The other night, I saw George Orwells’s 1984 performed on the London stage. Although crying out for a contemporary interpretation, Orwell’s warning about the future was presented as a period piece: remote, unthreatening, almost reassuring. It was as if Edward Snowden had revealed nothing, Big Brother was not now a digital eavesdropper and Orwell himself had never said, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to live in a totalitarian country.”
Acclaimed by critics, the skilful production was a measure of our cultural and political times. When the lights came up, people were already on their way out. They seemed unmoved, or perhaps other distractions beckoned. “What a mindfuck,” said the young woman, lighting up her phone.
As advanced societies are de-politicised, the changes are both subtle and spectacular. In everyday discourse, political language is turned on its head, as Orwell prophesised in 1984. “Democracy” is now a rhetorical device. Peace is “perpetual war”. “Global” is imperial. The once hopeful concept of “reform” now means regression, even destruction. “Austerity” is the imposition of extreme capitalism on the poor and the gift of socialism for the rich: an ingenious system under which the majority service the debts of the few.
In the arts, hostility to political truth-telling is an article of bourgeois faith. “Picasso’s red period,” says an Observer headline, “and why politics don’t make good art.” Consider this in a newspaper that promoted the bloodbath in Iraq as a liberal crusade. Picasso’s lifelong opposition to fascism is a footnote, just as Orwell’s radicalism has faded from the prize that appropriated his name.
A few years ago, Terry Eagleton, then professor of English literature at Manchester University, reckoned that “for the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life”. No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake for utopian dreams, no Byron damns the corruption of the ruling class, no Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin reveal the moral disaster of capitalism. William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw have no equivalents today. Harold Pinter was the last to raise his voice. Among the insistent voices of consumer- feminism, none echoes Virginia Woolf, who described “the arts of dominating other people … of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital”.
At the National Theatre, a new play, Great Britain, satirises the phone hacking scandal that has seen journalists tried and convicted, including a former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Described as a “farce with fangs [that] puts the whole incestuous [media] culture in the dock and subjects it to merciless ridicule”, the play’s targets are the “blessedly funny” characters in Britain’s tabloid press. That is well and good, and so familiar. What of the non-tabloid media that regards itself as reputable and credible, yet serves a parallel role as an arm of state and corporate power, as in the promotion of illegal war?
The Leveson inquiry into phone hacking glimpsed this unmentionable. Tony Blair was giving evidence, complaining to His Lordship about the tabloids’ harassment of his wife, when he was interrupted by a voice from the public gallery. David Lawley-Wakelin, a film-maker, demanded Blair’s arrest and prosecution for war crimes. There was a long pause: the shock of truth. Lord Leveson leapt to his feet and ordered the truth-teller thrown out and apologised to the war criminal. Lawley-Wakelin was prosecuted; Blair went free.