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The Meaning of “1984” and “Brave New World” in These Trumpian Times

Sales of Orwell’s “1984” have boomed. How can we read it politically and practically?

“Alternative Facts.” “The media is the opposition party.” “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” Short poignant phrases that very well could have been written by an ailing Eric Arthur Blair in a cottage on the Isle of Jura. It was the winter of 1946 and Blair, who had taken the pen name George Orwell 14 years prior, had sought a temporary reprieve from post-World War II London in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The work that occupied his mind: 1984.

Since the utterance of these short, distressing phrases by members of the Trump regime, sales of 1984 have boomed, as the Guardian pounced: “Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts‘.” Dozens and dozens of subsequent articles on the book have appeared in the days since.

As a budding Orwellphile and member of the Orwell Society, I am thrilled to see an US readership returning to this peculiar and particularly British author.

It is easy to guess why there is a renewed, surging interesting in Orwell’s 1948 classic.

“Newspeak.” “Thoughtcrime.” “Doublethink.” “Ministry of Truth.” “Unperson.” And not to be forgotten, especially in a sexually repressive society, “goodsex” that stands against “sexcrime.” Could Orwell’s unwords be useful for undoing the “nightmares” in which we find ourselves?

“In Which Case We Shall Have Nightmares of Other and Scarcely Imaginable Kinds”

Upon the publication of 1984, author and psychonaut Aldous Huxley wrote to Orwell. The elder figure and author of Brave New World had known the younger as Eric, as a pupil in a high school level French class. The two disagreed on the unfolding relations of power that would remake and disfigured the modern world. Thus, their dystopian novels diverged as well.

In a letter dated October 21, 1949, Huxley penned: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

I presume that the postmark affixed to the letter read “Wrightwood, CA” since Huxley had called the Los Angeles region home since 1937. And while he was a classically trained British author, Brave New World was written in France in 1931 and published a year later.

Although correctly identifying the conditioning and hypnotic effects of American political and civil society, Huxley underestimated the need for force, for violence. Police billy clubs would be replaced with revolvers and then SWAT teams, prison populations have increased astronomically. Concerned with the consequences of the Fordist assembly line and ferociousness of Americanism, Brave New World envisions the logical progression of these systems: half of humanity living in hyper-civilized walled cities and divided by caste, the other half forced onto reservations. Huxley demonstrated that there are two types of human beings: those who are “loving their servitude” and those who require a good “flogging and kicking.” While the first type inhabits the upper echelons of the “cities” with the second below or in slums and Bantustans, he was simply wrong about the extent and depth of these inequalities.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” Orwell famously said. Huxley questioned “forever.” It is possible that Orwell’s attentiveness to the lives of working people rather than the future Londoners of Huxley’s Brave New World is the reason for his instance on the need for force. 1984, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia are reminders that the state will always use violence to quell working-class resistance and rebellion when other methods have failed.

But these differences speak more to the men themselves than the content of their literary works.

Following Brave New World, Huxley retreated into personal enlightenment and psychedelics. Orwell spent the years between Huxley’s class and letter “down and out,” amongst the miners and industrial workers of Northern England, and fighting fascism with a militia in Spain. He only retreated from the Spanish front when struck in the neck by a sniper’s bullet.

With Orwell’s A Life in Letters now available to the public, and considering the attention given to his vast correspondence, one would assume that we would have the letter he wrote back to his former teacher. But there is no reply that we know of. It is quite possible that by the end of 1949, Orwell was too ill with late-stage tuberculosis to continue his letter writing. Or, the letter in question could languish in an archival box labeled “Sonia Brownell,” Orwell’s second wife married shortly before his death and who communicated for him once he was unable. Or, it is quite possible, that said letter has simply been lost.

Still, there might be an even plainer reason: As only 92 days passed between Huxley’s letter and Orwell’s death, the pupil simply did not live long enough to receive it.

As soon as it was announced that bookstores were running out of copies of 1984, there were detractors. Two days following the Guardian’s initial announcement, a subsequent article ran: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US.” As to be expected, Huxley’s widely read work was listed as one preferable alternative.

“All the Political Thinking for Years Past”

However, there is another letter that can provide insight into the political usefulness and ramifications of reading 1984 in our present moment.

In a missive published with the Partisan Review as World War II was coming to an end, Orwell pontificated, “So far as I can see, all the political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”

Political thinking has been made inefficient, invalid — for those unwilling to Google “vitiated.”

On the morning of November 9, 2016, the American left found itself in a state of bewilderment and surprise. And Orwell’s reflection applies to this shock, for which the left should have been well prepared. Since much of the left — from Bernie Sanders supporters to black bloc anarchists — had spent the better part of the year, actually for the past four decades, “foresee[ing] the future only when it coincide[d] with their own wishes.” The same could be said of the unprincipled, corporatist elites of the Democratic Party, timid business unions leaders, nonprofit do-gooders — all of whom have either directly benefited from or have escaped the worst ravages of neoliberal capitalism unlike those they supposedly represent. And to the thousands of American citizens that have newly printed copies of 1984 on their nightstands.

Since their visions are in ruins, they have sought out another image of the future.

But the future, in both utopian and dystopian frames, and all its complexity cannot be reduced to a novel, best-of lists, to the “newspeak” of “alternative facts,” or even how soma use in Brave New World reflects America’s opioid epidemic.

“We Are Living in a Nightmare”

“We are living in a nightmare,” Orwell offered, writing in Time and Tide in April of 1940, “precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise.”

Politics to Orwell is something completely different than a utopian or dystopian vision. To invest political possibilities in one or the other, or in 1984 and Brave New World, is to avoid the very real questions of survival which we now face — climate change, crushing poverty, inaccessible health care, food insecurity, political repression, deportation squads.

The question of the moment is how to examine power without relying on one white, British man’s inherently limited vision. And how we construct new visions and new ways of life, new relations between human beings and the natural world through active, engaged and conversant participation of those who populate this planet.

Commenting on Brave New World later in the same review, Orwell declares: “What we are moving towards at the moment is something more like the Spanish Inquisition, and probably far worse, thanks to the radio and secret police. There is very little chance of escaping it unless we can reinstate the belief in human brotherhood without the need for a ‘next world’ to give it meaning.”

Orwell gave no quarter to the “next world,” and neither should we.

In fact, 2016 passed with mere mention of the 500-year anniversary of Thomas Moore’s Utopia. This is as distressing as it is encouraging.

“The Object of Power Is Power”

Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that all those who have recently purchased 1984 discontinue their reading upon encountering “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,” a few paragraphs in.

During a particularly significant scene, Inner Party bureaucrat O’Brien lectures our protagonist Winston Smith:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?

Does Winston understand O’Brien as he is being interrogated in a cell at the Ministry of Love? The question O’Brien asks cannot to answered, since the purpose of asking it is not to elicit an answer. Winston is the object of persecution and torture. Winston cannot understand; he must obey. And as the book ends, Winston adores Big Brother as he awaits death. We haven’t that comfort.

Do we understand Orwell? The purpose of the question is not to elicit an answer. We cannot use Orwell to come to conclusions about the “nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds” that haunt the present moment. And though Huxley used this phrase to conclude his critical letter, neither of these grand British authors have a clear vision of what is just beyond the horizon. I would suggest, quite differently than other reflections on 1984, that we must use Orwell politically, and practically, as one amongst many starting points to examine how the Trump regime is “different from all the oligarchies of the past” and how it “makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Moreover, we need to understand our present moment with all its vicissitudes, its histories. From the perspective of the ruling class, the history of American society has been one of passive revolutions that periodically require extraordinary state violence to maintain the social order. Sen. Joseph McCarthy bragged that “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” Americanism has always required a fist, as have European Democracies, fascism and the former Soviet Union and Stalinism.

Trumpism, on the other hand, has not paused to cuff its shirt before striking. In effect, the regime could easily say: “We know what we are doing.” For they have already said: “Even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.”

“Make American Great Again” is not a vision “that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal.”

It is “only power, pure power.”

“The Last Man in Europe”

Referring to Winston, “The Last Man in Europe” was the working title for 1984. And it is possible that Winston failed in his plight since he stood as an individual against the might of “The Party” and “Big Brother.” Well, this is one possible interpretation of Orwell’s last work.

1984, in part, is an individual story of a man who fought in Spanish trenches, of a writer sick with pulmonary tuberculosis who tussled against time and typewriter in a Jura farmhouse called Barnhill. But Orwell’s novels, nonfiction, journalism and essays are not an individual story in the narcissistic, individualistic variety usually associated with novels about “Great Men.”

Our present moment needs collective, rather than individual stories.

A collective life of “lettuces, radishes, spring onions, cress” (as Orwell wrote in his diary while on Jura) challenges “a boot stamping on a human face.” Just as in 1984, Winston’s romantic rendezvous with Julia, as a “sexcrime” challenges “Big Brother” and its policy of marital “goodsex.”

But collective life is not possible without common decency.

In author and journalist Kristian William’s forthcoming volume “Between the Bullet and the Lie”: Essays on Orwell he explains Orwell’s meaning:

Decency was more a matter of approach than content, and was therefore not inherently connected to any specific political program or body of ideas. For an individual, decency suggests, at a minimum, intellectual honesty, a generous spirit, and a desire for equality — all of these in the deep, and not the trivial, sense. The word implies a healthy measure of self-respect, especially in times of adversity, and, what is more, a tendency to treat others with the same regard.

Decency is, in all these particulars, very nearly the opposite of totalitarianism, whether marching in its fascist or its Communist uniform. As Orwell saw it, totalitarianism requires systematic dishonesty (even to the point of self-deception), cruelty, and a hunger for power; it demands a cowardly self-abasement, even among those it enlists in its corps of bullies, Blackshirts or commissars.

Decency, collective life, and the garden Orwell kept at Barnhill are the practical concerns that resonate between Orwell’s time and our own.

And while 1984 can be the beginning of a political reading of Trumpism, it cannot be an end, no matter how contemporary his novel may appear.

Winston wrote in his diary on April 4th, 1984:

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean.

One would simply have to browse the movie listings or daily headlines to uncover the resonances and clear differences between Orwell’s account and our own nightmarish, dystopic moment.