What would Orwell say today?
Having given the English language the term doublethink, it is easy to imagine him critiquing the present-day wartime propaganda of not only Putin, but also the West
The totalitarian dystopia of George Orwell's 1984 is set in a world of perpetual conflict amongst three superstates, Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia.
Newspeak and lies are used to rewrite history and hide the fact of constantly shifting enmities and alliances. Much of this fictional forever war's violence is endured across an area spanning the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
Sound familiar? During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were always ready to switch the sides they backed in long running proxy conflicts. One notoriously casual swapping of sides occurred in 1974 across the Horn of Africa after a Marxist coup overthrew the US backed Haile Selassie in Ethiopia.
Whilst there was no “hot” Third World war in Europe, millions of people were killed across what was then called the Third World during wars amorally prolonged (and occasionally directly fought in) by the two superpowers.
Since Russia's escalation of pre-existing conflicts into a full-scale invasion a year ago, Ukrainians have been acutely aware that Western public opinion can be fickle and the war's spiking of global inflation in food, fertiliser and fuel prices might undermine the current NATO consensus.
For all of Joe Biden's promises to back Ukraine's resistance to Vladimir Putin's aggression, Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows US exhortations to defend democracy are subject to self-interest and ultimately subordinate to its grand strategy of “containing China.”
Before the imposition of sanctions, the West was happy to do business with Putin's Russia, as it does with oligarchs and dictators from across the globe, and cities like London were a popular base for Russian oligarchs. Nobody should be surprised by this, but more people should be concerned.
As Bernie Sanders puts it when discussing his new book - It's OK to be angry about capitalism - “Of course the oligarchs run Russia. But guess what? Oligarchs run the United States as well. All over the world, we're seeing a small number of incredibly wealthy people running things in their favour. This is an issue that needs to be talked about.”
It takes little to wonder what Orwell would make of the world in 2023. Renowned for penning two of the 20th century's best-known novels before his death at the age of 46 in 1950, he wrote many insightful and highly readable essays on politics and language.
Instinctively anti-imperialist, he held a lifelong conviction that England itself needs to be radically reshaped by Socialism. His wartime polemic The Lion and the Unicorn published in 1941, memorably includes a description of England resembling a “rather stuffy Victorian family” with cupboards “bursting with skeletons” and “a deep conspiracy of silence over the source of the family income.”
In August 1943 amid the Bengal famine, he resigned from the BBC writing, “in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.”
His experience of the Spanish Civil War during which he saw Russian-backed apparatchiks spend more energy crushing alternative left wing and anarchist groups than in fighting Franco convinced him of the need to resolutely resist the Soviet Union. Not for nothing then is the term Orwellian cited by authors across the political spectrum.
Having given the English language the term doublethink, it is easy to imagine him critiquing the present-day wartime propaganda of not only Putin, but also the West.
In 1949, his anti-communism led him to send a list of people he believed could be helpful to Stalin, to a friend working in the propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office.
This does not necessarily mean his principles had changed since the 1943 resignation, as his political views still seemed firmly to the left of Clement Atlee's post-war Labour government.
Unusually for his time, Orwell applied the same forensic skills he used to write about politics to popular culture. His essays critiquing xenophobic stereotypes found in 1930s comics and the types of murder the public likes to read about in newspapers are classics of their genre.
Today, as an opponent of using jargon and unnecessary words, he probably would not have much time for people who declare their pronouns. As a vigilant opponent of censorship, he would certainly disapprove of the new owners of Roald Dahl's copyrights hiring “sensitivity readers” to help edit out certain words like “fat.”
Not least because “lack of sensitivity” helped Dahl appeal to several generations of children and adults, very few, if any, of whom it is clear, were either driven to self-harm by Dahls' books or turned into anti-social monsters.
Orwell could write cruelly and dismissively about those he disparaged, especially (it seems) vegetarians. Less amusingly, although friendly with some gay writers, his writings include various slurs about homosexuals, confirming he held some of the prejudices of his day.
No doubt today's age of tools like Twitter turbocharging the dissemination of disinformation whilst also reinforcing echo chambers would be harsh towards Orwell. Not that he is likely to have held back on expressing his opinions.
Less predictable than this are the longer impacts of social media. The psychology of people getting addicted to seeking likes seems self-evident but the neuroscience of how it addicts some individuals more than others and can facilitate cult-like behaviour and radicalization, is less fully understood.
Today's media tools are potentially more Orwellian than Big Brother and more insidious than the brainwashing that underpins Huxley's Brave New World.
Much simpler then to ask is what Orwell would make of Ukraine. Well, he was not a pacifist so would certainly be inclined to fight Russia. But he could hardly also not note the plain fact that one year on, UNHCR records over 8 million refugees living across Europe.
Cities have been levelled, civilians horrifically murdered, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed or injured.
With no happy ending in sight.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.