Well, my book club is finally coming to the end of reading 1984. I sure am happy we picked that novel, as it is not only one of my favorites reads but one of my favorite books to teach. There’s just so much there, a real English-teachers delight! And really, I never get tired of reviewing it. There’s always something new to talk about, as you can plainly see! In addition, I’ve been hosting some 1984 chat groups over at Goodreads and that got me thinking about certain elements of the story all over again. In the first forum we were discussing whether or not a 1984-type society could still happen, and to what extent did we think we might be living in one already. In the second, we got into the differences between 1984 and Brave New World, how Orwell and Huxley had different visions on the future, and which we thought came true.
In any case, what I realized from all this was which part of the book I loved best. It was definitely the passages in Part II where Winston was reading from Goldstein’s Manifesto. Not only did it totally appeal to the historian in me, it was just so full of depth and insight that it got to me every time I read it (I think I’m up to three now). And after doing a little side research, I came to realize that Orwell wrote this section of the story first. Not only was the manifesto a major, culminating event in the story, it was also the centerpiece of Orwell’s thought, the very basis of his cautionary tale. Essentially, the manifesto detailed how inequality was a constant in human civilization, the ongoing struggle between the high, middle and low. But in addition to being a constant, it was almost a necessity as well, an inevitable side-effect of living with scarcity, drought, and recurring shortages.
It was with the advent of industrial technology however, that this pattern finally became breakable. While it took some tweaking, common sense finally convinced the barons of industry and political leaders alike to make reforms to fit the times. This began in the 19th century and carried on well into the 20th, when standards of living for the poor and common finally began to rise. And as education, the distribution of goods and services, and news media also improved, the gap between rich and poor and even the need for social distinctions began to diminish.
Curiously, it was as the need for social distinction seemed about to disappear that the totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century appeared. Whereas industrial processes had come to represent the potential for human liberation, these new thinkers (Marxist-Leninist and Fascist were their official titles) wanted to use these same things to make enslavement permanent. In other words, these folk saw the writing on the wall and decided to do everything they could to arrest the process of history. Or, as Orwell put it, “the pendulum would swing one last time and then stop forever”. Human beings could never be allowed to be fully liberated, they had to be cast down and kept there. Hence, these totalitarians took advantage of all that was happening in the 20th century to make it happen. Two World Wars had already began the process in earnest, destroying the infrastructure that was making human equality possible and turning what were once comfortable, privileged people into brutalized subjects.
In order to ensure that this continued to be the case – in other words, that the basis for oppression and inequality continued to exist – war had to be constant, but also limited. Nuclear weapons were abandoned and war would continue by conventional means, albeit for unconventional purposes. The real aim henceforth would be for the dual purposes of keeping people focused on an external enemy while ensuring that no improvement in the standard of living would ever be possible. All industrial products would be used by the war, and occasionally, planned shortages would go into effect to keep people wanting and just a little off-balance.
Or at least, this is what Orwell had predicted, in a nutshell, through his alter ego of Goldstein. And there’s a reason the second act ended with it. Up until that point in the story, Winston knew there was something wrong with society and wanted to rebel against it. The book did not really teach him anything in this respect. In truth, it did little more than confirm what he already knew. But the overall effect it had was to let him know he wasn’t alone. He finally learns that he is indeed sane for feeling the way he does, mainly because he knows he has to be right.
This readers with all of Act III to answer the final burning question of Why? Winston soon learns this after he and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured and brainwashed. Much like their betrayal, the hopelessness of their situation and the fact the Brotherhood does not even exist, the answer to this question is a spirit-shattering disappointment. Power, O’Brien tells Winston. Power is the only reason. For what else is there, in the final analysis that can justify the lengths that tyrants and their administrators will go to? Why else would countless generations of kings, emperors, nobles, priests and elites do what they have done over the millennia? Why torture, detain, brainwash, conquer, convert, force confessions and exterminate entire races of people? What better reason is there than to feel god-like and know that moral arguments and the truth are useless against you?
True, Orwell’s vision never really came to pass. There are those who would venture that we are living with Big Brother government and in an Oceania-style society right now but I would not be one of them. In every measurable way, we averted Orwell’s dystopian future by not getting into a third world war, by expanding the middle class, public education, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor even further. We also managed to take big steps towards the elimination of the gender gap – another thing that has been increasingly obsolete with the advent of modern society – and the racial gap. Granted we’ve only come so far, but if one looks at the post-colonial wars of independence, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement in conjunction with the victories of organized labor and the expansion of the middle class, one can see just how much progress we’ve made towards the kind of society of equals that Goldstein’s totalitarians wanted to avert.
But in the last thirty years, we’ve moved away from that ideal like never before. More and more, there are forces out there who are telling us of the need to cut taxes, deregulate the economy, globalize, privatize, cut education, eliminate collective bargaining, pensions, job security, outsource industry, streamline, downsize, etc etc. These same forces are the ones pushing for fiscal conservatism, saying “we simply cannot afford it anymore” as a justification for neutering governments by destroying their budgets and putting tax monies back into the hands of the rich and the super rich. Where that fails to sway people, the specter of “SOCIALISM!” is used quite effectively to frighten people into compliance and keep them from seeing the real agenda. All the while, smear campaigns are employed to paint protest movements, reformists, and people who question these changes as “radical”, “socialist”, “communist”, and even “elitist” – much the same labels that were used against people who protested the Vietnam War, segregation and sexism in the workplace.
This “revolution” began in earnest in the late 70’s, early 80’s as a response to the progress made in previous decades. In Britain, it was led by Margaret Thatcher, in the US by Ronald Reagan, and by various other supplicants and imitators in other parts of the Anglosphere and west. In terms of politics, the goal was clear: squeeze the concerns of the poor and the idea social responsibility out of politics by taking advantage of the fact that the poor were at an all time low. In terms of values, the objective seemed to be erase the pluralistic society that was emerging as confusing and chaotic, while emphasizing a traditional society instead. In short, these people wanted to regress because they didn’t like the society that was emerging. However, these revolutions did not really take off until a full decade later, when another event – the end of the Cold War – gave them another push. In the absence of a second hegemonic superpower, it now seemed that the US and its allies were free to push forth with a new agenda, not just abroad but at home.
Intrinsic to the agenda of these new conservatives (aka. neo-conservatives) was the idea that peace, security, and open markets should be achieve not through multilateralism, but through unilateralism and military force, if necessary. Rather than the US and its allies becoming more multinational, the world was to become more American. Britain and the Anglosphere would continue to enjoy the “special relationship” with the US, while continental Europe would be split based on “old” and “new”. The old Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, all EU members who were firm in their commitment to regulated markets and in the habit of challenging US interests from time to time – would be marginalized in favor of countries that had recently emerged from dictatorships and had more fragile economies. These countries, who were not in a position to challenge the US, would be pressured into entering into military treaties that would cordon off Russia with a “missile defense shield”. The same is true of China, another major power with access to nuclear weapons. Their neighbors would also be pressured into an alliance with the US, extending the missile shield, and thus making the US (in theory) impervious to attack. Thus, with nothing to fear from these countries nuclear arsenals, the US could do as it pleased and not concern itself with the objections of its former enemies.
In the Middle East, a similar plan was put into effect. For many decades, Britain, the US, and continental European powers had maintained close ties to several “friendly dictators” in exchange for good trade relations and access to petroleum. However, by the end of the Cold War, the US and Anglosphere maintained this policy more aggressively, placing military bases on the soil of willing nations in exchange for direct political and military support. This came with obvious consequences, most notably in the form of terrorism and widespread anti-US sentiment. With country after country viewing the US presence in the region as a liability, the US and its “willing” friends decided to look for a new base of operations, a place where they could build “enduring” military bases that would give them secure access to petrol reserves and the ability to sandwich unfriendly neighboring regimes.
Finally, there was the agenda at home. For decades, this new breed of conservatives dreamed about turning their countries into one-party states, or at least marginalizing dissenting political voices until they were no longer a concern. Be they Republican, Tory, Conservative, or Likud, virtually all nations in the developed world experienced a push from the right on or after the last decade of the 20th century whose aim was to oust “liberal” concerns from politics and make a “security” agenda paramount. In addition, a clear economic agenda was being put into place as well that seemed dedicated to weakening government and allowing the private sector to fill the void. Oftentimes, this took the form of removing restrictions to trade, but also involved removing environmental, trade, and labor regulations that were designed to prevent unsafe or exploitative business practices. And finally, there was the moral dimension, where political forces of the right allied themselves to the religious right in order to push for legislation that would make abortion and stem cell research illegal, while simultaneously decriminalizing martial rape and the teaching of creationism mandatory.
What is most curious about this is the timing. Once again, it seems that forces intent of preventing freedom and imposing their singular world view mobilized when the exact opposite trends were on the cusp of being realized. With the Cold War over, former colonies freed, and minorities, natives, women and homosexuals free to be themselves and demand equality, it seemed that a new golden age might be possible. In fact, many people, of all political stripes, predicted that this would be the case, that the 21st century would be characterized by peace, the extension of free markets, and human rights. So… what happened? Personally, I would venture that it was precisely to avoid these things that the neo-cons mobilized the way they did and have done what they have done. Where they couldn’t take power, they stole it. Where they couldn’t exploit tensions, they created them. This isn’t to say that there weren’t lylegitimate security concerns at the turns of the century (i.e. terrorism), but the neo-cons certainly did all they could to make these worse through negligence, mishandling and/or overreaction.
Some would certaintly disagree and say these things are natural developments, or are necessary. But really, how can one not look at the concentration of political power, media, industry, and money into fewer and fewer hands over the last thirty years and not see an agenda. What is the purpose of all this, aside from the desire to put power into the hands of a select few? Aside from making a few people a hell of a lot richer, it would successfully reverse the trends that have been at work in western society for the past century, and that First Nations and the non-western world has been fighting to have access to for the latter half of it. That being, freedom, equality, and the elimination of vast disparities of wealth, power and privilege. Destroying that will once again create the basis for an unequal society by making sure that the middle and low do not have the means to challenge the power of the elite. If education, job security, a full belly and an informed mind are no longer possible on a grand scale, then the power of a small elite will seem justified. The only stumbling block to achieving all this lies in the ballot box or (God forbid!) technology that cannot be turned on its users to prevent the spread of information and dissenting viewpoints. But these too can be dealt with, given time…
Yes, I am aware of how soap-boxish this all must sound, but it HAS been on my mind of late. It also might sound like a conspiracy theory, but there’s a difference: Conspiracies are subtle, underhanded, and can’t be proven either way. Hence why they are called conspiracy theories. This, on the other hand, is blatant, obvious, and in everyone’s face. And the tactics aren’t rational or covert either, they have about as much subtly as a sledgehammer and are constantly being spewed. From the television, the newspaper, the pulpit, and the halls of government, there is scarcely a corner of society that hasn’t been exposed to this new take on an old rhetoric, so I don’t imagine anyone will not know what I’m talking about, even if they don’t happen to share my interpretation.
Anyhoo, I’ve gone on long enough with my own opinions. And since it was the Goodreads forums that inspired these thoughts of mine, I’ve included links to the Goodreads threads below. I’m becoming aware of how good a forum this is for discussing literature, and for aspiring authors to post their work, get feedback and network with others of their ilk. Check it out!
1984 – Can It Still Happen?
1984 Vs. Brave New World