George Orwell’s most important books like 1984 and Animal Farm were not really intended to be prophecies for the distant future, but satires of the Stalinist and fascist police states that existed in his own time, but for the most part no longer exist today under the system of global capitalism. He was certainly not a great fiction writer, but was very likely the “the best of modern pamphleteers” (Bloom 1). His characters were totally brutalized by the system of Ingsoc (English Socialism) and this was the type of system he feared might take over the world, although of course history did not work out that way. There are still great powers in the world like Russia, China and the United States (Oceana, Eurasia and East Asia in 1984), but at the same time the giant global corporations and all the new computer and Internet technologies have also created a world culture and economic system of “increasing connectivity and interdependency” (Appelrouth and Edles 558). It still has a class system, with the majority confined to lives of poverty and menial tasks, as in 1984, but the ruling elites are not members of the Inner Party but wealthy capitalists and heads of large banks and corporations, none of which existed in Orwell’s novel. Wars are still fought for control over resources and labor, and the ruling classes still dominate the mass media with their propaganda, which was also the case in 1984, but in most cases their domination is not nearly as total and absolute as in the police states Orwell depicted. Dissent is still possible and alternative sources of information are available, even though the masses of people generally seem apathetic and indifferent much (if not all) of the time.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between 1984 and the present-day world is that capitalism and large corporations really control the political and economic system, while in Orwell’s fictional work capitalism had been totally abolished. Today’s world is more like a capitalist oligarchy than a totalitarian police state, and the main goal of those running the system is not simply lust for power but a “never-ending drive for profit” (Appelrouth and Edles 569). Unlike Mr. O’Brien and the Inner Party rulers in 1984, capitalism cannot really function as system designed to “arrest progress and freeze history at a chosen moment” (Orwell 1989). That would mean the end of profitable new inventions and innovations that the capitalists desire. To be sure, like Orwell’s oligarchs they will use military force and police-state methods to maintain power when necessary. Mainly they rule through economic power and capitalist organizations, however, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Capitalism still exploits labor ruthlessly, as it always did in the past, and pays the workers as little as it can get away with. Most parts of the planet are relegated to supplying cheap labor and raw materials, and as in 1984, the ordinary people have no real control over the system, although there has also been a great deal of opposition to globalization over the last thirty years (Appekrouth and Edles 563). Certainly it is not a democratic system, but rather one in which huge companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s all strive to become that “one overarching brand under which we consume, make art, [and] even build our homes” (Klein 130). In doing so, they have also wiped out many of their smaller competitors and little capitalists, who cannot compete with the giants and simply lack the same type of political power.
Orwell’s regime did have the same three classes as any modern system, with about 80% of the population consisting or relatively poor and powerless ‘proles’ who were expected to work and obey, which the middle classes of the Outer Party carried out the day-to-day management and administration, and the Inner Party elite was the ruling class. For the rulers, the proles were simply animals whose lives were of no value, which in reality is exactly how the lower classes and the poor are treated in today’s world. They did not fear them as a potential revolutionary force, since they were basically a mindless mass, but they were far more concerned that they might be overthrown by those in the middle ranks. This group was therefore monitored very closely for any signs of disloyalty and crushed without mercy when they showed even the slightest dissent, as Winston Smith discovered. Orwell’s regimes all used “practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years -- imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations” (Orwell 1989). All of these are still common in the world today, of course, but not usually not nearly on the same scale that Orwell described.
In Orwell’s 1984, the entire population is under surveillance constantly through television, which was the latest technology by the standards of the 1940s, but he had no hint of the kinds of developments that would be coming in the next sixty years. His police state looks primitive in comparison to the type of surveillance, propaganda and control that governments use today, with satellites, computers, the Internet and other digital technology. Many of these were originally developed in secret by the military and intelligence agencies before being turned over to large corporations, which did not exist in Orwell’s world because the state controlled everything. Paul Virilio pointed out in The Information Bomb that these advanced machines are truly global in nature and make the global capitalist system possible, while this type of economy has long since been abolished in 1984. Money can move around the planet instantly, at the touch of a button, and no longer has any connection with national economies (Virilio 13). High technology is also used in warfare and for control and observation of entire populations, as well as mass advertising and propaganda on a world-wide scale (Virilio 60). Those countries and regions that do not have access to this new technology are already being dominated by those that do.
At the same time, the widespread use of the Internet and cell phones is also a challenge for authoritarian and totalitarian states, such as China or the regimes in the Middle East that underwent revolutions during the Arab Spring. Orwell’s police state had a complete monopoly on new and information, and it charged history from one day to the next to suit the needs of its ruling Inner Party. In Oceana and the other two empires “every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed” (Orwell 1989). This is the ideal for any dictatorship or oligarchy, including the capitalist oligarchy that controls the present-day world, but only in the most extreme cases like North Korea do states still have the type of total control that Orwell described. Overall, though, that type of system is simply too rigid and inflexible to suit the needs of global capitalism, no matter how authoritarian and oligarchic it might me in practice.
Appelrouth, S. and L.D. Edles. Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era: Text and Readings, 2nd Edition. SAGE Publications, 2011.
Bloom, Harold. George Orwell’s 1984. Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1949, 1989.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. Vintage Canada, 2009.
Virilio, Paul The Information Bomb. London: Verso, 2005.