Re-reading 1984

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 sometime around 1990.  I recalled it as a bleak science fiction story about one man, Winston Smith, who attempts to rebel against a particularly evil totalitarian regime. My strong sci-fi impression at the time came mainly from the telecreens – the ever-present cameras that watched your every move. Big Brother is watching you. In a time before the internet, and the Big Brother television series, the idea of total surveillance seemed particularly shocking to me. In 1990, however, for all the horror that my young mind felt at Orwell’s vision, I cannot recall drawing parallels between the ideas in the novel and the society I lived in. Perhaps I was naive, but I simply read it as a work of fiction. Published in 1949, 1984 takes place following a revolution that united the British Commonwealth and the Americas sometime after WW2. ‘Oceania’ is in a constant state of war with two other superpowers. Orwell was writing at a time when the world had only just been re-drawn after WW2 and as a warning to the ascending left.  By the time I read the novel, communism was collapsing, and I felt as safely separated from the novel’s events as I did when reading a Philip K Dick title. Re-reading the novel during lockdown, however, it felt like a totally different experience. I could immediately see parallels to the world around me. Not so much at a geo-political level, but more so at a cultural level. At times it was chilling. Had I changed in my reading, or had the world become much more like 1984 in the last thirty years? As the meme goes – 1984 is supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.  There has, of course, been no shortage of people invoking 1984 to make a point.  The left saw it in the Trump presidency. Many now see it in the response to Covid-19(84).  Generalised comparisons are easy to make, but also easy to reject. Many of the things that Orwell described have not come to pass.  For example, we do not suffer the economic hardships experienced in the novel, nor is the threat posed by our government as severe as the perfected evil of the Party. At a more systematic level, though, I would argue that many of the devices of political control that Orwell described are becoming increasingly apparent in society today. In 1984, we are told that the totalitarian system of the Party evolved from the preceding ideologies of nazism and communism. Orwell’s creation borrowed features of both systems, but was consciously different.  As such, Orwell indirectly predicted the failure of communism by requiring the world of 1984 to be a more effective form of totalitarianism.  It is called Ingsoc – English Socialism, with similar versions existing across the three superpowers controlling the globe.  It is this formulation of a more enduring and globalist version of totalitarianism that makes 1984 all the more relevant today. Let us look at some examples.

Doublethink

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in 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.

We saw an excellent example of doublethink with the Trump impeachment trial. Impeachment is the process by which presidents are removed from power. But Trump is no longer president! And the constitution makes it quite clear that impeaching him now makes no sense. No matter. Trump is both the president and not the president as the purpose serves. Doublethink gives us ‘largely peaceful’ riots. It gives us the Labour Party blaming the Tories for covid unemployment whilst at the same time demanding a harsher lockdown policy. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was in favour of fracking and against it. The ‘me too’ movement says all women are always to be believed – unless they accuse a politically protected person. In 1984, doublethink is the foundation of the ideology. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery.  We have our own equivalent: Diversity and Equality, also contradictory concepts.  Politics today is replete with doublethink, and it does not care.

Newspeak

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.’

The butchering of the English language is of particular fondness to the progressive left.  ‘We like to say peoplekind’ said President Trudeau. It has been used to force upon a completely disinterested public the new identity politics.  The Nhs has told nurses to refer to ‘chest milk from feeding parents’.  In an example of the meaning of words being changed in near real time, the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary redefined ‘sexual preference’ to become an ‘offensive phrase’ immediately after Amy Comey Barrett used it in her senate hearing and was criticised by a Democrat senator. Racism is now redefined as ‘prejudice plus power’. Changing how we speak is a clear strategy of progressives.  Whilst new phrases are coined across the political spectrum, it tends to be the political left that finds old words ‘problematic’ regardless of context.  They are actively constructing a new dictionary to bias debate towards their interpretation of reality.

2+2=5

‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’

‘Four.’

‘And if the party says that it is not four but five – then how many?’

The most obvious example of the blatant denial of reality today is the trans movement. ‘Mis-gendering’ someone, or effectively saying 2+2=4 when this hurts their feelings, has been investigated by the police as a hate crime. Although ‘hate’ on its own is not yet criminal, stating facts can now be treated as an aggravating factor – turning a crime such as harassment into a hate crime. The SNP has recently backed down from including criticism of transgender rights within its Hate Crime Bill, but the bill itself further erodes free speech – even in your own home.

The denial of history

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Social media companies have little compunction when it comes to destroying records. Entire social media histories of political groups have simply been erased by deleting their accounts. Trump’s Presidency is slowly being memoryholed as social media companies quietly remove his speeches from the internet. When it comes to older history, the process of change is less direct but just as ambitious. De-colonising history is a euphemism for re-writing it. In the US, the ‘1619 Project’ is trying to ‘re-frame’ US history by placing slavery and race ‘at its centre’. In the UK,  Mayor Khan has recently launched a commission whose role is to ‘enrich and add to the current public realm, and advise on better ways to raise public understanding behind existing statues, street names, building names and memorials.’  In 1984, Lord Nelson has been replaced on his column with Big Brother. In a dramatic irony, Winston is oblivious to the history of the monument as no original reference remains. In 2020, Nelson’s Column was added to BLM’s list of statues they demanded be torn down. The objective is the same. History cannot be left alone, it must either be erased or at least controlled to serve the current narrative.

It was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

Although we are not quite at 1984 levels of abrupt about-turns in history, we are getting closer. Remember when masks did not stop the virus and were probably dangerous? That was the official position only a few months ago.

The New Aristocracy

What kind of people would control this world had been equally obvious.The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.

Could Orwell have better described the remainiac, covid-obsessed, social justice warrior class of our own time? The class of people who now dominate our institutions? The people Orwell described here would go on to form the inner and outer Party members. The proles in 1984, are largely left alone by the Party: proles and animals are free. We can perhaps see a similar class structure emerging in our own society. To be part of corporate, professional and public sector life today you must increasingly be seen agreeing with ‘woke’ opinions, or orthodoxy as it is in 1984. Dissenters can still escape much of this, but it increasingly means accepting lower economic status and cultural responsibility. We have recently seen people with the wrong opinion de-banked, a further step in cancel culture. The proles are completely impoverished. Although largely free from surveillance and force, they are nevertheless controlled by the Party through crudely produced popular culture and their own ignorance and economic circumstances.

War is Peace

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 essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. 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…War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way…, the war therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture.  But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.

The unending wars between the superpowers in 1984 are symbiotic and symbolic – enabling each regime to sustain its hierarchies by oppressing the masses. In our own society we have created equivalent battles with which to engage the public. We have the war on climate change as well as the new war on Covid 19.  Other examples could be the war on inequality, and the more recent hysteria we have seen with BLM . In each case, a definition of victory is suspiciously missing. Fighting climate change in particular will continue well beyond each of our lifetimes, requiring us to destroy energy efficient resources in a ‘psychologically acceptable way’. How long will war against variants of Covid last?

Power versus Utopianism

‘The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power…Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’

What are the policy objectives of today’s leading political players? Think about it for a moment and you realise there are none. Social justice is a vague aspiration of the left but their actions frequently tell a different story. Does Jack Dorsey care about another billion? The elites preach environmentalism whilst flying in personal jets. We have the Great Reset and Build Back Better as global slogans. What do these really mean in terms of ideology or principle?  Power is what they really want and explains their actions.

‘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 in 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.

We see this today in the unrelenting demands of the twitter mob for humiliation and unpersoning. We even see it in the vindictive treatment by the EU against the brexiting UK. Tolerance, persuasion and forgiveness are not features of this world view. Trump is banned from Twitter not because his words are dangerous but because of a desire to make him suffer by being silenced. Social Justice Warriors extract apologies from their victims not to enable redemption, but to justify humiliation.

Conclusion

For those of us who see parallels between 1984 and the world today, there are two possible explanations.  We could be conspiracy-minded right wingers using half-baked analogies for our own political ends. Or, like Winston Smith, we may be unwilling to accept that 2+2=5, and have legitimate fears about where this is headed. So what is next?

1984 is undoubtedly a depressing novel. The power of the Party is not overcome within the story – not even within the mind of a single man. When Winston asks O’Brien if the resistance movement – the Brotherhood – even exists, he is told that he will never be allowed to know. If Orwell’s novel is a prophecy of the ultimate power of totalitarianism, then what hope is there? Despite all of this, there are actually some quite heavy hints within 1984 to be optimistic.  Hope lies in the proles is a powerful motif within the novel. It has echoes to the stubborn populist movements of our own time.  Finally, the appendix at the end of 1984 contains something of a hidden message. On the face of it, the appendix is a rather academic essay on Newspeak.  Readers often skip it, drained after the main story.  Crucially though, the essay writes about Newspeak in the past tense. Suggesting that both Newspeak and Big Brother were eventually consigned to history.

© JimmySP 2021
 

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file