Books

The unions and the proles are watching you

1985 Anthony Burgess

Barbara Amiel November 6 1978
Books

The unions and the proles are watching you

1985 Anthony Burgess

Barbara Amiel November 6 1978

The unions and the proles are watching you

Books

1985 Anthony Burgess

(McClelland & Stewart, $11.25.)

It seems to come down to a matter of class. Old Etonian George Orwell, squatting precariously on the fringes of the hounds-and-houndstooth tweedies that dominated his England, saw a future corrupted by his own kind. His shattering, brilliant novel, 1984, described a totalitarian nightmare, set in Britain, in which ordinary working blokes would be tyrannized by a bureaucracy of intellectuals. Now, Manchester-born, lower-middle-class Anthony Burgess, who scrambled up the ladder to his current tax-haven address in Monaco, gives us another vision. His 1985 sees a British society equally totalitarian but run this time by unionized labor for its own benefit, with a rapidly sinking economy being subverted internally by marauding bands of young thugs, and externally by Islam.

Between Orwell and Burgess lies the complexity of the master-disciple relationship. Burgess has written a disciple’s book that is a mixture of criticism, homage and an attempt to contradict, complement and even compliment Orwell’s 198k■ The first half of Burgess’ book analyses Orwell and his novel; the second half is Burgess’ own futuristic novel written with the power and intensity of a superb craftsman. In contrast to Orwell’s noble prole, Burgess’ working class is very ordinary, filled

with the same kind of greed, stupidity and envy that moves their upper-class counterparts. But, having learned to organize, the workers of 1985 have actually grabbed power and enforced

their wretched fish-and-chip values on everyone in a kind of totalitarian syndicalist society. If Orwell saw the future as a sort of Marxist feudalism with a technological bureaucrat-aristocracy ruling the serfs, Burgess sees it as the ultimate Closed Shop. The loss of liberty, of course, would be equally complete in both.

In a sense both 198k and 1985 are safe predictions, since at the time each was written both societies already existed. Orwell’s most closely resembled Stalin’s Russia of 1949 and Burgess’ the England of 1978. In fact, the school cur-

riculum of the women’s-gay-multiracial-anti-intellectual libbers described by Burgess is virtually identical with Canada’s evolving “progressive” educational guidelines.

Burgess’ 1985 is likely to resemble the immediate future more closely than Orwell’s book. But Orwell wrote about the

great underlying currents of human history, while Burgess is more concerned with the waves and ripples. Oil sheiks and street thugs are part of today’s reality, of course, but they come and go. Though the surface is of more immediate concern to the seafarer, for the explorer looking at the shape of con-

tinents to come the underlying currents are of greater significance. In any case, futuristic books are not written to foretell the future but to point out the dangers and errors of the present. What both books are about is the threat to liberty and human dignity. Would that they were heeded.

Barbara Amiel