top of page

Surveillance and Totalitarianism in Orwellian Literature

Updated: May 10, 2020

When we think of a totalitarian regime, perhaps the Matrix or A Space Odyssey spring to mind? Or, if you’re a bibliophile, George Orwell’s 1984?

If you don’t know, Orwellian literature, mainly 1984, is regarded as the definitive literary account of totalitarianism. Orwell was particularly interested in this subject, as he had spent all his life in the era of World War II and hated imperialism as a principle, or any form of dominance over the man for that matter. The novel’s entrenchment in capitalism could assign itself as Orwell’s political despair, but a warning too, if totalitarianism is practised.

Through a portrayal of liberalism as an antithesis of totalitarianism, Orwell’s political allegory will be uncovered, whilst finding deeper inferences relating to our modern society. The final section will then offer a step-by-step guide to reading more critically, whether you decide on Orwellian literature or any other fictional text.

What Does Totalitarianism Mean?

Totalitarianism was considered the most advanced form of dictatorship in the twenties and slowly became the ideological cornerstone of the Cold War. A totalitarian monopolises mass communication (like the radio, picture or press), and centralises the control of weaponry and the economy. Orwell takes it further by drawing upon a dystopian and apocalyptic reality where people’s thoughts are also targeted via incessant propaganda, indoctrination, and ritual. We identify with this control via surveillance, a word that originates from the French verb surveiller, meaning ‘to watch over’, and Latin for super (over) and vigilantia (watchfulness). The origin of the eye comes from different cultures and religions. In Hebrew literature, for example, the watching eyes represent the lord looking over all creation, the Lord Shiva’s ‘third eye’ for Hindus, and the Buddha is known as the ‘eye of the world’, and altogether they represent the omniscience and divine watchfulness of God.

How Does Orwell Present His Fictional Universe as the Perfect Construct of Totalitarianism?

The story begins to show a fictional universe, Oceania that fails to escape the “spectre” and allure of capitalism from the ‘inner party’, who amounts to less than two percent of the population. In Winston’s absolute defiance to the regime, we see an outright denial of annihilation to his critical thought. We consider truth through the news, education, and entertainment, the Ministry of Peace concerned with war, Ministry of Love concerned with law and order, repression, punishment and torture and the Ministry of Plenty who govern the economic affairs of the state. There are also internalised control mechanisms like crime-stop, which deals with the self-censorship of thoughts, and doublethink – this is the belief of holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Though these tenants form the makeup of our society, it is widely beneficial to begin thinking about every construct affecting our society today. For instance, the advent of visual propaganda, post-truth and the process of annihilation of critical thought in modernity.

Here are two examples (see the post) of visual propaganda: the first poster was used in World War I to compel men to enlist for the army. The aim of the poster was to strike at their pride, by foreseeing the future when their children will judge them for avoiding to contribute to the wartime. This sparked rage from the famous war poet, Wilfred Owen, in his famous lines of Dulce et Decorum Est.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria more.

Owen was exposed to the horrors of the war and wanted to equip soldiers with the brutal truth, before they took on this sacrificial role, and had their reality altered forever. The second poster from World War II sent a clear message to the civilians of the Allied Powers that Hitler’s Germany had means of listening to their communications.

What’s in It for Us as Modern Readers?

The events of surveillance, today, or liquid modernity take advantage of the flux on our physical and digital realities. Individuals develop the sensation that they do not control their personal data, or even worse, are constantly tracked due to the invisibility of this new way of monitoring. Such technologies have blurred the boundaries between the private and public, and made possible the intrusion of “eyes” everywhere, either hidden behind the entertainment cover or under the guise of ‘functionality and ease’ in our lives. Besides the gadgets and devises permeating our homes, did you hear about RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire? If you ever saw them, it’s a sign that you’re unlikely to forget. They seemed like famous ‘Golf Balls’ that stood over the North Yorkshire Moors, near Whitby, until the early nineties. They turned out to be an interrupted missile warning service, offering a similar early warning system for the UK. Whilst they claimed to have sophisticated radars that deterred unwarranted harm to the UK, what we don’t know our conversations have been ‘listened to’, whilst they keep the front of ‘space surveillance’. So yes, Orwell predicted right.

In 1984, we identify with the portrayal of eyes and the semantic field of gaze, always “looking” “staring” “watching” “glancing” and even Winston, O’Brien, Mr. Harrington, and Winston’s co-worker, to only name a few, who are wearing spectacles. In Winston’s to escape this evasive “eye”, the question is how successful is he, and by extension, the wider public in doing so? Are people truly free? This is where “diffuse surveillance” comes in. The politicisation of monitoring that comes from everyone’s hands, the formal state authorities, as well as the individuals, hence the term diffusing. This theory thus concurs that an individual can never truly live as an autonomous, free being.

Liberalism as an Anti-Thesis to Totalitarianism

The modern conception of politics is fundamentally based on the idea of liberalism, a kind of projection in which liberalism envisages its anti-thesis.

At the centre of political liberalism is the figure of the individual who has an ambiguous relationship with the state. While on one hand, the individual finds allegiance to the state, and it's communal “whole”, there is also the impulse to thwart that desire. In other words, liberalism’s utopian sentiments are never fully articulated and in these contradictions and anxieties, these ironic precisions are articulated in Orwell’s novel. We see this in the contrast of the vulnerable individual, Winston Smith, who is a ‘smallish, frail figure’, and the “big, all-encompassing state, represented by an enormous buildings housing its four ministries. In this state-owned construction, there is no private property to which Winston can withdraw, and the only thing left from the state’s purview is the “few cubic centimetres of [his own] skull.” It is from this perspective that the narrative is told, in a manner that successfully merges the novel’s psychological vein and political goals.

Orwellian Literature, Beyond A Basic Level Reading?

Before you take on the task of reading 1984, or any piece of literature, you need to know first how to read. So first, you must take a sociological approach, by identifying with literature in relation to society. I mean, the truth is every literary work functions to express life and unveil newer realities to us. Second, you need to understand that fiction doesn’t contradict reality, but builds on it. Once you acknowledge these two facts, your reading will be deepened as a consequence, as you appreciate the ‘diffusion’ of literature on our lives.

Anything else? Yes.

Readers must begin to appreciate that every page can unveil a wealth of knowledge, but only if the reader permits.

  1. Do your research and remain forever curious. Learn about the author. I mean you don’t visit anyone in their home without knowing who they are first, right? Likewise, as readers are entering the most sacred, intimate space for an author – their mind. That ink spot on a page conveys perceptions that will forever challenge your own perceptions and the world around you.

  2. Seek to understand the historical events around the book. After all, readers are like time travellers, navigating foreign lands and uncharted territories with every turn of a page. Imagine your future self, reading a post-COVID-19 publication, it would most certainly help to know about the pandemic first and how it shaped reality thereon.

  3. Find links to wider literature to compliment or critique your reading further. No one novella or poem is written in isolation.

  4. After these stages, if you still want to further your understanding of the text, and find deeper linguistic nuances. Then you want to start dissecting the etymology of standout words and locate them back to their origin!

We understand that Orwellian literature isn’t the chirpiest, but what’s wrong with some realism, albeit an exaggerated version of reality from time to time? If you choose to take it with a pinch, or a mouthful, you’re welcome to do, just keep an open mind with any Orwellian literature.

So before you cosy up to Disney flicks, I urge you to pick up Orwell’s 1984. We’d love to hear your interpretations.

43 views0 comments


bottom of page