George Orwell’s 1984 has made something of a comeback as the emblem of a century of authoritarianism and ideology. In our age of atavistic impulses, nationalist bluster and “post-truth” reality, 1984 has soared through Amazon’s rankings, because it serves us the indelible bitter aftertaste of 1948. The year that Orwell published his novel belonged to a generation robbed of its past by the horrors of Nazism and of its future by the betrayed promises of Socialist utopia.
The Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist Czesław Miłosz, who lived through both Nazism and Stalinism, picked up on one of the great ironies surrounding 1984’s reception in Communist Poland:
“A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party… Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.”
In the perverse moral landscape of Stalinist Warsaw, a book about the “Inner Party” was read with fascination by the Inner Party itself. The Communist elite, whose world was a system of deceptions, distortions and obfuscations, saw through Orwell a clearer vision of itself than it could access within the limited intellectual world it inhabited. When it finally reached my parents’ generation, as contraband smuggled by underground organisations in the 1970s and 1980s, Orwell’s tale about political violence and the erasure of history was all too familiar.
But our world is not like Orwell’s. The judiciaries and legislatures of Western democracies are bulwarks against autocratic and majoritarian impulses. Mass protests stall harmful legislation. Our leaders are not beholden to God-like autocrats and obedience to political dictates is not enforced at the barrel of a gun. As those in power seek to erode language and truth for political ends, we have unprecedented tools to reverse the tide. I struggle to imagine Trump’s surrogates or Farage’s fellow travellers reading 1984 in glee at the world they have created, or in fear that disobedience will land them in the gulag.
Autocracies today are sometimes described as “hybrid regimes”, which veil corruption and ruthlessness behind democratic institutions. They dull the impulse to resist with economic incentives and appeals to identity. Their revolutions are bloodless. The violence largely takes place on radio waves and digital bits and television screens. They are given voice by sneering self-righteous men who claim to speak for an invented nation of “patriots”. At their core, they are cynical and their cynicism allows them to co-opt the language and tools of democratic governance. They succeed, in part, because that cynicism infiltrates the minds of their subjects, who become trapped in the quagmire of “what-aboutism” in which any alternative is as bad as the status quo.
We can come straight to you.
Orwell’s dalliance with Communism ended in Catalonia, with his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. This was where Orwell first witnessed the betrayals of Soviet Communism: a police state, which saw young lives as expendable, operating in the name of “socialism”. That Communism could be practiced through oppression and violence was a revelation for a Western intellectual. For Orwell, the antidote to these ills lay in the abstract notion of freedom—of speech, conscience and assembly—and this belief informed his life’s work.
But this explanation was incomplete then and it is incomplete now. With support for Putin wavering around a historical high, the U.S. having voted in a blustering megalomaniac and Turkey having voted to end democracy, we need to look beyond the mere presence or absence of freedoms, and account for people who submit to authoritarianism voluntarily.
This is what fascinated Miłosz. The Captive Mind, his own polemic on authoritarianism, considers the reasons beyond corporal violence that led many of Poland’s finest minds to sympathise with Stalin’s New Faith.
In the book, Miłosz explores four contemporaries’ journey of submission to the New Faith through the prism of three allegorical images. The most resonant of these is “Ketman”, a phenomenon observed by French traveller Arthur de Gobineau on his journey through Persia. It refers to the ability to hold multiple conflicting identities at once. Those who practice Ketman say one thing publicly but believe another in private. In doing so, they can comply with the changing dictates of authoritarian power while preserving a semblance of internal freedom. Ketman represents a compromise for an authoritarian state: unable to subjugate the rational minds of its subjects, it is content with their outward expressions of devotion.
Ketman, like acting, is practiced: “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.” The intellectuals of post-war Poland, co-opted as spokesmen for the Party, became captive in the world of appearances until their individuality disappeared. The propagandists became the propaganda.
On its face, The Captive Mind is a book of its time. It may seem impenetrable to contemporary readers because it was born out of the experiences of people who understood the weight of life under a dictatorship. But, in other ways, it speaks to our own intellectual coddling. When liberal intellectuals talk about Brexit or Trump today, they often frame these events in terms of historical setbacks or betrayals, revealing a conviction about the inevitability of History and Progress that is not unlike the belief of some members of the Party. Like those who practice Ketman, “the enclosing fence affords [them] the solace of reverie”.
The way we describe the world is one way in which our minds are captive. We hear echoes of Ketman in everyone who says, “I hate both Trump and Clinton—or Le Pen and Macron—but at least,” followed by a flippant claim about a counterfactual reality in which the “establishment” continues to draw blood from the poor unless we give it a shake and boot out the vampires. More rehearsed still is the Ketman that binds us to our ways of life: even while we secretly harbour doubts about the nine-to-five, the daily commute, and the waste we generate, we are unable to conceive of alternatives. So we find justifications for our unsavoury lives.
This is not a feature unique to our times. It is a failure of imagination that is no less persistent now than it was in the age of Stalin. Writing in the 1950s, Miłosz said that Western intellectuals:
“have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are… Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural’, and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger and the sword.”
When we observe events in the outside world—say, Trump’s immigration ban or post-Brexit referendum xenophobia—we understand them in terms drawn from our value systems. Immigration is good for economic growth. Bans of certain religious groups are unjust and illogical. War crimes are the work of evil. In other words, we see wrongs as deviations from an immutable order, which manifest themselves aesthetically, through violence and machinery and power.
This is why we turn to Orwell. He gives us the visual tropes of a heartless world in which state oppression has deprived its citizens of language, love and independent thought—a world in which the protagonist clings to his freedom until the most gruesome of tortures break him. We understand, if in the abstract, that these are pressures that would also break us. And so we construct our struggles in opposition to these aesthetic expectations of oppression.
But there are other forms of subjugation. There are the ways in which we deceive ourselves (or allow ourselves to be deceived) by the narratives that prevail around us. Look at those who hoped that Trump would become “Presidential”, and clung to their belief so firmly and publicly that when he gave a speech without blunder or bombed a Syrian airbase, they were compelled to celebrate their foresight: The Emperor had finally donned the robe they had so patiently held out for him.
When faced with genuine threats to our democracy, looking inward is as important as pointing fingers at those in power, because the lurch towards authoritarianism often begins with the surrender of the mind. Perhaps we don’t vote because we feel that it makes no difference. Or—like the Turks—we allow ourselves to be baited by exercises in direct democracy, which only pit us against our neighbours. Or we vote, begrudgingly, and then fail to hold our leaders to account, because we have grown to accept the authority of elected officials.
Each of these represents a form of intellectual captivity. It takes one bad actor—a Putin, Assad or Erdogan—to adjust the dial and turn our complicity into servitude. And when journalists start getting shot and judges are rounded up and Orwell finally becomes relevant, Miłosz will stand as a reminder that we should have guarded against the imperative to pretend.
Lead photo of Bill Woodrow’s sculpture “Listening to History” by F.D. Richards (Flickr).