Even since the days before Edward Snowden’s revelations there have been comparisons made between the powers of the NSA – and the surveillance state in general – and George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. With the Snowden leaks of 2013, the idea that the government is constantly watching, analysing, and collecting a huge variety of data on any individual at any given moment turned from a bleak vision of a dystopian future to a worrying truth about our current reality.
Orwell describes the seemingly omnipotent reach of the Thought Police in this particularly pertinent paragraph:
“It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”
What Orwell envisioned was a world where no one was free to enjoy the rights of liberty and privacy, all were unified together under the all seeing watch of Big Brother and the Thought Police. However, one of the most significant points that distinguishes this rationale from other authors of nightmarish worlds such as Huxley and Kafka is that in the Orwellian society the people are all aware of their current predicament, the problem is they do not feel they have the capacity to fight it. Nobody wants to be under The Party’s control but, other than Winston the protagonist and his small group of rebels, they see resistance as futile.
There is a subtle difference here between Orwell’s vision and the surreal and nightmarish worlds produced by Franz Kafka. Some commentators have noted that the NSA’s reach and scope is more Kafkaesque than it is Orwellian. But what do we even mean by Kafkaesque? It’s often used to describe a system or situation marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity, but Frederick R. Karl, author of an exhaustive critical biography of Franz Kafka, believes it’s more complex than that.
“What’s Kafkaesque,” he argued in his 1991 interview with the New York Times, “is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behaviour, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world … You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.”
From this more appropriate description we can see how the actions of the surveillance state seem to fulfil everything it means to be trapped in a Kafkaesque world. We don’t know who’s in control, we don’t seemingly have a choice. We don’t know who is accountable and thus accountability becomes meaningless. All we can do is try as hard as we can to fight against the system but in the end it may quite possibly be hopeless.
The Edward Snowden files also seem draw particular comparisons with Kafka’s most famous long fiction, The Trial, which describes Joseph K., a man who, although in ‘hot pursuit of the truth’, is sentenced for an unnamed crime, at the hands of an unnamed court, with a seemingly infinite progression of advocates and judges who operate in secret. All of his actions and indeed his whole life becomes part of the trial whether he knows it or not. Here the parallels between The Trial and the secret FISA courts that the US government use to pass certain legislation become increasingly evident.
Friedrich Karl goes so far as to say that in Kafka, time and space are rearranged so they ‘can work either for or against the protagonist; the horror of that world is that he never knows what is happening, or when … thus the Kafkaesqueness of the Kafkan world: that insistence to uncover what is always uncoverable, or to recover what cannot be recovered.’ The similarities between Kafka and Orwell in relation to the Surveillance state seem to be focused around the struggle against a power that is too large for the individual to fight and too powerful for any one person to make a meaningful impact against. However, perhaps with Edward Snowden as the figurehead of dissent against the all watching eye of the NSA there is hope for the majority of people who are now aware of the unlawful actions of NSA and GCHQ.
That problem that arises, and the biggest fear for Snowden himself, is that the revelations which have exposed the corrupted system of power that controls our actions will be brushed under the carpet. Privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum states in the documentary Citizenfour that one of the biggest problems facing his generation is the defeatist mentality of people resigning themselves to saying ‘I knew the government were spying on me’ or even that they don’t care, they have nothing to hide. This brings in an apt comparison with another dystopian classic, the Brave New World described by Aldous Huxley.
In his letter to Orwell regarding the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues: ‘Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.’ The nightmare for Huxley, as it is for Snowden, is not that people will be forced into coercion with a ‘ruling minority’ but that they will be unaware of their own subservience, or they will simply be happy to accept it. As Huxley states: ‘the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.’
What Huxley seems to have picked up on is that it’s much easier to keep a population from dissenting against a particular power structure if you coax them into the belief that there’s nothing wrong. In Brave New World free love, the powerful drug Soma and many other techniques are deployed to keep the people ‘loving their servitude’ and in the modern era we have many similarities that serve the same goal, from over-prescription of medication for mental disorders, to the technical over-reliance on instant accessibility at the cost of privacy.
So, worryingly enough each one of these 3 great authors envisioned a world that encapsulates fragments of our own, but what we can learn from them is that literature itself has the power to influence and challenge the power structures that seek to minimize it’s dissentive effects. There’s a reason why books like Nineteen Eighty-Four are banned in many modern dictatorships, and why the only person with access to literature in Brave New World is the leader: literature can provide power to the people. Kafka, Orwell, and Huxley together have predicted many of the nightmarish aspects of the modern era but also together have provided a hope and defiance for many of us faced by these issues today.