Many writers in the immediate post-war period warned of the dangers of propaganda in peacetime but were thought to be scaremongering or dealing in science fiction. One of the most influential political works of the period was The Road to Serfdom by Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who taught at the London School of Economics. Writing between 1940 and 1943, Hayek argued that socialist centralised planning inevitably leads to loss of liberty for the individual and eventually to totalitarianism. An important part of this process is the use of propaganda. Centralised planning of the economy, Hayek says, inevitably means ‘that the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people’.
Where a society has centralised planning, ‘the individual would more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the “social welfare” or the “good of the community”.’ And despite the professed humanitarian goals of socialism, its ultimate aims can only be put into practice by brutal methods ‘of which most socialists disapprove’, methods that treat the individual as little more than a pawn.These methods, says Hayek, include manipulation through propaganda. ‘. . . all propaganda serves the same goal—that all the instruments of propaganda are coordinated to influence the individuals in the same direction . . . The skilful propagandist then has power to mould their minds in any direction he chooses, and even the most intelligent and independent people cannot entirely escape that influence if they are long isolated from all other sources of information.’
It was this baleful effect of excessive centralisation that George Orwell wrote about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s dystopian vision is of a society ruled by a government that creates perpetual war, or perpetual crisis, as the basis for permanent control of public opinion, lasting censorship and continual re-framing of the facts to suit those in power. But Orwell was not writing about 1984 – he was writing about 1948, the year in which he conceived his book and following immediately after Britain had experienced the full force of Labour’s nationwide MOI-style campaign with films, posters, books, pamphlets, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts in the bleak winter of 1947. In a bitterly candid moment during the war he confided to his diary his realisation that; ‘All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.’ 2
As an employee of the BBC during the war, under the control of the MOI, and with his wife Eileen employed in the Ministry Of Information itself, he had close-up experience of the power to shape and regiment public opinion. Now he experienced it at first hand under the Attlee government not as one of the persuading voices but as a target for its messages, and recognised the signature of propaganda techniques. It was not merely communism and fascism that he feared and warned against, it was Ministry-Of-Informationism.
One can sense this dilemma as an undercurrent in Orwell’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Winston Smith. Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, one of hundreds of anonymous clerks, toiling each day, routinely re-writing history to suit the government’s current narrative – much as Orwell toiled in the labyrinths of Broadcasting House, toeing the MOI line with his talks, and his wife Eileen sat amongst hundreds of other desks in the basement of Malet House, wielding the censor’s blue pencil. At one level, Orwell/Smith is loyal to ‘BB’ and the government in its fight against fascism. At another, he is deeply uncomfortable to realise that he is just as much a victim of the government propaganda machine as his clueless neighbours in ‘Victory Mansions’, against whom that propaganda is aimed.