This isn’t just one of the greatest novels ever written, it could actually be the best presentation on the condition of the human race. Very few books have had the impact or created as much controversy as George Orwell’s 1984.
Contrary to what it may seem 1984 isn’t really about the consequences of a totalitarian government. It’s about the individual versus the fascist, it’s about love versus brutality, it’s about freedom versus slavery, but most of all it’s about Truth versus lies.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU reads the poster of an enormous face gazing with eyes that follow your every move, as described by Winston Smith, Orwell’s main character in this dystopian classic, published in 1949.
For me, growing up in a family that openly defied the government with a father active as a tax protestor, I was already familiar with that ‘big brother’ theme by the time I was five years old.
But half a life time would pass before I would actually read the book, being finally convinced by all the references made in my research. The premise is everything that has to do with the government or modern sociology is reflected in due course toward an impending doom, just as it is outlined in Orwell’s novel.
Because he knew this, 1984 is a clear warning. The book’s greatness is a mere triviality to the message that is bold, loud and clear: FREEDOM IS LOVE, LOVE IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR.
If not by his genius it would be easy to consider Orwell a prophet. It is said that he had insider information. Regardless, years before the West would become saturated with televisions, Orwell had in his book the telescreen.
‘Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned the switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.
‘The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.’
We now live in an age where virtually all new electronic devices, from your smart-phone to your car to your dishwashing machine to your razor blade holds technology capable of functioning like this. The modern security/surveillance state monitors us through our gadgets.
‘Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.’
Winston was orphaned as a child, his parents disappeared by the State. Now a government employee working for The Ministry of Truth, his job is to alter existing documents for the Party to be deemed acceptable. Manipulating or omitting words in speeches, changing figures in reports for newspapers to keep consistent with the agenda, his job is to distort reality with lies.
‘It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened.
‘Or the Times had published the official forecasts of the output of various classes of consumption goods in the fourth quarter of 1983. Today’s issue contained a statement of the actual output, from which it appeared that the forecasts were in every instance grossly wrong. Winston’s job was to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones.’
Today’s system is eerily similar to what Orwell described here almost seventy years ago. Government’s and financial agency’s figures are changed, often downgraded months after their original release. By the time this happens, everyone has forgotten the original distortion. The numbers are manipulated AFTER they matter.
And how can this all be achieved? Eliminate independent thought through cognitive dissonance.
In the warped reality that is 1984, the big plan of the Party is to gain total control by completely revising the current language (Oldspeak) to a streamlined version called Newspeak.
‘All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it; Newspeak, “doublethink.”
‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.’
Orwell’s novel explains that propaganda is a potent mixture of uncertainty and confusion perpetuated by fear and anxiety. In the 1984 world, the Party is always at war, but the enemies constantly change. One day is a life or death struggle with one region to have the following day’s same enemy morph into an ally. Of course, Winston and his Ministry of Truth are on the spot to cover-up the discrepancy.
‘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.”
Not too different from the intrigue surrounding today’s Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorist organizations. One day they’re the excuse for launching the ‘War on Terror’, the next they’re an ally in deposing a regime such as Libya.
Doubt had been infecting Winston Smith’s mind for some time now, and he’s been afraid the Thought Police will catch on. He knows it’s only a matter of time so he and a new lover, named Julia, decide to join the underground resistance known as the Brotherhood. They meet with a man named O’Brien, who Winston knows as a member of the inner Party but apparently is acting as a double agent for the Brotherhood.
Here is an excellent spoken passage by O’Brien:
‘There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police there is no other way.’
O’Brien offers them a book authored by the leader of the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein called The Theory And Practice Of Oligarchical Collectivism. Upon reading it they will become full members of the Brotherhood. Passages of it are written in 1984, such as Chapter 1: Ignorance Is Strength and Chapter 3: War Is Peace.
Chapter 3: War Is Peace explains one of the most interesting points of the book: Why perpetual war is necessary in an oligarchical society.
‘It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.
‘The economy of many countries was allowed to stagnate, land went out of cultivation, capitol equipment was not added to, great blocks of the population were prevented from working and kept half alive by State charity. But this, too, entailed military weakness, and since the privations it inflicted were obviously unnecessary, it made opposition inevitable. The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.’
Here’s the ultimate point:
‘The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed.’
I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve heard that 1984 used to be required reading in some schools sometime ago and it still should be. Just like when O’Brien gives a copy of ‘Oligarchical Collectivism’ to Winston and Julia to complete their initiation into the Brotherhood, so it should be required for anyone that wishes to be initiated into an understanding of the psychology behind government and authority to read 1984.
I see us stuck in some sort of transitory limbotic state; a world that still has some notion of freedom but finds itself in a conditioned despotic expression that goose steps toward total submission. A work like 1984 can help one achieve perspective and that perspective should be shared with others before we find ourselves in Winston’s predicament.
In conclusion, I’ll share what might be the most powerful part of the book.
The scene is: Winston has been captured by the Thought Police and has been tortured in the process of ‘reintegration’. The director of this process is now giving Winston the run-down on the function of the Party as it pertains to power over society.
“The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: ” How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.
“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.
“Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now.
“There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasure will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”