George Orwell’s writings have experienced a spike in popularity over the past decade and for a simple reason – modern societies are becoming ever more like the dystopia depicted in Orwell’s most famous book, 1984. Whether it be mass surveillance, the incessant use of propaganda, perpetual war, or the cult of personality surrounding political leaders, it is not surprising that many see Orwell’s novel as prescient in many ways. With that said the West remains much freer than the dystopian society of 1984, but the trend does not bode well for those who favour a free society. Orwell, in fact, believed that totalitarianism of the type he satirized in his novel was a distinct possibility for the West and at times he went as far as to suggest that it may in fact be inevitable.
“Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships.” (George Orwell, Complete Works – Volume XII)
Collectivism is a doctrine, or a set of ideologies, in which the goals of a certain collective, such as a state, a nation, or a society, are given precedence over the goals of individuals. Socialism, communism, nationalism and fascism are all collectivist ideologies. Orwell believed that a pre-condition for the rise of totalitarianism was the emergence of a collectivist social structure as this permits the centralization of power needed to exert total societal control. Orwell’s view of the connection between totalitarianism and collectivism has proved puzzling as Orwell was a staunch leftist, a critic of capitalism, and a socialist. How could someone who favoured socialism, a collectivist ideology, at the same time write a dystopian novel which portrays a collectivist society in such a horrific manner? To understand his position, it must first be realized that Orwell did not consider capitalism to be a viable system:
“It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption.” (George Orwell, Complete Works – Volume XII)
Capitalism was such an inadequate system in Orwell’s mind, that like many leftists of his day, he believed that it was on its deathbed and would soon be replaced by some form of collectivism. He saw this as inevitable. The issue for Orwell was what type of collectivism would take its place.
“The real question…is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy [totalitarianism] or to true democracy [democratic socialism]”. (George Orwell, Complete Works – Volume XVIII)
Following the impending death of capitalism Orwell hoped that democratic socialism would be adopted in the West. Democratic socialists, like Orwell, advocated for a centrally planned economy, nationalization of all major industry, and a radical decrease in wealth inequality. They were also strong supporters of civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which they hoped could be maintained in a society which would largely deprive people of their economic freedoms.
The problem, however, which Orwell and other socialists had to grapple with, were the lack of examples, either past or present, of any countries successfully adopting democratic socialism. Even worse the states that had turned to collectivism in the first half of the 20th century, such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, were becoming increasingly totalitarian – they were adopting what Orwell called oligarchical collectivism, not democratic socialism. Oligarchical collectivism is a system in which an elite few under the guise of a certain collectivist ideology centralize power using force and deception. Once in power these oligarchs crush not only the economic freedoms of their citizens, a move which socialists like Orwell favoured, but also their civil liberties. Orwell was concerned that following the death of capitalism the entire Western world would perhaps succumb to oligarchical collectivism. This fear was in part due to his perception that hedonism was on the rise in Western societies.
Hedonism is an ethical position that maintains that life’s ultimate goal should be the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain and discomfort. In an increasingly urban and consumerist West, Orwell believed that many people were structuring their lives in a hedonistic manner and this did not bode well for the freedom of Western civilization. A hedonistic lifestyle, according to Orwell, weakens people, it makes them feeble and incapable of mounting any resistance to fanatical ideologues who desire to rule over society. This fear of Orwell’s has proven unfounded up to this point. While the West, since his death in 1950, has in many respects become more hedonistic, this has not led to totalitarian dictators taking over control. Rather Aldous Huxley the author of another famous 20th century dystopian novel, Brave New World, may have had a better grasp of the way Western societies would become enslaved in the late-20th and early-21st centuries.
Huxley, like Orwell, was an anti-hedonist, but his aversion to hedonism differed from Orwell’s. Huxley’s main concern was that hedonism could be used as an effective tool to oppress a society because people will willingly forgo freedom in exchange for “sensory pleasure and endless consumption”. If a society can be structured so that people can devote much of their to time pursuing pleasures, gratifying material wants, and even drugging themselves to escape from reality, then persuasion and conditioning, rather than physical coercion, will be sufficient to exert extreme control over a society. Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death nicely contrasts the differing fears of Orwell and Huxley:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)
The West, it seems, finds itself in a situation somewhat analogous to what Huxley feared. For like the proverbial frog in boiling water, citizens in the West accept greater-and-greater intrusions into their freedoms and with little resistance. The overt physical coercion that Orwell thought would be required to enslave a society has so far proved unnecessary. Before dismissing Orwell’s fears completely, however, it must be noted that Orwell was familiar with Huxley’s position and he did not deny that the hedonistic society Huxley feared was a possibility. But he saw it as a temporary stage creating the ideal conditions for a more brutal regime to seize control and impose it will on society. Whether Orwell will be proven correct in the end, remains to be seen. Yet as was pointed out, Orwell did not believe the totalitarianism which he feared could emerge in a society without it first becoming collectivist. So perhaps what has prevented his fears from coming true thus far is that capitalism did not die as he believed it would and collectivism has yet to emerge fully formed in the West.