Sunday, 20 March 2016

1984, Animal Farms and Conformism in a Connected Society

Just recently while reading George Orwell’s 1984, I was struck by the similarities between life as described by him in his book and life that existed in the country of my birth, Ethiopia, post the socialist revolution. This as they existed in those times and seen through the eyes of a teenager were certainly different and somewhat strange. For one thing, the slogans that were raised against the enemies of the state were very strongly voiced, and when they were shouted in unison with the accompaniment of synchronised pumping of the right hand, you just couldn’t help beginning to believe that the Capitalists were truly behind all the problems of the country, whether it was the drought, or the separatists out there in the North.
Socialism became a Utopia a possibility in the midst of machinations of all those venture capitalists who were trying to destabilise the nation, although I did wonder in those times, what there was in the country, one of the poorest in the region to attract the interest of the Capitalists! In the meantime, the slogans continued to denounce the depravity of the Capitalists and the Imperialists. This Utopia however seemed to drift away as the euphoria of Nationalisation began to fade away. People who owned two or more houses were allowed to keep only one, big business establishments were nationalised, farms were turned into cooperatives, and dinner parties with our Russian friends and the Hoy-Polloi began to take up a different colour.
Dinner Parties began on a serious note with important people in the administration maintaining a poker face of seriousness. It was as if they were frightened of each other, and afraid of uttering anything that might be used against them. This seriousness however dissipated with each gulp of the vodka that was served by the Russians. Prior to the gulping of the vodka however, there was always a toast and each toast was addressed to the friendship between nations, cooperation between nations, and so on. As the count of downed glasses went up  the guests would begin singing in Russian although they did not know a single word of Russian. The party would end with Russians, Ethiopians, and Indians claiming to be the best of friends, and they would then joke with each other and call each other names!
But then this was not what Socialism  was all about. The next day it would be back to normal, ‘speak carefully, big brother can listen to you, walls have ears,’ and so on.Mischief could be misconstrued, and you had to be very careful about what you did lest Big Brother might take offence. Then one day there was mention about George Orwell’s 1984, and Animal Farm. The top leadership had taken offence to what this person had written in both of his books, and I wondered as a teenager what could have been so offensive about these books that the Government had banned them! I realised how offended the Chairman and his ideologues might have been on reading both of his books later when I got to read them. To have been compared to Pigs, must have hurt the members of the Politbureau immensely –  George  Orwell had surely exposed the hollowness and the sham that existed within the structure of Socialism itself,and on a more serious note, the fear, paranoia and sense of being trapped within a system of structures and protocols would have daunted even the hard-hearted!
In the meantime, the slogans continued:

And the litany would continue in the same manner, day in and day out, and the manner in which these slogans were said, it was as if everyone had been hypnotised into saying and believing in the same things! It was literally mass hypnosis leading to mass hysteria when these slogans were shouted and the hills echoed the sentiment in return!
In the meantime, the role of the secret police became even more evident. The ideologues, and the protectors of the ‘Faith’ were everywhere, whether it was at work, or in the locality were you lived, they were everywhere! When I was in grade twelve, there was this student, his name was Musa, and he was a a secret spy. He carried a pistol with him and there was something rather sinister about him. I noticed that the others switched off in his presence and when they were forced to acknowledge him, then they rarely talked. I was a mischievous ex-patriot living in another country,  so I took liberties with him, to the consternation of others! 
Another thing that I noticed about the new world order was the role of planning. They were simply so confident that their plans would work, and the Party Members came up with some of the most ambitious Five Year plans that were aimed at improving the country’s economy, educational system, infrastructure, and social structure. I never stayed to see whether these five year plans ever succeeded. All I do know is that there was a five year plan for almost everything! These five year plans popped up every now and then! I have seen echoes of such planners in recent times, especially in people who are literally slaves to systems and structures, so much so that the structure threatens to overwhelm the human factor!
A lot of what George Orwell wrote in 1984 and Animal Farm did take place in the country of my birth post the Socialist revolution in 1975, and the accuracy with which he has described life under Socialism makes me wonder if he had indeed happened to have lived and witnessed the craziness of life in a man made Utopia!
I had heard rumours about the interrogation techniques employed by the secret police to ferret information deemed sensitive to the state. The greatest tool in the hands of the interrogators was however not so much as the torture itself, but rather the fear that one felt on facing them. This feeling of terror and helplessness had been created mostly by hearsay and rumours that one tended to  hear in such a country. Nevertheless there was one story that did the rounds amongst the ex-patriot community and that was about how another ex-patriot lady had been taken to the police station because she had allegedly committed the crime of shoplifting. Well, the people didn’t do her physical harm, they only let loose upon her a pack of ferocious dogs. No the dogs did not maul her, they were called away before they could reach her, but then the mental trauma that she underwent was enough to turn her into a mental wreck.I have not as yet reached the point where the character, Winston commits thought crimes by writing a diary and is taken for interrogation in room 101 where he is supposed to meet the ultimate horror of all those who are accused of crimes against the state!
Life under a Socialist setup is based on a very strong degree of conformism. However, to claim that this happens only in Socialist states would be a gross mistake! Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible describes a similar situation. Based on the Salem Witch hunts, and meant to expose the weaknesses in McCarthyism, the play describes the impact of Mass-Hysteria, and how people are forced to conform  to accepted norms. John Proctor, an important character becomes the lynchpin because he refuses to conform. The moral of the play is that in order to survive in what might be a totalitarian state one has to conform to the ideology of the party in power or else face  the consequences. All the other girls in The Crucible fall in line with what Abigail states because they are afraid of the consequences of not doing so. They are afraid of Abigail more so because she is a clever one who knows how to manipulate others, and yes she is related to an important person in the social hierarchy in the town.
What is common about The Crucible, 1984, Animal Farm, and what I experienced as a teenager living in a Socialist state was the need to conform, and the need to jump on to the bandwagon. A totalitarian regime will force its people to conform to its accepted rules and regulations. It promotes propaganda techniques which are meant to hypnotise people into jumping the bandwagon and conforming in all ways. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World also describes life in a straight-jacketed society. Huxley’s book brings out the themes of forced conformism, the idea of jumping on to the bandwagon, and the use of mass hypnosis as a means of keeping people in line. The kind of slogans that I saw and heard being chanted in a socialist state remained in my mind for a number of years and this stands testimony to the effectiveness of slogans as a means for indoctrinating a whole nation.
Disturbing cues and clues have started emerging all over the world, what with technology becoming all pervasive. The concept of Big Brother is Watching has become even more prevalent all over the world what with Big Brother monitoring our calls and the messages that we send online. The right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression is getting steadily diluted with Big Brother claiming the need to eavesdrop into our conversations in the interests of the security of the state. This attack on the privacy of individuals is taking place today, even in America, a country that is not even Socialist in nature! In times when we have begun to live in a ‘Connected Society’, the internet might prove to be a Pandora’s box that threatens the very existence of the individual today. The presence of cameras everywhere, the fact that you are being monitored constantly  makes the adage that walls have ears more frighteningly more true today than ever before! Is life in a ‘Connected Society’ more horrifyingly Socialistic than ever? – Is a question worth asking. The growing lack of individual privacy in the modern world is an alarming reality, and as days go by, one wonders if Democracy and Capitalism are not just different terms for Totalitarianism today! The film Matrix highlights the erosion of the individual’s when living  in a ‘Connected Society’.
In days to come, the society will gain predominance over the individual and the individual will become subservient to the society as a whole. Subservience, conformism, and jumping on to the Bandwagon are becoming a frightening reality that are threatening to take away the right to dissent and propose an alternate view as espoused by characters like John Proctor in The Crucible, or even, Winston in 1984, or even Bernard in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s description of ‘a world of terror where the price of freedom is betrayal’ looms over us menacingly. The treatment of dissent and the debate on what constitutes sedition post  the Jawaharlal University fiasco in recent times has forced us  to wonder if we are not living in disturbing times which are  not really different from those described by Huxley and Orwell!

1. Orwell George: 1984, Maple Press, 2008
2. Huxley Aldous: Brave New World, Flamingo, 1994

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