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Echoes of ‘1984’ in 2024

While it is a classic, it is also contemporary because it seems Orwell wrote it for this time and age; it hits very close to reality. As totalitarian regimes hold sway and in an era of increasing government surveillance, information control, manipulation, censorship, propaganda, and various forms of oppression, 1984 serves as a timely reminder of the perils of authoritarianism.
Last Updated 01 March 2024, 20:08 IST

George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 published in 1949 has stood the test of time, resonating across generations. Today, 75 years later, the chilling, dystopian novel is more relevant than ever.

While it is a classic, it is also contemporary because it seems Orwell wrote it for this time and age; it hits very close to reality. As totalitarian regimes hold sway and in an era of increasing government surveillance, information control, manipulation, censorship, propaganda, and various forms of oppression, 1984 serves as a timely reminder of the perils of authoritarianism. It cautions us to remain vigilant, safeguard our freedoms, and protect our civil liberties. 

Deeply affected by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, Orwell wrote to expose totalitarian police states. These are unaccountable regimes where everyone is closely monitored, where propaganda trumps free speech, and where those who think differently and speak truth to power are persecuted.

For those who haven’t read the book, 1984 is set in an imaginary future where three perpetually warring totalitarian police states—Oceania, Eurasia, and East Asia—dominate the world. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a minor party functionary working in the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda arm of the government. Smith’s job is to revise historical records to match the State’s version of history, but his yearning for truth makes him rebel secretly against the regime, which is systematically distorting the truth and rewriting history to suit its own agenda.

Smith is in love with Julia, a like-minded colleague who works at the Ministry; the two are part of a revolutionary group and are caught by the government. Smith’s arrest, torture, and “re-education” are intended to break him physically, destroy his independent thinking, and make him fall in line and swear loyalty to the party and Big Brother. 

Orwell wrote the book in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the havoc it wreaked under autocratic leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

The book paints a powerful and frightening picture of the future, emphasising that it is perfectly possible for a totalitarian state to take complete control of an entire nation. Worse, if there are several tyrants worldwide, the future could be an oppressive, evil world where every word and move is scrutinized by an omnipotent, omnipresent power.

It is easy to draw parallels between the book and contemporary events. The book speaks to so many countries—Russia, North Korea, China, Israel, Turkey, India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

With the rise of authoritarianism and right-wing extremism, we are seeing blatant violations of fundamental rights and privacy, destruction of constitutional institutions, political manipulation, toppling of elected governments, raids and arrests of politicians of opposition parties, attacks on journalists and dissenting voices, misinformation, and lies, and yet amid the struggles of immigrants, minorities, and marginalised people, there’s mass adulation of self-proclaimed strong leaders. In the book, ‘Big Brother’ controls people’s lives. The language of ‘Newspeak’ is invented to eliminate political rebellion; ‘Thoughtcrime’ is to end people thinking of anything rebellious; ‘Room 101’ symbolises psychological torture and brainwashing to turn rebels into party supporters; ‘Doublethink’ is holding two contradictory beliefs, both acceptable to enforce lies and false narratives; and ‘Unperson’ is someone whose existence has been erased from public memory. 

These and some other terms used in the book have entered the English lexicon, becoming bywords for modern political and social abuses, including ‘Orwellian’ signifying anything totalitarian or repressive.

What’s more, the slogans of the party—War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, Two and Two Make Five—smack of inexplicable distortion and a twisted, self-serving narrative.

By exploring the themes of mass media control, government surveillance, totalitarianism, and how dictators can manipulate and control history, thoughts, and lives, Orwell reminds us to be wise and watchful of what is happening around us and understand what the protagonist in his book meant when he said, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

But when constitutional rights are denied and the masses are manipulated, citizens could end up becoming like Orwell’s protagonist—a model citizen—totally transformed into conformity and loving ‘Big Brother’. Orwell warns everyone against becoming like his protagonist and says that we could suffer the same fate if we allowed the fundamental elements that make up democracy to be undermined. The all-important message the book drives home for citizens is to courageously defend democracy and disallow authoritarian regimes to attain power because it is very difficult to get rid of such regimes.

In these strange and uncertain times, it is crucial that we learn the lessons from such cautionary books and do not let history repeat itself.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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(Published 01 March 2024, 20:08 IST)

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