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Part-II: Reading George Orwell and Interpreting Surveillance and Politicization of Biology

By Raj Shah


The conceptual understanding of governmentality or of biopower when located in Orwell’s understanding focused merely in regimes ruled by an authority individualizing power. Foucault and Chomsky in their studies about surveillance in modern societies extended this proposition to power in everyday life regardless of the structure of governance. When one conjoins these two ideas, modern-day exploitative nature of biopower becomes visible in its utmost sense not used only in dictatorial regimes but also in democratic nation-states; both of which are stressed in this section.

Systematic control over the biological arena of human life rooted mostly in the intimate sphere while traced by Orwell in the socialist module under Stalin is exhibited in present-day North Korea. From the dynastic outlook of government to the constant threat to the outside world by never-ending nuclear tests, North Korea resembles the dystopian state projected by Orwell in 1984 in a most profound sense. Park (2002) concentrates on that account, on successful survival of North Korea’s socialist state to political ideology’s percolation in the collective consciousness. The state in such social structure becomes reflective of a belief system which replaces religiosity. Such a belief system is built through highlighting views of the dictator as the ultimate truth; defiance to which is met by torturing and purging of categories of citizens who dissent. Oceania portrayed in Orwell’s 1984 showcased this outlook which has been central to the success of not only North Korea and USSR but also of China.

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to delve deeper in Marxist thought traditions in its perception in masses exploited by political power. Marx’s thoughts in socialist government structures were held as the ultimate truth and Marx himself as the ‘prophet’. Thus to oppose such thoughts was not a mistake or a simple mechanism of dissent in a democracy but a ‘cardinal sin’. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, Marx referred as Old Master is exploited heavily by the ruler, Napolean (a reference to Stalin) by reproducing myths about Old Master’s ideas to promulgate decrees prolonging and authorizing his rule. For modern-day governments in North Korea and China, this has been true through constant production of government authorized accounts of history or restrictions on marriages and population reproduction that represent biopower. In China, such a political thought ideal is laid in traditions held by Mao where the opposition is held in torture cells or ‘panopticons’ as political prisoners.

For prolonging of such a control mechanism, there remains a sustained requirement of a moral ideal laid out by the state. In theocratic nation-states such as Saudi Arabia, such ideal derives itself out of religious and primitive notions about gender roles and sexual behavior. But biopower is essential even in democratic nation-states. Inquiring about biopower in Indian sub-context, one comes to understand the forcible population control methods (under the garb of “family planning”), opposition being held as political prisoners and censorship being enabled to restrict dissent during the period of Emergency when civil liberties were in suspension as forwarding a hegemonic discourse through the government. But such visible limitations of human freedoms in democracies either supplemented via the state do not outline the will of the majority. Therefore, the suspension of civil rights remains a temporary phenomenon in democracies. What one observes in a democracy is methods of control which work at a subtle level through either lawful suspension of civil liberties or one that is constructed through the will of the majority against the minority. In Indian sub-context, prominent examples, therefore, are the expansion of the state in Jammu & Kashmir and North-east states through the imposition of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) giving unlimited powers to the military. AFSPAoften has been considered responsible for large-scale human rights abuses leading to unexplained killings of the citizenry on anecdotal shreds of evidence and crimes of sexual violence. Further, in legal parlance, the continuance of Victorian-era laws – an era where Foucault (1978) offered saw conjoining of morality with sexuality – such as Section 377 of Indian Penal Code works as biopower mechanism prohibiting biological transactions in the intimate sphere.


From modernist attitudinal tendencies (Kobie, 2019) about expanding government’s role in the day to day life and private matters of the citizenry in poststructuralist order understood primarily through Foucault located in Orwellian literature, one is enabled to note the increasing use of subversive policies that government adopts to suit their political agendas. The purpose can be varied from production of assent for establishment’s positions to achievement of targeted centrally planned goals as was the case with socialist modules. What occurs in the entire process is a reduction of societal freedoms as human choices are given either in the hands of the will of majority executed through a democratic government or a despotic regime which raises questions on nature of sovereignty. This matrix of production of biopower or on a larger scale of governmentality, Orwell found to be in line with a society where every movement of an individual is monitored extensively and where dissent’s suppression is key to the permanence of state. Thus, reflective of surveillance, this ”panopticon” based-society becomes restricted on scales of development if comprehended through welfare modes of economics which lay expansion of freedom as an end result of development.[1]

Raj Shah is a student of Masters in Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.


[1] Fundamental in this regard is study of freedom as an end and not a means of development by Dr. Amartya Sen detailed in his work, Development as Freedom (1997).

Image Source: Biography


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