Anthony Burgess on “the Duty to Distrust the State”

Anthony Burgess wrote some 50 books, but he became most famous for one that was made into a hit movie – A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Two years later Burgess wrote an essay reflecting on the book, the film, and their message. But the essay was not published until 2012, in the New Yorker, where it could be seen only by subscribers. Only this summer did the New Yorker open access to its archives, if only temporarily. So at last I have a chance to draw attention to the section of it I particularly enjoyed, on the dangers of the modern state:

We probably have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least conceivable that we have a duty to distrust the state. Thoreau wrote of the duty of civil disobedience; Whitman said, “Resist much, obey little.” With those liberals, and with many others, disobedience is a good thing in itself. In small social entities—English parishes, Swiss cantons—the machine that governs can sometimes be identified with the community that is governed. But when the social entity grows large, becomes a megalopolis, a state, a federation, the governing machine becomes remote, impersonal, even inhuman. It takes money from us for purposes we do not seem to sanction; it treats us as abstract statistics; it controls an army; it supports a police force whose function does not always appear to be protective.

This, of course, is a generalization that may be regarded as prejudiced nonsense. I personally do not trust politicians or statesmen—very few writers and artists do—and consider that men enter politics for the negative reason that they have little talent for anything else and the positive reason that power is always delicious. Against this must be set the truth that government makes healthful laws to protect the community and, in the great international world, can be the voice of our traditions and aspirations. But the fact remains that, in our own century, the state has been responsible for most of our nightmares. No single individual or free association of individuals could have achieved the repressive techniques of Nazi Germany, the slaughter of intensive bombing, or the atomic bomb. War departments can think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it.

It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery. Sinclair Lewis, in “It Can’t Happen Here”—a novel curiously neglected—presents an America that becomes fascist, and the quality of the fascism is as American as apple pie. The wisecracking homespun Will Rogers-like President uses the provisions of a constitution created by Jeffersonian optimists to create a despotism which, to the unthinking majority, at first looks like plain common sense. The trouncing of long-haired intellectuals and shrill anarchists always appeals to the average man, although it may really mean the suppression of liberal thought (the American Constitution was the work of long-haired intellectuals) and the elimination of political dissidence. Orwell’s “1984”—a nightmare vision which may conceivably have prevented the nightmare fact from being realized: no one expects the real 1984 to be like Orwell’s—shows the unabashed love of power and cruelty which too many political leaders have hidden under the flowers of “inspirational” rhetoric. The “Inner Party” of Orwell’s future England exerts control over the population through the falsification of the past, so that no one can appeal to a dead tradition of freedom; through the delimitation of language, so that treasonable thoughts cannot be formulated; through a “doublethink” epistemology, which makes the outside world appear as the rulers wish it to appear; and through simple torture and brainwashing.

Both the American and the British visions conjoin in assuming that the aversive devices of fear and torture are the inevitable techniques of despotism, which seeks total control over the individual. But, as long ago as 1932, Aldous Huxley, in his “Brave New World,” demonstrated the submissive docility that powerful states seek from their subjects as being more easily obtainable through non-aversive techniques. Pre-natal and infantile conditioning makes the slaves happy in their slavery, and stability is enforced not through whips but through a scientifically imposed contentment. Here, of course, is a way that man may take if he really desires a world in which there are no wars, no population crises, no Dostoyevskian agonies. The conditioning techniques are available, and perhaps the state of the world may soon frighten man into accepting them. 

The whole thing is worth reading, with its reflections on freedom and conformity, good and evil, Orwell and B. F. Skinner (he was big in 1973).