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The Independent

Mankind is far more beastly than the beasts. From a talk on George Orwell, given by the novelist and critic Margaret Drabble to the Royal Society of Literature. 4 January 2001

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the most shocking novels of the 20th century. It seems to sum up one epoch, and prophesy for the next. Fredric Warburg's original report, dated 13 December 1948, describes it as "amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read... a study in pessimism unrelieved... a picture of man unmanned, of humanity without a heart..."

Last year I attended a conference on the theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the University of Chicago. Many of the speakers were economists, lawyers and political theorists, and it was notable that most chose to dismiss Orwell as a failed prophet. He had got it all wrong. The totalitarian state had been defeated, communism had been overthrown, consumerism and capitalism had triumphed, and the West enjoyed a standard of living and material comfort unimagined by Orwell in the years after the Second World War.

George Orwell had got everything wrong. When it was suggested that he had guessed right about technological surveillance, they agreed that indeed there were now a lot of hidden security cameras and credit checkers and personal data banks, of a sophistication Orwell had not envisaged. But as these were not employed by the state, but by private enterprise, they were not nearly as dangerous. Privatised Big Brother does not present a threat. Orwell had misunderstood history. Man is a happy consumer, and he is good at heart.

I think they missed the dark message of this despairing book. It is about politics, but it is also about human nature in extremis. Orwell demonstrates that we may all be reduced to the lowest of acts. We become worse than rats. The rats in the Cheka tortures that may have inspired Orwell's picture of Room 101 were merely trying to avoid torture themselves when they tried to fight their way out of man-heated tubes by gnawing through human flesh.

As a child, I was appalled by these grim Orwellian revelations. Under pressure, he warns us, we relinquish our certainties, and are willing to agree with inquisitor O'Brien that we see five fingers when we know we see four. Solomon Asch, the psychologist, later conducted investigations that endorsed Orwell's proposition. He asked subjects to judge physically unambiguous stimuli – lines of different lengths – after a number of supposed other subjects who had all given the same incorrect judgements. Subjects understandably were upset by the supposed discrepancies, and only 25 per cent of them stood by their own judgement and never yielded to the bogus majority. Our desire to conform is greater than our respect for objective facts, even when no physical pressure is applied.

Even more alarming than the propositions arising from the Asch experiment were those that followed 20 years later from the notorious Milgram experiments. Subjects were invited to take part in a programme that involved inflicting what increasingly severe electrical shocks upon supposed volunteer victims, under the instruction of an authority figure. Most obeyed, although they manifested very high levels of stress while doing so. (In fact, of course, the responses of the "torture victims" were being faked.)

Milgram claimed that these experiments caused no long-term damage to participants, but they understandably caused uproar – partly because of the element of hoax involved, partly because of the unwelcome suggestion that we would all in some circumstances consent to torture our fellow human beings. We wouldn't even have to be paid. We would volunteer. We would all steal from a starving sister, as Winston Smith does in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or kill our mother to save ourselves. History and science seem, in the 20th century, to have vindicated Orwell's pessimism. Men are far more beastly than the beasts.