Future Tense

What’s Really Orwellian About Our Global Black Lives Matter Moment

Orwell was haunted by his years as a police officer in colonial Burma. His later writings shed light on today’s protests.

George Orwell and a recent image of police using pepper spray on a protester.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images and Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images.

Black Lives Matter is reverberating around the world, triggering a fresh reckoning with the racist global history of colonialism and slavery. While Confederate statues began to tumble across the American South, in Bristol, England, a diverse group felled a statue of a slave trader that has long provoked offense. Statues of colonial conquerors of Africa and South Asia have followed, along with a robust discussion of the ways in which such actions make history rather than erase it. These movements abroad are not merely echoes of BLM; BLM itself is global.

The shared impetus is a common opposition to racism, of which anti-Black racism has been the most lethal and traumatic. But the history of policing also bridges them. No historical figure makes this clearer than George Orwell, whose name has been increasingly bandied about in recent weeks—by those fretting about the erasure of history as well as those calling out the euphemistic language around policing, such as the use of “nonlethal” bullets against protesters.

The right and left have long fought over Orwell, who identified as a socialist but authored what many consider the iconic literary critique of socialism, 1984. This is a man who showed us the moral evil of the totalitarian quest for mind control and a culture of denunciation but also compiled a list of untrustworthy leftists for the British Foreign Office; a critic of empire and believer in human equality who persisted in writing and thinking in blatantly racist ways. But his central beef was always with policing, whose tyrannical power he discovered through his own experiences as a colonial police officer.

Born Eric Blair, Orwell described himself with characteristic precision and irony as a member of the “lower-upper-middle class.” He went to Eton but on a scholarship. His family had status but not money. Through University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, we know that the Blairs traced whatever status they still had in Orwell’s lifetime to earlier ownership of slaves. Orwell’s great-great-grandfather was a slave owner in Jamaica in a time in which slavery was part of a colonial system connecting Europe, West Africa, South Asia, and the Americas. The Blairs were among the 3,000 slave-owning families who received a total 20 million pounds in compensation (now worth more than $2 billion) when slavery was abolished in the British empire.

The Blair family held on to its status thanks to opportunities that continued to be afforded by British colonialism. Orwell was born in India, where his father was an official in the Indian Civil Service. His mother was the daughter of a teak merchant in Burma (today, Myanmar; then part of British India). The humiliation he felt at boarding school for his relatively poorer means prepared him for a life of “ruin,” which he understood variously as: “the colonies or an office stool, perhaps prison or an early death.”

Fatefully, he wound up a police officer in British India. But he quit after five years out of a deep sense of shame, evident in his first published piece of writing (still under the name Eric Blair), a short piece titled “A Hanging” (1931), in which the narrator, a police officer in Burma, is quietly complicit in the execution of a colonial subject whose crime we are not told—it is irrelevant to the point Orwell wanted to make about the inhumanity of the system that policed and killed him. A dog is the only being that acknowledges the prisoner’s humanity, jumping up to lick his face, to the crowd’s horror. It was in Burma that Orwell first discovered thought-policing: “You are not free to think for yourself,” he explained in his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). “Your opinion on every subject … is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs code,” in which you too are complicit so that “your whole life is a life of lies.”

Colonial policing also sharpened Orwell’s awareness of the anesthetizing effects of sanitized language, whose apotheosis, he showed us, was the soulless Newspeak of 1984. In this period, in the Middle East, on the Indian frontier, and in East Africa, work previously performed “by policemen and sticks” was undertaken by the Royal Air Force, with aircraft and bombs. Orwell summarized aerial policing’s abuse of humanity and language: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” These British innovations would deeply influence the development of American military and policing power.

Orwell came to see British rule in India as an “unjustifiable tyranny” in which the police were the “actual machinery of despotism,” as he confessed in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). He came to loathe “the whole machinery of so-called justice,” never entering a jail without feeling that his place was on the other side of the bars. The claim that colonialism spread the rule of law was a cover story for theft. He suspected police officers in England were likewise “haunted by a secret horror of what they do.” Indeed, in England too, modern policing had evolved from an effort to enforce the theft of the commons and suppress the collective values on which they depended in favor of private property and individualistic values. In a 1933 work, Orwell called out the police as the true source of the “immoral conduct” that they routinely pinned on the poor to justify their brutality.

In Burmese Days, the moral path of the colonizer leads to suicide, anticipating the bleak destiny of the Inner Party member in 1984. Orwell himself, however, escaped and sought redemption from “bad conscience” by living several years as a tramp in Paris and London. He wanted to expiate “an immense weight of guilt” and determined to “submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.” The English working class, then struggling with deep poverty and high unemployment during the Depression, struck him as analogous to the Burmese:

They were the symbolic victims of injustice, playing the same part in England as the Burmese played in Burma. In Burma the issue had been quite simple. The whites were up and the blacks were down, and therefore … one’s sympathy was with the blacks. I now realized that there was no need to go as far as Burma to find tyranny and exploitation. Here in England … were the submerged working class, suffering miseries.

And among them were preserved the collective values the modern world still needed.

For Orwell, at home and abroad, policing and incarceration were the essence of oppression; they thus defined his vision of dystopia in 1984. Cold War Americans liked to read the work as a narrow attack on Stalinism, but its target was far more universal. Policing works by corrupting the soul of both police officers and the policed, destroying human bonds—destroying community, as racism does too. A police officer’s “normal” feelings are abject bitterness and moral confusion, Orwell told us in “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), an essay routinely assigned in high school English classes: “With one part of my mind, I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny …; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” His experiences in Burma and among the poor turned Eric Blair into a political writer; in taking the pen name George Orwell in 1933, he was partly forging a new self from the moral ruin of his policing life. To the extent that Orwell’s ideas now saturate our common understanding of liberty and threats to it, that understanding is based on a realization of the fundamental immorality of policing. We have always known policing is the problem.

Orwell wrote 1984 in 1947–49 (it appeared six months before his death), just as the British Empire was beginning to fall apart and spawn an afterlife at home. Policing methods designed to pacify and invigilate subversives abroad were used to discipline the unemployed, women, and crowds at home, precisely (and not coincidentally) when nonwhite immigration to Britain from its former colonies was increasing. Those immigrants also endured the insult of living among statues of slave traders and brutal conquerors—at last being toppled by their descendants today. For many, including perhaps Orwell himself, the totalitarian world of Big Brother and doublethink was not merely the exotic trajectory of Stalinist Russia but the fate of imperial policing everywhere, including Britain. What could be more Orwellian than the proud display of statues of conquerors and slavers in a society continually protesting imperial innocence and devotion to liberty and equality? “Ignorance is Strength,” the Ministry of Truth would say.

And, “War is Peace”: Racist militarized American policing remains part of wider racist policing abroad, often from the skies and in the very regions in which the British first devised such policing tactics. Aerial policing is now being applied to the BLM protests against policing. However much we may try to reform modern policing, its fundamental purpose is social control, which, in unhealed parts of the world that are continually retraumatized by a racist past, cannot but depend on a dynamic of criminalizing particular racial and social groups.

Orwell may have felt he ought to be on the other side of the prison bars, but he did not seek penance by surrendering himself to the police or prison for his sins; those institutions had no moral legitimacy. Rather, he felt he would find expiation in understanding and giving voice to an oppressed community. What if all police officers heeded the pangs of conscience as Orwell did? It is time for us too to recover the cooperative values that policing seeks to suppress and find community-based forms of moving forward, of redeeming the past and keeping societies safe and just.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.