Burgess as the Conservative:
Themes Against Big Government in
A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed
Anthony Burgess wrote during the 1960s, a period of literary and social liberalism in the west that revolutionized the way English-speaking people looked at their culture and government. Though Burgess' personal politics were definitely of a liberal bent, his career as a satirist is marked by a very conservative trend against powerful government. Although dealing with strikingly different issues and themes, A Clockwork Orange (1963) and The Wanting Seed (1962) exhibit an intellectual climate of rightist conviction of big government's inevitable corruptibility. Dealing with the scope of Burgess' satire, one may argue that A Clockwork Orange is a clear representative of his fear of too-powerful national government.
Orange is a typically surrealistic vision of a future England, one overpopulated and dominated by a nameless Government whose law decrees that every citizen 'not a child, nor with child, nor ill' should work and whose urban projects involve massive murals depicting 'the dignity of labor'. While drawing on imagery from Communist Russia in this way, Burgess adds a disconcerting picture of a provincial town in which the night is populated by vicious thugs and milk bars where fifteen-year-old boys can purchase milk laced with mind-altering drugs. The central theme of Orange deals with the necessity of moral choice to the retention of personal humanity; Burgess' satire, nevertheless, seems to repeatedly attack the evils he believes to be coexistent with a socialistic government. The Government in Orange seems at different points comic, sinister, or both; his attack, however, extends to the politics of a totalitarian state as a whole, skewering both the resistance (as personified by F. Alexander and his compatriots) and the oppressive Government itself. One may argue that Burgess views the influence of socialist totalitarianism as a malignancy which extends to all corners of the State, that is, the Resistance of a totalitarianism must necessarily adopt some of the evils of the ruling institution in order to oppose it.
Preceding it by a year, The Wanting Seed may be considered a companion volume to A Clockwork Orange in that both deal with grim visions of an English future under a socialized state. Burgess' social commentary turns away from the corruption and insincerity of Big Government and in turn addresses the unnatural elements of a command economy and family planning. Seed deals with issues of overpopulation, enforced peace, and the breakdown of the latter into uncontrollable warfare; the world of Seed is, if anything, even more distressing than that in Orange. The axe which Burgess grinds throws clearer sparks, however, in the latter novel; his attack against the capitalized Government through which he personifies the Communist bloc of the world of 1960 is mercilessly clear in ways Seed did not address.
Though we are aware from the inception of A Clockwork Orange that all is not right with the administration of the future English government, Burgess begins his most vicious satire when Alex, the anti-hero, is arrested by the police after a failed burglary. The following exchange ensues:
"I won't say one single solitary slovo [word] unless I have my lawyer here. I know the law, you bastards." . . . Of course they all had a good gromky smeck [loud laugh] at that and the stellar top millicent [police chief] said:
"Righty right, boys, we'll start off by showing him that we know the law, too, but that knowing the law isn't everything." . . . Then he clenched his stinking red rooker [fist] and let me have it in the belly . . . after that they all had a turn.
The theme of police brutality as a symbol for the government itself is developed later in the novel, after Alex is released from prison, when he is taken to the outskirts of town and brutally beaten by two police officers though he had done nothing wrong. Physical brutality
, however, seems less reprehensible in Burgess' eyes than political brutality
. The Minister of the Interior, whom Alex consistently refers to as the 'Minister of the Inferior
', comments to his henchmen:
"The government cannot be concerned any longer with outmoded penological theories. Cram criminals together and see what happens. You get concentrated criminality, crime in the midst of punishment. Soon we may be needing all our prison space for political offenders."
This comment marks a shift into the most concentrated and vitriolic of Burgess' attack against the intellectual and political brutality of his nightmarish Government. Alex is soon afterward subjected to a conditioning program designed to train him out of any violent or criminal tendencies; he is shown films of rape, violence, and brutality while being piped full of nauseating drugs. These films contain background music, however; Alex, whose one 'human' feature is his love of classical music, discovers that he has been not only conditioned against violence but against music as well. Here is a double crime: Alex has been stripped of his humanity both in that he can no longer make moral choices but has been robbed of his single redeeming characteristic. While the chief vehicle of Burgess' theme of moral choice, Alex' reconditioning may be seen as a symbol for the smothering effect of big government as Burgess perceives it. Alex, to whom the reader is by this time (and against all reason) sympathetic, becomes a representative of the political and artistic circles which a pessimist's Socialism must necessarily crush.
In response to inflammatory writing on the part of F. Alexander, the Government 'Cures' Alex of his aversion therapy while he recovers in the hospital from his climactic suicide attempt. Burgess' presentation of Big Government paints it as essentially self-interested; it does what is best for itself. The Minister of the Interior (Inferior) hosts a media spot in which he and Alex pose together 'All like droogy [friendly]', smiling and presenting the boy with a new stereo system. Burgess is clear to point out that this is an action of necessity rather than one of moral realization. Indeed, Alex is unchanged by his experience; as he lays in the hospital bed, listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he remarks:
Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy [see] myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas [feet], carving the whole litso [face] of the creeching [screaming] world with my cut-throat britva [razor]. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured, all right.
Alex finishes his narrative on this unhopeful note; we assume that, through all his experiences, he still 'prefers badness' as he proclaims earlier in the narrative. This is, however, irrelevant to the message of the book; it seems that to Burgess' reckoning it is better to be evil by one's own choice than to live benevolently without an opposing option. In relation to his social conservatism, one may argue that Burgess is making a generalized statement about the nature of capitalist and socialist governments in opposition; it is better, he seems to say, for one to live badly, wastefully, competitively than to support one's society without a choice to do otherwise. In this, A Clockwork Orange may be said to be the clearer, more effective satire when compared to The Wanting Seed; in the former, there is a definitive moral statement, whereas The Wanting Seed is far more ambiguous. Indeed, the earlier novel does not make a value judgment at all, merely indicting both 'sterile peace' and 'fertile war'; while a clear alternative, a definitive solution is suggested in Orange there is no such implication in Seed. In such, A Clockwork Orange may be considered the more effective moral treatise and perhaps the logical culmination of ideas Burgess began to develop in The Wanting Seed.