Academic · Opinion

An Orwellian dystopia?

The following observations are drawn from an essay I am drafting on surveillance culture, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, flavoured with a little more entertaining gusto than I would put in an academic paper.

Use of the adjective “Orwellian” and exaggerative comparison of the aforementioned text to the contemporary political landscape is both naive and misguided. Bait put out on a line by ill-informed armchair progressives to seduce their peers. Of course one can draw parallels between the fictional Oceania and the political West, but they are not synonymous.

Speaking shortly after the publication of his text, Orwell explicitly stated that it shows the logical consequences of unchallenged totalitarianism (1). But America is not under totalitarian rule, nor is it possible for American citizens to tolerate such a regime: totalitarianism has been staunchly and aggressively condemned in the West since the middle of the last century.

The ordinary person categorically knows that two plus two does not equal five. And no matter how many times a politician might bleat about it, they will never believe that so long as they have control of their own minds. In this key regard, we can not see our political climate as an Orwellian dystopia precisely because the ordinary person still has jurisdiction over their own thoughts and actions. If you want evidence, look at the sheer number of people protesting and resisting: are they all meek Winston Smiths?

Increasing development of the Internet coupled with a heightened awareness of our digital personalities has made it more possible than ever before for us to resist totalitarianism. Sure, governments as well as individuals can harness these technologies, but doing so places them in an equally vulnerable position.

The adjective “Orwellian” is inflationary and mistaken. It is inappropriate not because it exaggerates, but because it misunderstands our ability to circumvent lies and propaganda. Because it underestimates our will and capacity to observe, act, and resist as dynamic individuals.

(1) quoted in V. Meyers, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four: An Anti Utopia’ in George Orwell (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 114 – 139 (p. 119).

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