Oh Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour. In fact, every hour since that dark night in January 1950 when you died, alone, in a hospital. Perhaps, web paranoia speculates, your truth-telling got too dangerous for the powers that be and you were terminated with extreme prejudice. It makes a crazy kind of sense.
The recent furor about “alternative facts,” in a culture polluting its thought processes with post-truth license and fake news, suggests that George Orwell’s dire predictions about double-think and thought-crime are with us—albeit 33 years late.
Two examples have made recent headlines. In the U.S. the disputed attendance figures at the presidential inauguration. Biggest ever? Nowhere near. In the U.K. the parallel case is the submarine-launched missile that decided to turn around and make for Florida. A successful operation, the British defense minister stoutly maintained. Disney World may have thought differently.
It would have been so easy to come clean with actual, not alternative facts. Washington, D.C., is a Democrat town, the day was wet and cold, that’s what kept the crowds away. You test nuclear weapons to see if they work—if not, it’s back to the drawing board.
The connection with “managed truth” in Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 is easily drawn. What is less often taken on board is that the big lie only works if it comes accompanied by big power. If the bipedal chickens in Animal Farm daubed on their coop door “Four Legs good Two Legs Better!” no one would given a clucks-worth of notice. The pigs can write the slogan up, as rule of farm law, because the farm is theirs.
In 1984’s Oceania, there are two institutions which systematically disseminate falsehood at the behest of the state: Minitrue—the degenerate descendant of the BBC—and The Times—the degenerate descendant of “the paper of record.” The hero, Winston Smith, works in the newspaper’s press room, changing history as the day to day needs of the Party dictate. How does the party slogan go?
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell had worked for the BBC during World War II and had observed how its “news” was falsified in the interest of “control.”
How did Churchill put it? There are truths so important they have to be guarded by lies. But in general one trusts the Beeb and the Fourth Estate. I shudder at the thought that we might have to live in the world where we can no longer trust them.
One should not romanticize Orwell—and this leads on to something relevant to our present plight. There is a truly offensive scene in Orwell’s novel in which Winston—an outer party member—makes an expedition to a prole pub.
Winston cannot himself remember the world before the atomic war, which led to the division of the world into three totalitarian blocs. What was the past—which it is his job to destroy—really like?
The pub is full of proles with nothing on their minds other than beer and the lottery. Winston finds his old man and plies him with a bladder-full of bitter ale. He then pumps him about what the world was really like before the Party and Big Brother took over. He discovers the old man can remember, but is too stupid to make sense of what he remembers. It’s not the drink. His—and his class’s—brainpower is simply not up to the task of understanding the world he has lived in. As well interrogate an amoeba:
They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.
Up to this point, Winston believed that if there was hope, it lay in the proles. No more. They are too dumb. Like animals, concepts are beyond them. And it’s just one stupid old man, but all the prole masses.
In Animal Farm none of the animals—except the pigs—are smart enough to run the place. T. S. Eliot, rejecting Orwell’s fable for his publishing firm, made the point that animal farm could only be run as a pigocracy.
I think, unfortunately, Orwell believed this. I don’t. I didn’t, like Orwell, attend Eton and I don’t have anything like a mind comparable to his. Few do. But I spent much of my childhood echt working-class (outside “lav,” no running hot water) and I observed that my grandparents recollected the ’30s slump (which practically destroyed them) with great accuracy. Bicycle pumps and swirls of dust did not obscure their recollection. The past was felt and understood. Vividly.
Who has the better understanding of what went so disastrously wrong in 2008? The working-class family whose home was foreclosed on, or the op-ed columnists in the papers and newscasts “of record”?
No one quite comes out with it. But there is abroad at the moment among the class I’ve grown into (let’s not say “elite”) a feeling that those non-college educated white women who made Trump’s victory possible did so out of mental incapacity. They’ll learn, of course, when the price of shirts in Walmart doubles. In Britain it’s felt that the majority of the population who voted for Brexit did so because they simply didn’t get it. They will.
Orwell was very right about the fake news which governments find it convenient to fabricate. But he was flat wrong, I think, about working class memory and the knowledge that class has. This is a moment in history, I think, when we should find a little hope in the proles.
John Sutherland is the author of Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography and many other books, including Lives of the Novelists and How to Be Well Read. He is the Lord Northcliffe professor of English emeritus at University College London.