Parables of big brother - Robert Kurz

Robert Kurz discusses the “implicit” “subtexts” of the great dystopian literature of the 20th century and reveals the “internalized constraints” of “the anonymous, ‘reified’ character of [the] totalitarianism” of our time, in which “the Voice of Big Brother is the voice of the Anonymous World Market”, the “most totalitarian of all systems”, and “the subjective command centers are … the executive organs of an autonomized mechanism” ruled by “the irrational end-in-itself of the ‘interminable valorization of value’” whose “ideal is the self-surveillance and self-control of the individual entrepreneur ‘by way of his capitalist superego’”.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on February 4, 2014

Parables of Big Brother – Robert Kurz

In every epoch of the history of literature there are some books that become “classics”, something like “books of the century”, offering their times a paradigmatic image, thus having a major impact the effects of which are felt for many years. It is not just by chance that the literary form of these works is so often the parable. This literary form allows for the presentation of basic philosophical ideas in such a way that they can be read both as philosophical works and as easily understood, colorful and gripping stories.

What this dual nature says to the educated person is quite different from what it says to children or adolescents, but everyone ends up reading the book with equal voracity. It is precisely for this reason that these works make a very profound impression on the consciousness of the world, penetrating the ways of thinking and the everyday conversation and imagination of society.

During the 18th century, it was the parables of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift that came to constitute the literary paradigms of the dawn of capitalist modernity. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe became the prototype of the white man, bourgeois, hard-working, optimistic, rational, who, as master of his soul and of his existence, on a desert island, creates a comfortable place to live from scratch and, better yet, also “purifies” the underdeveloped people of color by means of “labor”, ultimately teaching them magnificently civilized modes of conduct. In contrast, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels wanders through fabulous, dangerous and bizarre worlds where capitalist modernization is treated with mordant satire and where Defoe’s “bourgeois virtues” are parodied.

We may understand Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as the first “negative utopia” of modernity, full of presentiments. In the following century, the positivist and progress-worshipping 19th century, this literary-philosophical genre underwent something of an eclipse. In the 20th century, however, it experienced an unexpected revival. An early precursor was the novel, The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, published in 1895. In this work by Wells we encounter a kind of projection of the class society of the Victorian era into a future stage of complete degeneracy, in which the descendants of the capitalists of the past live on the surface of the earth as affable, kind-hearted, half-senile and dim-witted weaklings, while the descendants of the working class of the past are transformed into beings of the subterranean world, who cannibalistically feed on their surface-dwelling enemies.

Under the impact of the world wars, vast economic crises and dictatorships in industrial countries, the genre of negative utopia was perfected. The somber parables of a Franz Kafka, for example, belong to this context, along with the popular works of pessimistic science fiction. Novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1920, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and especially the two outstanding books by George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984, the latter being perhaps the most well-known of all negative utopias, published in 1949, became famous.

It is easy to see why the enthusiastic propagandists of the sacrosanct globalized capitalism would welcome Orwell’s work. They embraced Orwell and saw him as one of “their own”, a man who could see, anticipate and express his horror at hardly “democratic” dictatorships like those of Hitler and Stalin. Everyone is “enchanted” by his famous parables whose message, they say, helped conduct mankind to a future of freedom, democracy and a free market economy, which has now, “fortunately”, been “almost realized”. Finally, we would be told that Orwell’s work calls upon us to be vigilant against the tentacles of totalitarianism, which are always “just around the corner”, where the evil villains of this world lie in ambush, always awaiting their opportunity to destroy our beautiful “democratic world”. And it is at this point that these discourses will most likely refer to Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. It would be very hard, however, for any of these “democratic” tribunes, who are so devoted to reverence for Orwell, to reach this other conclusion, however: that his negative utopia has long been a reality and that we are living today in the most totalitarian of all systems, whose core is composed of the democratic West itself. Surely, not even Orwell himself would have thought of such a thing. It is obvious that, from his standpoint in the 1940s, when he wrote his parables, he had nothing else in mind besides the experiences of the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism systems; this was also more or less the case with regard to Hannah Arendt’s philosophical works, written during the early 1950s. These major philosophical works and great literary parables are often characterized by the fact that they say more about what their own authors knew and by the fact that they would cast a surprising light on subsequent developments, something that could not have been consciously foreseen during the period when these books were written. The first Orwellian parable, Animal Farm, illustrates this aspect. Viewed superficially, it is a fable about the vanity (or futility) of all social revolutions, since the essence of social domination, the structure of power, always remains the same. This message anticipates a basic idea of the postmodern thought of Foucault, which similarly posits a kind of “ontology of power”. In this sense Orwell is more of an anthropological pessimist than he is an ideological cheerleader for the dominant order, although, like all pessimists, he finally ends up defending the existing society, in his case Anglo-Saxon society, as the best of all possible worlds. It was not without reason that Orwell was often compared to Swift. Animal Farm is a brilliant parody of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs as the bureaucratic elite and the supreme pig “Napoleon” playing the role of Stalin. Naturally, one may laugh at all the clichés of bourgeois thought concerning the nature of all attempts at human emancipation. But the parable also contains a quite distinct subtext of which Orwell himself was evidently unaware. On the one hand, the book may be read from the viewpoint that the problem did not reside in the idea of emancipation itself but in the “revolution betrayed” (Isaac Deutscher), once the pigs, under the leadership of Napoleon, brought equality to the farm. On the other hand, this subtext in turn contains another subtext according to which it is not this “betrayal” of the Revolution by the pigs that caused the Revolution to fail but the false understanding of its repression, which is not a result of the form of organization assumed by the Revolution but merely of the will to power of the human farmer named Jones, of his exploitation of the animals of the farm. Thus, the sheep regularly drown out all debate about the meaning of collective action, vehemently bleating the slogan, “Four legs good, two legs bad” every fifteen minutes, which in the end is refuted, because it was the pigs themselves who became “two legs”.

Internalized Constraints

Without intending to do so, Orwell thus arrived at the implicit conclusion that it is not a change in the identity of those who hold positions of power that constitutes emancipation but the abolition of a particular form of organization of social life, that is, in this context, that of the modern system of commodity production, which affects all social classes. It would thus become transparently obvious that even abstract labor itself is not an ontological principle, much less a principle of human emancipation, but to the contrary is the real principle of repressive power, which subjects the animals to the irrational end-in-itself of “production for the sake of production”, symbolized in the dull-witted character of the draft horse, Boxer, a brownnoser type who wants to solve every problem with the application of the saying, “I will work harder”, only to end up being sold by Napoleon to a butcher, so exhausted that he could no longer continue to work.

The problem of the common form of the systemic social nexus becomes even more clear in 1984, a book that is very similar to the novel, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (and was perhaps influenced by it). First of all, both Zamyatin and Orwell have the figure of an all-powerful and colossal leader, in the one case simply called “the Benefactor”, and in the other, “Big Brother”. Naturally, both reflect the totalitarian political dictatorships of the inter-war period.

Here, too, however, a subtext appears that goes beyond, far beyond, the explicit message. Behind the power personified in the “Benefactor” or “Big Brother”, lies the anonymous, “reified” character of totalitarianism: the “Benefactor” of Zamyatin ends up being revealed to be an intelligent machine and Orwell’s “Big Brother” can also be easily read as a metaphor for an anonymous matrix of systemic control, which in today’s economic totalitarianism functions in a much more constraining manner than was ever achieved in the political dictatorships of the first half of the 20th century.

In the parable of 1984 the evil is not so much external coercion as something that is even worse yet, the internalization of this coercion, which ends up seeming like an imperative of the ego itself. The irrational end-in-itself of the “interminable valorization of value” by way of abstract labor wants a self-regulating man, one who exercises self-repression in the name of anonymous systemic laws. The ideal is the self-surveillance and self-control of the individual entrepreneur “by way of his capitalist superego”: am I productive, adapted, efficient? Am I following the trends, am I capable of competing? The Voice of Big Brother is the voice of the Anonymous World Market; and the “thought police” of the democratic relations of competition function in a much more refined way than all the secret police forces put together.

The same goes for the famous “Orwellian language” or “Newspeak” with its inversion of meanings, which is basically, in fact, the language of economic liberalism: when it is said, in the name of Big Brother, that “freedom is slavery”, then this also means inversely that “slavery is freedom”, that is, the cheerful self-submission to alleged “natural laws” of the social physics of the market economy. And the same goes for other mottoes of “Newspeak”: “War is Peace”—no one knows this better than NATO and that “democratic” world power, the U.S., the self-designated world policeman; and as for the motto, “Ignorance is Strength”—who would be more likely to admit in all good conscience that they subscribe to this maxim than the democratic consumer or the “business managers” whose success depends on social ignorance? To doubt, even just in thought, the norms of the system would mean placing oneself “outside the pale”, or social death.

One might be able to escape from a political sect or, in a Totalitarian State, one might be able to join the “domestic emigration”; but the “self-regulated” capitalist man cannot leave, he cannot withdraw, “just because he says so”, or “whenever he wants”, from the totalitarian market because this would amount to nothing more or less than leaving his own ego, which has been transformed into “human capital”. Consciousness is reintroduced in the omnipresent mechanism of competition, incessantly treating itself in a cold, calculating way as an instrument of valorization and, at the same time, deceiving itself with the formulas of the neoliberal economic “Newspeak”: e.g., “the madness of productivity is self-experience”; “self-submission is self-realization”; “social anxiety is self-liberation”, etc. Or, as the schizophrenic master-slogan of modern man, formulated by Rimbaud so perfectly that it has not been surpassed in more than a hundred years: “I am someone else”.

Freedom has no more meaning, in this world, than knowledge of what “Big Brother”, or the “Benefactor”, that is, the Totalitarian Market, wants from men, to know and to be able to present oneself and obey its compulsions or else end up in the streets, forfeit one’s social existence and die prematurely. In order to apply these sanctions against the losers a vast bureaucratic system is no longer necessary. These sanctions flow by themselves from the sinister anonymous power of the social machine of capital. This is the power of blind economic laws, which violate natural and human resources, freed from all purposeful social control, even from that of the subjective intentions of their own managers.

In a way, the entire world has been transformed into one gigantic “Orwellian Animal Farm”, one in which it does not matter who is in command, whether it is the farmer Jones or the supreme pig Napoleon, since the subjective command centers are in any event merely the executive organs of an autonomized mechanism, which will never rest until it transforms the world, by means of labor, into a lifeless desert.

In this Orwellian “Animal Farm-World” of autonomized economic laws, all critical questions concerning the meaning and the purpose of the whole demented organization are immediately drowned out because the “democratic sheep” never stop bleating: “Work is Good; Lack of Work is Bad”; “Competition is Good; Social Demands are Bad”, etc.

If we can read the Orwellian parables in this way then we can see ourselves as the prisoners of a mature system whose totalitarianism is such that, in comparison, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 seem almost innocent.

Robert Kurz

Translated from the Spanish translation in February 2014.

Translated from Portuguese to Spanish for Rebelión by Horacio Garetto. Portuguese version was first published by Folha de São Paulo (Brazil) under the title, "Parábolas do Meio-Irmão".

Source of Spanish translation:

Originally published in German as “Wer ist ‘Big Brother’? George Orwell und die Kritik der Moderne” (available online at: