Events have taken such a dark turn in the United States with the election of Trump that many have felt the need to go back to the dystopian classics to get their bearings. These were novels written in the first half of the prior century when totalitarianism wasn’t just something relegated to gray photos in our history books while we lived our days in the bright neo-liberal sunlight of the post- Cold War era, but actually roamed alive and deadly in the real world.
Among the most well know of these novels, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984. Many of us had thought the bleak dystopia Orwell depicted had, by the early 21st century, been relegated to isolated hermit kingdoms such as North Korea. Huxley, we all knew, with his mind altering drugs, free love, and mind-numbing consumerism had been more prescient regarding how authoritarian power would operate- strangling our freedom not with an iron but with a velvet glove. Yet Trump seems to be proving the majority of us eggheads wrong. As Adam Gopnik so bluntly puts it in reference to what we’ve see of the Trump presidency so far:
Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.
Of course, Gopnik isn’t alone in suggesting 1984 has something especially important to tell regarding 2017. Since Trump’s election sales of the novel have soared by 9,500 percent. And still, trying to use 1984 as a map through the Trump presidency might pose just as many distortions as insights, and not just because other dystopian novels might offer better depictions of the actual type of dystopia we are in danger of falling into, but because our efforts and attention might be drawn into an ineffectual resistance against an enemy unlikely to arrive, while the real villain slips in unnoticed in his place. What’s required, then, is a close reading of 1984 to see where it fits and diverges from what’s happened so far, so here it goes:
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. Thus, 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 its judgments? Sanity was statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought. (290)
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 Julia. 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 in Plato’s Republic, 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 unorthodox thought or behavior. 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 for labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Yet weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless. 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” (205).
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.
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. (279)
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. (253)
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.
What then might we learn from such a dark tale written only a few years after the Second World War as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was just coming into being? One quite disturbing similarity is that the kind of surveillance apparatus Orwell imagined hasn’t just become possible, but is now ubiquitous. The vast majority of us carry the watchful eyes of a potential Big Brother in our pockets, he is capable of staring back at us from our smart TVs, or listening to us through our Echos.
Thankfully for us, a major difference between Oceania and ourselves is that for us this capacity to surveil is located in the private sphere, not the state. After the Snowden revelations the extent to which the security state leveraged these capacities was somewhat reduced, but more importantly, private companies, especially Apple, have become much more focused on protecting their customers from government snooping.
One can see the direction the Orwellian direction the Trump administration pursue when looking at the attendees to the president elect s meet and greet with Silicon Valley giants. In addition to the heads of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon there was Alex Karp the CEO of the security company Palantir. A seat at the big table for a relatively minor company, which might not so much represent payment for the company’s founder, Peter Thiel’s, nearly solitary support for Trump among the Silicon Valley elite, but the fact that Palantir is the premier private sector surveillance company and an open partner with the NSA.
A much less sexy, but perhaps, even more disturbing Orwellian trend in the Trump administration is their openness to merging federal law enforcement with that of state and local governments.
Again the differences between Oceania and Trump’s America are just as important. So far we’ve seen resistance to Trump’s authoritarian overreach at the level of major cities and majority liberal states. The judiciary appears to be doing its job of acting as a check on executive power- even if Trump doesn’t understand what checks and balances mean. Above all, citizens are coming to the defense of fellow citizens in the streets.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between Orwell’s fictional 1984 and our oh-too-real 2017 is the replacement of genuine political debate with Newspeak. That Orwell would provide insight into our world of internet filter-bubbles and fake-news when he was writing it what was still the golden age of radio makes sense once one recalls that 1984 was conceived and written while Orwell was working as a propagandist for the BBC during World War II. Yet while the enemy he was working in the 1940s was frighteningly real, the enemies of Oceania could, for all the reader knows, have been pure products a propaganda meant to organize society around the dark emotions of hatred and fear.
It’s at the very least possible that the longer the Trump administration experiences its own impotence the more tempted it will become to transform its agenda into one of inflaming public fear and anger alone, from which it will extract the kinds of extra-constitutional powers it would need to achieve the agenda of its more radical members, most notably Steve Bannon. A major terrorist attack might Reichstag fire– like enable that, as would a war with a major power- China. If not, the authoritarian maelstrom Trump stands in the center of would be unlikely, whatever its wishes, to replicate, marching armies and all, in the United States the kinds of mass totalitarian state Orwell depicted in 1984, that Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and PRC were the penultimate examples of and which survives today alone in the dark kingdom of North Korea.
Only a truly massive crisis such as an attack on a major US city with WMDs, or a world war could resurrect the age of the mass men, because we live in an era of fractured media and politics. Under these conditions, disinformatzya as a tool to cause even further fracturing among political opponents is much more potent than any sort of propaganda that attempts to transform society into a single-willed blob. As Ethan Zuckerman describes it:
A third category of “fake news,” relatively new to the scene in most countries, is disinformatzya. This is news that’s not trying to persuade you that Trump is good and Hillary bad (or vice versa). Instead, it’s trying to pollute the news ecosystem, to make it difficult or impossible to trust anything.
Yet there’s another resemblance the Trump regime’s attitude to truth has with the dictatorship in 1984 that’s just as important, namely, their apparent proclivity to deny, or even delete, information that stands in the way of their agenda. As Winston the protagonist reflects in the novel:
If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened- that surely was more frightening than mere torture and death? (37)
In terms of its willingness to openly lie, conceal or distort the truth to suit its own ends we might have to go back before the Nixon administration was felled by an independent press. Every president since Nixon, though they lied and were caught lying anyway, were fearful enough of the power of the press to expose them that they tended not to waste their dissimulation capital on petty disputes where lies could easily be exposed by journalists.
Shockingly, Trump has grabbed this mantle of truth-teller for himself, dismisses even objective evidence against his often outrageous claims as a mere fabrication by his enemies. Yet, with that said, and unlike in 1984, it’s not at all the case that the state has managed to become the sole arbiter of truth, but that everyone, whether actually capable of it or not, claims such a capacity as his own, and in like vein denies the reality of anyone who fails to agree with the facts as he understands them. Another difference: it’s not any Party which causes rival facts to disappear but the filter bubbles created by the algorithmic systems- such as FaceBook- through which the vast majority of the information we absorb is brought to us.
These are problems that will long outlast Trump, though it’s unlikely we’ll see a more brazen liar, braggart, and conspiracy minded dolt anytime soon.
Putting aside the very real fear that policy within the Trump administration might actually be being made on the basis of a paranoid Manichean fantasy, what’s more immediately 1984 style frightening are efforts by his administration to hunt down and delete information that contradicts its agenda and worldview. Winston wrestled with the question of what truth could even mean in a society dedicated to its destruction over and above its transformation into lies:
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case, must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the party imposed- if all records told the same tale- then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ (37)
The totally legitimate fear that Trump intends to sweep up and destroy government research that contradicts his denial it policy towards human caused climate change has resulted in an unprecedented collaboration between universities and other groups to copy and save government research findings before they are deliberately erased.
All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’ they called it. In Newspeak, ‘doublethink’. (37)
It is the very chaos of Trump’s style of communication that seems to upend the weight of our shared reality. He deliberately blurs the distinction between the insiders game and Protocols of Zion like nut- job conspiracy. As Julia Ioffe has pointed out whomever Trump convinces to publicly lie for him he thereafter owns.
Rather than attempt to control absorb every aspect of private life as was done to the educated classes in 1984 or the entire society in actual totalitarian regimes Trump seems to give a rat’s ass when it comes to the private lives of Americans, unless it serves as a way to placate his restless culturally conservative base. Instead, Trumpism wants to confine us to our private lives except Trump rallies and performance politics indistinguishable from a reality TV show. All of us are to be like the proles (lower classes) of 1984:
“…where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history.” (46)
Yet another similarity Trumpism shares with 1984- though to be honest it’s something that stretches back not merely to 9-11, but back to the beginning of last century’s cold war, is the idea of continuous war in which the enemy is more a tool of those in power than an actual threat. And it’s this very absence of an actual existential threat that allows society to become unmoored from reality and mobilize against shadows.
What follows is a long quote from 1984, in which Orwell captured something essential regarding our current predicament:
All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false sense of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover, to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past. Newspapers and history books were, of course, always colored and biased, but falsification of the kind that is practiced today would have been impossible… (205)
But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable of facts can be discarded. As we have seen, researchers that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war, but they are essentially a type of daydreaming, and their failure to show results is not important. Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed. Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. (206)
It’s just possible that it is the very absence of current (which is not to say that these risks don’t exist over a longer time frame) existential threats to our society that has helped engender Trumpism in both the US and beyond. Whatever hour the Doomsday Clock is pointing to, the danger we are in from the current mad assortment of nihilist loose in the world from ISIS to Al Qaeda to neo-Nazis, none of them pose capability of destroying society itself as was the case from the conflict between the big powers during the Cold War. Global nuclear war has receded into the background, climate change will unfold on the scale of centuries. Artificial intelligence remains science fiction. Our safety has given us the luxury to slip back into stupidity from which only painful errors can bring us back to our senses. Let’s hope they are not catastrophic.
Likewise, only a bourgeois in which revolution had become imaginatively impossible, and whose position in the global order was felt to be permanent would go all in for the dismantling of the welfare-state that was built as an alternative to revolution. Trump might be the culmination of this sense among the owning classes of having been granted by history eternal over lordship of the proles, but it began with Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. It’s Trump who gets to fulfill their dream of king raging against his own kingdom even if the project now comes wrapped in the language of protectionism rather than free trade.
Even the large number of citizens who seemed willing to risk it all by voting for Trump did so without realizing how far they were from actual crisis given all the protections against economic insecurity put in place when social democracy was accepted as the most humane and just way to run a society. Trump voters had no idea how ugly the world would be if capitalism were truly to run free red in tooth and claw.
Perhaps even something of Orwell’s deeper pessimism regarding human nature has proven right, that the very lack of struggle has led to the atrophy of our capacity for growth and innovation. It might even be the case that the very act of not having to defend our freedoms led to us being unable to recognize their importance and therefore unprepared to defend these freedoms when they were threatened, as they now certainly are.
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. (213)
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.
It might be the case that one of the reasons we are finding 1984 so relevant today is that we never managed to permanently solve the problems of mass industrial society Orwell could see way back in 1948. The solution we thought we had come up with, solutions to the problem of inequality and exploitation, along with controls on the perpetual boom and bust of markets, proved a mere interregnum, and that we’ve slipped back to a world more like the one Orwell was writing in, where the dystopian nightmare he imagined was sadly a plausible version of tomorrow.
- Part of the essay above uses large parts of a prior essay on 1984 from my blog.