29 January 2017

An Orwellian visitation

Two well known men are buried in a churchyard located in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire.  One grave, the older in fact, is kept well.  It was not the grave that Pat Pathinayake wanted to show me.  We were looking for a different grave but this one caught Pat’s eye.  He knew the name and the history; I did not.

"That’s Asquith.  It was in his house that the decision to go to war was taken."

Herbert Henry Asquith, I later found out, was the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from the Liberal Party to form a government without a coalition.  He took his country to war in what is considered as the most important individual prime ministerial decision of the 19th and 20th centuries.  That war, according to John Reed, the only American of the United States to be buried in the Kremlin and the author of that telling account of the Russian Revolution, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World,’ was about one thing: profit.  

We weren’t looking for Asquith’s grave.  Pat and I strolled around the graveyards behind The Church of All Saints.  Pat, the consummate English ‘gentleman’ was respectful to the dead.  ‘Sorry ma’am,’ I heard him say softly when accidentally stepping on the grave of a woman more than half a century dead.  

‘Look for Eric Arthur Blair,’ he said.  I didn’t understand why.  At that time I didn’t know that this was the real name of the man who is known today as a gifted writer and a prophet of sorts, George Orwell.  

I found it and called out to Pat, who rushed in with his camera.  The gravestone was modest.  The legend on it was simple: ‘Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, Born June 25, 1903, Died January 21, 1950.’  

Someone had placed a bouquet of flowers as modest as the grave.  Along with a note: ‘As you might have guessed George — big brother is still around and getting smarter.’

The ‘big brother’ referred to in that sweet note was not the ‘big brother’ that Orwell spoke of in his celebrated novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.  Big Brother is less an individual than it is a system that has evolved or rather been structured in part by the deliberate actions of identifiable forces and by the dynamics of elements within structures.  In other words, there are structured structures and structuring structures in the play of system and agency, as Pierre Bourdieu put it, and therefore, as Marx put it, ‘men (sic) make history but not in the circumstances of their choice’.  

Orwell objected to Stalinism (‘Animal Farm’ has been described  as an allegorical novella reflecting events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union) and for this reason he was quite the darling of the Western Right who, not surprisingly, quoted and footnoted intent, detail and context.  He was after all a socialist.  Today, more than 65 years after he died, the objections embedded in his dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ apply more to that other system to which he objected - capitalism.  Today the ‘party’ is not the Communist Party but that which thrives above visible politics that see ‘change’ in Washington now and then, in one direction or the other, the true movers and shakers which stymied Barack Obama and shaped him into a cog of the system.  

‘Big brother is still around and getting smarter,’ was the line.  Pat explained what it was all about and I remembered a conversation from the previous day.

The day before Pat took me to Oxfordshire, another friend took me around London.  We walked in the rain and talked of our fathers, their politics, our youthful idealism, truths we defended and non-negotiables that have survived convulsions we didn’t have the strength to subvert.  We walked into Waterloo Station.  

‘Look.  Surveillance cameras.   It’s a good thing in that it makes it difficult to break the law and get away with it.  People are warned.  That’s also part of the law.  If you put up CCTV cameras you have to put up a sign stating the fact.  But remember, these are only the cameras that are visible.  There are many more.  And there are people behind screens keeping watch.  They are trained to monitor, to detect anything or anyone unusual.’

Of course, there are no foolproof security systems.  Way back in 1994, Steven Flusty, a fellow graduate student at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Southern California, took me around Los Angeles and pointed out various systems of surveillance.  It was edifying.  And yet, just seven years later we had 9/11.

Such things notwithstanding, surveillance has got smarter over the years.  As someone said, disparagingly, of Apple, ‘we got people to give us their thumb-prints and also pay us 650 dollars for it!’  

We save things in ‘cloud’ and think it’s up their in the clouds, but everything we write, every picture we post, every conversation we have on the internet can be accessed by unknown people.  Forewarned is forearmed we’ve been told.  Big Brother, so to speak, is armed with information as well as killing machines.  

In a modest churchyard in a corner of Oxfordshire, my friend Pat Pathinayake showed me a grave. It needed to be minded a bit.  But then again, what minding for a man who was so prophetic about minders and minding, I asked myself.  

Big Brother is still around, and getting smarter.  Perhaps too smart, I’d like to think.  

Pat bowed slightly as we left Orwell’s grave.    And I remembered something that the Buddha said, something which Louis Althusser the French Marxist philosopher echoed more than two millennia later: ideology (the enemy, if you wish) is not something out there, it is also resident within us.  In action and word, thought and silence, in decisions made, unmade and not made, we perpetuate the system, strengthen the enemy and genuflect before Big Brother.  

There’s surveillance I am being subjected to as I write.  I don’t see the camera or the person or the system that handles it, but there’s one camera I have.  Me.  It’s a devise we all possess.  It’s something we train on the world outside and the people inhibiting this world.  It’s not a bad thing.  But now and then, maybe it is important to be Althusserian about it, or Buddhist if you prefer that tag.  

Pat Pathinayake took me to see a grave.  We came across one which we didn’t know was in the same churchyard.  In a corner of a small village called Sutton Courtenay, a couple of long-dead people spoke to us.  Two little brothers, far removed from the land of their birth, had a conversation about a big brother.  The specter of George Orwell has been following me since then, thanks to a note left behind by a random visitor whose name I do not know.  

George, you can rest in peace now.  I heard.  And have done a bit in the matter of passing on the message. Big Brother is smart, sure.  The pigs have taken over, sure.  But time is long.