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Orwell’s vengeance

December 14, 2018

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IMAGINE the challenges we will face a couple of decades from now. Our population will have increased exponentially to approximately 250 million. A majority of these teeming millions will still be on the margins, trying to secure basic needs of life whilst perennially being subject to the ignominy of anti-encroachment drives, anti-terrorism operations and just plain old-fashioned anti-poor bias.

Meanwhile, a burgeoning and entertainment-hungry middle class will be thronging urban centres and tourist resorts to frequent shopping malls, accumulate plots in gated communities, and enjoying new and automated luxury vehicles. More and more roads, bridges and other infrastructure will be built to accommodate the ever-expanding needs and wants of this middle class, not to mention the elite segments that the former seeks to emulate.

This bifurcation in society — the poor and disenfranchised on the one hand, and the upwardly mobile segments on the other — will have a parallel in the way information circulates. The mainstream — print, TV and dominant strands of social media — will project images of a perfect suburban life that the upwardly mobile classes will buy into, while the trials and tribulations of the working poor will be invisibilised, and criminalised.

The trope of security will become even more powerful; in the mainstream the lower orders of society will be depicted at best as unruly, and at worst as potentially dangerous, forever in need of disciplining. The dumbed-down consumption-crazy middle and upper classes will applaud all draconian steps taken by the state and corporate elites in the name of protecting ‘civilisation’, and may even sacrifice their own political freedom in the process.

The trope of security will become even more powerful.

Zarrar Khuhro’s column earlier this week clarified just how far we have already travelled down this disturbing road already, elaborating how our ‘smart’ gadgets, which ostensibly facilitate more and more ease in the daily conduct of our lives, actually function as crucial cogs in a massive surveillance machine that curtails our basic freedoms.

For the time being, a wide cross section of Pakistani society seems unconcerned with what the future holds, and this is no more evident than in the political theatrics that play out in front of a captive screen-watching public on a daily basis. By all accounts, we have a strange fascination for a vengeful brand of politics in which the prospect of collective consciousness and betterment is conspicuous by its absence.

To a significant extent, what is happening today happens the same every time a new government takes power: politically motivated witch-hunts are initiated under the guise of ‘accountability’. Those who were protagonists yesterday find their heads on NAB’s chopping block today. And those who are still basking in the (temporary) glory of governmental power proclaim that the country is now well on the way to prosperity and greatness. Will today’s holier-than-thou accountability warriors themselves be on the receiving end of vengeful political opponents somewhere down the line? Don’t rule it out.

The point is that there is a distinct lack of vision in our political mainstream, vision for a collective future in which cooperation rat­her than cut-throat competition allows us to meet the massive challenges we face. A vision in which politics is not a catchphrase for hate and othering, but offers the prospect of healing, and thereby equality and liberty for all.

It is no surprise that the principle of cut-throat competition has also seeped into the nooks and crannies of everyday life in society at large. Indeed, the current conjuncture is distressing precisely because hate-mongering and vengefulness are the name of the game the world over. Societies’ internal conflicts are becoming more acute; ‘old’ ills like racism and sexism becoming more rather than less entrenched.

George Orwell was one of the most prescient writers of the first half of the previous century. He fought in the Spanish civil war and stood in solidarity with humanity across the globe. He also couldn’t ignore the prospects of a dystopian future for humankind, capturing this most memorably in his novel 1984. In it he described a world in which a majority of human beings have been lulled and/or scared into accepting a totalitarian system of government, ‘Big Brother’ enjoying a monopoly over the means of information and thereby eliminating all kinds of dissent.

Orwell was of course writing at a time when capitalist industrialism had not yet posed a threat to the global ecosystem, and in which digital technology was but a figment of the imagination. We live in a world that is far more vulnerable to Orwell’s vengeance than in the 1930s when the man himself was writing stories.

And if all we can do in the face of these impending is spew hate about the ‘other’, victimise political opponents, or worse still, watch all this sensationalism play out on our screens, then we face a very bleak future indeed.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2018