The problem with “Orwellian”

George Orwell died on this day in 1950. This article, from Index on Censorship magazine (volume 42,no 3), looks at one legacy he may not have liked.
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The revelation that US intelligence services have allegedly been monitoring everyone in the entire world all the time was good news for the estate of George Orwell, who guard the long-dead author’s copyright jealously.

Sales of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed in the United States in June as Americans sought to find out more about the references to phrases such as “Big Brother” and “Orwellian” that littered discussions of the National Security Agency’s PRISM programme.

The Wall Street Journal even went so far as to describe this profoundly bleak novel as “one of the hottest beach reads this summer”. And web editors, hankering after a top ten Google ranking for their articles, quickly commissioned articles on the Orwellian theme.

Meanwhile, news website Business Insider published a plot synopsis that managed to run through the events of the book without describing what the book was about at all. The nadir of this frenzy was reached by an Associated Press correspondent, who wrote of his “Orwellian” experience of being stuck airside at the same Moscow airport as whistleblower Edward Snowden for a few hours (for added awfulness, an editor’s note on the piece suggested that this deliberate exercise in boredom was “surreal”).

Nineteen Eighty-Four (not 1984) has become the one-stop reference for anyone wishing to make a point. CCTV? Orwellian. Smoking ban? Big Brother-style laws. At the height of the British Labour Party’s perceived authoritarianism while in government, web libertarians squealed that “Nineteen Eighty-Four was a warning, not a manual”.

It was neither. It’s a combination of two things: a satire on Stalinism, and an expression of Orwell’s feeling that world war was now set to be the normal state of affairs forever more.


A brief plot summary, just in case you haven’t taken the WSJ’s advice on this summer’s hot read: Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of an England ruled by the Party, which professes to follow Ingsoc (English Socialism). Winston Smith, a minor party member, thinks he can question the totalitarian party. He can’t, and is destroyed.

While Orwell was certainly not a pacifist, descriptions of the crushing terror of war, and the fear of war, run through much of his work. In 1944, writing about German V2 rockets in the Tribune, he notes: “[W]hat depresses me about these things is the way they set people off talking about the next war … But if you ask who will be fighting whom when this universally expected war breaks out, you get no clear answer. It is just war in the abstract.”

It’s hard for us to imagine now, but Orwell was writing in a world in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not yet formulated, and where the Soviet Union seemed unstoppable. Orwell had long been sceptical of Soviet socialism, and for his publisher Frederic Warburg Nineteen Eighty-Four represented “a final breach between Orwell and Socialism, not the socialism of equality and human brotherhood which clearly Orwell no longer expects from socialist parties, but the socialism of Marxism and the managerial revolution”. Warburg speculated that the book would be worth “a cool million votes to the Conservative party”.

This is the context in which Nineteen Eighty-Four was written, and the context that should be remembered by anyone who reads it.

But too often it is imagined there is a “lesson” in Nineteen Eighty-Four as, drearily, it seems there must be a lesson in all books. There is not. The brutality of Stalinism was hardly a surprise to anyone by 1949. The surveillance, the spying, the censorship and manipulation of history were nothing new. Orwell was not so much warning that these things could happen as convinced that they would happen more. He offers no way out, no redemption for his characters. If this book were to have a lesson, Winston would prevail in his fight against the Party; or Winston would die in his struggle but inspire others. We would at least get far more detail on the rise of Ingsoc (the supposed secret book Winston is given, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, goes some way in explaining how the Party rules, but doesn’t really explain why it rules). As it is, we get an appendix on the development of “Newspeak”, the Party’s successful project to destroy language and, by extension, thought. This addition is designed only to assure us that the Ingsoc system still thrives long after Winston has knocked back his last joyless Victory gin.

There is no system in the world today, with the possible exception of North Korea (which has barely changed since it was founded just after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published), that can genuinely be said to be “Orwellian”. That is not to say that authoritarian states do not exist, or that electronic surveillance is not a problem. But to shout “Big Brother” at each moment the state intrudes on private life, or attempts to stifle free speech, is to rob the words, ideas and images created by Orwell of their true meaning – the very thing Orwell’s Ingsoc party sets out to do.

This article was posted on 21 January 2014 at

North Korea – The Impossible State

The Impossible State, Victor Cha, Ecco Press

For those travellers who dare to make the adventurous sojourn to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, expectation can often be met with a confounded sense of normality. Enthusiastic ideologues, or curious historians, go prepared to see a culture resembling Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but what they initially witness is something far tamer.

For a typical holidaymaker who arrives in Pyongyang, a passing glance of the city may look something like this: watching citizens walking through litter-free streets without the hassle of omnipresent military patrols; or noticing a visible absence of homeless people anywhere. Finally, one might even catch a glimpse of what appears to be a group of young, sophisticated teenagers, texting on their cell phones without any hassle from state authorities.

As convincing as this semblance may seem to the lackadaisical tourist, it is, as Victor Cha demonstrates in his new book The Impossible State, North Korea, Past and Future, simply the totalitarian-propaganda-machine at work. Beneath the veneer of this repressive regime, is a society with no access to knowledge: the key ingredient needed to fight back the oppressive forces of the state.

Cha, who was director of Asian affairs at The White House’s National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, gives the reader a comprehensive — if somewhat scattered — overview of North Korea, a country he refers to as “the impossible state”.

The book raises a number of interesting questions. Most importantly: why do the North Korean people continue to respect and revere a regime, who gorged on the finest food money could buy, while over a million of its citizens starved to death in the so called “arduous march” that happened in the mid 1990s?

Cha’s answer — and his underlying central thesis — maintains that the key to North Korea’s iron-fisted rule lies in one commodity: information.

North Koreans are taught to believe that South Korea is a nation where people eat rats and live in a crime-filled underdeveloped society. The stark reality is that South Koreans are, on average, nearly 15 times more prosperous than their northern counterparts.

Those who attempt to question the state’s God-like omnipotence are sent to one of the country’s five infamous political prison camps. Men and women are kept apart in these camps, with exceptions made for the coming together of public executions. The deliberate separation of the sexes is to avoid a new generation of so called “counterrevolutionaries” reproducing.

Any women found to be carrying a baby in these gulags are subjected to a forced abortion, or upon birth, the child is immediately killed.

The only way, Cha argues, this horrific regime can be debilitated, is through the spreading of accurate information. South Korea has been a key player in this process. In 2011, the country’s military sent three million leaflets into North Korea via hot air balloons, describing revolutionary uprisings that were unravelling across the Arab Spring.

It’s one of the many descriptions in this book of attempts that have been made to spread truth to a nation locked in an impasse of ignorance.

Moreover, Cha contends that the debate concerning unification of Korea has moved on from the Cold-War era discourse, which said that the two states could only merge when absolute victory of one side over the other took place. Instead, the common view now held, is that unification will be through the power of ideas, not through military force.

It’s the lack of access to these ideas, Cha posits, which has caused more damage than any famine, imprisonment, or other draconian human rights violations which the state has implemented.

The DPRK regime is only as strong as its ability to withhold the truth. The central argument of Cha’s book is therefore very simple: without control of information, there is no ideology, without ideology there is no North Korea in its current form.

As credible as this simple narrative works in theory, the reality of North Koreans being able to suddenly unlock their minds from this Orwellian thought-control experiment is much harder in practice. Fear is still the number one weapon used by the regime.

For example, last year, public executions in North Korea more than tripled; the number of inmates in prison camps has increased disproportionately; and the government has issued death threats to anyone found carrying Chinese cell phones or foreign currency. Despite the inexperience of the baby-faced Kim Jong-un — who assumed the role of new supreme leader following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011 — the new regime is keen to make an example of any would-be dissidents who might take the new dictator for a soft touch.

Cha’s strength as a writer lies in his scholarly knowledge of international relations theory, and Korean history, most notably in the period after the Second World War. The book’s critical flaw is Cha’s penchant for the hubristic ideology that is American exceptionalism: the idea that the United Sates is morally superior to other countries, and has a specific mission to spread liberty and democracy around the world. This argument doesn’t hold well, particularly when discussing North Korea’s possible denuclearisation — a subject Cha seems clueless on, despite his time spent working as an international security diplomat in the region.

It’s also hard to take Cha’s sermons on human rights issues seriously, when he unashamedly cites George W Bush and Colin Powell as his heroes.

This book doesn’t claim to have the answers of where North Korea will be socially, politically, or economically, in the coming years. One can only hope it’s a place where two plus two will eventually equal four.

JP O’Malley reviews books for the Economist and the Economist Intelligent Life

Twitter joke trial on Airstrip One

Christopher Hitchens believed that the battle for free speech is “an all out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind”. Today at the Royal Courts of Justice, a significant blow was struck for the forces of irony, humour and free speech against the dead, literal, bureaucratic mind.

Paul Chambers’ ordeal, which ended today when the Lord Chief Justice agreed that Chambers supposed “threat” to blow up an airport “did not constitute or include a message of menacing character”, is a grim reminder that what drives censorship can often be nothing more than an over-developed bureaucratic machine to which we feel obliged to adhere. At no point in this process, which has lasted over two years, did anyone genuinely believe that Chambers meant it when he tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Not the off-duty airport security worker who spotted the original tweet, nor his manager, nor the police, nor the Crown Prosecution Service – who shamefully decided to pursue the case anyway, pour encourager les autres – nor the presiding judges at the initial case and subsequent appeal. But there was a law, and a system, and it had to be followed, no matter that a young man would lose his job and be branded forever a menace as a result. Justice blind to reason.

Referencing Orwell in any article on free speech is dubious territory, but it really does pay to look at Nineteen Eighty-Four in this instance. The Party functions by creating a bureaucracy so enormous and all encompassing that it is actually impossible to escape. It thrives by narrowing language away to nothing – with the aim of not just obliterating language, but actually obliterating thought. There are no jokes — good or bad — on Airstrip One.

We do not, despite what our more dedicated conspiracists believe, live on Orwell’s Airstrip One. But we should nonetheless be wary of a system that, until today, placed process over principle. The Lord Chief Justice has today elevated the principle of free speech, humour and irony above process, small-mindedness and literalism.

The importance of universality

This article was first published on Comment is Free

On 13 December, 1948, Frederic Warburg typed up his comments on the manuscript of George Orwell’s recently completed Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Orwell has no hope, or at least he allows his reader no hope, no tiny flickering candlelight of hope. Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except perhaps by the thought that, if a man can conceive
‘1984’, he can also will to avoid it.
‘For what is ‘1984’ but a picture of man unmanned, of humanity without a heart, of a people without tolerance and civilisation, of a government whose sole object is the maintenance of power, by every
contrivance of cruelty.’

At the same time Orwell was working on his ‘study in pessimism unrelieved’, others were fomenting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an unparalleled statement of optimism and faith in humanity.

Article 19 of the UDHR states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.’

A great deal is, rightly, made of the first clause of this statement. But equally important is the assertion that we have the right to seek information. Orwell’s Winston Smith, you will recall, was employed by the Ministry of Truth to destroy information, to deny people the right to seek out historical fact and truth, to bring to an end the very concept of fact and truth.

The rewriting of history is central to the project of state censorship. Only last week, we saw a brazen attempt by the Russian authorities to destroy the records of the Memorial project, which seeks to document the atrocities of the Gulag. The pessimist would say that very little has changed since 1948.

But of course that is untrue.

When Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even when Index on Censorship began publishing 25 years later, there seemed almost an easy clarity about opposing censorship. Censorship, by and large, was a political project carried out, by and large, by Soviet bloc governments against pro-democracy writers, thinkers and activists. The enemy was in plain sight, and his motivation unambiguous.

Flash forward, and we are confronted with a very different landscape. Of course, most calls for censorship are still, at core, political, but they can as easily be well-meaning as malicious. What has seeped into our consciousness is censorship masquerading as a protective, rather than oppressive force. Most pernicious is the notion that ideas, like people, should be afforded protection. We forget that the UDHR was borne out of the horror of a war in which millions had died precisely because ideology took precedence over the integrity of the individual.

We also forget the ‘universal’ part of the UDHR. So, on Comment is Free, in discussions on Free Speech and the Internet, we find Digby Anderson lauding social censorship, without considering what social censorship might mean in a society less liberal than our own.

We also find Jonathan Rée, alluding to Internet debate, wondering ‘if “freedom of speech and belief” can really be such a big deal any more, in a world where thought itself has become no more than a game.’

I’m glad it’s now just a game: I hope someone’s told the Egyptian police who lock up bloggers, or the Burmese censors who launch cyber attacks on refugee news sites, to stop taking it all so seriously.

This kind of narrowness, of glibness, serves only to diminish the principle of Article 19 of the UDHR. We must not allow it to be diminished so far that we lose sight of it: and we must not allow the
principle of universal free expression to be lost down the memory hole.