Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Welcome to 1984

Well 1984 was thirty years ago, so why not use the arbitrary temporal conventions of decade-based anniversaries as an excuse for a series of posts on that year? First of all, some reflections on the lead up to that year:

'Someday they won't let you, 
so now you must agree
The times they are a-telling, 
and the changing isn't free
You've read it in the tea leaves, 
and the tracks are on TV
Beware the savage jaw 
Of 1984'

(David Bowie)

1984 was no ordinary year. For a start it was a year carrying an ominous weight of dystopian expectations before it even started. Of course George Orwell was to blame, writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and, after some hesitation, choosing in 1948 to call his novel 1984. If Orwell had stuck with his original working title, The Last Man in Europe, the sense of foreboding as 1984 approached would not have existed in the same way. As it was, his novel had been continuously in print ever since and millions had read of an English police state in a future envisaged as a 'Boot stamping on a human face, forever'.

Others had seen film and TV versions (a new film, starring John Hurt, was to be released during the year). And even people only vaguely aware of Orwell and his work had imbibed some of its content, with terms like Big Brother and Thought Police entering  into the language as synonyms for state surveillance and terror.

David Bowie had written his '1984' song for an unrealized musical based on the novel. By the time of its release on the 1974 Diamond Dogs album, 1984 was becoming a myth of the near future, rather than the distant horizon it may have seemed to Orwell writing on the Isle of Jura a generation before.

1984 was now a date to count down to, an imminent moment of social explosion or apocalypse. The Clash's Year Zero  anthem '1977' seems to suggest an escalation of class war ('ain't so lucky to be rich, sten guns in Knightsbridge'), with the years chanted at the end: 'it's 1978, it's 1979...' through to an inevitable abrupt stop with 'it's 1984!'. Other punk songs from the same period included 'P.C.' by Crisis and '1984' by The Unwanted ('1984, thought police at the door'). The Dead Kennedys sang 'Now it's 1984, Knock knock at your front door' on 1979's California Uber Alles, and recycled the line on their anti-Reagan anthem 'We've got a bigger problem now' (1981): 'Welcome to 1984,  Are you ready for the third world war?, You too will meet the secret police, They'll draft you and they'll jail your niece'. 

When Crass put out their first album in 1978, kicking off the whole anarcho-punk movement, the sleeve included the cryptic code 621984.  Similar inscriptions on releases in subsequent years made it clear where this was going - 521984 in 1979, 321984 in 1981 and so on.

If there was some sense of foreboding at the approach of 1984 it was not down to just the power of Orwell's imagery. In the 1970s and early 1980s, fears and hopes of impending social crises led many to ponder on the possibilities of revolution, civil war, coups and dictatorship. The period had seen serious economic instability in the aftermath of the 1973 financial crisis, with rising inflation and unemployment. Strike waves from the 1974 miners dispute to the 1978 Winter of Discontent had undermined successive governments, guerrilla warfare was raging in the North of Ireland and there had been widespread rioting across England in 1981.

Right wing factions in the Conservative Party and the secret state had certainly toyed with planning a military coup and suspending civil liberties to 'save' the country from what they saw as the Orwellian nightmare of socialism. In the circles around the National Association for Freedom the talk was of counter-insurgency and contingency planning to counter subversion.  In a 1982 debate on local government, a Conservative MP warned of ' the entrance of municipal socialism' and pledged 'that unless we act now—before 1984—the Orwellian concept of 1984 and the corporate State might just happen'  (John Heddle, Hansard 26 Feb 1982).

On the left, these manoeuvres and a general growth in police powers prompted critiques of an emerging crisis state. Their Orwellian nightmare was of an authoritarian populist regime rallying the masses around the flag while crushing dissent. These ideas were not confined to the columns of radical newspapers. They also infused the dramatic (and sometimes self-dramatising) rhetoric of punk and its aftermath, flavoured with reggae-inspired notions of dread, Babylon and living under heavy manners.

The election of a Conservative government in 1979 heightened this sense of intensifying antagonisms. The racist language of the far right was entering mainstream political discourse with Thatcher talking of 'Alien culture', and flag waving militarism had been revived in the Falklands war. The Cold War too was getting hotter with America and Russia deploying a new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe. As US President Reagan developed his plans for 'Star Wars' missiles in space, Labour leader Michael Foot once again reached for Orwell:   'President Reagan got through Congress his latest proposal for the so-called MX missile system. Such is the Orwellian state that we have reached, even before 1984, that he even managed to describe his proposition as a form of arms control' (1983). 

In the event 1984 in Britain may not have ended with war between Eurasia and Oceania, or outright totalitarian dictatorship, but it was not short of historical drama, with the most bitterly fought strike since the 1920s, the near assassination of the Prime Minister, hundreds of arrests in anti-nuclear protests, Stop the City... all this and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

See also: 

January 1984 Chronology
February 1984 Chronology


Johnny Haddo said...

Oi m8..GK Chesterton, Napoleon of Notting Hill, first published in 1904. was set in the near future of 1984..nice blog_

Anonymous said...

actually, in 1970, before david bowie or the dead kennedys, spirit, a group from california, released a single entitled "1984." while the lyrics talks about state surveillance and repression, but also the need to "stand up and fight," i don't think the politics the song wants to talk about were quite as well articulated as some of the other pieces you mention in this post. and needless to say, the song didn't get a lot of airplay. however, i remember seeing on tv the very performance that this video is taken from. i had recently been kicked out my high school for editing an underground newspaper, so i guess this particular song has some resonance with me.