Is someone out there using George Orwell's work not as a warning, but as an owner’s manual? asks Neil Oliver
I don’t expect to hear about Boris Johnson or Sir Keir Starmer choosing between eating and heating
Given all that’s happened, I might have expected overwhelming anger in the country by now, loud calls for answers and apologies. Promises that mistakes made in the recent past, liberties taken, would not be repeated in the future. Also maybe demands for change.
Many are the dissenting voices – I know because I hear them every day – but the silencing and ridiculing still goes on.
What I sense around me most of all now, however, is weariness. Council elections have been held up and down Great Britain and apart from anything else, I think we can agree that turnout was low.
In some polling stations in Hull, for example, turnout was down at 12 per cent apparently. In terms of numbers taking part, exercising their democratic right, it was a damp squib all over.
As so often happens in these plebiscites, the day-to-day rule of the many has been decided by the relatively few who could even be bothered to vote. Among that minority are fervently committed activists, of course, those who see and know that power belongs to those who can be bothered.
Most people are not activists though. Most people have more than enough to do just keeping their heads above water. This depressing state of affairs is hardly surprising. In spite of the media’s attempts to whip up excitement about the results, local council elections have been a lacklustre non-event.
I think it’s getting worse, however. I trotted along to my local polling station and made my marks on the paper. It took some effort though. Along with so many people, I’m sure, I looked at the list of names and parties and thought, “What’s the point? What difference will it make?” I looked at the names and knew what the results would be even as I went through the motions of completing my vote.
We hear a lot of use now of the word, Orwellian. It refers to the English journalist and author George Orwell, of course – he of The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm and 1984 and much else besides. I have a podcast in which, for the fun of it, I invite listeners to imagine that reading history is as close to time travel as a person might get. As the years go by, I wonder more and more if George Orwell wasn’t actually a time traveller for real – so right has he proven to be about where decisions made, and actions taken, in the 20th century would lead future generations.
In Animal Farm, his fable about Communism, he predicted the abuse of trust and the exploitation of power. Once the pigs have control of the farm, they immediately set about taking advantage of their situation. When the other animals notice, for instance, that the pigs are taking all the milk and apples for themselves, while everyone else must eat tasteless slop, the pigs’ PR spokesman – called Squealer – explains the move is backed by science:
“Comrades,” he tells them, “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples – this has been proved by science, comrades – contain substances absolutely necessary to the wellbeing of a pig. We are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of the farm depends on us.”
I read those lines again and think about the Science we have heard so much about recently. I think too about all the news stories about how good it will be for us as well to eat bugs and lab-grown meat, instead of the good stuff. That’s science too, don’t you know. Then I read about Bill Gates being the biggest owner of farmland in the US and wonder if it will be bugs and lab-grown meat he will produce from all those acres, or maybe cattle for sirloins and corn on the cob for the barbecue. Who could say?
Energy giant E.ON recently sent pairs of polyester socks to customers with the message:
“Energy down – CO2 down”. Those literally in control of the power have been telling people to wear more clothes to fend off the cold, rather than have heating in their homes.
All the while this is going on, oil and gas companies report record profits and bountiful dividends for shareholders.
Follow the science … or follow the money. You choose.
In Animal Farm, before the revolution, the pigs promised the animals that in future they would have electric light in their stalls, hot water as well as cold. Later on, once the pigs have control of the farm, such ideas are silenced. Napoleon, the leader of the pigs, says such notions are contrary to the spirit of Animalism, which is their ideology. He tells them the truest happiness lies in working hard and living frugal lives.
You will own nothing, a person might hear, and you will be happy.
I read about socks in the mail from energy companies. I read about MPs awarding themselves a pay rise in excess of £2,000 a year.
I listen to Boris Johnson justifying tax hikes and the rest.
Asked by a reporter: “What would you say to families trying to make ends meet? Buy cheaper food? Don’t replace clothes? Turn down the thermostat or turn it off altogether? What should people do?”
Boris Johnson answered: “People are obviously going to face choices that they are going to have to make.”
Frugal lives. Napoleon the pig would be proud.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect to see Boris Johnson, or Sir Keir Starmer or the rest of them waiting until the end of the day to hit the supermarkets in search of foods reduced to clear. I don’t expect to hear about them choosing between eating and heating.
In 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future in which the population is kept in a state of perpetual fear, on account of perpetual war with an enemy they never see, he wrote about how inconvenient facts and truth are “memory holed” which is to say, made to disappear. The protagonist is Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth. Among other state departments there is a Ministry of Plenty, which is actually a ministry of starvation, dedicated to keeping the people in a state of perpetual poverty, scarcity, and food shortage.
In his booth in the Ministry of Truth there is a slot in the wall into which Winston must post any document featuring information that is inconvenient to the government. Such data disappears at that point, as though it had never been – unless of course there comes a time in the future when the information is actually useful to the government again, at which point it miraculously reappears.
Big pharma giant Pfizer have just released the next 80 thousand pages of data related to the trial of their vaccine. 80 thousand pages. Before barely a word of it is read, many are the voices insisting it's time anyway to move on and forget. It turns out you don’t even need memory holes when information can hide in plain sight among a population too wearied and distracted by other, more recent problems and fears, to pay enough attention.
The very people who would have us move on unquestioningly – politicians, journalists and others – those who demanded lockdowns – longer and harder – are now in the habit of lamenting the harm done by such measures. All of a sudden those that were ardent cheerleaders for the measures that have done so much harm have the unmitigated gall to fret publicly about the economy, about damage to physical and mental health, to the education and physical and emotional development of children. That they were the ones shouting loudest that we should “suck it up” and “cancel Christmas” to save Granny and the NHS, is information that seems to have been shoveled by the barrow load into the nearest memory hole.
I won’t forget, though. And neither will millions of others.
And in among all of this, ordinary tax-paying law-abiding people are simply and understandably exhausted. After two years of fear and anxiety and obeying rules that made no sense to them, many are on their knees. Into this climate of exhaustion came the local elections and, surprise, surprise, most people had energy only for going to work and feeding their families. And in this way, enervating patterns are repeated.
Another writer, Elena Ghorokova, wrote a memoir about life in the Soviet Union called A Mountain of Crumbs. In it she described how the population was ground down by fear, want, and hardship until people found they could cope best by pretending.
The joke about their relationship with the state boiled down to: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
The state was lying to the people. The people knew they were being lied to. The state knew the people knew they were being lied to. And still the state lied. It was all a great pretence played by people with power against those with none. And just in order to survive, the mass of the population played their part by joining in the pretence.
Many people are simply at the ends of their tethers – and why wouldn’t they be? We look at our politicians and would-be councillors – at Conservatives, and then at Labour, and then at Lib Dems and the rest. We look from one to the other – at those who called for lockdowns – which is to say prominent members of every party – at those who wanted them in place quicker and harder and for longer. Now we see them clamour for more control, more censorship, more compliance. We look at each in turn and in our hearts and stomachs we wonder if it makes any difference who we choose because in truth they are all the same now.
By the end of Animal Farm, the pigs are walking upright on two legs and wearing human clothes. They carry whips in their trotters. In the final scene, they host a meeting with neighbouring human farmers – the same that they had once claimed to hate as the enemies of all animals. Four legs good, two legs bad, they had once said. The pigs live in the farmhouse now. The other animals, left on the outside, in the farmyard, watch the pigs and human farmers sitting around the table, toasting each other and making plans to cooperate in the future.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again,” wrote Orwell. “But already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Is it just me, or does it feel like someone out there is using Orwell’s work not as a warning, but as an owner’s manual?