Awaiting the Great Post-Orwellian Novel 2051

Today in "The Worst of All Possible Worlds," John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, offers a cunning bow to the convergence theorists of the Cold War era, a crew of thinkers who imagined that someday the two superpowers would merge into one conglomerate creature in strangely upbeat ways. In reality, as he points out, "convergence" (even in an era that lacks the Soviet Union) has turned out to be a dismally downbeat process. He does, however, skip the earliest convergence theorist of them all, who happened to be a novelist rather than an economist or a philosopher. I'm talking about George Orwell who, in his novel 1984 (published in 1948 just as the Cold War was ramping up to a low burn), imagined the convergence of the worst of West and East, of capitalist America and communist Russia, in a state so memorably malign that, almost seven decades later, everyone, including Edward Snowden, still remembers Big Brother.

The NSA's global surveillance state, revealed by Snowden, managed to put even the dreams of the totalitarian states of the previous century in the shade (and caused sales of 1984 to spike) -- and it's but one reminder of Orwell's foresight. So many other details of our moment from black sites and kidnapping schemes to torture and assassination programs remind us that, despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union, convergence of a sort still seems to be in the cards. Here's the strange thing, though: if a kind of eerie version of convergence is indeed underway, as Feffer so memorably suggests, in the organized precincts of what used to be called the First and Second Worlds -- the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China -- in the former Third World, or at least across vast stretches of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, a process that might be called divergence seems to be gaining strength. The power of states is weakening, fragmenting, or simply dissolving amid the growth of extremist organizations, sectarian or sectional militias, and terror groups.

As miraculous as Orwell was -- and in the earliest days of the television age he managed to conjure up a future world in which the screen would be omnipresent and everyone could be surveilled, tracked, and controlled through it -- he had no way of imagining such a strange form of divergence. Its origins seem to lie, at least in part, in a twenty-first-century American urge to take its much-ballyhooed role as the planet's last remaining superpower to heart and essentially try to rule the world. This desire to create a planetary Pax Americana (and an American Pax Republicana) led the Bush administration to punch a devastating hole in the oil heartlands of the planet, setting off a storm of sectarian chaos within which old systems of control, already frayed, began to collapse and whose endpoint is, at present, beyond our ken.

Convergence and divergence, centralization and fragmentation: it's a vision of a planet that's not exactly Orwellian, but certainly represents a nightmare worthy of some still-to-be-discovered Orwell of our moment. In the meantime, while we await the novel 2051, let John Feffer tell you about the dark, converging world of 2015.