Friday 7 June 2024

Orwell's pessimism

It's the 75th anniversary of the UK publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four tomorrow and there is a whole load of Orwell-related stuff coming from me and the IEA. Stay tuned, but for now here's an article I've written about him for Quillette... 

Orwell may have been pleasantly surprised had he lived to see the real 1984. It is often said that his dystopian novel is a warning rather than a prophecy and Orwell himself was keen to remind people that it was “after all a parody,” but he was also quite explicit that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a conditional prophecy. Shortly after the book was published, he put out a statement saying that “something like NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time.” But it didn’t and it wasn’t. By the time he died in January 1950, Europe had put the worst of the twentieth century behind it. Orwell was too pessimistic and it is worth considering why.

The central assumption at the heart of Orwell’s political writing from the mid-1930s was that capitalism was doomed and would most likely be replaced by totalitarian socialism of the sort satirised in Nineteen-Eighty Four. Despite his contempt for capitalism, Orwell saw the world caught between a rock and hard place. “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war,” he wrote in 1944. “Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.” The only alternative, to his mind, was a planned economy that retained democracy and allowed freedom of the individual, but he became increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for his libertarian brand of what he called democratic socialism as the 1940s wore on. Indeed, he saw “no practicable way of bringing it about.”

This explains why he was so despondent about the world’s prospects in the last years of his life and why he decided to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. But he was wrong. Capitalism did survive, subsequent communist revolutions went the same way as the USSR’s, and Orwell’s version of democratic socialism was not required to prevent totalitarianism sweeping the globe. It turned out that it was not a straight choice between democratic socialism and communist (or fascist) totalitarianism. There was a third way.

It's free so do read it all.

No comments: