The future is a parable, one that the spectator tells to himself; sometimes others are affected by it, although many who are affected by it mistake the parable for a plan or a promise or a vision. - from John Crowley’s essay, Future as Parable, Harper’s November 2013
In this essay, Crowley explains that Orwell’s 1984 is a parable rather than an prediction. He believes Orwell wrote his book in response to the work of philosopher and futurologist James Burnham, who thought a managerial class of bureaucrats and technocrats and administrators would ascend to power, leaving the rest of us to “subsist as dependents, happily enough, controlled by propaganda.”
Crowley writes: In Burnham’s future, Orwell concludes, “humanity is divided into two classes: the self-seeking, hypocritical minority, and the brainless mob whose destiny is always to be led or driven, as one gets a pig back to the sty by kicking it on the bottom or by rattling a stick inside a swill-bucket, according to the needs of the moment. And this beautiful pattern is to continue forever.”
And there: the genesis of 1984.
In 1984, Orwell has O’Brien say to Winston Smith: “We know that that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it…Power is not a means, it is an end…The object of power is power.”
But importantly, Crowley says in 1984 Orwell has written a parable, not a prediction of the future.
Crowley again: “People, real people, Orwell knew, would simply not give into the 1984 model, not for long; the drive to power for power’s sake could never be as powerful as that. 1984, with it’s reversed date, was a blackly comic version of Burnham’s predictions and therefore an encouragement: whatever troubles we are going to suffer, that world will not come to pass. Be kind; take heart; do your best. “One cannot always make positive prophesies.” Orwell says, “but there are times when one ought to be able to make negative ones.”
I love Crowley’s essay.
How many predictions of the future have we decided are inevitable? How many parables have we mistaken for truths?
What a good reminder of the untamable nature of the human animal, how thrilling to remember that despite the best efforts of the the boss, the worker will still find time for herself. And that despite the promise of a future decided, there is always a quiet little way to change your mind.
And there is a good chance the future won’t look anything like we think it will.