. Now, will the bad stuff happen to me or to someone else, that's the difference between whether it's paranoia or a healthy sense of caution.

Rebecca Reid said...

wow, what an analysis. I'm going to have to reread 1984!