Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Do we live in an Orwellian future?

What would George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh have made of our modern society? A fascinating article in yesterday’s Times gives us some insight.

In the form of a review of a new book by David Lebedoff entitled The Same Man, Cristina Odone seeksk to answer that question.

I am always very cautious when people lay claim to Orwell. Generally seen as a figure of the “Left”, he was clearly strongly influenced by writers such as Popper and Hayek and it was not for nothing that the political ideology that reigned in Oceania was still called “English Socialism”. Yet he was certainly no respector of class or tradition and it would be absurd to suggest he was of the “Right”. It would be nice to suggest that that makes him a liberal, but that would just be claiming him for ourselves.

Perhaps the best thinkers really are the hardest to pigeon hole. What is most striking about Odone’s article is her statement of the distopia that both Orwell and Waugh most feared:
Orwell and Waugh feared the appearance of a new elite made up of the so-called
educated classes. They predicted that a New Boy Network based on test-score
merit rather than lineage would sprout, which would wield power and influence
with a still greater disregard for the “common people” than their predecessors
had shown.
Then, strikingly, she goes on to observe that

This lot would conduct themselves not in accordance to a traditional moral code.
Rather they would be regulated by the opinion of their own group, that inner
circle of, in Orwell's words, “scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists,
broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians”. Members of this elite
would dread nothing more than failure to conform to one another's views and
Does that sound familiar? You only need to tell people you shop at Tesco, leave your mobile phone charger plugged in and can’t see the problem with GM food to get an idea of how this new moral conformity works. What matters is what one’s peers think matters; if you want to be a part of the new elite, you must think like the new elite.

The problem is not the individual beliefs, but the fact that they are founded not on a coherent logic but seem to emerge: like God before the, they are begotten not made.

The reason this is dangerous is two fold. Firstly, as Odone notes, this results in (or is it from?) a moral relativism that in the days or Orwell and Waugh saw intellectuals fighting over whether Stalin or Hitler were the more misunderstood, and which today sees the bookshelves of the university educated middle classes groaning under the morally-vacuous weight of Noam Chomsky.

Equally dangerously, by creating that new class with its unique moral code and intellectual arrogance, we recreate the divisions that so blighted the previous class-system. And just like that previous class, the new class beguiles outsiders with the lie that all can join in if only they come up to scratch. Sadly, like the grammar school oiks who could never actually change their ancestry, the modern outsiders cannot join in unless they can change who they really are. It is a closed shop for the right thinking.


Julian H said...

Interesting, I was directed to that piece yesterday so have (skim) read it myself.

I think your sentimments in this post overlap a tad with posts on your previous blog which addressed illiberal elements of democracy and in a wider sense, politics; both of which I concur with, of course.

One part I'm not sure I fully understand, though. Could you elucidate a bit on this?:

"The problem is not the individual beliefs, but the fact that they are founded not on a coherent logic but seem to emerge: like God before the, they are begotten not made."

and P.S. - you've typo'd "distopia" in the tags.

Tom Papworth said...

The problem is not that the aversion to GM food or the banning of fox hunting is wrong, but that they underneath them lie moral relativism rather than a coherent ethical system.

And that they then float about the rarefied layers between Guardian writers and Guardian readers until they acquire a critical mass and become required believing for the orthodox member of the New Class.

Tom Papworth said...

P.S: I wrote this at midnight, so was not at my sharpest.

Anonymous said...

Orwellophile - Someone who is fascinated by the vision of George Orwell's dystopia.