As I watch the unfolding drama on the Korean Peninsula a question keeps popping into my head: Can life imitate art? The British author George Orwell wrote his novel 1984 just after the end of the Second World War. The late 1940s witnessed the emergence of a bipolar world and onset of an ideology-fuelled Cold War. For most countries the Cold War ended in the early 1990s when the Eastern Bloc imploded under the combined burdens of economic inefficiency, high military expenditure, overweening ambition and disillusionment. As a former Soviet Army officer told me in Siberia: “Afghanistan was our Vietnam”. Hard-bitten and gaunt the man had survived Afghanistan – just.
Orwell characterises war, or the threat of war, as a means of social control. Faced with the possibility (real or imagined) of national extinction populations are more inclined to obey. Dangerous others like existential threats are a godsend to manipulative elites. For Orwell war, or the threat of war, is a dangerous other par excellence. In 1984 he writes:
“[War] helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War … is now a purely internal affair …. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact”.
1984 was published in June 1949 just before the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War saw a United Nations-sponsored defence of South Korea. After the 1953 armistice (a peace treaty was never signed) North Korea developed into a deeply paranoid totalitarian state – more paranoid even that Stalin’s USSR with its gulags and bloody purges. As NBC’s Richard Engel has remarked: “Pyongyang’s secrecy makes the old Soviet Kremlin look transparent”.
Oceania, Orwell’s imaginary totalitarian state, is in a permanent state of war. The ruling elite uses this existential threat as a means of social control. With their minds focused on the military threat – the ‘dangerous other’ – citizens have neither the time nor mental energy to comprehend their own miserable existence. They simply put up with the poor housing, shoddy goods, cultivated ignorance, lies, revisionism, surveillance and elitism. The parallels between Oceania’s system of governance and that of North Korea are uncanny. It is as if Pyongyang considers Orwell’s imaginary warmonger-state an ideal-type. The government of North Korea broadcasts a preferred narrative, just like Oceania’s apparatchiks: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (1984). The government of North Korea presides over an economy wrecked by ineptitude: “Mismanagement of North Korea’s economy has left it one of the poorest countries in its region. Aid groups say millions of its people have died of famine in the past 20 years, and a large proportion of its population is malnourished” (Financial Times). The economy of Orwell’s Oceania is stunted by war burdens. The quality of life is poor. Goods are shoddy. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, holds a Victory cigarette upright only to see its contents fall to the floor. Resigned to mediocrity he is unsurprised. The government of North Korea cultivates an atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia, just like Oceania’s apparatchiks: “The preparations for Hate Week were in full swing, and the staffs of all the Ministries were working overtime. Processions, meetings, military parades, lectures, waxworks, displays, film shows, telescreen programmes all had to be organized; stands had to be erected, effigies built, slogans coined, songs written, rumours circulated, photographs faked” (1984). One is mindful of the recent doctored images of North Korean military manoeuvres that multiplied the number of hovercraft delivering soldiers to a beach, of the wall map showing multiple missile strikes on the United States that featured in a photograph of the Young Leader with his generals and of the strident tone of North Korean newsreaders as they transmit the latest xenophobic propaganda to those fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to own a television. North Korea’s behaviour can seem unfathomable – a melange of paranoia, hyperbole and overreaction. However, viewed through the lens of Orwell’s 1984 thesis its behaviour makes some sort of sense:
“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance …. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia [the other power blocs in Orwell’s imaginary world] but to keep the structure of society intact” (1984).
It would be wrong to give the impression that it is only totalitarian states that cultivate ‘dangerous others’ to maintain social order: manipulativeness is not the preserve of dictators. During the 1983-1984 Miners’ Strike, for example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher labelled striking miners ‘The Enemy Within’ in an effort to secure the country’s support for her industrial policy (underwritten by a ‘dash for gas’). By demonising the miners Thatcher hoped to rally support behind her government and its policy of industrial reform. She was determined not to suffer the same fate as Ted Heath whose government fell under the weight of organised labour’s opposition to reform. ‘The Enemy Within’ is a British example of a dangerous other created by an elite for the purpose of social control. Perhaps we should reflect on our own behaviour before judging that of others.
Dr Simon Bennett is the Director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester.