Orwellian: An overused term?

8 Jun 2015

George Orwell, an author who set the standard for our vision of absolute totalitarianism in his book 1984. Indeed the term ‘Orwellian’ is often, if not always, applied to nations that suppress people’s freedom, monitor communications, and seek to strictly protect national security.  However, it is becoming increasingly used as a lazy term for ideas that the state proposes, which we see as invading our personal liberty. I have had various conversations in the past weeks, and months which have all used the phrasing “it’s just like 1984.”


1984 is a chilling, provocative look at the fear of what 20th century states could maybe one day produce.  In Orwell’s dystopia, the state has complete control over every crevice of society, from the press, to the very events of history.  Stalinist USSR was at the centre of another masterpiece of Orwell’s, Animal Farm, and it’s clear Stalinism is the great tyranny which was at the heart of 1984. Although, 1984 is about much more than just the presence of Stalinism; it’s about the state replacing everyday connections; indeed the state in 1984 is very concerned about the presence of love.  It’s about what happens when a government gains complete control, as Orwell infamously writes “He who controls the past controls the present.”


Indeed the ‘Orwellian vision’ sounds completely antithetical to the society which we have produced today in Great Britain.  We are a society which emphasises love, kinship and open information.  As the comedy character Malcolm Tucker provocatively proclaimed “everyone is spewing their guts up onto the internet, putting up their relationship statuses and photos of their vajazzles”.  Yes it was said on a TV show, but it reflects the current times. We live in a society where protests against the government in the nation’s capital are a frequent occurrence, where satire on the government takes place without risk of any punishment, and our government can be voted out with the tick of a pen. In fact, the proof that we can talk about 1984 without using hushed voices, or hiding copies for fear of getting caught with them, is the ultimate proof we don’t live in any society like this.


While Orwell remains a most important writer, his place as the leader of prophetic warnings may in time become doubted. Brave New World is a far closer prescient vision of what future society could look like. It’s a dystopian vision of a society ensconced in sex, technology, and drugs, a dream for some and for others a nightmare.  Our society is far closer to this vision of what it could become, and some of Huxley’s other writing such as Island also offer a far more compelling and truthful image of where we could be heading. Of course replacing one reductionist idea with another is not helpful to anyone, and of course Brave New World was not a foretelling of the world today. However if we were to have a reductionist ideal of what government and society are, we might as well get the closest version to what we have.


Maybe I am too hard on people who try to find ways of expressing their worry about our government turning into something other than the democratic expression it is supposed to be. The frustration, and angst expressed by people is real, and also spreading. The internet was supposed to free us from our state; instead many feel like we’re now boxed in, with so many sharing their entire personal lives over the internet, so many of us are naked to the spread of surveillance.  Despite this, the vast majority of these records never being read, and the records not being as detailed as some may imagine.  Orwell was a great writer, but a fortune teller he was not, it’s time we gave up the ghost and admitted, that whatever we are it certainly isn’t 1984.

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