Like Marilyn and Elvis, George Orwell has had a long and profitable afterlife.
Though he died in 1950 at the young age of 46, his last and best book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is one of the most influential works of the last 100 years. With more than 35 million copies sold since publication in 1949, the novel is now enjoying a sudden resurgence in popularity. As a runaway bestseller in the Age of Trump, it continues to speak powerfully to our fears of a real-life Big Brother undermining personal liberties.
Whether these fears grow or fade in the coming years, Nineteen Eighty-Four will always be here to show us how freedom is jeopardized by deception, evasion, hate, groupthink, and the worship of power. The book is a blueprint for the exercise of political control, and will never cease to be relevant as long as humans covet power for its own sake. Beautiful in its simplicity is the message conveyed in the novel, “The object of power is power.”
As Orwell suggests, the road to tyranny often begins with a misplaced trust in a managerial elite promising simple solutions to hard problems. Big Brother’s ministries of Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty pretend to serve the greater good, but are merely bureaucratic shams rife with incompetence and infighting. With our own fondness for think tanks and government bodies bearing Orwellian names and dubious claims of competence, we are always in danger of waking up to find a Ministry of Truth feeding us “alternative facts.”
The great debates over the book used to be focused on the failings of Communism or Fascism, but this was always misleading because Orwell hated any system that inhibited free thought. His ideal was always a world liberated from “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls,” as he put it. He fiercely criticized lockstep political thinking on both the left and the right, and he insisted on challenging even the most cherished wisdom. “If liberty means anything at all,” he said, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Big Brother’s Thought Police are so insidious because they work to suppress ideas before any words are spoken. Keeping track of what people say and do is simply preparation for the day when they will be so self-conscious that they will banish “thoughtcrime” before it begins. This process is Big Brother’s ultimate safeguard. “Only the Thought Police mattered,” Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us. The idea is to establish a constant culture of intimidation that will force people to censor themselves.
Big Brother deals with dissent not only by crushing dissidents but by eliminating all traces of their existence, declaring them “unpersons.” The paper trail of a life is carefully assembled in order to destroy it or to eliminate traces of it in other documents, sending the evidence down a “memory hole.” Technology has allowed us to accelerate this trend to the point where we are now quick to doubt any photograph or narrative that challenges our views, scanning it for telltale traces of alteration. More alarming is the fact that as paper is being replaced by digital data, the process of alteration becomes much simpler for any power that controls the data.
It isn’t merely the latest political fears that have given rise to the current wave of Orwell-mania. There is something more fundamental at work – a growing fear that we have lost control over the most important details of our lives, and that real independence is no longer possible. We have already surrendered any meaningful right to privacy. Google, Facebook and Amazon know more about us than some of our best friends do, and we are just one breach of a database away from discovering that our private information collected by “trusted” providers has landed in someone else’s hands.
More subtle are the pressures exerted by our growing dependence on social networks that exist in a virtual space where people often feel overwhelmed by the constant demands on their time and attention. Though seemingly benign in concept, Facebook creates Orwellian traps for its users with its accumulation of digital trails that can destroy relationships and undermine careers. Portrayed only as a face in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother seems a ready-made mascot for a network that is easy to join but hard to leave, and that is, in effect, a vast collection of personal dossiers.
Our lives have been transformed by the shift from industrial-age machinery to electronic devices that make centralized control much easier. Alone among his generation, Orwell saw that this massive shift was coming, especially in his invention of the all-seeing telescreen that monitors life in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We have yet to understand how radically this change has altered our lives. If we pick up an old-fashioned telephone connected to a land line at work, and learn that our boss is listening to every conversation, we’re outraged. But when we go online at work, we rarely question the employer’s absolute right to monitor every keystroke.
Though Nineteen Eighty-Four is said to be used in 60,000 classrooms around the world every year, it is a far more subversive book than many high school students or their teachers may realize. And one thing it’s meant to subvert is the classroom itself, where rules and authority matter more than genuine learning. As Orwell saw it, the first experience that many people have with a Big Brother figure is in school, and that experience often conditions us to accept rules over which we have no say. Big Brother’s henchmen try to break dissidents by forcing them to relearn the most basic schoolroom equation and accept the lie that 2+2=5.
The book’s dire warning, “Big Brother is watching you,” is the most prophetic statement made in any novel of the last century. Though Orwell won fame so late in his career that he didn’t appear in the British Who’s Who until the last year of his life, his genius has proven to be one of the great enduring gifts of British culture.
Michael Shelden is the author of Orwell: the Authorized Biography, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His other books include Mark Twain: Man In White and Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick, which was published in 2016. He is a professor at Indiana State University.