Why do we love Big Brother?

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published over half a century ago, depicting a society that looks nothing like Britain 2001. So why should his vision still make us shiver?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Fifty-two years on from the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘Big Brother’ is best known as a cult TV programme in which a group of volunteers have their every move and word broadcast to the nation 24 hours a day.

We do not live in a police state – far from it. People are not dressed in uniform, but encouraged to express their individuality through fashion and ‘dress down’ for Friday in the office; and the winner of Channel 4’s Big Brother in the UK is not the conformist who plays by the rules, but the gay man with the alternative lifestyle. No political dictator inspires reverence – today’s politicians are held in almost universal contempt. Food is not rationed and unpalatable, but available in mind-boggling varieties and mouth-watering flavours at affordable prices. We are encouraged, not to hate our enemies, but to love ourselves.

In almost every way, Orwell’s totalitarian state bears as little relationship to Britain 2001 as does Jurassic Park. Yet the core horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the torture, the poverty, the tedium or the all-seeing telescreen, but the regulation of personal relationships by the state. Orwell depicted a world in which intimate relationships were systematically destroyed and reconstituted as relationships between the individual and the ruling Party; where the human emotions of spontaneity and passion were replaced by conformity to a shallow, soulless etiquette.

However great the differences between Orwell’s dystopian vision and the world we live in today, this particular insight should continue to make us shiver. ‘They can’t get inside you’, Julia tells Winston Smith at the start of their love affair (1). By drawing out the dehumanising character of human relationships mediated through officialdom and played out in the public eye, Orwell showed that, with intervention at the right level, yes ‘they’ could.

‘We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman’, explains O’Brian, during his prolonged torture of Winston Smith. ‘No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer.’ (2) Any relationship formed and conducted free of intervention and monitoring by the Party was treated as inherently treacherous, implying an attachment to something and somebody other than the state.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘it was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children’, (3) as children were recruited into the Party-run Youth League and the Spies, and encouraged to denounce all adults – especially their parents – as traitors and ‘thought criminals’. In this world, ‘you did not have friends…you had comrades’ – relationships based not on liking or trust, but on functional networks created and monitored by the Party (4). And ‘desire was thoughtcrime’ (5). Marriage was sanctioned only as a means to beget children: the long-term aim of the Party was ‘not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control’, but to eradicate the sex instinct altogether (6).

The intense levels of suspicion with which spontaneous, emotional relationships were viewed indicated that what the Party feared most was what people might do, when left to their own devices. And while there is certainly no concerted drive today to ‘cut the links’ between people and their friends, lovers and children, 2001 shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four a near-paranoia about leaving people to their own devices.

Society 2001 is characterised by unprecedented levels of unease about intimate relationships, and public discussion and official advice about how such relationships should be conducted. Relationships between parents and children increasingly tend to be seen through the prism of potential neglect or abuse, with parenting methods taught and monitored by the state and children encouraged to contact a third party about any behaviour, by a friend, peer or relative, that might make them feel uncomfortable. From the playground to the workplace, friendship groups are continually recast as bullying or ‘peer pressure’, and flirting or office banter as harassment.

2001 is a time when the UK government proudly publishes the first National Strategy for Sexual Health and HIV, setting targets for reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. The assumption behind such a strategy can only be that spontaneous sexual relationships lead to infection and impregnation – and consequently, the most intimate and private areas of people’s lives are subject to official intrusion and regulation (7). In so many subtle ways, intimate relationships are today presented as toxic and harmful. If people are not counselled about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, they are warned about the dangers of becoming emotionally hurt when love goes wrong.

There is no conscious, power-crazed strategy here – simply a felt need to protect people from each other and from themselves, at whatever the cost to liberty and privacy. From new laws against personal harassment to safe sex advice, from health information to marriage guidance, government interventions into our personal lives are fuelled by the apparent need to protect us from our own bad habits, and the toxic relationships we might form with others. And far from objecting to such intervention, we welcome it – indeed, we often demand that the state interferes more. Why?

Society 2001 shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four its fear of spontaneity – its fear of passion, unpredictability and risk-taking. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, this was based on the recognition that such human emotions were the seeds from which insurrection could grow – even if those emotions were motivated by something quite other than politics. Party members had their every move regulated and monitored, their every thought controlled, and relationships based on emotion and desire repressed.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party’s intrusion into people’s private, personal lives sprang from a desire to prevent people from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. And in this totalitarian state, as O’Brian instructs Winston, the imperative of control was motivated by nothing more subtle than ‘power, pure power’. Winston’s suggestion that the Party is ‘ruling over us for our own good’ earns him an electric shock. ‘That was stupid, Winston, stupid!’ yells an exasperated O’Brian (8). Nineteen Eighty-Four was a world of wars without end, of enemies of the state, mass mobilisations for Hate Week, a state apparatus desperately trying to contrive public spirit – all for the ends of power and control.

2001, by contrast, is a time of social fragmentation, moral relativism, reluctant intervention into messy local conflicts in faraway places, and paranoid politicians. Bereft of the political certainties of the past, and aware that the UK electorate is less engaged with political life than it has been for a century, today’s ruling elite is experiencing unprecedented levels of insecurity, both about its own position and about the society it runs. This insecurity leads to an impulse to clamp down upon anything that might have unpredictable or uncontrollable consequences, from speeches and marches by racist organisations to groups of teenagers hanging out on the streets to promiscuous and careless sexual behaviour.

It is not the desire for control that drives official intervention into our private lives today, but a desperate fear about being out of control. And the narrowing of the political imagination – in a society where the divide between left and right has disappeared and even certainties about right and wrong are crumbling – leads to a view that our political leaders are indeed ruling over us ‘for our own good’.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party waged a conscious war against all independent thought and emotion, with a clear aim in mind. Keeping people suppressed against their will was not enough – which is why O’Brian explains to Winston, ‘We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him’. The goal was to go beyond totalitarianism to total physical, emotional and spiritual subordination: not ‘Thou shalt not’, or even ‘Thou shalt’, but ‘Thou art’ (9). It succeeds with those like Winston Smith who, at the novel’s end, has his rebellion so utterly quashed that, genuinely, ‘He loved Big Brother’ (10).

Today, such is the political culture that there needs to be no concerted campaign to make us love Big Brother – we are already predisposed to do so. The fear of spontaneity and risk-taking permeates throughout all levels of society, through many areas of life. The politics of right v left is replaced with the couplet safety v risk, and political leaders are subject to demands, not based in ambition, but based on a desire for protection.

The vocal campaigns are those calling for protection from paedophiles, abusive husbands and violent others, for protection from offensive language, images or behaviour, for measures to help us protect ourselves from the dangers lurking in food, drink, sex, smoking and all other aspects of our daily lives. The biggest criticism of official advice and intervention into these matters is often that the state is not doing enough to help.

And we are making speedy progress along the road of ‘thou art’. If the state does nothing, people can increasingly be relied upon to keep their passions in check. ‘We shall abolish the orgasm’, O’Brian tells Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘Our neurologists are at work upon it now.’ (11) 2001 does not seek to ‘eradicate the sex instinct’, or to abolish the orgasm – but today’s fearful culture can easily sanitise such things out of existence.

The sex instinct, when subjected to the demands of safe, responsible sex, is anything but instinctive. And as David Brooks perceptively notes in Bobos in Paradise, his playful critique of the USA’s educated elite, those who absorb the wealth of literature on how to improve one’s sex life don’t just enjoy orgasms, they achieve them: ‘Sex in this literature is like college; it’s described as a continual regimen of self-improvement and self-expansion.’ (12)

The motivations for repression and intervention in 2001 may be the opposite of the motivations of the ruling Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the consequences are disconcertingly similar. The network of caring, risk-averse, right-thinking officials that govern our lives can destroy our privacy and sanitise our passions every bit as effectively as the totalitarian Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four – not least, because all too often we accept their concerns.

Who quibbles with the demand that safety should come first, the imperative that people should avoid offending others or hurting their feelings, the idea that if an initiative stops one child from being hurt, one marriage from splitting up, one fight from happening, it is worth it? Who puts the case for passion, risk, liberty and privacy?

Today’s state is not totalitarian but therapeutic: it does not seek to destroy relationships between people, but to improve them. Official intervention into relationships based on friendship, love and child-rearing exalts the importance of these relationships, and claims only to want to reduce the harm caused to people by a bad parent, love affair or friend. Yet while such intervention might seem to be based on the best of intentions, it still has Orwellian consequences. Are personal relationships, when mediated through a third party, still personal relationships – or are they something else entirely?

In a society that accepts the need for safety first and fears the unpredictable, all boundaries can be crossed in the name of protection. This is about ruling us ‘for our own good’. The problem is, of course, that it does us no good at all.

2001 shares with Orwell’s nightmare a deep suspicion of the private sphere. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous’ (13). The telescreen in every room, the emphasis on communal activity, the suppression of personal relationships – again, this was motivated by the desire for social control, for absolute power.

In 2001, the ethos of ‘transparency’ is pervading every area of life. Everywhere CCTV cameras follow you as you walk down the street; your emails can be accessed by one authority or another almost at will. Parents are grilled about their child-rearing habits; children are grilled about their home life. Campaigns against domestic violence continually raise the spectre of the abuses that could happen ‘behind closed doors’; to keep secrets is now effectively taboo.

As increasing numbers of people choose to live or work alone, solitude is often celebrated in 2001. But privacy – the notion that you might want to close your door, or keep a secret, or hide something just because you want to keep it to your nearest and dearest – is seen as suspect, carrying the potential for the abuse of intimacy. Yet can intimate relationships work at all, when there is no private space for intimacy? Does anybody really benefit from having Big Brother in their bed?

A society that demands protection should be careful of having its demands fulfilled. When we look to the future, we need not imagine – in the chilling words of O’Brian – ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’ (14). At a time when most are at least quite fond of Big Brother, there is no need for such fear. But we can look to Winston Smith and Julia, when the torture has ended and they have absorbed totally the timidity demanded by the party. They are finally permitted to meet, to embrace – ‘they could have lain down on the ground and done that if they had wanted to’. But by this time, beyond repression, the desire to do so has gone. Winston finds that the change in Julia is not in the marks of her beatings, but that ‘her waist had grown thicker, and, in a surprising way, had stiffened’; and ‘it occurred to him that the texture of her skin would be quite different from what it had once been’ (15).

‘What are you? A bag of filth’, sneers O’Brian, as he holds Winston Smith up to a mirror to see his beaten, rotting body. ‘That is the last man. If you are human, that is humanity.’ (16) Yet despite O’Brian’s contempt, the human spirit within Winston’s broken physique still threatens him. It is only later, when the denial of their liberty to love results in the end of their capacity to do so, when all they can love is Big Brother, that Winston and Julia cease to be human. They live in the relative safety of the fearful, the passionless, and the unfree, awaiting the ‘long-hoped-for’ bullet in the brain.

We have been warned.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

(1) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Two, chapter 7

(2) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 3

(3) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, chapter 2

(4) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, chapter 5

(5) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, chapter 6

(6) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, chapter 6

(7) See Warts and all, by Jennie Bristow

(8) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 3

(9) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 2

(10) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 6

(11) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 3

(12) Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks, Simon & Schuster, hardback edition p193

(13) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, chapter 8

(14) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 3

(15) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 6

(16) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, chapter 3

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Topics Politics


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