GEORGE Orwell’s 1984 has been rather quoted to death over the last 12 months by well-intentioned, freedom-loving people trying to get a handle on the world we are moving into: one of increased state surveillance, accompanied by a religious form of groupthink where we are encouraged to hate sceptics about lockdowns and vaccines, and with the intellectual isolation of individuals condemned to harbour their grievances quietly and under duress not to utter them in public.
Needless to say, the mechanised, always-at-war portrayal of this future world, like a 1940s version of the Terminator movies, does not quite resemble our still rather pretty, often optimistic land where opposition is not systematically silenced or books burned à la Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. It is thus easy for 1984-sceptics to read the book, or listen to those who evoke it, and quite reasonably berate those who draw on its well of insights for their doom-laden visions of the years to come. ‘Cheer up, mate!’ is probably the most succinct summary of their attitude to these anti-lockdown Cassandras.
Those who might find Orwell’s rather matter-of-fact prose less than useful for trying to understand the world of 2021 may well have a point, but they miss something crucial. This is partly because, regardless of whether the gogglebox spouting BBC propaganda is essentially Orwell’s telescreen for the new millennium, one of his key insights is being overlooked: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
I was recently listening to a think-piece on how ‘internet time’ is impinging on ‘real world time’. One can Google a topic and top of the list might be some articles that contain fascinating insights into the subject of interest. Except that we do not always notice that those articles may have been written several years ago, and that their insights might be dated or even no longer accurate. The internet gives us an ‘eternal now’ of information which can be a delusion, since knowledge does not stay still.
The commentator drew this point out by saying that he was shocked that, a year since coronavirus became a global public policy obsession, it was still possible to find articles, written ‘before we knew better’, claiming that masks served no useful purpose in stopping Covid transmission. He suggested it was an enormous problem for humanity that out-of-date ideas could still circulate online, even when the facts had demonstrably changed. He was, perhaps unintentionally, exactly articulating the idea behind the ‘memory hole’ in 1984.
Boris Johnson has been accused of being a bit of a glumster by suggesting that lockdowns are what saved our lives, not vaccines, and this has stirred up much speculation about why he would do that. Why, the argument runs, when you have the opportunity to boast about your ’world-beating’ vaccination programme giving you the chance to get the economy motoring again and allowing people to feel great about how the Tories kept us safe for a year while they got the cavalry together, would you not cry freedom again at the earliest juncture?
Some have hinted at a message designed to keep people cautious for just a bit longer, in case the whole thing goes belly-up and Johnson is blamed for that. Others think we are being primed for a fourth lockdown. One could also imagine that the Prime Minister is preparing the ground for the inevitable public inquiry by getting the defence of his mad ’quarantine everybody for a year’ (to date) policy in first. My suggestion is that he is doing exactly what Orwell talks about.
Johnson (and he doubtless won’t be the only global leader pushing this line) is establishing ‘the truth’ that everything the state does to protect its people is unquestionably effective and the right thing to do. Some critics, such as Peter Hitchens, have pointed out that the bind we are in is because politicians can’t admit they have made a huge mistake, the first step to getting us out of this mess. I think we’re now beyond that. The entire authority of political power in almost the whole of the Western world is now predicated on what your government did (or didn’t do) to save you from Covid. Troublingly stubborn facts about countries where lockdowns were not, or were barely, imposed, or rapidly lifted without any significant difference (except, possibly doing better than in locked countries) suggest that people can, in fact, be trusted to make their own sensible decisions about keeping themselves and their
families safe. This does not sit well with those who seek to micromanage our lives from Whitehall.
The trench-based propaganda war is being turned by the government into an air war to try finally to wipe out its opposition. ‘Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia’, Orwell’s way of expressing how establishing the state’s position as correct not just now, but always, can be achieved only by destroying any suggestion that there could have been a different path. The government may be sitting on its ability to memory-hole those who suggested that lockdowns didn’t work, and never could have. For now, it can only rely on Google’s algorithms to push down the ’wrong’ facts from the first ten hits by circulating its truth as widely as possible. We’re going to need to keep our guns oiled and maybe buy new SAMs before we can think about drowning our sorrows down our Covid-secure pub.