In 1949, George Orwell published a chilling book describing a totalitarian dictatorship in England in 1984. When the year 1984 came and went and again, when communism crumbled five years later, most commentators assumed that the totalitarianism George Orwell had feared had been avoided.
True, much of what the novel depicted has an eerie resonance today: lotteries as distractions for the masses, video screens in every room and the debasement of language. Perhaps the most striking feature of 1984 that seems to be coming true is the division of the world into three blocks:Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.
But these correct prophecies seem insignificant when one considers the recent triumphs of electoral democracy, the demise of totalitarian regimes and the absence of repressive terror, the apparent dominant theme of the novel and the one that most frightened readers.
On second thought, however, Orwell's ''error'' appears far less clear. The truly dominant feature of 1984 was not political terror, but the destruction of all human spirit, the reduction of those tempted to resist to happy admirers of the system and the elimination of any notion of truth from history.
The terror, after all, applied to only a very small class. The top 5 percent, called the inner party, lived a life of privilege. The bottom 80 per cent, the proles, were neglected and deprived of social services, but not usually terrorized. It was the outer party, made up of professionals and functionaries, that was subject to police terror, deprivation and brainwashing.
The growing disparity of wealth in our society means that both Orwell's picture of a privileged 5 per cent and an excluded 80 per cent apply. The slow decline of the public system of education and health care is a symptom of the rapid growth of the class of the excluded. The major difference between the political structure of 1984 and the society which is developing today is the means of ensuring the loyalty of the middle 15 per cent.
It appears that our society has found it easier to buy them than to terrorize them, to tolerate a minimal degree of dissent, and to exclude those who cannot be contained with ridicule and the threat of destruction of careers.
Clearly it would be preposterous to try to establish a moral equivalence between modern Western democracy and 1984. However, the consequences for independence of thought and of spirit are remarkably similar. Orwell was influenced by his experience of totalitarianism, communist and fascist. However, that totalitarianism was like an early, inefficient automobile compared with the later, more sophisticated models.
Armies of informers were needed because the technological means of obtaining and storing vast amounts of information were not available. Crude propaganda was used in the absence of the more subtle, scientific ways of influencing choices. The repression of non-conformism had to be fierce, because it was clearly possible not to be caught and to resist the dictators with success.
We can only shudder at the thought of what Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin could have done with modern technology. However, we can also see that a degree of control at least equal to theirs can now be effected without massive resort to expensive squealers and violent repression, which is cumbersome and which usually provokes as much resistance as it destroys.
Moreover, the heavy-handed propaganda used by Joseph Goebbels and Stalin was a failure. Most Germans, for instance, had no illusions about who was winning the war after 1942, in spite of the histrionics of the state broadcasting system.
Yet modern Americans, have a shorter life expectancy than other Westerners, live among shocking poverty far rarer in Canada and in Europe, have very little security and almost no access to politics or to justice but are thoroughly convinced that they live in the best country and are shocked by evidence to the contrary. Clearly, subtler, more nuanced propaganda is far more effective than the shrill kind used 60 years ago.
It is, of course, true that modern society tolerates expression that attacks it fundamentally. This article, for instance, is unlikely to have negative repercussions for its author. Yet, it's also true that publications that carry such articles cater to a high-brow market and have little effect on the majority. Moreover, one of the disturbing tendencies of recent years is the concentration of media power in the hands of the wealthy and the reduction of funds for public broadcasting.
The danger of a single, one-sided view is constantly present. This danger is exacerbated by the decline in the knowledge of history. In 1984. history was falsified and revised to suit current views. While nothing as systematic as this occurs today, history in our time is also adapted and sanitized to suit current political agendas. More important, past events are being presented as a progression moving toward our enlightened epoch.
Popular history, as depicted in the movies Braveheart and Gladiator, is seasoned with anachronisms. Romans and medieval Scots sound like modern Americans. Americans are taught a version of history in which they alone won World War II.
Other aspects of history are also undergoing ideological revision, In fact, our attitude toward history mirrors that of the former communist world which also portrayed the past as an inexorable march towards its goals. One crucial distinction exists between our time and 1984. The totalitarian regime was run by Big Brother and its rules were ruthlessly enforced by state authorities. O'Brian, the ''inner-party'' security chief, told the hero Winston Smith that the system could not be overthrown and that it was a ''boot in the face of mankind forever.''
Yet a centralized dictatorship is always a target for uprising, and the most unconvincing of Orwells' theses was the invincibility of the system. Sooner or later, the outer party or, more likely, the proles would overturn it. Our system, suffocating though it is, does not involve much centralized enforcement.
We have elements of 1984 without Big Brother. Many governments, certainly those of Canada, France, Scandinavia and Germany are sincerely striving to limit the threats to civil liberties. Unfortunately, most of the threats are technological, independent of government and are often wielded by private bodies for profit. It is not easy to find a target like Big Brother, which could be attacked to obtain change.
In fact, the system appears to work by itself, under its own laws. One of the most disturbing features of the system inherent in our information technology is the ease of keeping records. Citizens can't easily expunge their sexual escapades, carelessly expressed opinions and minor offences. In an economic system that worships competition, someone is always ready to use the records against those who have strayed from the norm.
As a result, citizens become conformist, cautious and unimaginative. Because the system works under independent technological and economic laws, no major changes can be brought about through political action and people have lost interest in parties, ideologies and elections. The political process simply becomes a way to distribute patronage among rival groups.
Moreover, history has shown that technology and its uses cannot be stopped whether for good or bad reasons. Thus, even more than 1984, the new system of repressing independent thought could prove ''a boot in the face of mankind forever.''
What is to be done? Optimism would be foolhardy, given the uncontrollable nature of technology. Nevertheless certain measures could slow or even reverse the trend towards Orwellianism. Firstly, both our society and 1984 are grounded in economic inequality and in disparity between the means of the small elite and the majority. Both also pay lip service to a populist ideology of equality. Promoting measures to decrease the gap between rich and poor, whether inside each country or internationally, will remove the interest that some might have in preserving their privileges and thus weaken their economic basis for a restrictive society.
Secondly, the promotion of public, high-quality, humanistic education will bring about historical awareness and verbal expressiveness and will hinder the standardization that is setting in. It is more important to teach history and literature early and thoroughly than to concentrate on employment skills that each person will learn in time in any event.
Third, although, as Orwell showed, the state can threaten civil liberties, private interests are even more dangerous and harder to control. The return to political awareness, to voter participation and to a belief that politics matter would be a first step in opposing the new 1984. It is therefore essential that the democratic state not further abdicate its role, and that we resist siren calls for smaller, less obtrusive government.
We should remember that the 1984 state provided few services other than the security network. Social justice is usually an inherent part of freedom. The government's role as a major actor in society, far from creating a risk of totalitarianism, is rather a guarantee of freedom.
The law has also a major role to play in preserving freedom. In view of the danger presented by records in an age of information technology, ways must be found to attenuate and even erase records of' criminal convictions and to prevent the use of personal data or past histories against individuals. This goes against the recent tendencies which have been remarkably unforgiving. It is time to reconsider this trend.
However, the most important resistance to 1984 is that of each citizen in his own life. The repudiation of conformism, of the rampant complacency, of the fear of offending, and of political correctness and a skeptical attitude toward the received truth of our times will go a long way in distancing us from 1984.
Ultimately, 1984 is a society that negates the ideals of freedom of thought, personal independence and conscience. These are precisely the values each of us must adopt.
Julius Grey is law professor at McGill University