George Orwell, 1984
Published in 1948
“Big Brother is watching you” – Only a handful of books has become as indicative a vision of the future as George Orwell’s novel “1984”. It was written in 1948 and provided us with many of the cyphers and code words that we still use today when we talk about an excessively powerful government that invariably monitors its people.
Only a few readers will remember the meager frame story: Winston Smith, who works at the Ministry of Truth, discovers evidence indicating that the ruling party systematically rewrites the past. He has been aware of this for a long time, but finding proof sets something into motion. He joins the resistance, self-evidently someone denounces him, he is captured, tortured and converted to love his government that is symbolized by Big Brother.
As I said, it is somewhat of a meager plot. What is memorable about this story is Orwell’s profound description of how an individual is affected by the fear of constant monitoring in combination with relentless punishment in case of disclosed misdemeanor. Orwell’s depiction of an institution that in Newspeak is referred to as Two Minutes Hate has certainly left an impression. In groups the citizens of Oceania regularly watch a fascinatingly well-made television show. It serves to redirect anyone’s discontent onto a common enemy. None of those watching want to be manipulated, yet everyone knows that any unorthodox behavior – any unorthodox facial expression even – will inevitably result in punishment. Orwell dissects Winston’s feelings: In the beginning he only pretends to share the common sense of hate, but his play pretend results in him being so swept up in the moment that two minutes later he has actually developed those feelings that his government demands.
What is so frightening about “1984” is not that a party ruthlessly controls its people with all possible means. It is rather the fact that no one can defy the governmental doctrine. The state does not only influence its subjects’ lives but also their thoughts and even their feelings. “1984” is the epitome of a totalitarian state that does not only suppress individual thoughts, actions and feelings, but obliterates them entirely.
“1984” demonstrates the consequences of Hitler’s fascist Reich and Mao’s or Stalin’s communist dictatorship if they had continued to exist. This should all be outdated by now seeing as we live in democracies. But Orwell’s ideas are as relevant as ever. It is utterly terrifying to know that the intelligence services of so-called democratic nations resort to precisely those measures that Orwell was only imaging.
It is truly tragic that 9/11 provided intelligence services with the perfect excuse they needed to make “1984” become reality. Who could have imagined this development in 1948 when democracy prevailed over Hitler’s totalitarian regime?