Orwell was wrong, but on the right track
by Gwynne Dyer
New Zealand Herald, 23 June 2003


He was "Don Quixote on a bicycle", "the wintry conscience of his generation" and if he had lived long enough he would have been very surprised.

George Orwell, born a century ago this Wednesday, wrote two deeply pessimistic novels about the inability of human beings to resist tyranny, died at 46, and subsequently became the most widely read political philosopher of the 20th century: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were translated into 60 languages and sold 40 million copies.

But he was wrong. His original readers were a generation who survived the fascists and World War II only to fall straight into the Cold War and decades of confrontation with the Communists. They were already afraid totalitarianism would ultimately win and the future, in the words of Winston Smith's interrogator O'Brien, would turn out to be "a boot stamping on a human face forever". Orwell's books told them they were probably right - but they were wrong, too.

He would have been delighted to know that, but he died 40 years too soon. Right down to the end of the 1980s the democratic peoples remained a beleaguered minority, while a third of the world's people lived under Communist tyrannies and another third languished under sordid dictatorships of a more traditional kind. They all controlled what people said, and the more ambitious also tried to control what people thought.

Orwell's name became a commonplace adjective. A useful one, too. The first time I was in the old Soviet Union, in 1982, we drove past a derelict Orthodox church in the southern Russian town of Belgorod and one of the film crew remarked on it. "There was no church there," the local Communist Party guide insisted as we watched it recede through the rear window. When we innocently suggested that he drive around the block for another look, he flatly refused.

"Orwellian," we said - and then realised by his embarrassment that he knew exactly what we meant.

That moment should have told me Orwell was wrong and that the old Soviet Union was doomed, for the official should not have known what we meant. It was more than his job was worth to let us look at that church, and he was used to making the people around him swallow bare-faced lies.

But they didn't actually believe the lies, and neither did he. There was surface compliance, but no Doublethink: 65 years of ruthless censorship and totalitarian rule had not even managed to keep low-level provincial party officials from knowing what "Orwellian" meant.

The totalitarians never achieved the kind of thought control Orwell and the rest of us feared. Underneath, most people kept their own values and opinions, and by the 80s they were getting ready to dump the dictators. All they needed was a way of doing so that didn't involve buckets of blood, and by the middle of the decade a powerful non-violent technique for bringing the dictators down was being developed in Asia.

The technique spread by example from the Philippines in 1986 to Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh and Myanmar in 1987-88, and then to Tiananmen Square in the heart of Communist China in 1989. Not all of these non-violent revolutions succeeded - in Myanmar and China they were drowned in blood - but the example was so powerful and the technique so promising that later in 1989 the citizens of European Communist countries picked it up and ran with it: 350 million Europeans were freed in two years, with hardly a shot fired.

You can extend the sequence of non-violent, more or less democratic revolutions to include the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998, and the fall of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, but 1989-91 was when the balance of power in the world changed. From then on, totalitarianism was on the defensive and a majority of the world's people (for the first time in history) lived in democratic countries.

Maybe Orwell wouldn't have been so surprised after all. Looking at the cross-cultural appeal of those democratic revolutions, he might even have felt vindicated in his optimistic belief that the desire for equality and freedom is an attribute of human nature, not of some specific culture.

Orwell would certainly not have greeted this extraordinary historical liberation with the reflex pessimism of most Western intellectuals. Consider Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, for example: "With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that ... henceforth state control would be minimal and all we would have to do is go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in."

No, Margaret. The discrediting of the totalitarian dream and democratisation of a large part of the world were genuine gains for the human race. Coping with too much wealth and leisure is a problem too, no doubt, but a different and lesser one that only troubles very fortunate people. Frankly, on this one I'm with President George W. Bush: "Freedom is a powerful incentive. I believe some day freedom will prevail everywhere because freedom is a powerful drive."

What Bush overlooks, however, is that all the people who overthrew their oppressors in recent decades did it for themselves. It is doubtful that powerful countries with suspect motives can successfully export democracy to others by force, and the attempt of the Bush Administration to do just that could bring a certain aspect of Nineteen Eighty-four back to life. Not the politics of it, of course that is now gone in most of the world - but the geopolitics.

"What Nineteen Eighty-four is really meant to do is to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into 'Zones of Influence'," Orwell wrote to his publisher at the end of 1948 - and it certainly does that.

The three-way cold war of Nineteen Eighty-four, with constant skirmishes between the totalitarian mega-states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and no freedom left anywhere in the world, is geopolitics as nightmare. It would be a pity if the 21st century turned out like that.

The 20th century didn't. There was a long cold war between two great power-blocs, but only one was totalitarian. Besides, it all ended pretty well, with no nuclear war and a wave of non-violent democratisation. But now we can see the faint outline of exactly those three Orwellian blocs glimmering on the horizon ahead.

It may never come to that, of course. Most people outside the United States (and many Americans, too) assume that the reign of the neo-conservatives in Washington and the current extreme unilateralism of American foreign policy are self-limiting phenomena, soon to be discredited by the sheer cost of empire-building in the Middle East. Local resistance to the American presence is growing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before long Americans themselves will turn against this policy and normal service will be restored.

That is the assumption, and it is why other Governments are keeping their heads down and playing for time. Why have a confrontation with the US now if you can just wait a bit and see it change course of its own accord?

But what if it doesn't? What if there is a bigger American empire in the Middle East three or five years from now, the United Nations is on the scrap-heap, and Nato is gone too? The rest of the world won't just roll over and accept American global hegemony, but what will it do instead?

In that case we're back in the jungle, where the only way to contain the ambitions of other great powers is the old game of alliances.

What would those new alliances look like? Quite a lot like the world of Nineteen Eighty-four.

Oceania is already taking shape: essentially, the English-speaking world of North America, Britain ("Airstrip One" in Orwell's novel), and Australasia. Give or take a Pole or two, that's who actually showed up for the invasion of Iraq last March (though Canada and New Zealand are so far managing to avoid being swept away by their respective giant neighbours).

Orwell's Eurasia isn't too hard to identify, either. It is Nato minus North America and Britain, but plus Russia. It is nobody's first choice, but if it becomes necessary it's a good fit: the European Union's economic strength plus Russia's resources and nuclear deterrent would be a credible counter-weight to America/Oceania - and it's the only way Russia could get into the European Union (which it very much wants) within the next decade.

Eastasia is the puzzling one, mainly because it's hard to figure out which way Japan would jump: rapprochement with China and a junior partnership in a new "East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere", or honorary Anglo-Saxon status and a role as Oceania's Asian "Airstrip Two". Neither option is appetising, so Japan would certainly try to avoid the choice as long as possible - but if it did opt for Eastasia, it would go very nuclear very quickly, as the best way of establishing an equal relationship with China.

Which leaves the Middle East (a string of restive American protectorates), Latin America (client states of Oceania), Africa (contention between Oceania and Eurasia), South-East Asia (a zone of conflict between Oceania and Eastasia) - and India. The Indians would be the one major power with the freedom to stay clear of the global alliance confrontations, but conflicts with Muslim neighbours to the west could easily pull them into alliance with the US.

This is an ugly world, but it is not unimaginable. If the multilateral consensus that has kept things sane for a long time breaks down, a massive realignment like the one that occurred in the 20 years before World War I is quite possible, and the result would be a more militarised, less free, more compartmentalised planet.

There would be no primitive "Big Brother"-style totalitarian systems, for their time has passed, but the foundations are already being laid everywhere for subtler "national security" regimes that would encroach greatly on civil rights and political liberty. Hardly anybody wants this outcome, but then the pre-1914 great powers didn't really want their idiotic alliance system either. They didn't design it, but their responses built it.

Something similar could be happening again soon. Listen, for example, to the tone of some recent remarks by America's favourite hate figure of the moment, French President Jacques Chirac - almost as if events were sweeping him away against his will. " ... war should not be used to settle a crisis which can be resolved by other means ... The world today obliges us to seek a consensus when we act, and not to act alone. The US has a vision of the world which is very unilateralist.

"Europe is ... here to stay as a major world power. Then we have to take account of the emergence of China on the world stage, and India too ... Whether you like it or not ... we are moving towards a multi-polar world."

"Multilateral" implies co-operation and consensus; "multi-polar" means confrontation and conflict.

A three-cornered cold war like that of Nineteen Eighty-four is as stupid a way to spend the 21st century as can be imagined. It would also minimise American freedom of action in the world, which is hardly the declared goal of those now directing White House policy. But five more years on this course and we could be getting close.






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