Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the most influential and definitive novels of the twentieth century. Its appeal to the profound unease in the global socio-political climate of 1949 made it instantly of significance: yet its transcendence extends to the current day, in which some of its relentlessly dystopian characteristics are becoming ever more apparent.
Initially, this significance indicates something implicit to the novel as a work of art – in its ability to puncture below superficial awareness of the more sinister aspects of neoliberalist democracy, and strike directly at an unarticulated, even unconscious nausea felt by all within consumer capitalism. This, I think, is a result of the inherently metaphysical underpinnings of the novel, which challenge the Fukuyama-ist assumptions many have adopted.
Francis Fukuyama’s argued that, from a sociocultural standpoint, humanity may have reached the so called ‘end of history’, in the global spread of liberal democracy alongside free-market capitalism. This rationale has become deeply embedded within mainstream approaches to public discourse. Certainly, many assume that proposals, or even discussions of alternatives to this hegemonic structure pose an unparalleled threat to the very fabric of society itself.
At its core, the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four follows the failure of Winston Smith’s metaphysical perspective of common-sense realism. He proposes that ‘the nature of reality is self-evident’. Here, we can first extrapolate a parallel with post-ideological sentiment throughout public discourse. Winston’s assumption of an objective reality is very much alike to the Fukuyama-ist notion that the contemporary theoretical ‘marketplace of ideas’ is free of a dominant ideological disposition.
This view is in accordance with the Lacanian notion of the Real: as the external reference of objective reality, directly related to the social and symbolic order. More specifically, Slavoj Zizek’s assertion that ‘the Real is the inexorable ‘abstract’ spectral logic of Capital which determines what goes on in social reality’ is of particular relevancy here. The post-ideological sentiment is a result of the tension arising from supposed disruptions to this reference point of the symbolic Real.
The ruling party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ingsoc, draw upon a metaphysical stance that shares applicable characteristics with their political ideology of Oligarchical Collectivism. Ingsoc’s ‘collective solipsism’ is repressive, dissolute, and reliant on despotic rule. For the Party, ‘Reality exists in the human mind’ – more precisely, ‘in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal’. In a symbolic sense, this can represent the imposition of socio-political hegemony: the dominating climate of neoliberal politics for the past half century.
Therefore, I claim that Orwell draws an intrinsic connection between the nature of Ingsoc’s politics, and their rejection of realist metaphysics. The totalitarian reality control policies that Ingsoc implement are symbiotically linked to collective solipsism. Their metaphysics is the mechanism by which they effectively and verifiably control reality in their politics.
Newspeak is one such policy of profound contemporary importance. Newspeak functions within the novel as the official Oceanic language, created to ‘meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc’. This immediately evokes considerations of the structural difficulties within discourse under neoliberalism. This is most outwardly apparent within public and academic discussion in the erasure of anti-capitalist approaches within the mainstream. Here I can draw upon Zizek’s ingenious summary: ‘We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom’. This control over theoretical apparatus perhaps evokes a more sinister influence over the mental state of the population. This deeply rooted control of language is also apparent in centrist responses: notably, the liberal left’s promotion of political correctness as an integral means of resisting systematic oppression. This form of resistance constructs a symbolic fulfilment of ideological pursuits, with questionable achievements in significantly shifting the status of the disadvantaged.
Ultimately, I think this points to an essential lure of anti-realism within the political climate today. The increasingly authoritarian brands of neoliberalist states indicates an attraction to an attempt of reality control, in which the socio-political elite perpetrate a political ideal framed as an objective reality.
Perhaps most dangerous is not merely this hegemonic exertion of control, but rather, its more unpalatable responses, in the rise of authoritarian populist movements in the past few years. The fascistic anti-intellectual basis for many of these movements implies a lack of regard to cogent metaphysics, and, as many fear, may act as a precursor to totalitarian ideals.
This is the fundamental danger of anti-realism: it not only demands absolute control, but indiscriminately assumes a doctrine’s transcendence over the structures of reality itself. Here, when ideology ignores truth, there is no chance of verifiable opposition. Nineteen Eighty-Four still provides an expertly coherent narrative that can illuminate out understanding of anti-realism in contemporary politics – and the appeal for somewhat totalitarian politics.