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What Orwell might have said about today’s Big Brothers

Who’s watching who? Five

So it’s Day 21 in Channel 5’s Big Brother household. It would also have been George Orwell’s 111th birthday. And this month marks 65 years since his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published. With all that in mind, I’m taking a moment to think about what Orwell means to us in 2014.

“Big Brother is watching you” wherever you are in Orwell’s dystopian world. The novel’s anti-hero, Winston Smith, has to huddle in the alcove of his living room to avoid the gaze of the “telescreen” which monitors him and every other citizen day and night. Constant surveillance is the cornerstone of Big Brother’s power. Each resident lives like an inmate of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, caught up, as Michel Foucault would say, in “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”.

Since the Big Brother reality TV game show first took the Netherlands by storm in 1999, it seems we’ve become increasingly used to watching inmates ourselves. Back in 2000, when Big Brother first aired in the UK, it attracted some 10 million viewers. Research suggests that watching reality television fulfils some of our basic desires for vicarious experience and self-importance. It offers us a gratifying illusion – one that Orwell would probably warn against buying into if his novels are anything to go by.

Orwell, 1943.

In Coming Up For Air (1939), for example, the everyman figure, George Bowling, looks down his suburban road and sees it simply as “a prison with the cells all in a row”. People, he reflects, “are under the impression that they own their houses”, that they are free, but this is just another illusion. In reality, they’re enslaved to the moneylender. As Nineteen Eight-Four tells us in its “doublethink” logic, “Freedom is Slavery”, after all.

Whether it’s capitalism, imperialism or totalitarianism, Orwell’s novels impress upon us that those who refuse to become slaves to the dominant ideology face alienation, defeat, incarceration, even destruction. John Flory of Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934), is a timber merchant in Burma sickened by imperial values. But his attempt to finally bring himself to stand up against his compatriots’ racism in support of his Indian friend only leads to his suicide.

Likewise, Bowling makes a desperate attempt to escape his inauthentic life after the Great War by retreating to his childhood home but ultimately returns to his old life as an insurance salesman. This is just like Gordon Comstock, the aspiring poet of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), who surrenders to a humdrum middle-class life in advertising. As Bowling puts it, “The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere.”

So, how to escape the “dustbin”? Is it possible in Orwell’s vision? Winston, despite his acts of defiance, is ultimately tortured, broken, remade in the Party’s image and reintegrated into the oppressive system. Perhaps then, like Benjamin the Donkey from his other highly feted novel, Animal Farm, Orwell was simply a fatalist.

Presidio Modelo, a panopticon-like prison in Cuba. Friman, CC BY-SA

But recent events in Thailand suggest otherwise. Over the past month anti-coup protesters in Bangkok have been staging silent readings of Nineteen Eighty-Four. These public acts of reading not only foreground the novel as a symbol of anti-authoritarianism, but, also seem to enact Orwell’s belief in the power of reading and writing to preserve liberty and democracy.

In Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s fable of the Russian revolution, the animals wrest control of the farm from humans and set down seven commandments to live by, only to see them broken by the ruling elite. The pigs defend their actions by subtly re-writing the commandments. Only the animals that can read are able to detect the change, but even then the force of the pigs’ rhetoric causes the animals to doubt their memories. It’s precisely “this process of continuous alteration”, of crafting and re-crafting history and reality that Winston defies in writing his diary and reading Goldstein’s seditious manifesto.

And it’s this assertion of the individual against authority, this display of what the superstate Oceania calls “ownlife”, which we’re seeing today in Thailand. The Thai junta deposed the elected government on May 22 this year to end six months of political turmoil that has brought the country close to recession. The army declared its aim was to create the right conditions for democracy to function again. But that remains to be seen. And as we’ve learnt this week, these Nineteen Eighty-Four protesters are now being arrested and detained.

So, as we follow the exploits of this year’s Big Brother contestants on our screens, another kind of Big Brother could be operating in Southeast Asia. Orwell would no doubt say a great deal about this today. But sadly, I don’t think he would be surprised.