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Ask HN: Why aren’t there any automobiles in Nineteen Eighty-4?

Ask HN: Why aren’t there any automobiles in Nineteen Eighty-4?

2023-01-19 17:00:35

There’s a scene with trucks:

“A long line of trucks, with wooden-faced guards armed with sub-machine
guns standing upright in each corner, was passing slowly down the street.
In the trucks little yellow men in shabby greenish uniforms were squatting,
jammed close together. Their sad, Mongolian faces gazed out over the sides
of the trucks utterly incurious. Occasionally when a truck jolted there
was a clank-clank of metal: all the prisoners were wearing leg-irons.
Truck-load after truck-load of the sad faces passed.”

The reason there are no private cars in Orwell’s dystopia is the same reason there are none in North Korea, for the same mix of ideological and economic factors.

1948. War just over. The 57 Chevy and the culture it represents, one which I consumed in Hot Wheels form as a 70s kid, did not exist yet. No society, not even America, had put in a thoroughly modern highway system (aside from the Autobahn, maybe, but…), let alone rearranged their entire society’s topology around individual use of high-fuel-consumption pleasure vehicles. Even here in North America, that was being planned, but not here yet.

And Orwell was an Englishman writing in bombed-out, austerity-ridden, digging-itself-out-from-an-apocalypse England. Even today, they don’t have the car culture that we have here, and I’ve seen a lot of pictures of horse and carts wending their way around the ruins of post-war London. I’m sure there were plenty of cars around, driven by dignitaries and princes and whatsorts, but I don’t think they were used daily to get to work by your typical file clerk, or your typical village farmer, etc.

It wouldn’t even have occurred to him to write about a character’s relationship with their car, or their even owning a personal car that wasn’t tied to their profession (milk truck, taxicab, chauffeur), anymore than he would write about their tractor if the characters were agrarians; as much as the industrial revolution was in the distant past, the age of ubiquitous personal technology and obscene consumption had yet to be born.

I am reminded of something from way deep in my brain’s cellar, some sort of quasi-fascist screed by a Futurist artist or writer from the 30s about a marvelous “race-automobile” or something, but it was something completely different from the 50s-diner drive-in-movie car culture that is the background mythology we live with. More of a “let it all burn and bring the future forth!” kind of nihilist thing. I tried to google it but this was literally a class I took in high school in the 80s, sorry.

Anyways, 1984 is an incredibly pessimistic novel about the future he saw coming, so any of his characters enjoying the sort of expansive freedom that I have, where I could literally walk out my door right now and be thousands of miles from here in a couple of days with nobody saying boo about it… even if it was a story of a personal struggle against a totalitarian state, it would be a different story than one where he runs the risk of being denounced by name in front of his entire society if he doesn’t work hard enough at his morning exercise under the state’s watchful eye. One that it would have been fairly magically prescient on his part to be able to extrapolate from his lived experience.

Sorry but this is… a little imaginative. Britain was a fairly serious exporter of cars in the late 40s and there was a significant domestic demand with waiting lists measured in years for new purchases. This included people of middle class incomes and there were a lot of cars on the road prior to the war, 2.5 million by the mid 30s, so many that the number of pedestrians being killed by cars was a huge issue at the time. Car culture certainly peaked in the 50s but driving for pleasure was a big thing at the time, although it was called ‘motoring’.

So Orwell was very aware of the increasing use and interest in cars and he was certainly aware of his fellow Englishmen owning cars and driving them for fun. The more likely source for his exclusion of personal vehicles from 1984 is his vision of the world of 1984 as one of permanent war and rationing with everything being controlled by the state and individuals only receiving the barest of necessities. That world has such a paucity of personal property that Winston must make due with a nub of a pencil to write with. The chances of anybody in that world having a car are very slim, even for their ruling class. All their remaining manufacturing would be devoted solely to their war effort.

some sort of quasi-fascist screed by a Futurist artist or writer from the 30s about a marvelous “race-automobile” or something

Yep that sounds exactly like the Futurist movement[0]. It basically was Fascist (or at least, intentionally intended to be highly compatible with Fascism). Fillipo Marinetti wrote both the Manifesto of Futurism and the Fadcist Manifesto and wanted Futurism to be the official art style of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy (though Mussolini really didn’t care much for art in general and Fascist Germany was far more interested in “traditional” German and “classical” art than Futurism). The Futurist Manifesto states:

“We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”


You touch on something it’s important to remember here: Orwell was an English author, not American, and lived in Europe for most of (if not all) his life. Even if the US’s car ownership rates were in 1949 already what they are today (they weren’t), the author’s view of the world was certainly different, living in a place where car ownership was uncommon.

Yes, Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning who worked at his bicycle factory in Nottingham as a machinist in the mid-1950’s could afford a motorcycle “or perhaps an old car”. He lived nearby with his family, in a terraced house, and would have had no need for a vehicle.

Winston Smith would be in a similar social class.

Right, everything in the book is shoddy and second-rate. Access to high-quality luxuries like good tobacco and coffee is reserved for the Inner Party and is a major perk of membership.

I don’t believe anyone alive would definitely know the answer to this question, but I can share some options:

1.) George Orwell didn’t think private cars would catch on in any significant way. He did write this in the 1940s so that’s a possibility.

2.) He wanted to convey that the government controlled everything, even transportation.

3.) The government wants to control attention so they can broadcast propaganda (and expect rapt attention) at will.

4.) George Orwell wrote scenes with cars, they were poorly written and didn’t make an edited manuscript.

There is a specific passage in the book where he says a person looking forward from the early 20th century would have expected to own a car (and instead they get the Airstrip One of 1984). So I don’t think 1 is correct

Option 0 (the default hypothesis for any question like this): It didn’t come up in the plot, and wasn’t deemed an important background detail, or Orwell just didn’t think about it.

Option 1: In a world of severe rationing, cars are such a luxury item that they’re rare or nonexistent.

Option 2: Personal transportation represents a level of freedom and autonomy that is not supportive of the goals of The Party, where employment and living space are centrally planned anyway. Thus they aren’t part of the world. Trucks, rail, and so on serve the Party’s interest, so they do exist.

There is a passage in 1984, I think in one of the chapters from Goldstein’s book, that mentions cars, and takes about how a person looking forward to 1984 from early in the century was optimistic and imagined owning a car and maybe an airplane, and how the life even of an inner party member is austere by comparison.

He also mentions trucks when Winston was young and had to scrounge for food and would get some grain that fell off a truck driving on bumpy roads.

They do talk about tubes and Winston takes the train to the country.

So I’d say the world Orwell imagined didn’t have many cars

(Edit, I see when I was typing, idlewords also remembered another passage about trucks)

From a writing perspective… tackle one thing at a time? From an in universe perspective cars are a very individualistic concept, the type of totalitarian control in 1984 isn’t really compatible with everyone going where they want when they want. From a historical perspective, Britain was incredibly poor in the post war period, rationing went on well into the 50s, from this perspective it’s difficult to picture the average person owning a car- and we were very far off that in the 40s.

It’s been a few years since I read the book but weren’t there shortages of things as commonplace as boots? How are they going to have cars? (And they’ll need rubber for the wheels, at least)

> Ask any teenager: cars are freedom.

This isn’t necessarily an inherent property of cars. Cars are “freedom” to teenagers in most places in the US as a consequence of the fact that it’s impossible for them to get around on their own without a car. They aren’t “freedom” to teenagers in places where it is possible for kids/teenagers to already get around on their own without a car due to having a functional transit system. They probably weren’t “freedom” to Orwell when 1984 was written, either.

Ask any teenager today and they’ll probably say they don’t really care, because it’s too expensive to own and operate a car, there’s no place worth going (or it’s too expensive unless it’s fast food), and they can just stay at home with their phones instead. Teenagers today have very different values than in prior decades.

Good point. I’ll have to ask my mentees but I think you might be right.

But I guess to answer the question we’d have to explore it from the frame of when it was written. So… in the late 40s did teens get access to cars? I feel like that was an American 60s-00s thing. Was it big in the UK? Now I have to research this because I’m very curious.

I think no place worth going is the fundamental thing.

Socialization can happen online to a great extent. Clubs are 21 and up. Restaurants are too expensive. Underground clubs and parties are rare to nonexistent, killed by a mix of helicopter parenting and disengagement driven by being online. Concerts are a bit of a thing but also expensive.

It’s just such a different world.

I was really into BBSes as a teen so I guess I was among the early adopters. I didn’t go out much until senior year of HS and college.

I was weird. So wild that I would be normal today.

Cars are means and symbols of individual independence and freedom. As such, they wouldn’t be allowed in a 1984 world. Beware those trying to eliminate cars.

> Cars are means and symbols of individual independence and freedom.

A car as a choice is. A car as a requirement for affording a place, or perceived desirable place, to live, isn’t, it’s part of the tax of dwelling. Further, cars can be seen, and often act, as means to separate one’s self from, again perceived, mixing in or exposure to undesirable society. I think car ownership could have been used to good effect in 1984.

See Also

If Orwell correctly predicted that communists would want to eradicate the personal freedom that comes from car ownership, you think he wouldn’t have beat us over the head with it?

How many privately owned cars were there in the Soviet Union? Seems like automobiles are tools of the bourgeoisie, so it seems perfectly inline that a socialist paradise would tightly control them.

17 million privately owned cars in 1991, about 1/5 per capita than Europe at the time.

Unless you are talking about 1948, when the country was a burnt-out desert recovering from 30 million war dead.

sure, the next line after your quote says they realized it’s not enough and massively ramped up production in the 70s.

there was never a ban or stigma on private cars, it’s simply a very expensive and wasteful way to move people, especially in 1948 when it was one big smoldering ruin. And when everything is walkable, and there is plentiful public transport. But if you really really wanted a car, you could eventually get it and people had millions of them.

shrug why is this so surprising? it was never a well-off society, most people in Kenya today for example probably have to bust their ass their whole life and still may not be able to get a car.

but hey, if you want to keep believing that there was a crazy dictatorship ban on cars, help yourself.

This is the ANSII standard critique of socialism, that it will invariably assume an oligarchal form no matter how lofty the ideals of the founders. The “no true Scotsman” arguments about what does and doesn’t constitute real socialism always seem miss this point.

As someone who is neither, I think it’s clear that plenty of democratic socialists are anti-nondemocratic socialism. Surely the biggest critics of a government falsely claiming to pursue an ideology, are those true believers of the ideology, seeing their ideas used as cover for something else?

It goes beyond indignation; there’s long-standing bad blood between two camps. Soviets specifically actively persecuted democratic socialists (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) during the 1917 revolution. In late USSR, some political dissidents also self-identified as some kind of demsoc or demcom, such as e.g. Aleksandr Skobov.

Orwell was an ardent critic of the Soviet system and neither Animal Farm nor 1984 are examples of a “socialist paradise”.

It’s a trait of the midriff of Mexico and Canada to blindly conflate Soviet Authoritarianism, Communism, Socialism, the Nazi NDP, etc with near zero understanding of the differences .. which leads to a region wide confusion between their system and free market capitalism.

Political education and civics in the US could use a shake up.

There’s a single maximally virulent system of “managerialism” that all of those options you list (and others including modern absolute monarchism and even modern theocratic states) follow. Other alternatives that were common historically were eliminated by these. Competitions between these variants of managerialism are mostly about finding an ideal balance rather than fundamental difference.

Interesting fact about the Soviet union: the grapes of wrath was banned, because the government was worried that if Soviet citizens knew that even the poorest Americans could afford a car, they would revolt.

I actually think this is an excellent question. Because of how utterly worthless a question it is.

“Why aren’t there any pringles references in Star Wars?”

It’s fiction, the author does what they want, and it doesn’t matter beyond supporting the story. It’s not like Orwell was after a “hard world-build”. You get that, right? He was trying to express opinions on the danger of allowing too much power to be centralized with one entity.

My advice would be to quit approaching literature & media this way. Go read up on Checkhov’s Gun.

In conclusion please quit looking at old literature as if it’s an unexplored cinematic universe waiting to happen because groan.

It’s the world’s most useless and overrated cautionary tale about the future of Stalinist absurdism Orwell saw in the UK’s future if Labour stayed in power. The man could write, that I grant you, but beyond a skillful prose style he’s little of use to offer in general and especially here; Nineteen Eighty-four is not at all ahead of its time, but rather quite a bit behind it.

That said, it makes sense a Stalinist regime would permit its ordinary subjects neither the private ownership of property nor the liberty of physical movement embodied in having a car. As in the USSR, the nomenklatura would have limousines and drivers, and everyone else would take the train or walk.

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