1984 by George Orwell.
This is unquestionably one of the greatest books ever written. It may not be the most pleasing to read, it won’t leave you with a warm glow of pleasure but it is a brilliant, important work. It is as relevant now in 2020 as it has been at any time since it was written in 1948. When I was at school in the 1980’s, George Orwell was part of the curriculum. I actually left school in 1984 and you’d think the book we studied would be obvious? But no, someone in Thatcher’s vile government had removed 1984 from the list, instead we studied ‘Animal Farm’ which was very good and taught us to fear communism. I didn’t actually read 1984 until the early 2000’s when we had the bastards Blair and GW Bush in charge either side of the Atlantic. I read it and it terrified me because I could see many of the things Orwell wrote about had already come to pass. For example Blair’s government used ‘doublethink’ as daily policy, I could go on… Lockdown, with too much time on my hands I’ve read 1984 again and it’s now even more relatable to this fucked up world.
Britain is now known as ‘Airstrip One’, the eastern outpost of the Oceania super power. Big Brother is the figurehead that represents the leadership of ‘the party’ practicing INGSOC (English socialism) which has totalitarian power in Oceania. The mottos of the party are;
War is Peace Freedom is Slavery Ignorance is Strength
All of these are examples of “doublethink”- “To know and not know. Even to understand the word doublethink required the use of doublethink.” Doublethink means holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them. “To tell deliberate lies and believe in them. To forget any fact that has become inconvenient” Doublethink arrests the course of history. Modern politicians wouldn’t do this… would they? Yes, Johnson and Trump (to name just two of many) do this every day with little or no scrutiny.
Doublethink runs through Orwell’s fictional society, even the names of the controlling ministries; “the ministry of peace concerns itself with war, the ministry of truth with lies, the ministry of love with torture and the ministry of plenty with starvation”. Which shouldn’t be a surprise to us in modern Britain as our own Ministry of Defence is used by government not to defend our country but to wage war for profit on foreign soil.
Society is split into three classes; the Inner Party “The brains of the state” which is the ruling elite and totals around 2% of the population, as has existed since societies were first formed. Then there is the Outer party which represents the middle class, of which the protagonist, ‘Winston Smith’ is part. These people do all the hard work that is deemed too important or complicated to be left to the underclass. The Outer party are the most deluded members of society, they strive to become part of the inner circle and express themselves with zeal but whether they know it or not, Just like millions of middle class Britain’s in 2020 they will never be let into that club; “In general the greater the understanding the greater the delusion, the more intelligent the less sane.”
The middle class are most susceptible to the mindless parroting of media soundbites and propaganda which is particularly prevalent on social media these days. In Oceania it is known as ‘Duckspeak’; “Noise uttered in unconsciousness like the quacking of a duck”. This has always been prevalent in Modern Britain, some recent examples; “Corbyn is a terrorist” “Covid19 is an act of war by China”.
Finally the majority underclass, the dumb masses called the Proles, in these people Winston sees a light in the darkness; “If there is hope it lies in the Proles…” But Orwell is damning in his descriptions of the lives and interests of the Proles; “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, football, beer and above all gambling filled up the horizon of their minds…” Then a bit later; “It was not desirable that the Proles have strong political feeling…” Orwell goes further in a scene describing a riot; “Why could they never shout like that about anything that mattered?”, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious…” This describes most British people today regardless of ‘class’, too distracted by unimportant shit to stop and take notice of what is happening around them. The Establishment does not want too many people engaged by politics so uses broadcast media to distract, Murdoch didn’t buy the rights to English sport for profit alone. British people are forever arguing amongst themselves these days whether it be political loyalties or just sporting tribalism.
All party buildings have a telescreen in every room which broadcasts Party propaganda but also spies by recording what happens on the other side of the screen, party members are permanently under surveillance. (Somebody could make a TV show out of that…) Today our televisions broadcast propaganda and as has become apparent in recent years, our home computers spy on us.
The world of 1984 is split into three superpowers; “Three philosophies are virtually indistinguishable…” Oceania which represents USA ; Eurasia is a thinly veiled Russia and Eastasia is basically China. That’s not a bad prediction for something written in 1948. Orwell is accurate when it comes to the areas in which these conflicts are fought; “there lies a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Barraville, Darwin and Hong Kong.” Take a look at a map of the world, how many of the conflicts since the Second World War have fallen into this area?
A feature of life in Oceania is the daily “Two minutes hate” where the party members assemble in front of a Telescreen to vent at images of Emmanuel Goldstein (AKA ‘the enemy of the people, Big Brother’s nemesis, if he even exists?) and other current enemies of the party. The propaganda fuelled rants remind me of the British media’s vilification of Jeremy Corbyn in recent times. “An attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should be able to see through it and yet just plausible enough to fill one with alarmed feeling that other people less level headed than oneself might be taken in by it…”
There is so much in 1984 that has become everyday political tactics. For example, the hiding of bad news beneath a bigger story, the Telescreen announces a crushing war victory but follows this by informing of a reduction in the chocolate ration. This trick became obvious to most when Blair was in power. “The world view of the party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it” : “By lack of understanding they remained sane, they simply swallowed everything and what they swallowed did them no harm because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird…”
Winston’s job at the ‘Ministry of Truth’ is basically rewriting history to suit the party’s current ideology. He is literally rewording newspapers and other publications to make the Party’s latest pronouncements have some historical evidence; “And then the lie would pass into permanent records and become truth” In recent years both Trump and Johnson have made outrageous statements and told blatant lies which they have later denied and the modern media lets them get away with it and forgets. The £350 million infamously daubed on the side of a bus would have been very useful in the current crisis. They use sound bites and evil propaganda to set the agenda.
Orwell describes the objectives of war in 1984; “The primary aim of modern warfare is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living”; “An all round increase in wealth threatens the destruction of a hierarchical society…” Add to that in our times war is an extreme form advertising for manufacturers to sell arms to people who are not ideologically fit to own them. Once a few years have passed the ‘power’ can then intervene to forcibly remove the weapons it supplied and the process repeats itself, Iraq being a fairly recent example.
“While war could be won or lost no ruling class could be completely irresponsible…” Look at the world now! In 2020 the Establishment is confident that it will not need to use its population to fight war and prevent invasion therefore feels safe in fully exploiting the people to the last penny. In the UK the Establishment is slowly but painstakingly dismantling the rights of ordinary people that have been acquired since WW1.
War in 1984 and war now is another device used to keep the world in order. “A hierarchical society was only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”; “The two aims of the party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish all the possibility of independent thought “. Though in modern reality no one power will conquer the earth those that currently hold power have almost succeeded in stamping out independent thought. Nobody questions the structure of modern life. From birth to education to work. Then the Establishment pays us but encourages us to acquire stuff. The more stuff = more successful and so we give the money we have earned back to the Establishment.
A citizen of Oceania is encouraged to believe their enemies doctrines are evil; “Barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense” But just like today, the reality is different; “Actually the three philosophies are barely distinguishable and the social systems which they support are not distinguishable at all.” Since World War 2 the western powers have asked us to believe there is an enemy. When I was young it was USSR, when this union collapsed it was Middle Eastern terrorists and now China is being set up as the bogeyman. “All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers”
But what obligations does Big Brother have to the citizens of Oceania? “Obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers that would be inconvenient” Or as is topical today, allow inconvenient numbers to die from a viral pandemic, once the business elite have been appeased of course.
What the book describes is the post industrial revolution world in which equality became possible but was undesirable to the elite, who then used the new technologies to influence the masses; “The invention of print however made it easier to manipulate public opinion and the film and radio carried the process further”; “The consciousness of the masses needs only to be influenced in a negative way” Even in 2020 governments are using media of all forms to manipulate and influence public opinion, very few outlets can be trusted to give unbalanced news. The Establishment owns the media, the Establishment controls what it wants us to know and dictates how we understand what we are told.
After capture Winston tries to fall into line but there is a part of his spirit that cannot quite be quenched; “To die hating them was freedom” There is only one form of torture left, Room 101. “The thing that is in room 101 is the worst thing in the world” Every single one of us has something lurking in Room 101, a weakness that could be exploited. Room 101 destroys Winston; he utterly embraces Big Brother and is eventually released back into the society of Airstrip one. He believes all the propaganda spewed by the Telescreen. He can believe that 2+2=5. He lives out his days an alcoholic and he knows that one day the bullet in the head will come but he will die loving Big Brother.
It is a grim ending to what is in all honesty a grim book. It has been seen as a prophecy and a warning of the tricks a government can get up to. It is likely that it is less of a prophecy and more a documentation of what was actually happening around the world during the Second World War. The light in the darkness of ‘1984’ is the message that freedom of thought is in itself freedom. But if this is the definition of freedom, how many people in supposed free societies in 2020 are actually free?