1984: the year that wasn’t (Phew!)

1984_John_HurtTo finish off this review of the two great satires that encapsulated the 20th century: 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. As I’ve said many times in the course of this thread, there has been an ongoing debate as to which vision of the future came true, and it appears that Huxley’s was the one that proved to be more accurate. But as I said in the previous post, the era in which the books were written had much to do with their divergence of opinion. And ultimately, it was the course of history that proved Orwell wrong and vindicated Huxley. But then again, his book was a cautionary tale, something that was not meant to come true, right? Damn straight, so let’s move on…

And as I also spoke about in the previous post (at great length), Brave New World was written within the context of the 1920’s as a satire on Fordism, commercialism, mass-consumption, leisure, propaganda, and the American Way. Beginning in the early 20th century, shorter hours and better pay, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies that targeted the working class, were used to tame an increasingly unmanageable workforce, not to mention immigrants. In addition, it ensured the creation of a new consumer base, on that could fuel ongoing economic growth and industrial expansion. Win-win! Well, sort of… Then, as now, the most effective way to steer workers away from radical organizations and immigrants away from their traditional cultures was seen to be the combination of nationalism and commercialism, consumption advertised as a way to achieve the American Dream of prosperity and acceptance.

IngsocBut by Orwell’s time, a new demon had emerged that threatened to extinguish human freedom. The roaring twenties, a time when bribing the workers seemed both enlightened and possible, ended abruptly with Black Tuesday and the crash of the New York Stock Exchange. Mass unemployment, desperation, drought; all these led to the radicalization of society and the rise of totalitarian ideologies. For the first time since the Age of Revolution, human beings appeared willing to surrender their freedom in exchange for security and a better life. And with Liberal-Democracy largely discredited, people needed a new philosophy to look to for solutions. On the one hand, many intellectuals and workers found a likely candidate in the Soviet Union, the home of Marxist-Leninism and the global crusade against capitalism. On the other, people began to turn to a strange new – but no less radical – philosophy known as fascism. This polarization tore many countries apart, with different segments of society turning on each other to the point of civil war. This trend continued well into, and even after, World War II. The Age of Extremes was born!

Which brings us to George Orwell, an intellectual and writer who turned to socialism at a young age and saw it as the means to cure the ills of traditional liberal-democratic society. After years of championing reform in England, he joined the international brigades and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Like many intellectuals who looked favorably to the Russian example, he quickly became disillusioned with Soviet Communism, witnessing firsthand its methods and motivations in the field. The Great Purges, in addition to leading to the death of millions of Russians, had the effect of alienating countless intellectuals who had turned to Russia for inspiration over the years. Those who had visited Russia were especially appalled. The liquidation of the Kulaks, the Show Trials, the Great Terror, the constant purging of political dissidents; all of this convinced people just how precious human freedom was, and how flawed social theories that promised utopia truly were.the_blitzDuring the war, Orwell became further disillusioned by the growing trend of authoritarianism in his own and other democratic countries. While he initially approved of the process of “socializing” the economy, a necessity in a time of total war, it soon became clear to him that the process of censoring information, controlling industry, and using war as a means to keep the population united and compliant could lead to totalitarianism at home. These themes were all central to 1984, a book that takes place in a futuristic London that very much resembles London during the time of “The Blitz”. And just like in World War II, England (renamed Airstrip One, part of the global state of Oceania) is at war with another global power named Eurasia. The war dominates the lives of the people, with all aspects of society being slaved towards the need for victory. Industry, security, information, education, and even record keeping; all of these are controlled by The Party, Orwell’s satirical rendition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the only power in the one-party state that has been in power as long as anyone can remember.

In the novel, society is rigidly divided between the Inner Party, the executive branch who’s membership is secret, the Outer Party that is made up of bureaucrats and government workers, and the Proles, the proletariat who have no power or any understanding of how it is exercised. Four institutions dominate Oceania, the Ministry of Love (responsible for breaking the will of dissidents), the Ministry of Truth (responsible for misinformation and propaganda) and the Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), and the Ministry of Plenty (Responsible for rationing and controlled shortages). In keeping with this contradictory appraisal of all things, the three slogans which embody the state’s power are “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. And above all else, the ever-watchful state is embodied by “Big Brother”, a frightening yet somehow comforting caricature who represents the police state, depicted as a man with cold, dark eyes and a big, black mustache (echoes of Joseph Stalin and the cult of personality).

ministry_of_truthAll of these institutions, the entire agenda of the party, is clearly dedicated to preserving its own power and the total control they have over people’s lives. The war is ongoing, the shortages and fear it inspires constant. Propaganda and monitoring, which includes telescreens and the “Moment of Hate” are inescapable. No one has a moment’s peace or privacy. The people are taught that the war has always been, and with always the same enemy, regardless of the fact that the enemy frequently changes. Thanks to the Party’s control over information, no one knows whats really happening or whether or not a war is even taking place beyond their borders. Thanks to the Party’s censorship of all records, no one knows the true course of history or how they got to where they are. When a person is purged, they simply disappear, and no one knows if they ever really existed thanks to the Party’s control of all census data. Hell, thanks to the Party, no one even knows if it is 1984 at all…

Enter the main character, Winston, a man who remembers something of what life was like before the revolutions and the ongoing war. He is searching for answers, a search which leads him to his love Julia, a woman who actually enjoys sex, contrary to what women are taught in Oceania. The two then meet up with a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who is apparently a member of the resistance as well. In Oceania, the resistance is a clandestine group that is led by a figure known as Goldstein, a man who embodies all things evil and treasonous as far as the state is concerned (echoes of the Nazi campaign against “The Jew”). Through O’Brien, Winston and Julia are given a taste of freedom and a copy of Goldstein’s manifesto which explains how the Party seized and exercises power. Satisfied with the who, the what, the where and when of it all, Winston is left with only one question: why? Why did the Party take power, why do they exercise it so brutally and repressively, and why do they want force humanity to live a constant state of war and fear? There has to be a reason, right? Right?

ministry_of_loveWell, as it turns out, there is. In the end, Winston and Julia are betrayed and sent to the Ministry of Love. Winston soon meets O’Brien again, and realizes he’s been had, that there is no resistance, and that O’Brien and the Inner Party were the ones who wrote Goldstein’s manifesto. After being tortured and forced to confess his treason, Winston is given the answer he seeks. The Party, O’Brien claims, is interested in power, power for its own ends, the power to tear up minds and remake them however they see fit. The main difference between the Party and others like it in the past is that the Party has no illusions of why it does what it does. Then, to complete the process of torture and brainwashing, O’Brien and the Ministry of Love force Winston to betray Julia rather than undergo his worst fear (in Winston’s case, being eaten alive by rats). When its all over, Winston ends up at the same cafe he saw in an old photograph, one which he was previously ordered to destroy. In this photo, some old Party members who were purged were seen sitting after clearly being tortured, and right before they were killed. In this way, we know that Winston is about to die, but not before he says good-bye to Julia, they confess that they sold each other out under the pressure of torture, and he undergoes the terrifying transformation to become what the Party wants him to be: a loyal and loving servant of Big Brother.

I tell ya, this book scared the crap out of me when I first read it! It was so gripping that I read the bulk of it in two sittings, (something unheard of for me) and took its many lessons to heart. Foremost amongst these was the message that human freedom is precious, that empathy and feeling are what make us human, and that the last thing we should do with our minds is surrender them to those who promise us deliverance from our suffering and an earthly paradise. I am thus far relieved that his predictions did not come true, for it is how 1984 came to be that is very important, and often overlooked in my opinion. In essence, Orwell feared that the process of total war would continue well into a third world war, that society would be destroyed by nuclear bombs and then overthrown by radical revolutions, and that the world would descend into a series of totalitarian regimes that had learned from the failures of others and could therefore not be overthrown as the others had. But lucky for us, World War III didn’t happen (yet), democratization and socialization spread in western nations, and the Cold War ended. Fears of a totalitarian future have been renewed since 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, but these fears have served to demonstrate how important and enduring Orwell’s vision was.

George-OrwellIn a way, Orwell was a more effective satirist than Huxley in that his vision did not come true. Which, after all, was why he wrote it, wasn’t it? The whole point of cautionary tales is that people avoid what they’re being cautioned about, right? RIGHT? Well yeah! Orwell sought to warn the people of his day what could very well be coming, what could come from the scourges of total war, the desire for security, revolutionary justice, and putting one’s faith in ideologies that promise an earthly utopia. In many respects, its a credit to him that people have to turn to Huxley’s vision to identify the sources of their oppression. It means he did his job!

So thank you George Orwell, and rest in peace knowing that the world is still safe from 1984… so far!

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