Evil and Free; or Good and Brainwashed?

Review of “A Clockwork Orange” (1962) by Anthony Burgess, London: William Heinemann Ltd.

A Clockwork Orange. You’ve heard the name, you know it’s a classic, but you’re not quite sure what it is about. This dystopian polemic by Anthony Burgess, one of the University of Manchester’s many famous alumni, explores themes of free will and political suppression, focusing on the conflict between the individual and the state.

Set in a futuristic English city, A Clockwork Orange follows the story of Alex DeLarge, a brutally aggressive adolescent and leader of a small gang of teenage thugs who delight in routinely robbing, beating, raping and killing fellow citizens. Against this background of widespread juvenile delinquency and “ultraviolence”, government seeks to impose order and stability by not merely punishing criminals through imprisonment but by introducing a system of classical conditioning: the “Ludovico” technique. It subjects perpetrators to “a form of aversion therapy guaranteed, in a mere two weeks, to eliminate criminal propensities forever” (Burgess, 1973). This technique psychologically and physically conditions individuals into being repulsed by violent conduct through a procedure of associative learning, whereby the subject is injected with a nausea-inducing substance and forced to watch violent films for extended periods of time, hence conditioning the subject to associate violence with feelings of nausea. This political instrument of torture is tested on Alex for the first time, effectively reforming him into a supposedly “cured” model citizen. He no longer craves violence but instead dreads it, to the point of fearing it. He becomes defenseless and vulnerable in the face of crimes committed against him once released from prison; he is no longer capable of thinking for himself.

By removing his ability for choice and thereby restricting his free will, the method denies Alex the power to choose his own moral course of action, of whether to pursue “goodness” or “badness”. Burgess insists that this translates into citizens no longer possessing autonomy nor having the ability to pursue self-determination. The author suggests that without autonomy, human beings can no longer be moral agents. They lose their “humanness” and are reduced to a mere deterministic mechanism, “a clockwork orange”. It is ultimately the presence of moral choice which distinguishes human beings from machines and perhaps lower animals: “when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man” (Burgess, 1962, p.72).

On the grounds of Mill’s “harm principle” some might argue that state intervention of the kind portrayed in Burgess’ novel is warranted: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill 1859, p.22). Alex’s lawless freedom translates into horrifically explicit acts of violence committed against his victims who deserve the protection of society; the authorities might claim that altering citizens’ behaviour by forcing them to only “be good” is beneficial for society as a whole. Yet, Burgess fundamentally argues that punishment for crime should not be of the kind resulting in the removal of choice. He maintains “that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing” (Burgess, 1973). Doing goodness can only be authentic if it is chosen by the moral agents, thus individuals should be allowed to make their own choices, even if that freedom results in depravity. Arguably, it is the moral agents acting on self-determination who form the foundation of a society, with the state merely taking on an executive role, implementing the decisions of the people. Without the people, as freely autonomous moral agents, the state is meaningless.

One of the novel’s darker suggestions is that achieving societal stability is not an end in itself but rather a means for the Government to guarantee their re-election into power – a manipulative and insidious political scheme. In this view of society, exercising your right to vote, supposedly having the freedom to choose who governs, can be seen as nothing more than an empty democratic procedure; the Government has already chosen for you. Citizens merely perform the act of voting, giving the illusion of free choice. Assuming that the intrinsic value of democracy depends on autonomy, it is clear that under such a totalitarian society democracy will lose its intrinsic value. A loss of autonomy essentially renders voting a pointless and rather farcical act. Burgess leaves one pondering the nature of our own autonomy and whether we do actually have control over it presently, or if each of us is merely a clockwork orange, a brainwashed instrument of the state, perhaps controlled and reformed through the systematic use of mass media. The reader is left doubting Government’s legitimacy and in particular its rights to impinge on the individuality of its citizens for the “greater good”, since such a justification may be nothing more than a cunning form of paternalism. Burgess essentially questions the motives of Government and the extent to which it should be allowed to influence the private domain.

I believe this topic is in dire need of discussion, particularly in our current generation. The modern state, in an age of electronic communications, mass surveillance and pervasive security threats has amassed far more knowledge of its citizens’ behaviour than ever before. The Foucauldian tripe that “Knowledge is power” is true now more than ever. As many other dystopian authors such as Huxley and Orwell have warned, we have good reason to be cautious of the consequences of allowing governments too much power over their citizens.

Burgess, A. (1962) 2007. A Clockwork Orange (London: William Heinemann Ltd. Reprint, London: The Independent, Paperview UK Ltd, 2007).

Burgess, A. (1973). "The Clockwork Condition", The New Yorker (2012).

Available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/the-clockwork-condition (accessed 11/12/2017).

Mill, J.S. (1859). On Liberty (2nd ed.), (London: J.W. Sons & Parker).


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