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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


OLIVIER, Bert. Van Orwell se 1984 tot die aktualisering daarvan in 2020-2023From Orwell's 1984 to its actualisation in 2020-2023. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2023, vol.63, n.3, pp.615-631. ISSN 2224-7912.

When surveying the recent and arguably increasing signs of attempts to control citizens globally in various ways, one is reminded of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (or 1984), first published in 1949. It strikes one as being paradigmatic of totalitarian domination in its literary representation of social control through diverse forms of technical and personal surveillance, keeping in mind that such domination permits none of the democratic freedoms that one has come to take for granted, such as freedom of speech, of association, and of movement. Can anyone therefore resist seeing in present developments worldwide an echo of Orwell's depiction of the totalitarian, brainwashing society of Big Brother, with the pervasively powerful Ingsoc (the "Party"), Newspeak (the language calculated to inhibit critical thinking), the feared Thought Police, and the incessant surveillance of every citizen, via technical mediation (the "telescreen" in every home and other frequented places), as well as furtive observation of citizens 'actions by agents of the Party, who monitor their behaviour (lest they should display signs of "thoughtcrime", or worse, total revolt)? It is telling as far as the present is concerned that Orwell's novel reflects his understanding of the true character of totalitarianism, ofwhich Shoshana Zuboff (2019:337), referring to Hannah Arendt's magisterial study of this (at the time unprecedented) phenomenon, remarks: "Essential to totalitarianism was the deletion of all ties and sources of meaning other than 'the movement'". In fact, Zuboff's book (2019), published just before the outbreak of the Covid-19 "pandemic" - in scare quotes because it was no real pandemic (Agamben, 2020: 9-10) - detailed the extent to which contemporary advanced electronic technology enables companies such as Google and Facebook, not merely to spy on "users", but to manipulate and anticipate their internet behaviour. Returning to 1984, consider that the pervasive surveillance in the world Winston (the central character) inhabits is evident in several things: snooping police helicopters, the dread-inspiring (albeit imperceptible) Thought Police, and (although it is not actively spying on citizens), the metonymic embodiment of the ubiquity of totalitarian power, personified in the omnipresent image of "Big Brother", at once menacing and avuncular as well as reassuring. It is reminiscent of the prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century - the "Panopticon" - where wardens enjoyed uninterrupted visual access to the cells of all inmates from a central tower, so that the latter were inclined to act as if they were being watched all the time, that is, by monitoring their own behaviour. It should be obvious that Big Brother's omnipresent gaze, and especially the bi-directional "telescreen," has the same effect in Orwell's projected dystopian society. This sinister technical apparatus, perhaps more than anything else in 1984, accords with Bentham 's principle, of power being visible, but "unverifiable". One of the differences between surveillance in 1984 and what has come to pass as advanced electronic surveillance today, however, is that this principle of Bentham 's is no longer universally valid; today, power is mostly invisible and unverifiable. If anyone observing the global political landscape today might conclude that Orwell's fears of a totalitarian future were unfounded, such people need to remind themselves that the pervasive surveillance for the sake of control that is central to 1984 need not be tethered to an easily identifiable Big Brother or Thought Police. It can assume multiple different, unexpected guises, as writers such as Giorgio Agamben, Robert F Kennedy and Naomi Wolf have irrefutably demonstrated - showing that, on the pretext of a medical emergency, people worldwide have been subjected to inhumane measures of control which not only had immeasurably negative, pathogenic psychological effects, especially on children, but similarly devastating economic effects as far as ordinary people and small businesses (which were forced to shut down) are concerned. In contrast, big corporations such as Amazon have benefitted hugely in financial terms, so that Naomi Wolf justifiably writes of a colossal "wealth transfer" from the middle classes to the super-wealthy. Characteristic of the mode of control to which citizens have been subjected globally, is the fact that advanced technology has played a decisive role in it - not merely in the guise of surveillance, but also in the form of medical interventions misleadingly labelled "vaccines", even if these (particularly the mRNA-variety) are experimental. Tied as they are to these supposed "vaccines", the ensuing "vaccine passports" further served as major means of control of populations. In addition, as some people started challenging the unconstitutional control measures, new ones started emerging, foremost among them a massive "censoring machine" focused on the deletion and/or derogation of any information aimed at enlightening a punch-drunk public about the transgression of their constitutionally guaranteed human rights by governments, and the availability of alternative, "re-purposed" medicines to treat Covid-19 comparatively effectively and safely, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Furthermore, so-called "fact-checkers" appeared, amplifying the "censoring machine", effectively causing "cognitive dissonance" on the part of at least those members of the public who were aware of alternative information regarding the supposed lethality of the "coronavirus", and the putative "safety and effectiveness" of the "vaccines". Add to this the establishment of "vaccine mandates" in many countries, and it is clear that the measures accompanying the (pseudo-)"pandemic" were not really about health, but about inexorable control, as Agamben already observed early in the unfolding process. Against this backdrop it is not difficult to discern salient parallels between the dystopian events that have been unfolding across the world in the course of the last three years (2020-2022), on the one hand, and the fictional dystopia encountered in Orwell's 1984. For one thing, the "Thought Police" of1984finds a recognisable counterpart in the various censoring and "fact-checking" agencies during Covid-19, and for another, the Orwellian phenomenon of "Newspeak" in Oceania - the invention of linguistic practices that gloss over the true state of affairs and indoctrinate people at the same time into believing that what these words and phrases denote is what is really the case, and should not be critically questioned - corresponds to a Covidian "Newspeak" (think of "conspiracy theories", "social distancing" and "contact tracing") which arguably serves the same purpose as that in 1984. However, while in 1984 "Big Brother" presents a recognisable face to denizens of Oceania, as Naomi Wolf points out, the "power" behind the oppressive events and measures accompanying the "pandemic" is to a large degree faceless and remote - a group of billionaire technocrats attached to the World Economic Forum (WEF) - despite which the face that has increasingly come to be associated with this implacable force is that of Klaus Schwab, the founder and CEO of the WEF, and to some extent also the face of Bill Gates. This paper therefore sets out to demonstrate that, while Orwell in all likelihood did not intend his novel to be used as a script for ushering in a dystopian, totalitarian society -instead of which he intended it as a warning against such a possibility (as Zuboff has pointed out) - this is precisely what has happened.

Palabras clave : control; dystopia; fiction; present world; technology.

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