Orwell and 1984

Keep in mind, George Orwell wrote 1984 over 60 years ago (he wrote it in ’48 and transposed the numbers). His observations were most likely focused on Stalinist Russia, one of the more brutal regimes in the history of, for lack of a more accessible word, civilization. At the time, in the Post WWII world, the ‘Cold War’ between two kinds of countries and ways of life–the Western European states and US/Canada (representing elected governments, market societies) vs the Russia and its expanding states of the ‘Soviet Union’ (representing Communist Party-heavy government and economies driven by state production quotas)–was just getting going. They were the ‘superpowers’ of the day. Click here for a look at how Russian history textbooks treated Stalin’s purges–see what kind of view of reality most Soviets had.

At the same time, Oceania’s economy seems to be some form of capitalism, but is presented as socialism (the party’s name is ‘Ingsoc,’ which was newspeak for ‘English Socialism’), even if there was very little redistribution of wealth occurring. What one can say for sure is that Orwell had much to say about totalitarian rule.

Utopia and Dystopia

We’ve probably all read a utopian view of the world–Thomas More’s Utopia is always a popular high school assignment. B.F. Skinner wrote Walden Two. These are optimistic views about the future of society. Well, I find Skinner’s world based on operant conditioning as the organizing principle creepy and dystopian. But he meant it as a utopia, as the promise of behaviorism. And his work was also written in 1948, so how could he have known how conditioned a population could become?

Dystopian views present a darker, more cynical world view, generally ruled by totalitarianism. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents this darker view of society, and Orwell’s view is about as dark and dystopian as it gets, especially considering how long ago it was written. Let’s just go over some of the key concepts from the book:


  • Though the term never appears in the book, the concept does–it’s the idea of perverting the meaning of words and concepts, often giving them the opposite meaning. For instance, Victory mansions (slums), victory gin (Orwell describes it as tasting something like heating fuel), Victory cigarettes (guaranteed emphysema or your money back!), etc. Perhaps even Victory Coffee! (Dutch Bros–no! just kidding!). In this use, the government is associating common consumer goods with the glorious victories in the battlefield of the Oceania Army.
  • War is peace–Can war bring peace? Can killing people lead to peace? On whose terms? Sometimes avoiding war is difficult. WWII is a good example of this–war as a means to prevent further genocide, spread of Nazi-style fascism. But the point of saying ‘war is peace’ is to equate the two terms in people’s minds. Ideally, over time, Oceania would eliminate the term ‘peace’ altogether from the newspeak dictionary. It’s a dangerous concept, and if people don’t know of its existence, they’ll think that war is the common and everyday state of affairs, and total restriction of civil liberties as natural as waking up in the morning. Ronald Reagan, former president, referred to MX nuclear missiles as ‘Peacekeeper missiles,’ which some thought was brilliant, others considered in rather poor taste.
  • How about the Department of Defense? Was the war in Iraq a defensive war? Vietnam? When has the United States really been threatened as a country on its own soil since Pearl Harbor or 9/11? In Panama? Grenada?
  • Freedom is slavery–Freedom is another one of those dangerous terms for the government of Oceania. In a sense people in Oceania were slaves to the government–unable to escape without great risk to life and limb, unable even to think about alternative lives without risk of torture or disappearance. If a society could be convinced that freedom was slavery, that would be quite an exercise of power–sort of like convincing people that 2 + 2 = 5?
  • Ignorance is strength–Big Brother will do your thinking for you, you don’t need to bother. Don’t many Americans let the news do their thinking and analysis of events for them? We buy products where all the thinking goes into the product so we don’t have to worry about it (the proverbial cake mix, for instance–add eggs and water!). How about McJobs at McDonald’s? Ring a bell (or a buzzer) for you?
  • Love is hate–are they separate things? Does it matter? Remember the switches of emotions in two minutes’ hate–how quickly Winston goes from feeling all warm n’ tingly inside to launching bile when he sees Goldstein’s (leader of the so-called underground) face? Think about propaganda, advertising, a movie that made you cry, and how really good cinematographers can get people to express just about any emotion they want. But they don’t appeal to the rational side of people’s brains–more to the gut, to the subconscious, to emotion. Do presidential elections reflect that strategy? How risky is it to talk about politics rather than love, security, hope, national security, danger, etc. (that is, things many of which are largely beyond the control of the politician)?
  • Ministry of Truth (which re-writes history), Ministry of Plenty (responsible for ‘managing’ the growing scarcity of goods), Ministry of Love (tough love–we kill and torture because we want you to fit in), Ministry of Peace (war …), INGSOC (‘English Socialism’–is it really socialism?? Are wealth and power distributed equitably and with some popular representation in Orwell’s society?).
  • Newspeak–vs ‘old speak.’ Ultimately, the English language in Oceania was to be reduced to a very limited vocabulary, to eliminate even many of the concepts of doublespeak–“war is peace” is useful from the state’s point of view, but why even let people know that such a thing as peace existed? Might they question its meaning? On the other hand, if it isn’t even a possibility . . . And of course a world without warfare is not a possibility, so every country needs to arm itself to the teeth, right? To keep their citizens safer, right??

Information control

  • As Orwell wrote, ‘Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past‘ (remember Comrade Ogilvy–it was a fictional person, designed to make a point from the government and hide the true nature of events that passed, versus real ‘unpersons’ that simply disappear)
  • What is Winston’s job? To re-write history and make it consistent with the party line (and put the old version down the incinerator, referred to as the memory hole). One example was the reduction of chocolate ration–Winston knew there was, from 30 g to 20 g, but his job was to eliminate all records of the previous ration levels, rather than announce a reduction, until anyone who questioned whether there had in fact been a reduction would likely be questioned him/herself by the authorities.
  • Cascading effect–all sources of information then had to be changed, old copies destroyed and replaced–sent down the ‘memory hole,’ an excellent example of doublespeak (the memory hole was an incinerator).
  • Is such control necessary? Or is it enough to keep people focused on a few sources of information (e.g., network TV news)? In American society, a majority of people in 2006, three years after the Iraq invasion, still believed either that: Iraq was involved in 9/11 (untrue); Iraq and the terrorist group al Qaida worked closely together (unproven); and the US military found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (they didn’t, and even the White House eventually admitted there weren’t any to be found). Even though none of these were proven, many people still held as true at least one of those misconceptions. Why? What’s the point of news media then (he asked, innocently)? In the first week of the Trump Administration, aid KellyAnne Conway defended the White House’s unproven assertions that the inauguration crowd was huge, much bigger than President Obama’s in 2012 (photos told the story). Conway said that the White House was presenting ‘alternative facts.’
  • Diversion works also–keep people focused on a particular story, the political horse race (who’s ahead vs what do the candidates actually stand for), celebrity non-news, etc.
  • Attention spans are short–many stories that broke in the last decade, not the least of which was the purge of largely democratic voters in Florida before the 2000 election by the candidate’s brother, which was well-documented but received no coverage. Most Americans 10 years later either don’t know this or don’t particularly think it’s important. Ooops. The Supreme Court put the possible loser of the election in the White House? Even if true, that is sooooo ancient history!
  • Proletarian literature–give them their soft porn–it might keep them from reading subversive materials produced by the underground and Goldstein (insert hiss here). Too bad there weren’t any People Magazines back in 1948 … Make them feel rebellious, and maybe they’ll believe they are.
  • Dead people don’t exist-‘unpersons’–opponents of the regime simply disappear. More of the destruction of history. How much closer to control of reality could a state be?? The Trump Administration is launching an investigation into ‘voter fraud,’ based on the president’s unproven belief that he would have won the popular vote (which he lost to democrat Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million, but he won in the decisive electoral college) if not for 3-5 million ‘fraudulent’ voters, likely illegal immigrants. The investigation will only cover states he lost, despite numerous studies showing that voter fraud is virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, evidence that legal, eligible voters have been denied their right to vote abounds.
  • Thought crime, thought police–could we make thought a crime? Did you know the government can find out what you’ve been reading in the library, or purchasing from bookstores, without you knowing they’re inquired, and you could be put on a list for reading subversive materials such as the Quran? And the law that allows it is called the Patriot Act? Or carrying flash cards in Arabic (see how Fox source-filtered this one)?
  • Revisionist history–think this doesn’t happen? Read some of the official statements about finding or not finding wmds in Iraq. The picture painted at the time was one of an administration constantly backtracking, redefining what was said, what it really meant, trying to convince people that it never pressured anyone to go to war in 2003, or that it wasn’t about the weapons at all, it was weapons programs, or the ruthless tyrant/evildoer Saddam Hussein who used to be our ally in the 1980s, or peace and democracy in the Middle East. Or how about: they hate our freedom. All Muslims hate freedom, especially Americans’ freedoms? Terrorists are interested only in tyranny? Or when no WMDs were found, and no WMD programs were found, we heard the term ‘weapons of mass destruction-related program activity’ (yes, this was actually said on multiple occasions). Can’t happen here, you say?

Hopefully, you get the idea on information control. It’s powerful. Hard for those in power to resist the temptation. And the most effective kind of control is control that doesn’t require you pointing a gun at someone’s head–perhaps the kind that benefits corporate media and their advertisers? And if consumers feel okay about it, or citizens feel safer?

Big Brother

  • Is there really a Big Brother? Think of the name . . . it sounds so warm and fuzzy. Even if there were a Big Brother watching you constantly, in the living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, at work, in the middle of the woods, it’s okay, because he’d just be looking out for you, right? Making sure that you were safe from terrorism. What a great image this is, and one of Orwell’s most lasting–it’s become part of the English Language with respect to symbolizing surveillance and invasion of privacy.
  • But who do you think really runs things? Big Brother? Is it a person or an idea?
  • Demonization of enemy–the hideous, vicous Goldstein is the enemy, and is usually the object of the two minutes’ hate sessions. It all makes Big Brother look that much better, make the citizens of Oceania want someone to protect them. Does there really have to be a real live Goldstein, or is it just a convenient face to put on enemies of the state? After WWII, the enemy was communism, and the accusation was infiltration of communists into the US.  In the 1960s the U.S. Government sends hundreds of thousands of troops into Vietnam, ostensibly to stop communism’s spread. Over 58,000 US soldiers died. The Vietnamese death toll was between 1 and 4 million. In the 1970s, the US Government gave the Indonesian Government the green light to invade East Timor and kill political opponents–eventually some 200,000 or more people were killed in the purge. Later, after the end of the ‘Cold War,’ the enemy became Islamic terrorism (we’ll discuss this next week). Al Qaida, ISIS. For many people, including President Trump, this was generalized to include the over one billion Muslims. But ‘We’re the good guys’ is the narrative every country strives for. Language is powerful, and being Big Brother means people will not be quick to question you, your actions, or your motives. Or else. In the name of national security. Who of us wants to believe that our government has engaged in secret operations that we wouldn’t have condoned?
  • The Telescreen – there is no way of shutting it off completely. Can we really shut off the TV completely? The computer? Your smart phone? Tablet?
  • Surveillance, both public and private–there are cameras everywhere. Are we being watched, and if so, why? To prevent shoplifting?
  • Operation TIPS–Don’t like your neighbor? Turn him in!

Perpetual war

  • Eurasia, Eastasia, Oceania–always at war with one or the other (but told that they’ve always been at war with one or the other). The US has occupied Afghanistan since 2001–the longest conflict in its long history. In some ways, the US is in a perpetual state of war. We’ve been told by presidents, both republican and democrat, that the war on terrorism may go on throughout our lifetimes.
  • Superstates–Soviet empire (Now Russia, but still with a broad reach in Europe and Asia), the West, East Asia. Why don’t these states attack one another? Could they all gain from the idea of perpetual war, of enemies justifying an arms buildup? That’s Orwell’s premise. Maybe there wasn’t a war going on at all . . . or maybe threat of a war is sufficient.
  • Arming our enemies–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan?? The U.S. has about 700,000 weapons dealers (yes, a sizeable portion of them are merely selling guns and ammo in your town), spends half the money in the world that governments spend on military weaponry. If there are rogue nations in the world, chances are their weaponry came at least indirectly from an American defense manufacturer.
  • War profiteers–don’t believe that millions, billions are being made in the war on terror? Keep reading, even playing cards if you like. Our own Vice President Cheney was on the payroll of Halliburton, which received contracts for ‘reconstruction’ in Iraq worth billions of dollars, and overcharged the government for gasoline and meals to soldiers in the neighborhood of over $50 million. And if you want to see how the PR industry works, do a search on “Halliburton” and “overcharge” and see how many different sources come to their defense. This is why we watched the film ‘Why we Fight’–to give you a sense of the power of the collusion of industry, the Pentagon, and Congress. As author, professor, and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson says in the film ‘Why we Fight,’ ‘if war becomes more profitable, we’re going to see a lot more of it.’

Sociological concepts:

  • Dismantling of social organization and traditional institutions – Oceania is what sociologists might call a ‘total institution.’ Total control over the population, reinforced randomly and through fear of torture, disappearance, etc., as well as 24/7 propaganda campaigns and ‘thought police’ to enforce.
  • Undivided loyalties–family, marriage, sex, anything that divides . . . will be systematically dismantled.
    • Examples: children as spies, women as chaste, parents and children separated, love is hate
    • Random punishment (coercion is expensive-Orwell didn’t know about information technology). People might be under surveillance, but they never knew for sure, so they had to be careful.
  • Construction of reality – based on what? How do we know what’s real in 1984? How do the people of Oceania know what’s real?
  • How do we know what’s real in 2017?? Could it be we see what a corporate media wants us to see, or a president, to stimulate the economy, increase consumption, promote certain political viewpoints that are pro-business, etc.? We don’t have such control, but which media outlets get listened to and watched, and why?
  • Newspeak – vs ‘oldspeak.’ eliminating words from the language? Or concepts? This is powerful. How can people protest about the absence of something they don’t even know ever existed? B4YKI, @ EOD, You’ll be CLAB.
  • Sociologist Max Weber (of rationalization fame …) and legitimacy – Weber said force is expensive, coercion is expensive – are there less expensive ways to gain social control? If the media have great legitimacy and credibility, that could be one way. They don’t have to point a gun at people to be believed (well, at one time …).
  • Dehumanization, desensitization – to violence, sex, emotion, etc. Don’t show it on the TV; put it in a video game!
  • Torture, ‘re-education’ (classical conditioning) – O’Brien was ‘tormentor, protector, inquisitor and friend’ (torture of Taliban in Guantanamo Bay – the government sent suspected terrorist to ‘black sites’ in other countries if they needed to break laws, avoiding Geneva convention). The inner party broke people down and re-constituted them. Winston in the end was so broken that he didn’t have to be killed – he was no longer a threat. As for the US, are we past that era?