I read 1984 for the first time as a teenager, in a world of relative tranquillity, full employment and political consensus. At the time, it was frightening enough, but it seemed more a historical document than anything else. By the time that ill-omened year actually arrived, with the return of mass unemployment, poverty and violent political conflict, I began to think that Orwell had seen something long ago that the rest of us were only just learning.
And so, looking to check a quotation for something I was writing, I come across the famous Book of Emmanuel Goldstein, the mythical enemy figure of 1984, an amalgam of Trotsky and Osama Bin Laden, and of course I reread all of that part of Orwell’s work. I learn that
“From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality had disappeared. … But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction of a hierarchical society”. So what was the solution?
“The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare … it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that matters is that a state of war should exist.”
Sometimes, I think that Orwell understood everything. Is it any surprise that sales of 1984 have gone up like, well, a rocket recently?