As the Melbourne numbers fall as expected, while in the UK more have died of COVID-19 than did in the Blitz, the chorus of News Corpuscles describing Dan Andrews’ Victoria as “Orwellian” is getting so repetitive that it’s time to look at what George Orwell actually said.
What he said about means, ends, the state and repression. One presumes the “Orwellian” crowd mean to evoke Nineteen Eighty-Four’s picture of a grim, utterly totalitarian society, regimented in every measure.
We’ll return to that comparison with leafy Melbourne in a minute, but let’s look at what Orwell really thought about what the state should do in a comparable situation — i.e. the UK in WWII.
Orwell was a fervent supporter of the war once it started (“Now that we are in this war we have to win it,” he noted). Up to then, inconveniently to some of his fans, his position was fervently against. His position from 1937 to 1939 was that a new war would be an intra-imperialist conflict, and he campaigned hard against it.
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From September 1 1939 onwards he threw himself into war work, much of which was actively devoted to extending state repression.
Chief among this was his work for the BBC India (radio) service, whose purpose was largely propagandistic. As soon as war was declared, Indian legislative council leaders demanded free state status as the price of their commitment to the war effort — a demand redoubled when Japan invaded Burma. Orwell was a supporter of colonial rebellion.
He called the British Empire “a racket” and in a long report from Morocco, he observed Moroccan troops being forward marched by French officers and wondered, longingly, when they would turn their guns the other way.
So to work for the BBC India service, which was trying to maintain Indian support for British leadership, was participating in an oppression he felt to be unjust. Means and ends, because history.
In a more general sense, Orwell had no problem at all with a strong repressive state, in service of achieving socialism.
In 1940, he hoped that the strategic disasters following the blitzkrieg would result in a revolutionary situation: “Soon I think we will see Red Guards billeted in the Ritz and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Churchill leading them,” he remarked rather giddily.
Orwell and other Spanish Civil War veterans such as Tom Wintringham joined the Home Guard and established a guerrilla warfare training unit within it — both for a campaign against the Germans, should invasion occur, and a struggle against the right (as Tito and Mao both did).
In a 1941 piece included in the 20-volume collected (but not in the four-volume selected) work, Orwell notes that socialism would make things worse before it got better, for a long time, and would need to be violent and repressive to succeed.
What’s interesting about today’s “masks = Stalin” crowd is that they resemble not Orwell but his enemies in 1940.
A section of the left equated the limited repressions of the British state and the morale kitsch of “keep calm and carry on” with full Nazism. Orwell engaged in a literary duel (in rhyming verse!) with anarchist poet Alex Comfort, later to find fame as author of The Joy of Sex.
In their poetic exchange, both agreed they would shoot Churchill if they could but, Orwell added, only if there was someone better to replace him. The anti-war anarchists were so equivocal about the Nazis, they were known as the “Fascifists”. Also by a phrase common at the time, “public babies”.
Hard to think of a better description of Tim Smith MLA, who always looks like he’s just filled his nappy.
As to News Corp writers making the Nineteen Eighty-Four comparisons, quite apart from Fox News, it’s worth remembering that Julia from that book worked in the “Fiction Department”, churning out mass entertainment for the proles, something Orwell regarded as a feature of totalitarian culture in the West (and not amazingly, “free choice”).
If you updated the book, Julia would work for the Herald Sun. “Orwell would have…” — ah, how irresistible it is. Let’s leave it at that, except to say that in Spain Orwell never shot a priest, but he fought alongside men who had.
I have no doubt he would have zero compunction about putting one or two COVID denialists up against a wall in certain circumstances. Be careful about who you choose as your big brother, public babies…