My copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has cardboard covers. Front and back, the book is decorated with cheesy reproduced paintings. Big Brother wears an evil goatee and eye makeup. A red helicopter buzzes under the “Four.” The illustrations look childish because I have somehow held onto a book that was assigned to me when I was about thirteen. The inside front cover has a sticker where schoolchildren in years past have written their names.
Turning the book and thumbing its ragged spine, what do I remember? The revelation that Winston has been recorded in his subversion with Julia, yes. The catchwords: Newspeak, Ingsoc, Thought Police, Ministry of Love. A roiling feeling of injustice. But the only part engraved on my memory is the torture, specifically Winston’s vision of his own spine snapping as his body is stretched and the spinal fluid dripping out. I remember that part because I was a child, and it frightened me.
Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have roared in the wake of the coinage “alternative facts” by President Donald Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway. When we suspect that we are living in a dystopia characterized by clumsy propaganda, it’s the book we buy from Amazon.com. (It was the top seller at that site on Wednesday.) There are certain elements of Orwell’s novel that can help us understand how Trump’s administration is already working on our minds.
Like the authorities in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Trump convinces his followers to forget their prior enmities and alliances. Russia has always been our friend, not our enemy. Also, Trump’s obsession with the Mexican-U.S. border echoes Big Brother’s policy of perpetual war. Lying outright to the citizenry is, yes, “Orwellian.”
But there is no Amazon.com in Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it is not a novel about globalized capital. Not even slightly! Nineteen Eighty-Four does not pastiche a world ravaged by capitalism and ruled by celebrities—the kind of world that could lead to the election of someone like Trump. Instead, it depicts suffering inflicted by state control masquerading as socialism. Remember, the banned book that opens Winston’s mind is called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchal Collectivism. That book, mixed with Winston’s own memories, supposedly reveal the true history of his world.
After World War II, civil war raged in the U.K., which then became part of Oceania, one of the three world superstates. Eurasia is the second superstate, comprising the former USSR and most of Europe. Eastasia is the third superstate, and it contains East and Southeast Asia. At some point, there were Atomic Wars, and society changed. This is an alternative vision—an “alt-history” perhaps—of the second half of the twentieth century, not an abstract dystopia. The language and aesthetic of Winston’s home superstate, Oceania, are lifted directly from Russian communism.
Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1949. Orwell commented on the world as it was. He wrote out his fears of nuclear war, and the danger of dictatorship in states where much has been destroyed. He pointed to the problems inherent in superstates and the fragile alliances that govern world politics. Mostly, he wrote in cipher about Russia. The moustachioed Big Brother looks like Stalin, the author of Oligarchal Collectivism, Trotsky. Oceania’s changing allegiances with other superstates directly comments on Russia’s new relationship with Germany after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, an agreement of non-aggression that in turn was abandoned when Germany launched a war against the USSR in 1941. The Thought Police are based on the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which actually used riled-up rats in their interrogations.
The connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four and World War II makes it the wrong dystopia for our times. When Conway cites “alternative facts,” she implicitly admits that there is more than one way to see things—she simply doesn’t care. Trump’s administration doesn’t even try to cover up its lies. Instead, it assumes that ideological divides among the American citizenry will ensure that the lies don’t matter. That is not how the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four works.
Compare our situation, instead, to The Trial. Kafka wrote it in 1914-15, a generation before Orwell. World War I was only just revving up, and much of the nineteenth century’s world order remained (the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed until 1918).
This impending crack-up makes Kafka’s awful lightheartedness more, not less, resonant: History does not distract us. In The Trial, Josef K. wakes up on his 30th birthday and is arrested. He cannot really conceive of what is happening: “K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?”
This is the horror that Trump subjects us to. His administration retains the shell of the old American brand—the “land of the free”—but secretly danger creeps underneath all the things that seem silly, even funny, about it. Josef K. thinks the arrest must be a joke, at first. In this early passage, we can see the new conditions of danger dawning on Josef, who doesn’t otherwise take anything too seriously:
He was always inclined to take life as lightly as he could, to cross bridges when he came to them, pay no heed for the future, even when everything seemed under threat. But here that did not seem the right thing to do. He could have taken it all as a joke, a big joke set up by his colleagues at the bank for some unknown reason, or also perhaps because today was his thirtieth birthday, it was all possible of course, maybe all he had to do was laugh in the policemen’s face in some way and they would laugh with him, maybe they were tradesmen from the corner of the street, they looked like they might be—but he was nonetheless determined, ever since he first caught sight of the one called Franz, not to lose any slight advantage he might have had over these people.
Laughter, Kafka says, is worse than nothing. It’s the substance of complicity, what makes us afraid to look ridiculous even as we let oppression slink in through the cracks. Josef K. never does find out what crime he was charged with. But his last words are more frightening than any of my memories of reading Orwell. “Like a dog,” he says, as the knife twists twice.