Since its original publication in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a cultural shorthand for political repression. In Orwell’s imagined year of 1984, the world is ruled by three rival totalitarian superstates that control every aspect of their subjects’ lives. Despite espousing rival ideologies, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia share the same project of a small elite staying in power through violent social control. As Orwell puts it: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
The real-world 1984, our 1984, was the era of Reaganism and Thatcherism in which neo-conservatism cross-pollinated with rampant materialistic greed and casino capitalism. It was also the beginnings of the personal computing revolution that would remake society in the coming decades, turning Silicon Valley into a new centre of global power.
To promote the launch of the Macintosh, the first mass-marketed personal computer, Apple hired British film director Ridley Scott to make an advertisement simply called 1984. It shows an Orwellian society disrupted by the new technology, ending with the tagline “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”.
According to future tech plutocrats like Apple’s Steve Jobs, the information revolution would lead humanity into a new epoch of individual freedom and prosperity. (And yet, as novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote that same year in The New York Times, emerging information technology was already under the control of “a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate chief executives, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed”.)
Ironically, two years before, Scott had released the science fiction film Blade Runner, which showed a very different future for capitalism. Set in an imagined 2019, the world of Blade Runner is neon-drenched and environmentally devastated, and the super-rich rule from Pharaonic towers while their police forces hunt android slaves on the degraded and dangerous city streets below.
Blade Runner is now seen as a key moment in cyberpunk, a 1980s cultural movement that served as an imaginative corrective to neoliberal utopianism. Novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, itself published in 1984, were set in high-tech cities ruled by corporations and despotic security forces, where virtual reality coexisted with social squalor. The protagonists of cyberpunk were alienated, isolated and nihilistic, desperately trying to survive in a world of savage inequality and runaway technology.
Careening out of control
As William I. Robinson writes in his new book, The Global Police State, the cyberpunk vision is far closer to our current political reality than Orwell’s. A United States-based sociologist, Robinson has written extensively on how neoliberal capitalism became globalised and fundamentally altered the shape of nation states and human society.
The new book explores how this same system is careening out of control, creating new abysses of impoverishment as it wrecks the natural environment. As the system’s crisis continues, it excludes more and more people from prosperity and access to basic resources, creating new “surplus populations” that governments, tech corporations and private security forces repress with increasing violence and scientific sophistication.
While global inequality has soared, capital has been intensively concentrated in the hands of a “transnational corporate elite” that deploys its economic power to influence politics and control state policy. As Robinson writes, states are increasingly run for the benefit of small groups of political and financial elites, who impose ruinous austerity and crippling debt on the rest of society.
During the globalisation boom of the 1990s and 2000s, capitalism appeared to be endlessly dynamic, undergirded and ideologically amplified by a mass culture of conspicuous consumption. However, the 2008 financial crash – and now the Covid-19 pandemic – exposed its profound instability. With evermore people losing work or being shut out of formal economic activity entirely, inequality is a potentially explosive political challenge to the status quo. The global wave of street uprisings in 2019 indicates an explosive rage about elite corruption and declining social mobility.
Johann Rupert’s nightmares
In 2015, South African oligarch Johann Rupert told an audience in Monaco that the prospect of the oppressed revolting “keeps me awake at night”. Rupert’s fears are shared by the super-rich class to which he belongs and are a key driver behind securitisation and militarisation.
These forms of containment range from the border regimes used against migrants and mass incarceration to the criminalisation of the unemployed and homeless. Even white-collar workers and the increasingly precarious middle classes find themselves subjected to intensified surveillance and policing by their employers and governments granted expanded powers in the name of security.
Repression is also a lucrative source of profit. Warfare and social control are attractive to a broad array of capitalist groups, from private military companies to data-mining firms. This is truly a transnational phenomenon, with the book citing examples of South African mercenary companies being hired to repress the Zapatista movement in Mexico.
Increased fears around crime and security erode public space and the quality of democratic life. Robinson cites spaces such as the elite Sandton area in Johannesburg as exemplars of the world of late capitalism – fortified, paranoid and hostile to anyone perceived to be surplus to the economy.
The militarisation of space is politically and culturally paralleled in the rise of neo-fascist and right-wing populist movements. A new kind of reactionary culture that vocally adopts militarism, misogyny, racism and xenophobia is competing to win state power in many countries. This is creating the conditions for future mass violence against the oppressed and impoverished. As global warming and environmental collapse intensify, today’s security systems will be used to enforce a savage new “climate apartheid”, protecting the haves from the bulk of humanity.
An authoritarian, violent system
Often disturbing, The Global Police State makes a compelling case that global capitalism is an authoritarian system that is trampling over social needs and individual liberty. From the tech companies that control our internet use to the governments that kill their citizens with impunity, we are trapped in a ubiquitous mental fortress which gives the impression that this world of feral capitalism and declining living standards is inevitable and all there is.
However, the final victory of the global police state is not a fait accompli. That the system increasingly relies on violence and repression, rather than consensus or reform, is indicative of its fundamental weakness. Early in the book, Robinson makes the key point that while much of the so-called fourth industrial revolution is being used for exploitation and accumulation, its technology could be redistributed to create a world of less work and more abundance for all.
Capitalism’s drive to commercialise every aspect of human society has resulted in the grim reality of 2020. Despite its promises of freedom and choice, the majority of humanity faces a world of declining living standards and reduced social mobility, and a future of economic and environmental ruin.
Rather than making us safer, the global police state is actively designed to prevent social, economic and ecological justice. Rupert’s “nightmare” of revolt, in which his class no longer has the power to determine collective futures, may be seen from a different perspective. What keeps Davos Man up at night is not the spectre of chaos, but emancipation.