George Orwell is an important part of the great twentieth century British dystopian writers and contributes to the movement through having written a combination of social commentary articles, political polemic and creative works.
As a man, his politics were born out of his democratic socialism, which saw him signing up to fight in the Spanish Civil War, drop his aitches in conversation in an attempt to identify as working class, and to sleep rough as research for his book Down and Out in Paris and London. He is also acknowledged to have coined the term ‘cold war’, particularly prescient bearing in mind the fact that he died, aged just 46, in January 1950.
For someone whose origins were essentially colonial (he was born in India, the son of a British civil servant) and whose education was at Eton, Orwell’s move to Paris at the age of 25 after disillusion working for the Indian Imperial Police was anything but the vocational progression expected, but it reflected his desire to be a successful writer. Paris was the place to be for aspiring writers and the hub for inspiration, artists and new ideas. Orwell’s subsequent shift from anarchist to socialist in the 1930s reflected the political dissonance felt by journalists and young intellectuals in the UK during the inter-war period.
His experience as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War politicised his position to one of anti-Stalinist after coming into contact with Soviet-backed communists who were, as he saw it, suppressing revolutionary socialist dissenters. This, after having fought for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists, probably accounts for his developing double-edged political perspective. The Second World War gave him an opening at the BBC where he wrote about propaganda, but he soon tired of the lack of reach the position offered him as a political commentator and moved to become literary editor of the Tribune, a left wing weekly magazine.
Whilst Orwell’s earlier non-fiction works, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London lack the polemic focus of Animal Farm and 1984, they were important in developing his political thinking. He had already written Burmese Days, an account of his colonial experiences in Burma, though he chose to publish it under the pseudonym George Orwell in order not to embarrass his family. Hardly at this stage the actions of a man looking to break away from middle class conventions.
None of his books gave Orwell financial independence until Animal Farm, whose success put him in a position to write The Last Man In Europe, a book that he would eventually change the title of to 1984, reversing the last two numbers of the year in which he started writing it, 1948.
As a man responsible for writing the book that many still regard as the finest dystopian novel ever written, Orwell’s biographical history contains many of the ingredients necessary for the development of a writer of dystopia: a privileged upbringing and a good education against a backdrop of social and political unrest. Change is firmly anchored in Orwell’s past. All of this, combined with his own acknowledged loneliness as a child where he described himself as ‘isolated and undervalued’, seems pre-destined for political commentary and critical writing, once he became a journalist and writer.
Orwell was not without his demons as he developed his ideas, and his homophobia and desire to acquire the cachet of a working class background sit uneasily with his broad anti-totalitarian views. Indeed, the plot of 1984 is suffused with middle class ideology (such as the reason for not linking up with Julia being that Winston was already married) yet all of this probably adds to the credibility of the world that Orwell creates.
Orwell’s central character in 1984, Winston Smith, works for the Outer Party, and has the job of rewriting history to ensure that it always supports the party line. Whilst this is at first glance absurd to the reader, Orwell manages to shape the world of his novel into a place where such activities seem part of the logic of a world where political truth has become a permanent casualty. Plot-wise this, it would seem, has become an essential part of any subsequent dystopian work as the movement has developed.
Orwell said that his novel was about the acquisition and deployment of power for its own sake. Without power, no matter how limited, the individual would always be at the mercy of the state. The declining health of Orwell, which limited his power as an individual, may well have unintentionally added to this focus for the book.
The historical backdrop of the two world wars and the Russian revolution provide a clear focus to account for the development of a literary form where individual writers now address the issue of the erosion of democracy as a pure political science, replaced as it has been by manipulation of the media in all its many forms. Orwell had been an editor and a journalist, and knew the power wielded by those behind the camera and the typewriter.
So what might Orwell have made of the internet? Rather than celebrate its potential to develop democratising power, he may well have examined its potential for wrongdoing. He would perhaps have been unable to get too excited about avaaz and wikileaks, but concentrated instead on what he might have seen as the insidious banality of facebook and the self-congratulatory nature of the media giants and their schools of interns and cut-and-paste writing philosophy. In short, it might have all been a bit Pete Towsend: Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss. The broken communist dream of 1989 morphing into a world filled with old communist money buying up property in a new ‘enlightened’ age, where Winston Smith is alive and working on the BBC and New York Times archives. Is his option still only to love Big Brother?
Dystopian literature is about the debate, not the resolution.
At least that’s what Orwell would have probably conceded. The notion of Utopia was always going to spawn the concept of Dystopia: an imperfect world created by imperfect beings.
The most terrifying thing about the world that Orwell creates in 1984 is the fact that so many people are satisfied with being manipulated in all that they do.
Even with many Winston Smiths rising up from the sea of mediocrity to wave a clenched fist in the air and plead for freedom, the majority of the populace seem doomed to an inert acceptance of mundane lives in their time here. The percentage of a population that can be bothered to register for a vote in countries where a calendarised voting system is in place, is often less than 25%. Apathy has, for now, won the day. A world spent channel hopping from the comfort of the sofa. So long as you have the remote, then you’re in charge, right?