Big Brother is watching you: The predictions of George Orwell

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BY ROLANDO PEREZ BETANCOURT

HAVANA — Without ceremony from those who, during the Cold War, exalted him as if he were a god of letters, Englishman George Orwell reaches his 100th birthday. Orwell was the great critic of the Soviet state and of fascism, and his sublime obsession was to transform political literature into art.

Complex and contradictory, on occasions profound, on others naively schismatic, starting from a utopian concept of independence, Orwell won the mistrust of conservatives and anarchists, of Stalinists and social democrats. Nevertheless, his two final novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984, published in 1949, one year before his death from tuberculosis, made him a standard-bearer for international anti-communism.

As he made clear in his work, The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), Orwell wanted the triumph of English socialism for his country, free of Soviet influences. To compete with that "alien model", for which there was no lack of sympathizers in Europe, he wrote Animal Farm, a satire about animals that was aimed directly against Stalin, the person he considered responsible for deviations in the Russian Revolution.

However, the completion of the novel coincided with the Soviet defeat of the Germans, and no English publisher wanted to risk publishing something that went against the ovations and gratitude of half the world.

Finally, an edition of 25,000 copies appeared in England, and the novel crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Great surprise! The 1946 American edition sold around 600,000 copies. The New Yorker, always sparing with its praise, proclaimed that the book was "absolutely masterly", drawing comparisons with Voltaire and Swift and recommending that we begin thinking of Orwell as an author of the first order.

Orwell's American biographer Michael Shelden wrote: "Animal Farm had an impact on the popular imagination at a time when the Cold War was beginning to make itself felt. For many years, anticommunism used the book as a propaganda tool distorting the spirit in which Orwell had conceived it."

At the height of the war, Orwell had written: "I believe that if the USSR were conquered by some foreign power, the working class everywhere would become discouraged, at least for the moment, and the capitalist cretins who never stopped suspecting Russia would feel encouraged... I do not want to see the USSR destroyed and I think that I would have to defend it if necessary."

The loudly trumpeted anti-communism of the Cold War, about which Shelden speaks, also advanced the novel 1984. Weighed down by the propaganda, many people who had not read it assumed that the book was an attack on the socialist ideas of Marx, and talked about an "Orwellian universe" and other distorted concepts foreshadowed by the constant battles of the global right wing. However, it is clear that 1984 is not an anti-communist novel, but rather a work aimed against totalitarianism of whatever stripe.

The work describes a gloomy and oppressive future dominated by thought police. It takes place in London, where Winston Smith is a functionary in the Ministry of Truth responsible for "correcting" historical facts so that they always coincide with what is wanted by the leaders.

They are lords of half the world, with designs on subjugating the universe and whose principal slogans are "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery", and "Ignorance is Strength". All this is controlled by television monitors, the eyes and ears of the government — Big Brother is determined to know everything and to eliminate the slightest privacy.

More than 50 years have passed since Orwell wrote this cautionary book and after the febrile anti-communist exaltation, it is scarcely mentioned in recent times by those who glorified it. One has to be suspicious.

Today, a neoliberal totalitarianism with a leader from the North seeks to dominate the world and in it, the three previously mentioned slogans fit like a ring on a finger. Big Brother lies like the witch in Snow White and then transmits on his screens whatever suits him. He creates super-ministries of espionage, searches libraries to see what citizens are reading, controls telephones and other means of communication, and accuses those who do not support militaristic adventures of being unpatriotic.

Two days ago, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were cut off as they talked on the [NBC] Today Show about freedom of expression, while the contracts of other critics have been cancelled as in the case of actor Sean Penn.

Big Brother buys (according to the Associated Press) "access to data banks of hundreds of millions of inhabitants in Latin American countries", calls into his service the phantoms of McCarthyism, and coins the maximum slogan with no room for shading: "Those who are not with us are against us."

Orwell called his novel 1984, and there are plenty of indications to suggest that he was only off by 20 years.

[From Granma Diaro, Havana, May 28. Translated by Robert Sandels. For discussion and debate about Cuba, check out <News>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 9, 2003.

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