George Orwell’s 1984 Revisited: The Rise of the Civilizationalists

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump (White House)

by James M. Dorsey

The rise of a critical mass of world leaders including Donald J. Trump, Xi Jinping and others In Europe, Asia and Latin America who are  bent on shaping a new world order in their authoritarian and civilizationalist mould, has given 1984, George Orwell’s prophetic novel, published 70 years ago, renewed relevance.

Its graphic warning of the threat of illiberal and authoritarian rule and the risks embodied in liberal democracy are as acute today as they were in the immediate wake of World War II.

In many ways, Mr. Orwell’s novel that envisioned the rise of the surveillance state and the emergence of what he called Newspeak, the abuse of language for political purposes and the perversion of the truth in ways that makes facts irrelevant, could have been written today.

The reality of Mr. Orwell’s 1984 manifests itself today in the emergence of illiberal and authoritarian rulers across the globe and/or the rise of aspects or, as in the case of China, the equivalent of the writer’s imaginary omnipotent party that rules a superstate he called Oceania.

The building blocks of the party’s toolkit have gained renewed currency: a thought police, the dominance of Big Brother enabled by surveillance, Newspeak and doublethink.

Most alarmingly, elements of Mr. Orwell’s vision no longer are limited to totalitarian regimes. Increasingly, democracies in crisis feature aspects of it too.

The fourth estate, an independent media that holds power to account, is reduced to the role of government scribe in China, the Gulf and other autocracies. The media is similarly on the defensive in democracies such as the United States, Hungary, India, Turkey, Russia, and the Philippines.

Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s advisor, revived Newspeak with her coining of the phrase ‘alternative facts’ to justify demonstrably false assertions by the president and members of his administration.

Newspeak also created the basis for the bullying and/or prosecution, incarceration and killing of critical journalists and shuttering of media. It bolsters assertions by men like Mr. Trump and Hungarian and Filipino presidents Victor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte that mainstream media report fake news.

And it allowed Mr. Trump to last year tell a veterans association that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Mr. Orwell’s novel is couched in terms of liberal versus totalitarian – the reality he confronted as a republican volunteer in the Spanish civil war and post-World War Two Europe.

It was a time in which civilisationalism in the form of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany had been defeated. Civilisationalism is today alive and kicking among the world’s illiberal and authoritarian leaders.

It manifests itself in multiple forms across the globe of disregard for human and minority rights.

Mr. Xi has reconceived the Chinese state as civilizational rather than national with borders that go beyond its internationally recognized frontiers.

Russian and Turkish presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s differing versions of Eurasianism involve a civilizationalist world view.

Indian president Narendra Modi and Mr. Trump’s seeming empathy for expressions of racial or religious supremacism despite the US president’s condemnation of this weekend’s killing of 20 people in a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, encourages civilisationalism.

Further complicating the world Mr. Orwell envisioned is the fact that the dividing lines between civilizationalist and populist leaders are blurred.

Civilizationalist leaders are populists by definition. But not all populists think in terms of a civilizational rather than a nation state.

For now, that may not matter much in practice with civilizationalist and populist leaders emphasizing their shared values.

That common ground enables China to employ cutting edge technology in its roll out at home and abroad of a surveillance state designed to invade virtually every aspect of a person’s life.

At the cutting edge of Mr. Xi’s surveillance state, is his brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Xi has launched the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history in a bid to Sinicize Uighurs and other Turkic minorities.

Mr. Xi, bolstered by China’s economic and political clout, has so far gotten away with what some have termed cultural genocide courtesy of a Muslim world that is largely populated by authoritarian and autocratic leaders who see China as a model of achieving economic growth without political liberalization.

The clampdown is but one extreme of a global trend in which civilisationalism increasingly undermines minority rights, risking escalating cycles of violence and mass migration as a result of mounting insecurity and violence fuelled by rising supremacism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

The writing is on the wall.

Hate crimes in the United States enabled by lax gun laws and Mr. Trump’s racist outbursts are on the rise; violence against Muslims increased dramatically in India where 90 percent of religious hate crimes in the last decade have occurred since Mr. Modi came to power; some 750,000 Rohingya linger in Bangladeshi refugee camps after fleeing persecution in Myanmar; Islamophobia has become part of Europe and China’s reality. Jews in Europe fear a new wave of anti-Semitism.

Illiberals and authoritarians pay lip service to democracy or advocate distorted forms of a rights-based system while either denying or undermining basic rights.

Muratbek Imanaliev, a professor at the Russian foreign ministry’s diplomatic academy and a former Kyrgyz foreign minister and ex-secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), coined the phrase ‘positive authoritarianism.’

Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov expanded on it by putting forward an argument that would ultimately, in recognition of Mr. Orwell’s predictions, allow illiberals and autocrats to throw any reference to democracy on the garbage pail of history.

“Authoritarian countries, with their managed incomplete democracies can be better prepared to compete and govern in the growingly volatile world,” Mr. Karaganov argued.

Mr. Karaganov’s reasoning suggests that Mr. Orwell’s prediction, even if the Russian scholar envisions a less extreme version of the writer’s fictional depiction, is the solution to the very problems generated by civilisationalists. There seems to be little in today’s headlines that would bear that out.

Republished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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James Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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3 Comments

  1. The compelling image of an Orwellian world unfolding before our eyes is easy to understand seeing some societies going along with some elements of it, particularly surveillance, in two senses: to prevent potential bad things or unruled outcomes to take over, or mass promotions of preferred truths. In the article there’re two countries more clearly spelled: the U.S. and China and because of the importance of both, it’s worth to analyze their particular situation. In China, clearly the danger is about personified surveillance preventing dissidents to express even opinions and in the U.S. the danger is in the spreading of devious ideologies such as White Supremacy. World Order Mission could be the ultimate goal. War and arm race could be attributed to a U.S. preferred stance while Road and Belt could lead to another supposedly ‘control expansion’. But there’s no mention of Europe as a unique experiment letting aside the for the moment limited ‘nationalistic’ movements in Hungary, Poland and Italy. Europe should in my view be considered as a real potential contender in this Orwellian Model. High level of education which has been a prevalent reality in Europe after devastating wars, particularly the WWII could conduce indeed to the construction of hopefully the New Model. I believe the human mind is naturally opened to balance under a peaceful environment and this what has to be promoted as the foremost civilization achievement.

  2. As factual as your observations are, your treatment of the global rise of illiberalism is superficial. You focus exclusively on the rise of authoritarian leaders and offer no explanation for their widespread popularity today. In the process, you overlook the inevitable and inherent hypocrisies of liberalism (for example, the astronomically wasteful Cold War). Your presumption that before Trump our major media held power to account could contain a grain of truth when “power” meant government only. But in recent decades more than ever, real power (the one whose interests politicians represent) is the influence of global mega brands, including media companies. The rise of identity politics (or civilizationalism, as you name it) has in the West closely tracked with the elitist corrupting of genuine bottom-up labor movements, aided by liberal media’s diversionary content .

  3. Mr. Dorsey,
    I am looking at this paragraph and get confused.
    “The fourth estate, an independent media that holds power to account, is reduced to the role of government scribe in China, the Gulf and other autocracies. The media is similarly on the defensive in democracies such as the United States, Hungary, India, Turkey, Russia, and the Philippines.”
    Regarding “the Gulf”, which Gulf do you intend to convey; Golf of Mexico? Golf of Tonkin? Gulf of Aden? … (see the “Which Gulf Do They Mean?” on Lobelog, Aug. 7 2019).
    How can one say a writer (reporter) is member of an “Independent”, “Defensive”, “Or …” media?

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