More 1984…

More 1984…

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

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!