Saturday, 31 December 2011

Nineteen Eighty-four and 2012

The stuff of politics is power.

A political process is the means by which conflicting attempts to obtain power can be reconciled; it seems a truth of human nature (as well as of other animals) that there is always someone who wants the individual currently with any power not to have it.

Subject to this, there are then different types of power.

The brute force of physical coercion is subject to who has control of military and civil police forces.

The power of formal language, backed ultimately by coercion, is the stuff of law and the justice system.

The ability to make allocations of scarce resources is the essence of economics and social policy making.

And perhaps until recently there was the control of information.

The state and the media determined who knew what, and when.

Even now there are politicians and media folk who believe that a "command and control" approach to communications is still unproblematic: the internet and the ability to move and publish huge amounts of data are mere details to be addressed by more regulation.

In Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell extrapolates certain themes of the mid 1940s and posits them in the mid 1980s. Some of these he gets right, even now on the eve of 2012.

Big Brother is watching us more than ever.

However, Nineteen Eighty-four accepts that there would still be a "command and control" approach to communications. Winston Smith amends and censors the news record, and Times editorials are exemplars of Newspeak.

One wonders what Orwell would have made of a future where communication was not the monopoly of the elite.

Would Orwell have seen that as just another problem to be managed by the totalitarian?

Or would he not have been able to imagine a totalitarian regime without complete control of the means of communication?

But what is clear is that the government and media elite cannot casually control information flows is something relatively novel in modern politics.

(It is tempting at this point to make a comparison with the Reformation where - some historians tell us - there was a movement against the established churches because people could read the scriptures for themselves, in the vernacular. However, against this lazy caricature is the fact that many still relied on their religious leaders for interpreting scripture: there were just new interpretations and new leaders.)

Will there need to be a new politics in response to the inability of the state and the media elite to now keep complete control over information flows?

Will there be a utopia of informed citizen politics?

Is it going to go all participatory?

The answer probably lies in the other probable truth of human nature (as well as of other animals) that there are always many individuals who don't want power themselves, whoever else gets it.

Those seeking power will usually be a small minority; and the better power-hunters will adapt more successfully to new circumstances.

For example, it was political geniuses such as Disraeli and Salisbury that realised that the new mass electorate in late Victorian Britain could actually be exploited by a popular and well-organized conservative party.

What will happen will be that those seeking power - either in politics or in the media - will now just become more adept at sailing their ships with no full control over the buffeting of the waves.

The best politicians and media leaders will now harness the energy of those willing to spend time synthesizing and interpreting data; there will be a general realisation that the key political skill in respect of information flows will be opportunism, and not management.

Those wanting power - over coercive force, and over law-making and allocation decisions - will still be there. They will still be watching us and intruding on our autonomy.

But - to invoke Orwell again - they will no longer be be able to insist easily that two plus two is five.

They will instead leave it for us to work out whether that is correct for ourselves.

And, sadly, one suspects few of us will.


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Kev said...

"However, against this lazy caricature is the fact that many still relied on their religious leaders for interpreting scripture: there were just new interpretations and new leaders"

Similarly, despite a participatory internet culture, there are many who act as filters for interpreting the deluge of information. Some of these are traditional media outlets - BBC, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail and some of them are new - yourself, Guido Fawkes - but all of these act as a new priesthood of what is true and moral.

Renideo said...

Through the characteristic feedbacks of human developmental psychology there is a fairly well known bias in favour of views and positions already held, sides already favoured, identities already formed. Such biases and fallacies operate, in general, invisibly and effortlessly, indeed they operate to avoid the effort, the tremendous strain involved in reassessing so many failed axioms which nontheless are so central to the existing frame of reference.

The new media, though it does empower peer-based information gathering, does not change directly the internalised processes by which we evaluate either our own knowledge, views and so on, or the information presented to us. The fact it is peer based introduces in fact the same old filter-- it is our friends, those who run in the same circles as us, that we are most likely to receive information from.

As for our own capacity to search, we will still be inclined to seek out arguments and information that favour our pre-existing beliefs. That is, in effect, the low-energy state of existence which is our natural mode. As a rule therefore, the new empowerment is more akin to Huxley than Orwell in its manifestation perhaps.

PJH said...

I'd like to posit some other examples:

"The brute force of physical coercion is subject to who has control of military and civil police forces."

Or the tax system. Pay up or be jailed.

"The power of formal language, backed ultimately by coercion, is the stuff of law and the justice system."

Or the likes of ASH, or CASH, whereby the 'charities' obtain tax payer's money to hector said tax payers by lobbying government.

Or Unions, paid not from union dues, but by the tax payer ("Pilgrims" for example.)

"The ability to make allocations of scarce resources is the essence of economics and social policy making."

Tax again. Those who scream loudest (above mentioned fake-charities/unions) get tax payers' money, instead of what the tax is supposed to be paying for.

DrBlighty said...

Another aspect of power is the ability to control the agenda. If an item of interest is prevented from finding its way on the agenda then it will never become the subject of political choice or discussion. Perhaps it is this that has contributed to the rise of the underclass whose interests are very poorly represented in Parliament whatever its political colour. On the other hand, the interests of the business and financial community are over represented due to their capture of the agenda via lobbying.

David said...

I don't think that the essence of 1984 was the Party's control of communications - it was, as you suggest, the willingness of the population to be controlled. Doublethink was something people did to themselves. I think that the whole 1984 idea is perfectly happy with modern communications, indeed, in may ways it makes it easier - no need to reprint all those copies of The Times, just replace the article on the website. Think how much easier it will be in 20 years time, when there are no printed publications anymore, to remove dissent.

Fiona Hanley said...

Nice one, Renideo. Partisanship is rife. Sometimes ‘the other side’ is right (Crumbs. I know! Go figure...) and yet people who you’d have thought intelligent enough to know better either go silent or refuse to accept that. The tribalism of public debate astonishes me sometimes.

Anyhoo, Orwell and 2012; the rise and rise of surveillance culture, and the creeping erosion of human rights and civil liberties. The message from on high is that it is for our own good; that such is the price society must pay to prevent terrorism and crime. To quote Orwell we are led to believe we sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. Public transport stations and airports display ominous signs warning of unidentified bags and suspicious behaviour, never mind paranoia when it’s for our own good. Car hire companies insist on fingerprinting. A citizen tweets what was patently a joke poking fun at surveillance culture and get charged, prosecuted and fined for it and loses his job in the process. Let that be a lesson to us all, it was the silly boy’s fault for tweeting an irresponsible bad taste joke. Orwell called dirty jokes an act of mental rebellion, and Paul Chambers was comprehensively punished for his. As if civil liberties were only a matter of concern for youngsters who wear baseball caps and hoodies to protect themselves from identification by omnipresent CCTV (and thank you for the ubiquitous signs benignly remindly that we are under CCTV surveillance, generously provided for our own safet)y. As if for all the world if you haven’t done anything wrong and keep your head down the police won’t bother you and the law will be on your side. This in a year which saw the universal human right to peaceful assembly harrassed, intimidated, kettled and peppersprayed.

It’s funny, this trust we have in the police and the justice system. After all the default view of, say, politicians is one of cynicism and suspicion. We have no truck with the paternalistic ‘doctor knows best’ attitude of previous generations. Now we inform ourselves as patients, we question, we demand a doctor patient relationship of mutual respect, we seek second opinions, and rightly so. We tear down to the school like mothertigers if a teacher undermines our child unfairly. Unquestioning acquiescence to these authority figures belong to another age. And yet in a previous post David when you suggested we should also be wary of the police, people reacted quite um, strongly. Maybe it’s because health, education and government policy directly affects the educated middle class but there’s no need to worry about being bothered by the nice policeman as long as one behaves oneself. Quite doublethink-ish really *puts on tin hat*.

As for our media, this was the year which gave us “privacy is for paedoes”. And not uttered by a pantomime weirdo but a senior figure in a media empire which was only investigated, finally, when the privacy of members of the royal family was violated. What was the delay on that? Oh yes, the government was too tightly in hock to said conglomerate because it controlled the dissemination of public information. Until it all snowballed this year was it my imagination or were Murdoch opponents considered a bit yoghurt-knitting hippie saps? Or was that just Jeremy Clarkson’s opinion?

Robust and free open public debate is essential to political accountability and transparency in government. We don’t have to wait to get our letter published in the Times anymore to have our voices heard publicly. Personally I’m quite optimistic that the snowballing rise of social media will make for a better, less 1984ish society.

TTR said...

'The utopia of informed citizen politics' is just that David, it is a dream. Sorry to be pessimistic!

I do think that you were alluding to an ideal form of democracy which could only have flourished in a small Greek city state 2600 years ago. Even then, Pericles struggled to keep his fellow citizen's under control, requiring great oratory skills to control the Delian League. In the modern context, as much as one finds the political control mechanisms deplorable, there is an inevitability about it. Perhaps, the nature of modern politics is dirtier as there are far more expected of politicians?

Eric Blair (Orwell) was a visionary, a pessimistic visionary perhaps?

Cunard said...

As a metaphor for Truth, 2+2=x is by no means synonymous with 'information', nor indeed facts.

The Truth that Orwell bestows upon Winston Smith is Love: Julia. She is the catalyst of his transformation.

1984 is the clash of two narratives: The State's dead-weight stories of War (and related discipline) and Winston's fledgling discovery of Truth through love - the most personal of all narratives.

Orwell does not simply implore us to gather 'Facts', but to deepen our love.

Irrespective of your final comment "one suspects few of us will": people DO actually 'get it'. We struggle to stay sane!! To protect our families, and to express our love - despite the State's continual demands upon our time, and our horizons.