1984. A novel written by George Orwell, published in 1949. A fictional futuristic dystopia warning about the very real consequences of unchecked surveillance, propaganda, technology, and totalitarianism. The story is set in the year 1984, some 36 years into the future from Orwell’s point of view when he wrote it in 1948.
Most of us were assigned this novel in high school. I was. But I had no idea how important this book was when I first read it 20 years ago because I had never experienced, could not conceive of experiencing, the threat of totalitarianism that swept the world through the middle of the 20th century, emerging back then from centers of fascism and communism like Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. So, I did not appreciate how prescient George Orwell really was, and how timeless the book’s warning would prove to be.
From the very first page, it’s clear that Orwell didn’t just vent some mid-twentieth century fear, but that he captured an eternal threat: namely, that modern society risks self-destruction by abandoning freedom for the sake of equality and security and by abandoning truth for the sake of power and control. The mechanism of that self-destruction is often a toxic combination of technology and tribalism. As opportunistic politicians and other cynical influencers are empowered with ever-more sophisticated tools of propaganda, such as mass media, they increasingly leverage our innate tribalism to brainwash us into distrusting, fearing, and ultimately hating each other. This is when populism gains a stranglehold on politics, and when populist leaders most effectively wield “us vs them” rhetoric. Moral panic replaces tolerance, group think replaces skepticism, and soon anyone who even questions the emerging orthodoxy is not simply considered wrong but evil. The slide into outright totalitarianism accelerates, and once set in motion its self-reinforcing momentum becomes harder and harder to check. Reason becomes useless against the unreasonable mob. Facts become fake news if they contradict the feeling of the movement. Political and intellectual moderates across every major institution retreat or are simply overwhelmed. The mob takes over as extremists begin to institutionalize their own agenda. Populism swiftly descends into either communism, as it did in the Soviet Union and China, or fascism, as it did in Nazi Germany, but either way, a new age of totalitarianism is born. What does totalitarianism mean, exactly? It means there is no part of your existence left that is free, not even your own mind. Whether it’s a secret police force, a mob, a billion surveillance cameras, or self-righteous spies within your own family, your freedom is gone, your privacy ceases to exist, your every sentiment is monitored. Simply being left alone is no longer permitted. Silence is violence. And if you so much as grimace at the new orthodoxy, you will be denounced, punished, ostracized, killed. “Big brother is watching you,” reads the first page of 1984 in all caps. ‘Beware thought crime’ screams George Orwell’s subtext.
The main character of 1984 is Winston Smith—a 39 year old sickly shadow of a man worn down by paranoia. There is no privacy for Winston, no respite from the invasive gaze of Big Brother—the moniker Orwell ascribes to the novel’s state government. Even inside his own apartment, Winston must be mindful of the cameras and recorders surveilling his every move, as though Orwell anticipated today’s ubiquity of smart cameras and speakers, which, by the way, have all been repeatedly reported to record us without consent (though Amazon and Google assure us they’re “working on it”). In Orwell’s dystopia, Winston’s apartment is likewise outfitted with what is called a “telescreen,” which receives and transmits audio and video constantly, such that “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the [telescreen] commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often…the Thought Police plugged in on any individual…was guesswork…You had to live… in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and… every movement scrutinized.”
Winston, we are informed, works at an institution called The Ministry of Truth—ironically named, of course, as its sole purpose is to corrupt the truth and rewrite history to conform to present doctrine. At work, Winston avoids most of his colleagues, especially, “the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.” Winston considers nearly everyone with whom he works to be dangerous because everyone is incentivized to report on everyone else’s deviation from acceptable behavior and thought. Cancel culture, Orwell style.
At regular intervals, Winston and all of the rest of his state colleagues are compelled to to practice their mob mentality, or what Orwell describes as The Two Minutes of Hate—an official ritual wherein all state employees gather together in a theater to watch propaganda films depicting defectors from Big Brother who rant about the righteousness of free speech and free thought. This generates a frenzy of sneers, epithets, and tantrums in response among Winston’s peers, and even Winston himself finds that can’t altogether resist the paroxysm of group think. “In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others… The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in…a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill [and] to torture… seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” As elegant a description of mob psychology as I’ve ever encountered.
The indoctrination of the mob is not confined to adults in 1984. Children are likewise saturated in state propaganda to create another whole army of little domestic spies. For example, Winston’s neighbor, a 30-something year old woman who looks closer to 50, struggles to manage her own zealous children as they play at persecuting adults for thought crime. In one scene early in the book, while Winston is helping to unclog the woman’s drain, her children surround Winston yelling “traitor” over and over at him. They’re merely pretending to be members of the thought police, brandishing little plastic guns and all. Yet they scream at Winston with an unnerving ferocity, “like…tiger cubs which will soon grow up into man-eaters.” The children ultimately do assault Winston, sling-shooting him in the back of the neck as he takes his leave from the woman’s apartment. “Traitor!” they yell again, as their mother helplessly pulls them back. Winston knows that the threat is serious, for in barely a few years these children will be teenagers quite capable of denouncing people for real. “With those children, he thought, [their wretched mother] must lead a life of terror. Another year or two and they would be watching her day and night for symptoms of unorthodoxy…It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children.” Incidentally, the children eventually do denounce their father for mumbling, “down with big brother” in his sleep.
Are scenes like this so unrealistic? Have there not been increasing numbers of reports in our own time of kids being encouraged to call out their parents for violating woke orthodoxy? And what of college-age kids? Have we not witnessed an eruption of iconoclasm pouring forth from American campuses? Armies of undergrads spent the spring of 2020 tearing monuments from the pages of history they deemed beneath the standards of postmodern orthodoxy, never mind that many of the historical icons they sought to erase helped cultivate centuries worth of the very humanitarian progress these students so righteously take for granted. No matter. Just as in Orwell’s dystopia, “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” A major catalyst for the rage of the undergrad is the the propaganda that’s been growing like a cancer inside the body of academia for decades. Some university departments have become intoxicated by a potent postmodernist brew of cynicism and relativity, through which modern society is considered inherently oppressive and modern progress is considered utterly mythical. Science, reason, objectivity itself even are “problematized.” These concepts are deconstructed through a recursive maze of pseudo-scholarship that leaves no epistemological mechanism left standing capable of distinguishing what is true and what is good. Everything is judged relative to vaguely defined and highly abstracted structures of power and oppression. These departments graduate thousands of young minds every year equipped only to confuse facts with feelings and reason with rage, imposing an increasingly uneasy sensibility upon the rest of us that any conventional convictions we may hold onto are taboo. Orwell predicted much the same consequence of abandoning truth for the sake of power, much the same disorientation and even nihilism that inevitably results. As his main character Winston bares yet another daily dose of Big Brother’s revisionist history, he wonders to himself, “How could you tell how much of it was lies?… The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable… The ideal set up by the Party was something huge and terrible…a nation of fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans… It might very well be that literally every word in the [revised] history books…was pure fantasy.”
The cognitive dissonance piles up heavily in Winston’s brain as time goes on, as it must in most thinking minds. The party demands that citizens reject their own observations, memories, and basic common sense in order to adopt whatever narrative is imposed in the moment. Since that narrative changes constantly, Winston’s grip on objective reality is almost entirely crushed by design. It would be down right maddening if the citizens of 1984 weren’t preconditioned to swallow a lifetime of lies. But for Winston, a flicker of objectivity somehow remains that spurs his awareness of enforced insanity. “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it…the very existence of an external reality, was…denied by their philosophy.” These rebellious thoughts are only possible in the first place because Winston is nearing 40 years of age: just old enough to recall what life was like before Big Brother achieved total control. However dimly, he can still remember when facts were solid and when the official record of past events didn’t constantly change on the whim of the party. Younger people, he discovers in horror, are not only ignorant of the past, but actively disregard the importance of knowing it. They have been raised to be amnesic and indoctrinated from birth to scoff at objectivity, leaving the party free to brainwash them without any constraints whatsoever of contradiction, hypocrisy, or simple logic. A 26 year old woman named Julia with whom Winston has a love affair, for example, shocks Winston by demonstrating repeatedly that “she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.” At one point, Winston presses her to remember that barely four years ago they were supposed to be at war with one country and now the party was pretending that they had always been at war with an entirely different country. “Who cares?” Asks Julia. “the news is all lies anyway.”
For me, this is one of the scariest lines of the book because it feels the most familiar. In the year 2020, public distrust of politicians, journalists, and scientists has reached a record high. The mainstream media has wrecked its reputation in favor of sensationalism, social media is an echo chamber for the digital mob, and pockets of academia have brainwashed generations of intellectuals into arguing against objective reality altogether. Objective information and skeptical analysis represent both the lifeblood of democracy and the foundation of free thought, but much like Julia in Orwell’s dystopia, too many young people are growing up today completely unaware that they’re even missing out on these things. They know little besides relativism, moral panic, and mob justice, and they certainly can’t conceive of a world in which the difference between objectively good and bad ideas can determine the fate of millions of lives. They’ve lived through a dozen or two of safest and most prosperous years in all of human history, and since they’ve witnessed virtually no consequences of society’s indulgence in nonsense so far, they have virtually no grasp of how fast historical catastrophes can unfold in response. Just like Julia, it’s not that young people today don’t bother to seek the objectively true and the objectively good, they increasingly reject the idea than anyone should. In the world of 1984, it’s life threatening to even try. All Winston can do to check his madness is to scribble in the smuggled pages of a diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
Of course, the thought police do eventually seize Winston. Hauled off to yet another ironically named institution, The Ministry of Love, Winston is broken in every way—physically, mentally, spiritually. Through The Ministry of Love’s methodical application of agony, Winston is reduced to a creature desperate to avoid pain, and therefore willing to embrace any idea, any order, any admission, any ideology that will end his pain. The party succeeds in making him an ideological fanatic by making him terrified of being anything else. At one point, his main interrogator, a Party leader named O’Brian, show’s Winston proof of the Party’s lies only to demand that Winston deny the lies.
“There is a party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” O’Brian says. “Repeat it, if you please.” Winston obeys. “Whoever controls the past controls the future, whoever controls the present controls the past.” “Yes,” O’Brian reiterates with approval, “whoever controls the present controls the past.” The problem with Winston, O’Brian explains, is that persists in believing that reality is something objective, something that exists out in the world whether or not people accept it. What Winston needs to learn, O’Brian asserts, is that reality is entirely relative to authority. There is no truth out in the world waiting to be discovered. There is only what the Party demands to be true. “Do you remember,” asks O’Brian, “writing in your diary that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four?” “Yes,” replies Winston. O’Brian holds up four fingers and asks Winston how many he sees. “Four” Winston says. To which O’Brian responds, “And if the party says that it is not four but five—then how many?” “Four” declares Winston. At that, O’Brian administers the most excruciating pain that Winston has experienced yet. Winston feels as though his lungs are being torn to shreds and his spine is being ripped apart. He begs O’Brian to stop. But O’Brian simply asks again, “how many fingers?” Winston pleads with him, shouting four, five, anything O’Brian wants if only he would stop the pain. “How can I help it?” Winston begs. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes?” The answer, ultimately, is that Winston will see whatever he has to see. He experiences such agony during the interrogation that he begins to lose his mind, and so he begins to lose track of reality altogether. And it is through this perverse deconstruction of Winston’s sanity that O’Brian succeeds in making Winston love the party, because the party is Winston’s only escape from hell. And on the basis of that love, Winston eventually does come to believe, in every part of his being that remains, that the true value of 2+2 is utterly and totally arbitrary. The only truth left that is compatible with consciousness is whatever the party decrees.
And herein lies the question at the heart of George Orwell’s novel, at the heart of what motivates every totalitarian movement in history: why? Why does the Party in 1984 issue such demented and demeaning decrees in the first place? Why does O’Brian torture Winston nearly to death for denying them? Why does Big Brother brainwash the masses? Why do the thought police persecute independent thinkers? Why does any totalitarian movement seek the extermination of freedom? The answer, O’Brian informs Winston, is not complicated. It’s certainly not for the sake of some high minded, means-justify-the-ends ideal. It’s much more primitive than that. As O’Brian admits, “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…only power, pure power… The Nazis and the Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives… We are not like that… We know that… Power is not a means, it is an end.”
The tragedy of populism, postmodernism, mob justice, and all other miscarriages of morality that have taken root in modern society is that the members of these movements may start out by sincerely resisting unfair power imbalances only to become obsessed with power in its own right. To avoid being overwhelmed by nuance, they fixate on power differentials between groups at the expense of a far more important, albeit complicated, unit of analysis: the individual. As a result, populists, postmodernists, and mobs alike all reach a point where they cease to recognize the unique experience and character and dignity and love and family attachment inherent in every individual, and they reinterpret humanity solely in terms of competition for power between groups. Their entire view of history mutates into a hateful, zero-sum game of domination and oppression, ultimately justifying political strategies that use oppression to fight oppression. Call it relativity, call it retributive justice, call it tribalism, call it fighting hate with hate… no matter the label, these bad ideas are almost always precursors to outright totalitarianism. And in the end, the only major difference between real totalitarians and the fake ones in 1984 is that Orwell’s villains are honest about their evil. As O’Brian explains to Winston, “The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy—everything. Already…we have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between woman and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer… There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the party. There will be no love except the love of Big Brother.”
George Orwell wrote 1984 in a very different historical context facing very different threats. And yet, the dark sides of human nature he explored through his novel are still very much with us today. He saw with his own eyes, as did everyone else who lived through the world wars and totalitarian genocides back then, where the worst of human nature can lead if left unchecked. From his point of view in 1948, barely three years after the first atomic bomb was dropped on civilians and only four years away from the advent of thermonuclear weapons over a thousand times more powerful, it certainly was conceivable that humanity might only avoid destroying itself by abandoning freedom for security and truth for power. The future he imagined in 1984 projected the mad work of a society that had made those sacrifices, but thankfully for us, more reasonable heads prevailed in reality…for a time. It’s up to us to step up once again and insist that the principles of liberal democracy are defended, and that their foundation in free speech and objectivity remain strong. Let’s make sure we do our part and keep 1984 squarely in the fiction section.
I’m Brad Harris. So long.