Books

George Orwell back in fashion as Prism stokes Big Brother paranoia

Stephen Moss

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" depicts a society in which liberty was impossible – so how should we respond to this new threat?

It is Orwell's paranoia that gives his writing its power and urgency, and which has kept it alive. (AFP)

The NSA Prism surveillance scandal has been good news for George Orwell, and in particular for his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was originally published in 1949. Sales of the centennial edition have risen by more than 7 000% on Amazon.com . Having been languishing at 13 074 in the list, it is now up to 193 and rising.

It may not rival Caroline Barnett's Willing to Walk on Water: Step Out in Faith and Let God Work Miracles through Your Life, which has miraculously surged from 144th to first in the past 24 hours with a 267 000% rise, but clearly many people are finding parallels between the US government's willingness to snoop on Joe Public's emails and phone calls and Orwell's vision of a future in which Big Brother is everywhere.

"Orwellian" is the word on everyone's lips. "The question is, what do freedom and liberty mean in the United States of America?" Senator Bernie Sanders asked in a TV interview this week. "What does our Constitution mean? What kind of country do we want to be? Kids will grow up knowing that every damn thing that they do is going to be recorded somewhere in a file, and I think that will have a very Orwellian and inhibiting impact on our lives."

Not, it must be said, that Orwell really needs the publicity. Like Big Brother, he is always with us. DJ Taylor, who in 2003 wrote a biography of Orwell and for the past five years has been chairperson of the Orwell Trust, makes a startling claim for the writer: "If you had to write down the names of the three writers in English who had had the greatest effect in communicating to the general public what books and literature were about," he says, "they would be Shakespeare, Dickens and Orwell."

The US has always been keen on Orwell: liberals warmed to him because of his warnings against the power of the state, conservatives because his books gave them a stick with which to beat communism. His influence has also been felt outside the English-speaking world. Editions of Ninety Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published in 1945, circulated in the Soviet Union; he was – and indeed still is – revered in Poland, where his satires were widely read under communist rule; and Taylor believes he is being read in China today. Orwell has something to say to everyone who is suffering under autocracy.

Insidious threats to liberty
However, readers who pick up Nineteen Eighty-Four because of the current worries over the Prism programme would be wrong just to see it as a novel about the dangers of overweening technology. The all-seeing telescreen in the corner of the room is an important device for allowing the state to exercise control, but Orwell's real concern is about far more insidious threats to liberty. The Big Brother state aims at nothing less than the control of language and thought. According to the slogans repeated by the ministry of truth, "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength." Deprive people of the words with which to resist, and you will crush resistance.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith's defining act of rebellion is to keep a diary, to attempt to record his thoughts and feelings accurately – not easy when the expressions you need have been obliterated or perverted. The greatest inhibition, to use Senator Sanders's word, is mental rather than physical.

The idea that governments could control people's minds terrified Orwell. Taylor argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four was born of paranoia – a paranoia that was apparent from the beginning of Orwell's writing career in the early 1930s. He lionised the writer as a free individual striving for objective truth, beholden to no special interests, yet everywhere he saw that freedom being circumscribed.

Orwell encapsulated those fears in his 1946 essay "The Prevention of Literature". "In our age," he wrote, "the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy … Everything conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling what seems to him the whole truth."

It is Orwell's paranoia that gives his writing its power and urgency, and which has kept it alive. What we might learn from a broader understanding of that much-used (and sometimes abused) term "Orwellian" is that he would fear not only the technology of surveillance but our response to it. Are we willing to question its use? Will we demand greater oversight of the work of the security agencies? Will we hold our government to account? As long as there is a Winston Smith struggling to keep his diary, Big Brother has not won. – © Guardian News and Media 2013

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