GEORGE ORWELL: LITERARY CRITICISM AND PROPAGANDA
BY ANDREW YEUNG
BY ANDREW YEUNG
When we hear the term propaganda, we think of badly animated pamphlets inscribed with spurious slogans, exaggerated threats, and preposterous notions. These are easy to spot, they do not even exist today and if they do, they do so rarely. Would propaganda look different in a world where we are savvy to what it looks like? And as the aim of propaganda is to mislead or at best to encourage you into making a choice, would it exist if the choice were already made? Would it exist to enforce that choice or to prevent any deviation from making it again? The fact is that propaganda has evolved with us, its targets, and as we have become more savvy, so too has it. From the days of Edward Bernays to now, propaganda has become the greatest weapon against humanity; our apathy towards those who suffer, our hatred of those we do not understand, our ability to accept injustice, and our blindness toward the global catastrophe our socio-economic model is driving us closer to are all nurtured by propaganda. We in the west (particularly developed countries) have an ideology that effects the world more than any other. It is an ideology so well-ingrained in us we barely recognise it as an ideology but when we do, we paradoxically accept it for its destructive impact and its validity. I am talking of course about consumerism. Whether it is consumerism that drives capitalism or the other way around, or whether materialism is a separate entity that without which the other two would be morally permissible and economically viable is a separate issue, what I want to discuss is how abundant propaganda for consumerism, capitalism and materialism is in our society today.
It is very difficult to discuss propaganda without discussing thought control, and it is very difficult to mention thought control without mentioning George Orwell. In his 1967 essay, Boys Weeklies, Orwell describes how the popular weekly publications that were aimed at the teenaged reader would encourage a deeply conservative conformity amongst them. He argued that although no outright imperialist or fascist doctrines were pushed forward in the publications, morally based political sentiments were heavy in them. Sentiments that included “there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism” or ‘foreigners are funny’ were being ‘pumped into them.’ Them being boys and girls from around 12 to 14, but as orwell notes, many becoming life-time devotees of the weekly stories. A literary expert, Orwell knew first hand how to captivate a reader and conjure in them political sentiment, the formula used in these ‘penny dreadfuls’ (he mainly uses the Gem and Magnet to give examples) was very simple: include half a dozen boys or girls in the stories to whom each can be related to by a reader of corresponding personality, and set the story in a very conservative setting. (The Gem and Magnet both centred around public school life.) Of course the way in which the characters could be related to was entirely in personality and not social standing as none of the characters would be working class, even though Orwell claimed more working class boys and girls would continue reading the stories than children from the middle or upper classes.
The weeklies Orwell criticised were written just after the Second World War, and since then entertainment for youngsters and adolescents has remained classless in terms of who subscribes. We do not see more working class children enjoying Harry Potter books because they find the private boarding school life style of Hogwarts alien and therefore more enchanting. Or do we? If Orwell’s theory is anything to go by then we should expect more working class adults to have remained as Harry Potter fans. That Harry Potter stories carry through them a hoard of conservative values is not controversial, what is is to what effect these values have on children. Evidence of the chosen one-motif, aristocratic characters - each in their own way a vessel for the reader to relate to and be carried through the indoctrination process described by Orwell, is enough to convince me that there is an insidious reason for there being no working-class wizards at Hogwarts. The author may not be consciously conscripting children into the neoliberal way of thinking she herself is so well entrenched in, but that she and Harry Potter are such good ambassadors for it is no secret, especially to the Hollywood film industry.
Rampant with materialism, Hollywood films have been unashamedly conscripting consumers for so long that we have come to expect it, but in the UK our film industry and the arts in general have a rich history in more, intellectual pursuits, often questioning the powers that consumerism is so favourable towards. Films and music that encourage critical thinking in all matters, not just political, and that encourage and celebrate the progression of humanity have always had their place in Britain. These values are still held by brave film makers, musicians and writers today, the problem is that they find it hard to produce their work and make it accessible in an increasingly reactionary industry. As film-maker Michael Caton-Jones remarked at the Toronto Film festival, “It (film-making) was essentially a bourgeoise sport.” This entertainment industry, being managed almost exclusively by the middle class, makes no apologies for the majority of its shows, films, and music peddling consumerism on such a level that even when there is the intention to educate or to inform, it becomes ostensible.
One of the key things Orwell finds troubling in the weeklies is the lack of any world affairs being mentioned. Just as, after the Second World War when so much was going on, “ _there is being pumped into them the conviction that major problems of our times do not exist,” we see in today’s entertainment, whether in films, television shows and in (mainstream, at least) music, a complete lack of important issues being discussed. Perhaps a few of the less establishment-threatening domestic issues are mentioned, student protests over fees for example, but go through the T.V guide or listen to the songs on Radio One and you will be hard pressed to find any mention of conflict in the Middle East, the Black Lives Matter movement, the world wide condemnation of TTIP, or any other international matters. Important issues are for the news, where they are sufficiently discussed for a public whose concern in such matters is to not appear too ignorant of them but ignorant enough to not let these matters affect their daily work of consuming. And if these matters ever enter into entertainment, they do so superficially unless they wish to break the unwritten rule that says entertainment must not contain any politics or philosophy or else it becomes pretentious or high-brow. The author of both the Gem and Magnet, Charles Hamilton, did explain the omission of world affairs by saying that he wanted to provide his readers with an imaginative foundation in a secure world so that they are better prepared to face future difficulties in a much less secure one. The argument makes even less sense than the rest of Conservative ideology. Imagine Exxonmobile defending their cover-up of climate change by saying, ‘“we wanted people to grow up imagining a world with no climate change, so that they would know exactly what to do when it happens.”
It is clear that we see as much right-wing sentiment in mainstream entertainment as Orwell did in his day, the question is whether we recognise it as the same level of indoctrination he did. Or do we merely see it as a side-effect of materialism which has prevailed due to technology and other inevitable changes in the world. Are these side-effects harmful enough to merit the term propaganda? should we not mollify anti-establishment types and just call them what they are: adverts for a life-style we all find pleasant? Perhaps not of the same old values of the upper classes, but toward the new ideology of state capitalism, consumerism and individualism, it certainly does. There is a fine line between culture and entertainment in Britain; the two have a codependency so strong that makes it impossible to imagine one differing greatly from the other. Whether the entertainment sets the culture of a society or or vice versa, or if it is a pernicious cycle where they both reciprocate each other to produce the same effect, any which way you look as it, if one is to change then so must the other. So why not start where Orwell did, by criticising our entertainment.