Freedom and free will in the welfare state: Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, the 2008 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here’s the Prometheus Blog’s Appreciation for Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the 2008 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.:

“When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” – Anthony Burgess

By Michael Grossberg

A Clockwork Orange may not be remembered or read as widely today as some other dystopian novels, but it arguably ranks among the best-written, most shocking and most plausible works of that seminal 20th century genre.

Today, British writer Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel is far better known from director Stanley Kubrick’s vivid 1971 film. Yet, the nightmarish novel rightly was included on Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

Even if you’re a fan of the controversial film version (as I am), Burgess’ novel is well worth reading for its own sake – especially for its imaginative style, dark humor, inventive slang language, and insightful portrait of a disturbing future in a culture corrupted by a bloated and obtrusive welfare state.

Most dystopian novels – from We and Anthem to Nineteen Eighty Four and Fahrenheit 451 (all previous Prometheus Hall of Fame inductees) – portray outright dictatorships in cautionary tales about totalitarianism of all flavors of the extreme Left and Right.

But the bleak narrative of A Clockwork Orange remind us that government need not go to such extremes to become oppressive, unjust and deeply inhuman. Few works dissect and dramatize better the authoritarian potential inherent in the perversions, corruptions and excesses of the modern welfare state and its attendant bureaucracy.

With undercurrents of black comedy and savage satire, Burgess’s revelatory tale is notable for its evocation of the interrelated cultural, social and legal factors inherent in the growth of the British welfare state.

In particular, Burgess dramatizes the impact of obtrusive government on the prospects and expectations of younger generations. The welfare state’s inevitable and deepening culture of dependency becomes so dispiriting and even unmanning that young people – especially young men – tend to become ripe instigators, and victims, of a bored and toxic youth subculture, often embracing violence (in Burgess’ plausible scenario, extreme “ultraviolence”) for kicks.

Set in the near future in an England where the disturbing political trends of the mid-20th-century British welfare state have accelerated, sparking increasingly dysfunctional crime and violence while the bureaucracy of police, courts and other state institutions has worsened, the novel centers on Alex, a 15-year-old British thug with a teenage gang.

A gleeful and irresponsible ne-‘er-do-well at the start of the story, Alex thoroughly enjoys his wasted life as a street smart but overconfident gang leader, gleefully ignorant of higher culture – except for his beloved Beethoven and Bach.

Alex remains unapologetic and “ultraviolent” until he is betrayed by his gang buddies, sick to death of his careless domination. Set up by his gang to be captured by the police after he gets carried away and murders a wealth elderly woman in a brutal home invasion, Alex becomes grist for the mill of the welfare state’s criminal-justice and medical-health bureacracy.

Sent to prison, Alex is subjected to an experimental government-mandated form of aversion therapy, tantamount to brainwashing, designed to undermine or deny the possibility of free will by dehumanizing individuals.

Perhaps the key line of dialogue in the novel – and one repeated by two different characters – is “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” It’s a strong clue to the novel’s libertarian theme linking free will and freedom.

Burgess appreciated and often used irony. From Alex’s perspective, the new technology blocking his taste for “ultraviolence” becomes the ultimate inhuman horror when, the choice of background music during the aversion therapy inadvertently establishes an additional involuntary aversion to Beethoven.

Intriguingly, Burgess, a prolific linguist, wove into the story an imagined future Anglo-Russian teen slang that’s quite visceral and palpable. Interestingly, Burgess also was a prolific composer, and the musicality of his dialogue should be noted as one of the most distinctive aspects of the novel and also one of its chief assets.

For example, Alex’s criminal friends are dubbed “droogs” while the drug-added drinks they imbibe at a favorite bar is called “milk-plus.”

Almost as alien as a foreign language but strangely familiar in its extrapolation of British culture, the dialogue helps establish the story’s strange and surreal tone – and perhaps was the key factor sparking extraordinary praise from contemporary British author Roald Dahl of A Clockwork Orange as a “terrifying and marvelous” book.

Burgess’ perverse coming-of-age story, with its ironic themes of comeuppance and redemption, might best be read today from W.W. Norton’s restored 2012 50th anniversary edition. (It’s somewhat different from the 1962 original, but carefully researched to better reflect Burgess’ intent from his manuscripts.)

Like much of Burgess’ other fiction, A Clockwork Orange subtly but laudably reflect his mid-20th-century commitment to classical liberalism – closer to modern libertarianism than 21st-century left-liberalism and very different from the more recent decay of more-statist liberalism into an authoritarian progressivism increasingly hostile to freedom of speech and press, other civil liberties, due process, individual rights, reason and objectivity itself.

Even more foundational than political philosophy to Burgess’ vision was his conviction that the foundation of liberty is intimately connected to the fact of our free will – and that every human being has the capacity to think clearly, face reality and choose freely between good and evil.

With his deep understanding of history and human nature, Burgess recognized and wove into his fiction the reality that the decision to choose the good is not always easy or automatic. Every individual faces the challenge – especially as they mature – of striving to become ethical and responsible while also grappling (as Alex does) with the daemonic, impulsive and joyous energies of the creative (but wild) inner self.

Burgess often upheld the intertwined values of reason, liberty and personal responsibility in his fiction and essays – but never more imaginatively than in A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess in the 1960s (Creative Commons license)

Note: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a prolific English author, critic, translator and composer who wrote novels, screenplays, librettos, essays, reviews and more than 250 musical works.

A Clockwork Orange, his most famous work (largely because of the Kubrick film), was named by Modern Library readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 21st century.

Burgess’ other novels included the Enderby quartet, Earthly Powers, 1985 and The Wanting Seed.

He also wrote literary reviews, the screenplay for the 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth; studies of classic writers, such as James Joyce; and translations of Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus Rex and the opera Carmen.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* See related  introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join  the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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