George Orwell’s Enduring Relevance

- Tanmay Sunil Bhamre

Tanmay Sunil Bhamre is currently studying English Literature and Economics at B.K. Birla College, Kalyan, (MMR) . He is an avid reader and skater and aspires to join the army.

In recent days after passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, the word “Orwellian” has reentered popular discourse and could be found in various newspaper headlines. Similarly, after election of President Donald Trump as the 45th President of United States of America, George Orwell’s classic book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ saw a massive surge in sales. His works have been interpreted by different generation of readers differently according to their contemporary events. Since the novel’s publication, critics have acknowledged that ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ refers to something but they continued to debate as what does it refer to – Stalin’s USSR? Post-War Britain? Mao’s China?
This paper is an attempt to retrace Orwell’s political developments and relevance of his works in recent times. This paper also attempts to probe into various manifestations of Orwellian ‘Doublespeak’ in an age of information and technology and analyses how language, politics and truth are intertwined. 

Keywords: Orwellian, Totalitarian, Language, Politics, Relevance.

George Orwell’s Enduring Relevance  
Recently you must have heard the term ‘Orwellian’ tossed around in newspapers or in one political context or another. But have you ever wondered what exactly does it mean or where do its origins lie or why is it used so frequently?
The term ‘Orwellian’ was coined after British author Eric Blair who is known by his pen name George Orwell. His most famous work Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a dystopian future in which mankind is under rule of a tyrannical, authoritative regime. Hence, the term ‘Orwellian’ is simply used to describe something authoritative or dictatorial. But using it this way, the term fails to fully convey Orwell’s message. He actually wanted to point out and warn us that how easy it is (even for democracies) to give rise to authoritative regimes in this age of technological advancement and militaristic expansion. Therefore, the term ‘Orwellian’ actually describes a government which infuses totalitarian policies with propaganda, surveillance, denial of truth, misinformation and manipulation of past.
George Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 in Bihar, India, then part of the British Empire. After serving as imperial policeman in Burma, he settled for a job of a literary critic, working in a book shop and ended up writing a few books of his own. He wrote literature for the only reason it ultimately exists which is to try to change the world for the better. In a deeper sense, he was a political writer someone who wanted art to help us grow kinder, fairer, and wiser.
George Orwell always hated the social group, of which he was, in spite of everything, an exemplary member: The Intellectuals. He accused them of a number of sins -lack of patriotism, resentment of money and of facade and immorality. In his essay “England Your England”, written during the Blitz of 1941, Orwell writes:

“In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsias are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.” (England Your England by G. Orwell)

Orwell's generation of intellectuals, in fact, have lived through some of the most gruesome events of history – the First World War and the following Great Depression, thus many of them were obsessed with airy, abstract and grand schemes to redeem humanity from itself. Some were fanatical communists, others were staunch defenders of radical capitalism, and few admired the new authoritarian regimes of Italy, Spain, and Germany, and wanted something similar to take hold in the English-speaking sphere. He listened, and was for a time, a little seduced. His greatness lies in the rye determination with which he recognized and triumphed against such tendencies in him.
George Orwell, today, is extremely famous for two books – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Reading them is a gut-wrenching experience – not only because he made an accurate prediction of the techno-political future but also because he teaches us how literature should be written in an age of movies and mass communication. In short, he understood that the task of a writer was to ensure that even the most serious message should reach ordinary public.
Animal Farm is a story about how revolutions fall prey to counter-revolutions and turn back on their own original ideas. It is a satirical comment on the progress of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. He wanted to make sure that his message reaches even to the mass audience and ordinary people, so he did what – Aesop, La Fontaine and Walt Disney did which is to tell a story about humans using animals.
The story begins on Manor Farm in England, where all farm animals come together and decide to overthrow the ruthless and neglectful farmer, Mr. Jones, and run the farm for themselves. After a successful takeover of the farm, the animals collectively charter a set of seven commandants for every animal to abide by with a dream of creating a society where every animal is free, equal and can achieve his or her full potential.
“The Seven Commandants of Animalism –
  • Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  • Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  • No animal shall wear clothes.
  • No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal.
  • All animals are equal.” (Animal Farm by G. Orwell)
Time flies and pigs with help of their notorious leader, Napoleon, fill the power vacuum and increase their authority over other animals, awarding themselves with increasing special privileges. They quell other animals’ questions and protests by threatening them. Slowly every one of the seven commandants is rewritten by the pigs to suit their purpose and the charter now reads –
·       Four legs good, two legs better.
·       Animal on four legs or with wings is inferior, so two legs better.
·       No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
·       No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
·       No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.
·       All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. (Animal Farm by G. Orwell)
By the end of the story, other animals could no longer differentiate between their old master (Human) and new masters (Pigs).   
With sarcastic humour, Orwell makes the story more luscious without failing to convey his message. Thus, whenever a revolution goes wrong – whether it’s Arab Spring or Umbrella Revolution– people still bring up Animal Farm. The scenes from Animal Farm are also familiar to those who are living in today’s India where there are those who promise a society where everybody is equal, and yet they believe that they deserve more privileges than others; where politicians openly brand a whole group of people as Invaders just to appease and increase their vote bank.
His masterpiece novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is an attempt to warn the society of its own alarming trends. The government of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania controls its citizens thoughts and actions. Their every move is monitored by the government using “Telescreens.” The citizens live under a constant threat looming overhead as to what happens to those who step out of line. In order to blind the citizenry to their enslavement and crush any sign of defiance, the government operates a Ministry of Truth that prints porn novels alongside movies that ooze with sex and rubbishes newspapers that contain almost nothing but sport, crime and astrology. The ministry also pumps out alternate narratives such as-
War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength” (Nineteen Eighty-Four by G. Orwell)
This deliberate irony is an example of doublespeak, when words are used not to convey meaning but to undermine it, corrupting the very ideas they refer to. Doublespeak, today, has become a central part in vocabulary of Indian Politicians and even a few media houses that use pretentious words to project authority, or make atrocities and encounters seem acceptable by burying them in euphemisms and complicated sentence structures. He understood how important language is in building a nation and thus in his essay ‘Politics and English Language’, he writes-
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (Politics and English Language by G. Orwell)
His essay warns us that if thought can corrupt language, language too can corrupt thought. He believed that totalitarianism and corruption of language are connected. Language gives individual the power to construct and formulate ideas. But when language itself is restrained, it can affect how an individual thinks and can also be used to control what he thinks. In order to suppress rebellious thoughts, the government of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania replaces English with Newspeak – a dialect which alters the whole structure of language making it impossible for the citizens even to conceive rebellious and disobedient actions, because there are no words in Newspeak to make them think of the same.
Orwell particularly criticized his contemporary writers who he claimed slipped into bad writing and used meaningless or hackneyed phrases and called it a "packet of aspirins always at one's elbow". He recommended “Remedy of Six Rules” in his essay “Politics and English Language” to counter many of these faults. They are as follows:
1.    Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
2.    If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
3.    Never use the passive where you can use the active.
4.    Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
5.    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” (Politics and English Language by G. Orwell)

Satire plays a key role in highlighting Orwell’s messages.
 “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink” (Nineteen Eighty-Four by G. Orwell)
Like the Ministries from Nineteen Eighty-Four, man today is dominated by big corporate and social media companies –who deploy vast armies of humans and algorithms that surveil their users 24/7 – bombarding them with target-based ads to keep them spending more and more. Similarly, today we observe a wholesale dwarfing of the individual by gigantic expansion of the powers of the state. Even as I write there are more than a million people in Hong-Kong fiercely protesting, since last six months for Universal suffrage and basic human rights against a country which recently persecuted Uighur Muslims.
“Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country has not been at war,” Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is particularly relevant in case of America who has constantly been at war in one form or other. Just like in the novel, the war takes place off-stage (overseas) and its progress could occasionally be heard over news.
“It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, [and] have no material cause for fighting.… [It] involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.… In the centres of civilization war means no more than … the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four by G. Orwell)
This passage from the novel is eerily prescient as it foreshadows an era in which superpowers (like United States of America) use sophisticated weaponry and drones to conduct missile strikes and place few Special Operations teams across remote locations to conduct missions. Another most shocking relevance I found out while reading the novel is how Nineteen Eighty-Four foreshadows the use of torture against an endless “War on Terror”.
Orwell once wrote, “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future.” That is why, today, we observe a massive push to rewrite history and to glorify past struggles of which we were never part of. 
Many things have changed since Orwell wrote his terrifying books – few even say that things have not turned out that bad. But Orwell never intended his works to be a prediction, only a warning. So, whether you live in Hong-Kong or Delhi or New York, one cannot deny that Orwell had remarkable wisdom to make his works future-proof and that is why his books seem relevant for different reasons in different times.
Orwell, as you can see, has had a very active life even after death.

Works Cited-
  • Orwell, George (1941). England Your England - The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. London: Secker & Warburg.
  • Orwell, George (2006). Politics and the English Language. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
  • Orwell, George (1946). Animal Farm. New York: The New American Library. ISBN 978-1-4193-6524-9.
  • Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg

1 comment :

  1. Just brilliant! The country needs young authors like you to spread the truth and eliminate the false facade of lies..


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