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  • Max Woski

A Clockwork Orange, Totalitarianism, Free Will, and the Therapeutic State (Part 1)

It was a dark, dreary night in April 2020, and the clocks were striking thirteen. After the immense, insurmountable apathy I felt from a “virtual school day”, and after nearly a whole month of forced house arrest, I found myself watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange.”

Despite originally intended as a dark comedy, the film is undoubtedly one of Kubrick’s best works while remaining a brilliant rendition of the original novel written by Anthony Burgess. First published in 1962 after Burgess visited Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) during the pinnacle of the Soviet Empire; the state-regulated and inefficient, drab atmosphere of the Soviet Union inspired Burgess to write a novel concerning the rather dull, idle nature of a society that provides an atmosphere rife for young teenage delinquents.

At a surface level, the novel is concerned with the rehabilitation of the delinquent youth protagonist Alex, who after receiving the state-backed Ludovico treatment eventually learns how to refrain himself from his despicable desires of rape, violence and theft. However, the state forced soul-devouring methods used in the Ludovico treatment raise the question as to whether Alex has genuinely learnt that his past way was morally evil, or perhaps Alex has just learnt to hide and refrain from his inner desires as part of his rehabilitation.

What Burgess observed after his time in the USSR, was the sheer absence of any kind of police. Perhaps the police were undercover and solely interested in political crimes, but there was no sign of a totalitarian state full of white-helmeted military police. And absolutely no sign of a coldness, a thinness of blood of the people with all emotion channelled into a love of Big Brother.

To quote Burgess, “I went to Leningrad expecting to find a frightening steel-and-stone image of the Orwellian future. What I found instead was human beings at their most human: or, to put it another way, at their most inefficient.”

What was noted, however, was a demoralised but respectful people that largely resembled much of the working classes within Northern England. I strongly advise you to read the novel, how different is the setting of the novel from the deprived northern communities of Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield, Brighouse, and Wakefield?

Although it is certainly true that Burgess regarded communism as a fundamentally flawed system, chiefly because it shifts moral responsibility from the individual to the state while disregarding the welfare of the individual, Burgess fundamentally views totalitarian regimes through his deeply internalized Catholic notions of free will and original sin. Burgess’ theological views prevented him from accepting a system that sacrifices individual freedom for the public good.

However, more crucially the novel is fundamentally a Manichean parable, about the conflict between good and evil, not only evil itself but the danger of trying to correct it. Essentially, Burgess is suspicious of the use of power to change others.

A Clockwork Orange also demonstrates the pendulum theory - how one extreme purges the other. On one side you have the left-wing character of Mr Alexander, who wishes to use Alex to expose the failings of the current government, and on the other side, you have the Minister of the Interior whose sole objective is to cut down crime and acquire prison space for political offenders. Both characters blur the line between the left and right of politics, they only differ in their dogma. Their means and ends are hardly distinguishable.

The most morally important character is the prison chaplain, who can be seen as Burgess’ mouthpiece through his expressions of the Catholic doctrine and his frequent ponderings over the state-driven morality of the Ludovico treatment:

Very hard ethical questions are involved," he went on. "You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State's Peace” [2.3.11]

"It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you, I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” [2.3.13]

The character of Mr Alexander despite having an anarchistic air about him, is certainly a devout believer in liberty and freedom and rather appropriately an author of “subversive” literature - ironically the author of a novel called “A Clockwork Orange”. Mr Alexander profoundly understands the state’s mechanistic view of humanity and human nature: “The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.”

What Burgess’ and Kubrick’s parable really tries to state is that it is preferable to have a world of violence taken in full awareness – violence itself chosen as an act of free will – than a world conditioned to be good or harmless. If we are to really love mankind then we must also love Alex – not an unrepresentative member of it. The ironical place where Alex and Mr Alexander are most capable of hate and violence is called “HOME”, and it is here that charity ought to begin. But towards the state, which first is concerned with its own self-perpetuation, and second, is happiest when human beings are controllable and predictable (like a clockwork made orange; made organic!), we have absolutely no sense of duty or charity, no duty at all!

All men are fallen. Man is not perfectible. To believe that the state can combat man’s own innate failings is naïve, silly, and immensely dangerous.

I also extend this to scientism [1] (please see definition below). It is inherently dangerous to believe that we can use the principles of science to construct and regulate society. This will only lead to a mechanistic view of humanity, at best devoid of any soul or life, and at worse, the usage of science towards eugenics or the bearing of genetically modified children.

Human behaviour is complex. No mathematical equation can describe or predict human behaviour to any reasonable degree of accuracy. We all have different values and ethics, and different methods to achieve our own goals. Yes, certain behaviours are objectively evil or objectively good, but how do we arrive at this decision? Should this decision be decided democratically, by the current whims of the general populace? Or should our ethical values have roots in historical principles and foundations, passed on through several generations of our ancestors by institutions such as the Church?

Whether it be by God or by secular ethics, the state should be severed from any source of morality.

As humans, we have free will, and that is a right that cannot be denied to us. The Ludovico Technique represents the government’s, or any authority figure’s, interference with our personal liberties, and the dangers of these interferences. The battle of good versus evil is presented an innumerable number of times in literature and cinema--but A Clockwork Orange puts a twist on this common theme. Which is worse, chosen evil or forced good?

According to A Clockwork Orange, chosen evil is the lesser evil, because it demonstrates it allows us a choice. If humans lose moral choice, they become machines. Free will to choose between good and evil is the central tenet and message in A Clockwork Orange.


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