The Age of Endarkenment
The year 2019 marked a doubling of the 35-year period between the publication of George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949 and its eponymous year. (In passing, it’s widely known that Orwell was prevented by his publishers from calling it 1948, not least because the shine hadn’t yet fully come off the Attlee government and they were worried about sales: see Anthony Burgess’s excellent commentary on 1984 in his 1970s book 1985. OK, that’s enough confusing years and decades.)
On exactly 4th April 1984, I portentously stamped this date into my copy of the book that had been a set text for ‘O’ level English Literature the previous year: it was the day Winston Smith fatefully began his diary. Did it all come true? Were there microphones in the bushes “out Berkhamsted way”, as Orwell wrote (proudly name-checking my home town) to catch loose talk amongst ramblers?
It’s another commonplace that Orwell was largely writing about the past: the period from the 1930s, when news of unarguable and widespread Stalinist atrocities was being denied or excused by the Webbs and other Western apologists, through the confusing geopolitical alliance switching of wartime to the new Cold War reality of perpetual low-level conflict.
But 1984 is of course used as a futurology manual by every political constituency, inevitably against its opponents. In that respect I am probably no different. But one thing that strikes me above everything else since Len Murray, then General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, solemnly declared during 1984 that Margaret Thatcher was Big Brother. It is that over time there has become less and less need to explain and interpret invocations of the various components taken from the story because they have become more and more self-evident. Not that they didn’t really exist in the 1940s, 1980s or whenever, just that these days they are utterly clear and explicit; not all of them intrinsically totalitarian, but all of them lending themselves to totalitarian uses. To illustrate, here is a scratch list largely from memory of some of these components, with me trying to minimise frankly unnecessary explanation.
Newspeak, with its constant engineering of vocabulary deemed acceptable, destruction of undesirable words and insistence on linguistic constructions that are logically incoherent
Thoughtcrime, leading to show trials and forced confessions
Unperson, the cancellation of people
Memory holes, the cancellation of information and knowledge
Denouncements, even from family members
Universal surveillance, including two-way telescreens and drones with cameras
Two Minutes Hate and other means of promoting massed public vilification of the ‘other’
Obvious addenda would be anything to do with the massed restrictions relating to the coronavirus response, but I will leave all that to one side for another day.
Every single aspect of this my parents lived through as youngsters in late 1940s/1950s Hungary until they escaped in 1956. By the time I was visiting in the 1970s, Hungary’s ‘Goulash Communism’ had softened most of the harshest aspects, but we visitors were still warned to be careful with anything we said, lest relatives might be punished. And it was well known that East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries were still stringent, as I wrote about in Chill winds from the west.
It was all a world away from the freedoms enjoyed and safeguarded by law in the UK as I came of age in the 1980s, which I reflected on in The thinking right to roam last November and in that blog entry related a conversation about personal freedom I overheard, as it happens, in Scotland. I have to say now that, with the passing of the Scottish Parliament’s Hate Crime Bill earlier this month, it is truly chilling in its inversion of freedom of expression, whatever its good intentions might be.
As a result we’re now into a new age of blasphemy laws for which in-scope proscriptions will only ever get longer as the competition for protections gathers pace, and no doubt it will soon be backed by an Index of what is acceptable to access and read (Amazon’s already on to that, it seems). And it looks to be that Scotland is a nation whose leadership is embracing just about everything on my 1984 list from earlier.
There was once an Age of Scottish Enlightenment, of Adam Smith, David Hume, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson and may others. Whether wilfully or not, I believe we are now entering its very antithesis, a new Age of Endarkenment. Whilst it is highly tempting to label it the ‘Scottish Endarkenment’, as it seems to apply in that nation in particularly concentrated form, the truth is that the impulse to control and dictate what people think, say, read and do is spreading everywhere across the Western world.
What is the alternative? I believe it is best summed up in two, simple, time-honoured statements:
“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (usually attributed to Voltaire but in fact coined by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall as a paraphrase)
“Treat others as you would like others to treat you” (one amongst several versions of what has popularly become known as the ‘Golden Rule’, a near universal construct in religious systems and also present in many ancient civilisations)
That such a combination now seems insufficient and instead a scheme of ever-extending punitive legal codes is required represents to my mind an epic failure of confidence in humankind’s ability to get on with itself. As well as being perpetually divisive, it is a scheme without any obvious self-stabilisation or roll-back mechanism.
And, in the end, a scheme with no winners.