Are we living in Orwellian or Kafkaesque times?
Anyone familiar with these terms will understand, at the very least, that they mean bad times are a’comin’.
But what exactly is the difference between a Kafkaesque story and one that’s Orwellian?
When we talk about the Orwellian, we’re talking about authoritarian control directed by an unseen, powerful social body. Orwellian societies are under constant surveillance in a world where truth is manipulated to suit the power-hungry intentions of others. Note here that I say power and not wealth — Orwellian authoritarianism is its objective, not the display of grandeur and monetary gain that have crippled dictatorships. An Orwellian society propagates its slogans and lies in order and enforces rigorous control of the social and physical body and the emotional and intellectual mind. Authoritarianism describes the management, but the approach is much closer to subtle manipulation of one’s free will, where the oppressor becomes a desired, loved being.
Interestingly, Orwell wasn’t the first Orwellian, with evidence of this thinking in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1866), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920), Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) and even Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1933). Such thinking has also come to form much philosophical discourse, including notably Michael Foucault’s work, such as Madness and Civilisation (1961), The Order of Things (1966) and Discipline and Punish (1975). Orwell himself was writing in reaction to the events of World War Two, notably the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The Soviet model was used for many of his works, but Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948) are most familiar to the reader.
The Kafkaesque shares similar properties but is more directly involved with the labyrinth of bureaucracy, which Kafka was privity to as an insurance clerk. The Kafkaesque is a system in which the truth, closely guarded, can not be reached and in which multiple stages are installed to prevent access to the fact. Next to Orwellian lies are Kafkaesque absurdities. A Kafkaesque character can spend their entire existence wrapped in pointless tasks to be completed towards an undefined goal. Unlike the Orwellian, the Kafkaesque depicts comically inept systems of government that are almost fantastical next to authentic portraits of ugly human characteristics.
The Kafkaesque shares properties with modernist absurdity, notably the Italian Futurist movement of the early twentieth century, with a more direct connection to folklore. Stories like The Metamorphosis (1912), in which the protagonist is turned into a nondescript beetle, take an absurd unreality and pair it with the complex human emotions on the brink of poverty who must move on with their lives.
So what do I say to people at a party?
The Kafkaesque explores the never-ending circle of capitalism, while the Orwellian focuses on how authoritarian power is used to service its end.
Who was more right about the world?
It depends on where you live and your interpretation of things as they are. Both are right about their specific fields of interest — we live in a world where there’s authoritarian control AND an overly complex bureaucratic system. One should also add to the mix several other authors with ideas on the nature of political reality;
- Dickensian — A gloomy view of how capitalism breeds rot from the ground up, servicing only the rich.
- Huxlerian — The idea, as seen in Brave New World (1933), that emerging technologies such as television and genetics, coupled with new theories into human psychology, can be used to manipulate the intelligence of the masses, creating a system, not unlike Orwell’s where the end game is complete order and obedience to the social structure (although less painful!) Huxley is often compared against Orwell, as two competing futures — one of pleasure and one of pain, although both are about control over the minds, hearts and bodies of people — just in different ways. Ray Bradbury is also comparable to Huxley, as he explored similar concepts in his depiction of television and the destruction of high-culture to ensure world peace without restless thought or harmful artistic expression in Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
- Dickish — Philip K. Dick’s concept of the ‘evil world’ order descending into chaos and ‘kipple’ because of an imbalance in natural world forces. Dick had an awful lot to say about the pervasiveness of modern advertising and commercialisation, too, from the relatively safe space of the 1960s, as well as comments on the nature of political control in The Man in the High Castle (1962).
- Ellisianian — Harlan Ellison’s concept of man’s natural ‘animalness’ is brought on by our city-dwelling presence and cultural attitudes.
- Pohlish — Fredrick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth were committed anti-capitalists who saw power increasingly invested in companies over governments, aiming to turn free citizens into loyal consumers — as evidenced in The Space Merchants (1952).
And many more.* There are hundreds of potential prophets who, in reality, are simply reacting to the society around them in light of their worldviews.
In reality, all prophets are of the now.
These authors have attempted to say something about the world at hand by taking small chunks of their worlds and viewing them in their peculiar way. Indeed, we see elements of the Orwellian in the depiction of the US and other military organisations (notably Russia at the moment, with Putin’s latest power grab over Ukraine), the Kafkaesque in modern bureaucracy, driven by data-collection technology and further industry specification, Huxelerian and Bradbarian in the consumption of mediocre television and social media, Dickish and Pohlish qualities in the contemporary ad-invasive landscape. Even the Dickensian manages to stumble on through to the 21st-century, with its 19th-century industrialism and poverty.
The world is as it is.
The more eyes we can view it through, the better we can understand what we see, outside of terms like the Orwellian, which have served us well but can’t encompass everything about a new world order (certainly after 70 years). The better we can understand these terms, the better equipped we are not to misuse it.
After all, the most Orwellian thing you can do is gloss over a subject to indoctrinate people to your viewpoint.
*Aside from Dickensian, these adjective terms are invented to reflect the main body of work and recurring ideologies these authors have.