| Powerful drive
He was “Don Quixote on a bicycle”, “the wintry conscience of his generation”, and if he had lived long enough he would have been very surprised. George Orwell, born a century ago this month (June 25), wrote two deeply pessimistic novels about the inability of human beings to resist tyranny, died at 46, and subsequently became the most widely read political philosopher of the 20th century. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were translated into 60 languages and sold 40 million copies.
Orwell’s original readers were a generation who survived the fascists and World War II only to fall straight into the Cold War decades. They were already afraid that totalitarianism would ultimately win and that the future, in the words of Winston Smith’s interrogator O’Brien, would turn out to be “a bootstamping on a human face forever.” Orwell’s books told them that they were probably right — but they were wrong, too. The totalitarians “never” achieved the kind of thought control that Orwell and the rest of us feared. Underneath, most people kept their own values and opinions, and by the Eighties they were getting ready to dump the dictators. All they needed was a way of doing so that didn’t involve buckets of blood, and by the middle of the decade a powerful non-violent technique for bringing the dictators down was being developed in Asia.
The technique spread by example from the Philippines in 1986 to Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh and Myanmar in 1987-88, and then to Tiananmen Square in 1989. Not all of these non-violent revolutions succeeded — in Myanmar and China they were drowned in blood — but the example was so powerful that later in 1989 the citizens of European communist countries picked it up and ran with it. Around 350 million Europeans were freed in two years, with hardly a shot fired.
Orwell would certainly not have greeted this extraordinary historical liberation with the pessimism of most Western intellectuals. Consider Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood for example: “With the fall of the Berlin Wall...it seemed...that....henceforth state control would be minimal and all we would have to do is go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.” No, Margaret. The discrediting of the totalitarian dream and the democratization of a large part of the world were genuine gains for the human race. Coping with too much wealth and leisure is a problem too, no doubt, but a different and lesser one that only troubles the fortunate. Frankly, on this one I’m with George W. Bush: “Freedom is a powerful incentive. I believe that some day freedom will prevail everywhere because freedom is a powerful drive.”
What Bush overlooks is that all the people who overthrew their oppressors in recent decades did it for themselves. It is doubtful that powerful countries with suspect motives can successfully export democracy to others by force and the attempt of the White House to do just that could yet bring a certain aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four back to life. Not the politics of it, of course, that is now gone in most of the world — but the geopolitics.
What Nineteen Eighty-Four is really meant to do is discuss the implications of dividing the world up into “zones of influence”, Orwell wrote to his publisher at the end of 1948. The three-way cold war of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with constant skirmishes between the three totalitarian mega-states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and no freedom left anywhere in the world, is geopolitics as nightmare. It would be a pity if the 21st century turned out like that.
It may never come to that, of course. Most people outside the United States (and many Americans, too) assume that the reign of the neo-conservatives in Washington and the current extreme unilateralism of American foreign policy are self-limiting phenomena, soon to be discredited by the sheer cost of empire-building in the Middle East. Local resistance to the American presence is growing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before long Americans themselves will turn against this policy.
That is the assumption, and it is why other governments are playing for time. Why have a confrontation with the US now if you can just wait a bit and see it change course of its own accord' But what if it doesn’t' What if there is a bigger American empire in the Middle East a few years from now, and the United Nations is on the scrap-heap, and NATO is gone too' In that case we’re back in the jungle, where the only way to contain the ambitions of other great powers is the old game of alliances. What would those new alliances look like' Quite a lot like the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Oceania is already taking shape: essentially, the English-speaking world of North America, Britain and Australasia. Give or take a Pole or two, that’s who actually showed up for the invasion of Iraq last March. Orwell’s Eurasia isn’t too hard to identify, either. It is NATO minus North America and Britain, but plus Russia. It is nobody’s first choice, but if it becomes necessary it’s a good fit: the European Union’s economic strength plus Russia’s resources and nuclear deterrent would be a credible counter-weight to America/Oceania — and it’s the only way Russia could get into the EU.
Eastasia is the puzzling one, mainly because it’s hard to figure out which way Japan would jump: rapprochement with China and a junior partnership in a new “east Asian co-prosperity sphere”, or honourary Anglo-Saxon status and a role as Oceania’s Asian “Airstrip Two”. Neither option is appetizing, so Japan would certainly try to avoid the choice as long as possible. But if it did opt for Eastasia, it would go nuclear quickly as the best way of establishing an equal relationship with China. Which leaves the Middle East (a string of restive American protectorates), Latin America (client states of Oceania), Africa (contention between Oceania and Eurasia), southeast Asia (a conflict zone between Oceania and Eastasia) — and India. The Indians would be the one major power with the freedom to stay clear of the global alliance confrontations, but conflicts with Muslim neighbours to the west could easily pull them into alliance with the US.
This is an ugly world, but it is not unimaginable. If the multilateral consensus that has kept things sane for a long time breaks down, a massive realignment like the one that occurred in the twenty years before World War I is possible. A three-cornered cold war like that of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a stupid way to spend this century. It would also minimize American freedom of action in the world, which is hardly the declared goal of those now directing White House policy. But five more years on this course and we could be getting close.