By James M. Dorsey*
The rise of a critical mass of world leaders, including Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and others in Europe, Asia and Latin America, has given 1984, George Orwell’s prophetic novel, published 70 years ago, renewed relevance.
Orwell’s dark vision: Live around the globe
In what may be the strangest turn of events after the end of the Cold War, Orwell’s graphic warning of the threat of illiberal and authoritarian rule and the risks embodied in liberal democracy are as acute today as they were in the immediate wake of World War II.
In many ways, Orwell’s novel could have been written today. It envisioned the rise of the surveillance state (witness China) and the emergence of what he called Newspeak, the abuse of language for political purposes and the perversion of the truth in ways that makes facts irrelevant (witness the Trump Administration).
The reality of Orwell’s 1984 manifests itself today in the emergence of illiberal and authoritarian rulers across the globe or, as in the case of China, the equivalent of the writer’s imaginary omnipotent party that rules a superstate he called Oceania.
The building blocks of the party’s toolkit have gained renewed currency: A thought police, the dominance of Big Brother enabled by surveillance, Newspeak and doublethink.
Most alarmingly, elements of Orwell’s vision are no longer limited to totalitarian regimes. Increasingly, democracies in crisis feature aspects of it too.
Media on the defensive
The media is reduced to the role of government scribe in China, the Gulf and other autocracies. The media is similarly on the defensive in democracies such as the United States, Hungary, India, Turkey, Russia and the Philippines.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s advisor, revived Newspeak with her coining of the phrase “alternative facts” to justify demonstrably false assertions by the president and members of his administration.
Newspeak also bolsters assertions by men like Trump and Hungarian and Filipino presidents Victor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte that mainstream media report fake news.
And it allowed Trump to last year tell a veterans association that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Orwell’s novel is couched in terms of liberal versus totalitarian – the reality he confronted as a Republican volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and post-World War Two Europe.
Perverted civilizational models
It was a time in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany — with its all-in, completely perverted civilizational model — had been defeated. Pursuing a totalitarian vision inside a civilizational model of sorts is how Xi Jinping has reconceived the Chinese state. It is based on disregard for human and minority rights.
Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Russian and the Turkish Presidents, think about Eurasia in civilizational terms. Putin has translated that into redrawing borders in Ukraine and Georgia.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and Trump, are basing their rule at least in part on incendiary expressions of racial or religious supremacism.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s first unqualified condemnation of supremacism in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, truly constitutes a turnaround.
What unites these leaders broadly speaking is their readiness to undermine minority rights, risking escalating cycles of violence and mass migration as a result of mounting insecurity and violence and promoting a political environment fueled by rising supremacism, Islamophobia and/or anti-Semitism.
That common ground enables China to employ cutting edge technology in its rollout at home and abroad of a surveillance state designed to invade virtually every aspect of a person’s life.
At the cutting edge of Xi Jinping’s surveillance state, is his brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. He has launched the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history in a bid to Sinicize Uighurs and other Turkic minorities.
Xi Jinping, bolstered by China’s economic and political clout, has so far gotten away with what some have termed cultural genocide.
That he is able to do so is made possible by a Muslim world that is largely populated by authoritarian and autocratic leaders. Even though Xi makes short shrift of their own religious brethren, they see China as a model of achieving economic growth without political liberalization.
Back to the future
While the writing is clearly on the wall, illiberals and authoritarians pseudo-sheepishly pay lip service to democracy or advocate distorted forms of a rights-based system while either denying or undermining basic rights.
Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov argues that what he called “incomplete democracies” where best equipped to manage volatility.
In its ultimate consequence, that argument would allow illiberals and autocrats to throw any reference to democracy on the garbage pile of history.
*Senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist
**First Published in globalist