From ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ to Twenty Twenty-Four: How Orwell’s Dystopia Became Our Reality

Big Brother isn’t watching you. Big Brother is stamping on a human face, forever. The essential truth of George Orwell’s great novel, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, is not one of political oppression through state surveillance but through permanent war that serves the material interests of authoritarian elites.

The book, written shortly after the Second World War, projects a world dominated by three ‘super-states’ – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, in which communist revolutionaries have seized control. But the ideological framework is secondary. What mattered to Orwell as a democratic socialist, was the accumulation of power and wealth by oligarchies, either capitalist or communist, using the spectre of external threats to control every facet of society and to exploit working people under the guise of national security.

His model for the dystopian state was Stalinist authoritarianism because it represented everything he opposed – how the Bolshevik leadership perverted the democratic ideals of the Russian revolution and centralised power in the USSR to create a brutal dictatorship. His own experience as a volunteer in the International Brigade fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when the Soviet-backed communists crushed the anarchist wing of the Republican forces, provided ample evidence of how that dictatorship operated. (Orwell, himself, was fortunate to escape capture and murder.)

This was the era of mass arrests, show-trials and executions. Stalin’s victims, including many of the original communist revolutionaries, were demonised as enemy collaborators, saboteurs and traitors. The architecture of oppression extended through the whole of society, with surveillance by the secret police and control of the mass media. In the name of the people and in defence of the homeland, a party elite led privileged lives of material wealth, exploiting working people who were, according to state propaganda, the beneficiaries of the revolution.

But Orwell’s dystopia was an indictment of all the major powers, grounded in his fierce anti-imperialism and his belief that the geo-strategic realities of the modern era were leading to domination by authoritarian super-states. The two most influential writers on international relations in the modern age of mass warfare were Halford Mackinder and Alfred Maughan. Control of Europe’s continental landmass was central for Mackinder, with either Germany or Russia emerging as the dominant state. Maughan emphasised the role of sea power to secure global supplies of raw materials and fossil fuels, a Western imperialism led, firstly, by the UK and, subsequently, by the United States with its global network of military bases.

Two world wars were needed to create the geo-political framework for super-state authoritarianism. The United States intervened in support of the UK, France and Russia to defeat Germany in the First World War. Then, as the only global power in the Second World War, it led the Allies, now including the Soviet Union, against both the Nazis in Europe and an imperialist and expansionist Japan that threatened Western colonial interests in Asia.

For Orwell, the defeat of fascism was vital but when the prospect of total victory became clearer, he viewed the series of conferences led by Roosevelt (and, after his death, by Truman), Stalin and Churchill as cynical exercises in realpolitik, rather than the groundwork for a democratic, post-war peace: 

‘The surface of the earth is being parcelled off into three great empires…and each ruled under one disguise or other by a self-elected oligarchy.’ (‘You and the Bomb’, Tribune, 19th October, 1945.)

The European continent was divided between the West and the Soviet Union. Japan was occupied by the United States, with the island of Okinawa, nominally Japanese territory, transformed into a giant military base that extended  US power projection further across the Pacific. The final element that Orwell anticipated was the emergence of China as the third super-state. After years of occupation by Japan, followed by civil war, Mao Zedong’s communist forces defeated the pro-Western army of Chiang Kai-shek and centralised power over the most populous country in the world. The remnants of the nationalist army retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949 and established an independent state whose legitimacy was never recognised by the mainland government.

Here was the political framework for  ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ – Oceania is the United States with the UK relegated to Airstrip One, an island satellite in the North Atlantic, Eurasia is the USSR and Eastasia is China. There are some obvious differences, such as the extension of Eurasia to the western sea-borders of Europe. The book has little to say about South America, Africa and the Indian sub-continent, relegated to sources of raw materials and slave labour for the economies of the super-states. Also, a limited form of nuclear war has taken place that leads to permanent, military confrontations in borderlands and zones of strategic resources. The fighting is brutal but never decisive. Despite these differences, Orwell’s dystopia is remarkably prescient.

All super-states are equal but some are more equal than others. The United States emerged from the Second World War as by far the strongest, both economically and militarily. Its political and corporate elites saw this as an unprecedented opportunity to secure raw materials and energy supplies for a capitalism dominated by US corporations but one that required a global, military presence. Any popular expectations of a return to normal, peace-time life had to be neutralised in preparation for the construction of a vast and permanent, military-industrial complex.

The strategy, set out in the highly-secret NSC-68 document written in 1950, was simply to terrify people into compliance by raising the spectre of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism as existential threats, despite the fact that its economy had been devastated by the war and twenty million of its citizens killed. Instead of building on the Allies’ original objective for a neutral and demilitarised Germany, the country and then the whole of the European continent were divided into armed camps. As the cold-war accumulation of nuclear and conventional forces gathered pace, Stalin created a buffer-zone of satellite states in East Europe, claiming this was necessary to protect the USSR from a further Western invasion. 

For the United States’ elites, the major, strategic priority was corporate control over Persian-gulf oil supplies. In 1945, Roosevelt met with  King Saud to agree the provision of military support in return for access to Saudi Arabia’s oil, This form of imperialism rested on compliant, authoritarian regimes that guaranteed long-term supplies of strategic resources in return for US protection of elite wealth and the arming of security forces to crush any internal, democratic opposition. When the Iranian people elected the Mossadegh government in 1951, with a popular mandate to nationalise oil production and fund desperately needed anti-poverty programmes, the CIA organised a military coup removing Mossadegh and installing a pro-Western dictator.

As the smaller super-state, the USSR did not posses the military capabilities and global, imperialist reach of the United States but  maintained an iron grip over its European satellites. When faced with  mass protests in Hungary in 1956 against the communist government, the Soviet  army crushed the uprising, killing thousands of demonstrators. Similarly, in Czechoslovakia during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, attempts at reform, including the possibility of multi-party elections, were ended by armed occupation and the re-imposition of a pro-Soviet government.

From the late 1940s to the late 1980s this initial form of super-state imperialism continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The end of the Cold War fed popular hopes for a comprehensive programme of nuclear and conventional disarmament with a peace-dividend to fund  a common-security agenda, transferring resources from military to civil investment. Priorities included support for development programmes and alternative energy as the growing threat from fossil-fuel emissions and climate change became clearer.

Those hopes were, again, neutralised. Nato, instead of being dismantled after the dissolution of the USSR, expanded into East Europe, absorbing countries that were previously members of the Warsaw Pact. Russia’s new political leadership embarked on a rapid and disastrous privatisation of its economy, intended to modernise an atrophied industrial base but that only led to massive disruption and widespread poverty. Economic output collapsed and with it, military expenditure. Out of the chaos emerged a political elite under Putin and a billionaire, capitalist kleptocracy that took control of state assets in oil and gas production for the amassing of personal wealth. Putin was determined to re-establish Russia’s position as a major power after what he characterised as a national humiliation exploited by the West.

At the same time, China had opened its economy to overseas investment, rapidly emerging as the manufacturing centre for globalised capitalism. A nominally, communist government supported the accumulation of wealth by a new, corporate elite, as revenues from economic growth provided the resources for technologically-advanced armed forces. The clear objective was to challenge the United States as the main, regional power in the Pacific.

Rather than a fundamental, peace-time reconstruction of the global security agenda in which environmental and social goals could be prioritised, the end of the Cold War had simply been another in the periodic adjustments to super-state imperialism, returning military expenditure on its upward trajectory for the next cycle of nuclear and conventional weapons’ modernisation.

All the fundamentals of the Orwellian dystopia were now in place. Authoritarian elites in the three super-states, manipulating the fear of external threats as a means of internal, political control;  the exploitation of working people by those elites; a permanent, global military-industrial complex sucking in vast industrial and technological resources; and disputed borderlands feeding military tensions and ritualised confrontations. The only difference is that the super-states were controlled by capitalist rather than communist elites.

How would Orwell, the political essayist and activist, have responded to this era of super-state domination if he hadn’t died of TB in 1950 at the age of forty six? There can be little doubt that his anti-imperialism and democratic socialism would have made him one of its fiercest critics, condemning all forms of imperial aggression and arguing for a fundamental redistribution of resources in favour of working people. 

As a member of the Independent Labour Party, on the radical wing of the Labour movement, he had already called for a socialist transformation through public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and of the land. To some extent, the post-war Labour government carried through this agenda, driven on by a wider, working-class movement determined that the mass unemployment and poverty of the 1930s would never again be tolerated. Nationalisation and modernisation of the coal and steel industries, utilities and the railways, was carried out alongside a major, council-house building programme. But military spending was rapidly expanded, prioritising public investment for research and development on nuclear weapons. That momentum for radical change was dissipated as the Cold War took hold.

Orwell would have also contrasted the establishment of the United Nations,  its inspirational Charter calling for an end to the scourge of war, with the double-speak, lies, disinformation and propaganda of the super-states to legitimise permanent war preparation and expenditure on the military-industrial complex. These included the so-called ‘missile gap’ that the United States claimed existed in favour of the Soviet Union during the late 1950s, when the political elites knew that the  reverse was the case in both missiles and deliverable nuclear warheads; the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, manufactured to pose an attack on US naval frigates by Vietnamese forces that was then used as a pretence for full-scale war; and the fictitious threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to legitimise the 2003 invasion. Now we have Russia’s attack on Ukraine using the same cynical, super-state playlist of a direct, military threat, coupled with the  need for ‘de-Nazification’.

This time, though, the borderland confrontation runs the real risk of war directly between Nato and Russian forces and the possible use of nuclear weapons. In the context of super-state imperialism, the expansion of a US-dominated military alliance up to the Russian borders could never be defensive. Perhaps, from the perspective of individual countries that had been occupied by the USSR during the Cold War, membership of a Western, military alliance seems reasonable. But Putin would always use the collective expansion of Nato as a direct threat to Russia. This was acknowledged by some Western leaders involved in negotiations with the USSR at the end of the Cold War, who accepted that the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Europe and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact should not lead to the expansion of Nato, precisely because of this danger.

Putin’s original objective seems to have been the installation of a puppet-regime in Kiev, or, failing that, a protective zone of nominally independent but pro-Russian statelets in East Ukraine. But, as always, with super-state imperialism it is ordinary working people who are the victims. From the full-scale wars in Korea and Vietnam, to the invasions of Iraq and Ukraine, hundreds of millions have been killed, injured and forced to flee as refugees, or left with the long-term consequences of economic devastation.

That punishment also extends through sanctions to working people in Russia and, subsequently,   around the world through the ripple effects of economic dislocation and increased prices for basic commodities like energy and food. The pathetic attempts at targetting Russian elites, including the impounding of luxury yachts, are simply  high-profile distractions. The real work of the super-states was always to support the construction of a sophisticated offshore banking system, tax havens and shell corporations, protecting elite wealth-accumulation at the expense of the material needs of working people. Sanctions only serve to reinforce those massive inequalities in wealth and power as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

A form of war hysteria is now taking hold with the very future of civilisation supposedly at stake.  For the West, Ukraine has become an idealised democracy that has to be saved from Russian aggression, despite decades of political corruption and exploitation by elites that have left its working people as some of the poorest in Europe. For Putin, Ukraine has to brought back into the fold of greater-Russian nationalism, even if saving the country means turning it into rubble and slaughtering its civilians.

While Western leaders condemn Russia for its barbarity, the United States and the UK have provided Saudi Arabia with  fighter aircraft and other military equipment to carry out its war against opposition groups in Yemen. Civilian populations have been deliberately targeted, hospitals and schools destroyed and tens of thousands killed. The economy has been hit by sanctions and blockades, leaving millions facing a bleak future of poverty and hunger. Similar atrocities are consistently being carried out by Western allies, including Turkey against the Kurds. 

China, citing the threat to national security from the US navy’s presence in the Pacific, will have completed its military-base expansion in the South China Sea by 2024 and is intensifying its rhetoric over the sovereignty of Taiwan, ready for a direct, military confrontation with the United States.

So it goes on. Larger deployments of  US forces in the Pacific  and across the extended Nato borders in Europe now seem inevitable. Even if war between the super-states is avoided, there will still be massive increases to global military spending, already running at over $2 trillion dollars in 2021, driven mainly by the United States and its European allies. And all for a giant fraud. The clash of civilisations is nothing more than the preservation of elite wealth and power masquerading as national security.

This, when the overarching threat facing all working-class communities is climate catastrophe. As the planet heats up, intense floods, fires and hurricanes are no longer exceptional events but regular occurrences. Yet, these are only the prelude to what, on present trends of fossil-fuel extraction, will be a climate tipping-point and the collapse of major eco-systems. Vast tracts of land will become uninhabitable, either ravaged by droughts or submerged under rising seas. The collapse of food production will leave hundreds of millions facing starvation and forced migration in a hostile, militarised world of closed borders and authoritarian governments. 

Only a fundamental transformation of the economy, comparable to that achieved in the Second World War, can prevent this catastrophe. If anything, the challenge is even greater. Then, the demand for armaments took advantage of existing manufacturing capacity that was rapidly converted to military production. Now, the global, fossil-fuel infrastructure has to be dismantled and entirely replaced by one based on renewable energy that eliminates carbon emissions.

This will be the central element of a massive, public-investment programme, including social housing built or retrofitted to high environmental standards and an integrated and electrified public transport system. All new manufacturing capacity funded through public investment will be democratically-owned, either as national, public utilities, or through regional and local cooperatives so that the wealth generated flows directly to working people. The main objectives will be self-sufficiency in renewable energy and food production, high-quality social housing at reasonable rents and cheap public transport so that the basic material needs of working people are met and skilled work provided. All this within an economy that achieves an ecological balance. 

Public investment on this scale and long-term duration will require the transfer of funding from armaments expenditure and the recovery of elite wealth secreted in offshore tax havens. Despite the structural changes to the economy since Orwell’s time, this is precisely the sort of transformative, democratic-socialist programme that was achievable in 1945 before the post-war Labour government turned the country into Airstrip One and is achievable now given the same political will

The pivotal scene in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’  is the arrest of Winston Smith and his lover, Julia, their ‘secret’  relationship having always been under surveillance. Surrounded by armed police they stand naked and defenceless. A small coral-centred, glass paperweight, symbol of their love and of nature’s beauty in a world defiled, is smashed against the wall. Only their worst fears await them.

This is Orwell’s dystopia and our reality. A world of double-think where the rule of international law under the United Nations is a form of managed state-terrorism; where the clash of civilisations is the consolidation of elite power and wealth accumulation; and where protection of the homeland is the perfection of the national-security state with electronic surveillance, emergency powers and mass arrests.

Highly-civilised men are flying over our heads orchestrating Armageddon. But Orwell didn’t write a nightmare dystopia to terrify us into helplessness. He wrote it as an urgent call to political action against the super-states and elite exploitation. He wrote it in the hope that the flame of radical, political and economic transformation could spark into life as it did, all too briefly, in the Spanish Civil War, when to Orwell’s intense admiration, working people redistributed land in the countryside and took control of factories in the cities.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is more vital today than it has ever been. Only the borderless working classes can rid us of the super-states and build a world of peace and prosperity.

Steven Schofield, June 2022

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