Do you not begin to see, then, what kind of world it is we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined.
A world of fear and treachery, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world that will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.
George Orwell, 1984
Even if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much more brutal and barren world of Orwell’s 1984, the West, since 9-11 has been evolving in a decidedly Orwellian direction. This has been the case under both George W. Bush and perhaps even more so under President Obama, a reality that has proven highly upsetting to civil libertarians of all stripes who helped sweep Obama into office in the hopes that he would end some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration.
It might be best then to take another look at Orwell’s 1984, a book most of us probably remember from high school or college, and then to see how Orwell’s warnings line up with reality today. For he drew our attention to features of state power and put that power within a context that is perhaps more relevant today for political, technological, and economic reasons than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.
Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy. Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.
Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.
Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.
One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. The defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:
“He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the
right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By
what external standards could you check it judgements? Sanity was statistical.
It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” (228)
The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.
Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Juila. Much like in Plato’s Republic Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike Plato, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodoxy. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered , everywhere.
The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems, as they do labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless.
If these were geo-political predictions, Orwell was on all accounts incorrect. In terms of war, however, Orwell has some very interesting and prescient things to say, both for the Cold War period that followed his novel, and even more so, for today. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (163).
Orwell thinks that real wars- for all their horrors- served as a reality check on the state anchoring its delusions to the practical need of avoiding conquest. In the world of 1984 actual conquest of one great power by another had become impossible, and because of the vast resources which each of the 3 world powers possessed- unnecessary. The reality check of war, therefore disappeared, and its very purpose which had once been the survival or aggrandizement of the state transformed into an instrument of internal control. Not merely did the phony war hypnotize the masses and bind them tightly to the Party, the creation of completely useless weapons was a way to steer surplus production away from the needs of the subject classes, therefore keeping them in a constant state of privation, in which the spread of general wealth and education that might threaten the grip of the Party was not allowed to come into being.
Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood. Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents, a subject that will be dealt with in my next post.
The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force. As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:
Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (220)
The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:
These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (199)
The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.
I think a good question to ask here is how Orwell thought such a horrifying world might come about? I think it would be a mistake to see Orwell as engaged in a sort of political phantasy that he thought was completely implausible, rather, 1984, is a kind of warning that given the continuation of certain trends this might be the world we ended up with. Orwell’s version of history up until the end of WWII can certainly not be considered a fiction, but a kind bird’s-eye-view of what had happened stretching back before the industrial revolution.
Orwell sees history as the story of class struggle between the 3 classes that have composed humanity since the Neolithic Age: the High, the Middle, and the Low. Consistently the Middle have overthrown the High by enlisting the Low taking the position of the High themselves and once victorious inevitably throwing the Low back into servitude. What would make the 20th century distinct is that the revolutionary forces of the Middle, which in the past had been partially fooled by their own rhetoric concerning the freedom of the masses that could be brought by revolution, became openly authoritarian and tyrannical in their aims.
Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early 19th century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected with the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onward the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned. (167)
In part, Orwell saw this growing out of the new historical consciousness. According to the logic of the new revolutionaries: if society’s, instability- understood to be caused by war between classes- could be ended by the permanent domination of ONE class, then, history itself would come to an end, the world, like that proposed in Plato’s Republic frozen forever in amber.
But the main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.
“The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation”. (168)
The political ideology which Orwell imagined dominated his Oceania – Ingsoc- was foreshadowed by the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian movements who stripped of their Utopian veneer in his imagined ideologies and became mere will to power. The class which gave rise to Orwell’s ruling Party had been “brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government” (169).
Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.
1984 gives us a lot to think about and not as something abstract, applied to some far off dystopia, but right here and now. He brings to our attention the issues of technological surveillance, torture, continuous low-level war and propaganda and the abuse of language, along with questions about the history up- to- the- present of inequality and its origins. All the subject of my next post.
Only then will we be able to guess where such Orwellian trends might be leading, and how we might stop them.
* Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Signet Classics, New American Library of World Literature, Inc. 1961. First published 1949