It’s not every day that an almost 70-year-old book catapults up the best-seller charts. George Orwell’s 1984 has topped various Amazon best-seller lists several times since mid-January, on the heels of the U.S. presidential inauguration. It’s also been featured at brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, in my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the owner of an independent store has an Orwell display in his window and reports he’s sold a stack of copies akin to a new Harry Potter.
Who knew that Donald Trump would be good for the book trade?
Assigned in most American high schools, 1984 has sold continuously since its publication in 1949, but now, at a time when one of the president’s press officers declares that there are “alternative facts,” it has struck a renewed chord. It seems as if we have gone through the looking glass and entered a world where, in the words of 1984, “War is peace” and history is rewritten each day.
Still, the analogy can be a bit too easy. How does 1984 fit our world, and how not?
No doubt 1984 captures some sense of living in the modern era, with extensive government, military, technology and media. But in Orwell’s imagined Oceania, the state is monolithic, overseeing all activity with total control. It provides all goods and supervises all work. It sees what you do, tells you what to do, monitors what you think and punishes any variance.
A chilling vision, but that misses perhaps the most distinctive sense of our contemporary world: consumer capitalism provided by a phalanx of corporate sponsors. Conservatives might complain that government extends too far, but if one looks around one’s home, one can immediately see the reach of Apple, Google, Starbucks, Verizon, Amazon, General Foods, Exxon, Citibank and on and on. There are no corporations in Orwell’s world, and very few goods. There is only state-distributed watery coffee and foul-tasting gin -- a far cry from the soy-foam, half-decaf macchiato and the artisanal cocktail.
Orwell’s state exists for the sake of its own power, in a kind of sadomasochistic relationship that grinds down its citizens to perpetuate its power. In our society, it is easy to denigrate government because it provides a single symbol for the control we experience, but our government is more like a referee to make the market and its juggernaut of enterprises function.
Thus, a more apt vision for our day might foreground those businesses, extending across national borders and delivering pleasure, entertainment and ever newer goods. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World captures that better, with mood-improving drugs and sex at the touch of a screen. (In a small-world coincidence, Huxley was one of Orwell’s schoolteachers.) Or William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer -- a book that, though a bit clunky in its sci-fi narrative, seems spot-on in depicting an internet that permeates our lives, as well as the companies that control it and deliver our products.
Orwell wrote in a time when totalitarian governments controlled a good part of Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain. And even in Great Britain and the United States, society had united in a concerted war effort. It was a time of total government, so in many ways 1984 reflects that moment. Instead, it seems as if we now live in a time of the total market, when major political figures aim to use business as a model for government.
Perhaps the chief thing that Orwell divined, before the advent of television, is media running through our lives. If you’ll recall from 1984, video screens are in every room at home and at work, and they are on all the time. They wake you up, tell you when to exercise and give you news about the state.
Still, there is only one channel, and it is entirely a state apparatus. In our time, so my Xfinity bill keeps telling me, we have hundreds of channels to choose from. My TV is not controlled by Big Brother; it’s spurred by the cornucopia of advertisers and products.
Orwell’s view of media followed World War II, a time of active propaganda, and Orwell knew the workings of propaganda firsthand. He worked in the Eastern Service of the BBC during the war, parlaying British news to India. But more so than propaganda, we live in a time of ads -- accumulating thousands of hours by the time one is 10 years old.
One of the creepier details in 1984 is that the screens can also watch the inhabitants. The social theorist Michel Foucault held that a central feature of modern society is the soft control of surveillance. It informs our sensibility, disciplining us without overt force and compelling us to adhere to normative behavior. Now, with the National Security Agency perusing our phones (hi!), Google combing through our search engines, and our high-tech TVs able to watch us, Orwell was all too prescient.
Still, the surveillance predominantly aims to capture us for a market. If you are reading this on a screen, then you are probably ignoring the ads in a sidebar. How did they know that you are a single 40-something? Or a woman who wants running shoes? Or a man who might wear Brooks Brothers?
In imagining a society of political lockstep, Orwell’s satiric target is usually assumed to be communism. Indeed, Orwell is a hero of the right for being an anti-Communist, as well as of the liberal left. That is why 1984 became an iconic book in the 1950s and ’60s, offering a confirmation of the ills of the Soviets.
However, it is a mistake to see it as a confirmation of the politics of the United States. From the mid-1930s onward, Orwell was an avowed anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. If you read Animal Farm (1945) in junior high, his literary effort immediately preceding 1984, you will recall that the story parodies the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, as the main pig, Comrade Napoleon, takes control, rewrites history and finally declares that some pigs “are more equal than others.”
But remember that the farmers expelled at the beginning of the book were capitalists who had grossly exploited and abused the animals. They are not the good guys, and the revolution is justified. The problem with the Communists is not Communism; it is that they become corrupted. During a brief moment after the takeover of the farm, things are good, led by a Lenin figure, with a fairer distribution of work and more plentiful food than under the capitalists.
Rather than Communism per se, Orwell’s general target is what he saw as the rise of “managerial society.” That is a term that James Burnham, a prominent social commentator in midcentury, promoted -- seeing it as a sign of progress toward a more rational society. (In some ways, he was the Thomas Friedman of his day.) Although he declared himself a socialist after 1937, Orwell was not a party man and bristled against bureaucracy.
Orwell reviewed several of Burnham’s books and blanched at Burnham’s vision. While attuned to the politics of his time, Orwell retained nostalgia for the bucolic pleasures of the countryside, of the fields, fishing ponds and village pubs before the mechanistic effects of modern society. In 1984, one of the few pleasant moments is when the protagonist and his lover take a day trip outside London.
My bet is that Orwell would detest our day of big box stores and truly mass media. At one time he set up a small shop in a village north of London. It turned out that he was a much better writer than shopkeeper -- he shut it down after a fairly short period -- but on one of his travel visas, he identified himself as a grocer.
One aspect of 1984 that is rarely commented on is its appreciation for work. In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell declared that he focused on politics from the late 1930s on, but he might be at his most instructive when describing work.
The grind of work is usually glossed over in fiction or film. If a protagonist has a job, their tasks are in the background or summarized in a quick scene. To be truly realistic, if work takes up nearly half of most people’s waking hours, one might expect more description of it, whereas narratives usually focus on a protagonist’s relationships, out-of-the-ordinary events or personal turmoil.
Unlike the majority of writers of his generation, such as the poets Stephen Spender or W. H. Auden, who traveled a fairly direct path from Cambridge or Oxford to London and higher cultural circles, Orwell had held a number of hardscrabble jobs as a British imperial police officer, dishwasher, schoolteacher and bookstore clerk. All of them found their way into his writing, particularly his early novels.
In 1984, the protagonist Winston works in a cubicle, handling memos and other paperwork in the Ministry of Information. However bleak otherwise, he finds some satisfaction in doing his daily tasks. Animal Farm also spends a good bit of time recounting the acceleration on the farm after the Stalin stand-in takes over, with the most honorable character, a horse, finally dying of overwork. Work is a good thing; the problem is not a day of work but overwork, or the exploitation of work.
One of the more poignant facts of Orwell’s life is that, after himself working relentlessly through the 1930s and early ’40s with little money and poor health, he gained financial comfort only in the late 1940s, after the publication of Animal Farm. It was his fifth novel and 10th book in a dozen years, and for the first time in his career, he had the luxury of writing without taking on other jobs. It afforded him time to draft 1984, but he was ill, troubled with the lung problems that would soon take him.
He had also lost his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, with whom he had gone to fight in Spain and who helped run the grocery, to a presumably safe surgery gone wrong. (The anesthesia caused heart failure.) One could see 1984 as a response to his personal despair as well as the state of the world, after a decade of full-blown fascism and massive destruction, followed by the rubble and squalor of the immediate postwar years.
Our time has a much different character, one of overflowing plenty, ubiquitous images on screen and shopping 24-7. Rather than the gray, pinched air of 1984, we live in an era of cultural ADD, and rather than suppression, we have the rampant personal expression of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. In this moment, President Trump is a much more fitting figure than Big Brother, more a distinctly American promoter like P. T. Barnum than a Grand Inquisitor. Big Brother, after all, stays focused and runs things with an implacable force, whereas Barnum promises to give people what they want, even if appealing to their less cerebral instincts. It’s gonna be amazing.