Big Brother is alive and well
George Orwell, who would have been 100 this week, knew what it was like to be poor. “It’s fatal to look hungry,” he wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London. “It makes people want to kick you.”
All his writing life Orwell identified with the downtrodden.
But as white South Africans might note, he also spent much of his adult life trying to overcome his own inherited prejudices as he transformed from the colonial-born, Eton-educated, Empire-serving Eric Blair to the great writer George Orwell.
Eric Arthur Blair was born in Bengal on June 25 1903 (his father was in the Opium Department). So it is astonishing that in South Africa today he still permeates our lives. Orwell’s face stares out from Exclusive Books bags. Big Brother is all around us, mainly in reality TV shows. So is this far-fetched idea from 1984: “The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention.”
Orwell is chiefly remembered as a prophet against totalitarianism; but he was also disturbed by the growing cult of “managerialism” and the effects of consumerism. His theme was the danger of self-perpetuating elites using populist slogans and propaganda to keep the “proles” pacified.
His enduring significance was shown in Zimbabwe two years ago when the Daily News, a persistent critic of Robert Mugabe, serialised Animal Farm. The story spoke for itself. Abused animals unite and throw out the farmer to run the farm for the benefit of all — until the pigs take over and organise things to their advantage, with the slogan, “Some animals are more equal than others.”
This phrase is now so universal it was used by George Soros to clarify why he is redirecting his philanthropic Open Society activities from Russia to the United States, following President George W Bush’s “doctrine” of a right to pre-emptive military action.
“This means there are two kinds of sovereignty in the world,” lamented Soros. “The sovereignty of the US that overrides all international obligations, and the sovereignty of other countries, which are subject to the Bush doctrine. This is reminiscent of Orwell’s dictum in Animal Farm that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
It has been observed that the phrase “war against terror” is something of an Orwellian slogan, replacing thought with rhetoric. “We are told that Oceania [America, Britain and Australia] must go to war against Iraq, or, as it might be, Orwell’s East-asia or Eurasia, on the basis of reports from secret intelligence,” argued writer Timothy Garton Ash, referring to the power-blocs of 1984, before concluding that we are moving towards a “neo-Orwellian world” because “21st-century democratic politics operates in a media world of virtual reality, in which appearance is more important than reality”.
One of Orwell’s profound themes is how we allow those with totalitarian instincts to take over. In the US, under the mantle of “war on terror”, an agency has been created called Total Information Awareness (TIA), which will collate bank, travel and credit card data. The agency is spending millions on research into “Human ID at a distance” — computerised face recognition, individual “gait performance”. The TIA motto, chillingly, is: “Knowledge is power.”
For two years Orwell was literary editor of the left-wing journal Tribune, and wrote a column, As I Please. The breadth of his interests was staggering. He was a scrupulously independent thinker, and his robust political engagement and clear language offer a challenge to South Africans involved in public debate to ditch those pre-set phrases and exhausted clichés, and speak boldly in unambiguous language.
Apply Orwell’s acid test. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” he wrote. “When there is a gap between real and declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idiomsâ€¦”
In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Animal Farm, the editor of Tribune invited me to resurrect the As I Please slot. At first there was much fun to be had with the name Blair, comparing Eric to Tony. This contrast highlighted how rapidly and ruthlessly, as soon as he was elected, British Prime Minister Tony Blair junked almost every belief he had espoused to get there.
It is not the first time an opposition boss, once in power, behaved like the routed foe. But, as the Daily News found, it’s never been better expressed than at the end of Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
After Eton, Eric Blair joined the Imperial Police and served in Burma, where he witnessed the brutality behind colonial power. His journey from privilege to independent-minded socialism took him to Paris, then in 1936 to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. His eyewitness account, Homage to Catalonia, is a narrative of truth telling, in which he exposed the Stalinist purge of their own allies. Orwell managed to escape this purge; but back in Britain few on the left wanted to listen to the truth.
It is the measure of Orwell’s stature that his honesty did not lead him into reactionary cynicism. When we have an account of our struggle to match Homage to Catalonia we will have a classic.
Orwell describes his arrival in revolutionary Barcelona: “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Bryan Rostron is a South African journalist, once again resident in this country after working for many years for British newspapers