The concept of an “Orwellian” society was expressed by George Orwell in his epic novel 1984. Famous in the 1980s for its seemingly prophetic title when a world was facing the Cold War, it has since disappeared into the background… but perhaps its message has now become all the more important?
The novel 1984 has had a surprisingly large impact on the English language. Many of its concepts, such as “Big Brother”, “Room 101”, “thought police”, “doublethink” and “Newspeak”, have entered common usage in describing totalitarian frameworks. The adjective "Orwellian" is used to describe any real world scenario reminiscent of the novel. Is it divine irony that in recent years, people have chained themselves in front of their television screens to watch Big Brother, which is exactly what 1984 predicted… both inside and outside “the House” – including the apparently required booing of contestants coming out of the house, conform to the required “Two Minute Hate” of the novel.
1984 caught people’s attention, but even though many people were familiar with its gloomy picture of the future, the book itself seemed to become the blueprint for our modern society. And if you think we haven’t arrived at a camera in our homes yet: how about the webcam, or how electronic messages can all be easily electronically monitored by the government, who insists that companies such as Microsoft create backdoors into their systems so that “Big Brother” can indeed watch us all?
Each year, the national members and affiliated organizations of Privacy International present the "Big Brother awards” to the government and private sector organisations which have done the most to threaten personal privacy in their countries. Since 1998, over forty ceremonies have been held in sixteen countries and have given out hundreds of awards to some of the most powerful government agencies, individuals and corporations in those countries. 1984 is past… its “future world” now seems to have arrived.
Orwell, as a writer, also saw the power of language, expressed through “Newspeak”, itself a perfect example of… newspeak. It argues that there is no need for words such as good and bad. You can call bad “ungood”. And excellent can either be “plusgood”, or even “doubleplusgood”. But there is a far darker side to this control of language. By reducing a person’s vocabulary, that person will be disadvantaged to express his opinion and in whatever argument will not have the words to render his argument with any power. If a word like “bliss” no longer exists, but has been replaced as “doubleplusgood”, which is a meaningless term in itself, for it does not capture the nature of “bliss”, no-one will be able to talk about “bliss” and whosoever wants to talk about it, will need to be satisfied with one-liners such as “feeling doubleplusgood”. Though in the Internet age we all talk far less and write far more, this shift has not been accompanied by clearer communication and in “businesspeak”, various meaningless terminologies are constantly being used to express concepts that already have perfectly accepted equivalent terms.
Central to all this is just one question: who is Big Brother? He is the supreme ruler of the Party, which controls a totalitarian society, which pretends everything is okay, pretends to offer value for money, but in truth is nothing more than a group of people with no real understanding of making a society work, and hence keeps it running on fear and public relations. The dictator is thus portrayed like your “big brother”, rather than labelling him “Evil Dictator”; a drop in rations on chocolate below 30 bars is turned into an increase in chocolate from 20 to perhaps 25 bars. Posters announce that "Big Brother is Watching You" and television screens drone endlessly with brainwashing propaganda about wondrous government programmes, pretending to show that the government is active and working for the good of the people, whereas each programme contains nothing but hot air – and spin.
But that is not the worst part: everyone is monitored all the time. The televisions are also equipped with cameras, monitoring everywhere you go – which includes having no privacy in your own home. The Scouts movement is there to make sure children know what is “right” – and spy on their own parents to make sure they conform to that standard. While living standards are hence diabolical, it is worse, for it claims that the enemy is everywhere: there is the war with an enemy far away… it is a tough war, but the Party – of course – is winning it, even though the enemy is formidable and could invade the “peace” of the nation at any time. Then there is the enemy within – a terrorist cell intent on destroying the Party and “our way of life” – who never seem to exist except on television, where people confess their crimes. To keep everyone abreast of these two dangers, public address systems, televisions and large television screens in front of which hundreds gather, keep you informed of what is going on anywhere in the world – so that you do not feel alone and wouldn’t have the chance to think and ponder your existence… as brought to you by the Party. The Party “controls”. It does not direct any more; it does not try to serve the nation; it controls. Whether it loves the power to control or is so incompetent that only through control can it keep an economy going, is almost irrelevant.
1984 was published in 1949, in Post-World War II days, when George Orwell painted a dark vision of the future. Orwell himself was dying. Did he write such a dark future, in the hope that he would not miss out on anything when he shed his mortal coil? Unlikely, as he had been an active political futurologist before, describing his hopes and despairs about the world to be.
But it not only has a social message. 1984 has been described as one of the most powerful science fiction novel of the 20th century, an “apocalyptic satire” on how an individual’s personality – Winston Smith – is removed and substituted by a robot that “loves” Big Brother. Some critics argued that Winston Smith’s sufferings originated with Orwell’s own experiences at preparatory school, but the author maintained that the book’s explicit intention was “to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.”
1984 is therefore the story of Smith, not Big Brother. Originally, Orwell titled the book “The Last Man in Europe” (marking Smith out as the last person in Europe who still has an individual personality, the last hurdle the Party needs to conquer before its control will be absolute), but his publisher, Frederic Warburg, suggested a change. A little too much has been made about the 1948 being reversed into 1984. First, the book was first published on June 8, 1949. Though the bulk of the novel was written by Orwell on the island of Jura (Scotland) in 1948, Orwell had been writing small parts of it since 1945. Originally, he renamed it to 1980, then 1982, and finally 1984. “1984” is “just” a year in the not too distant future… though several theories add a further potential dimension as to “why” 1984 specifically. Amongst them, if any is likely, is perhaps the fact that his wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, had written a poem called “End of the Century, 1984”. Who is our “Last Man”? Smith has got a menial job: he stares at screens, gets a headline, rewrites it, before informing someone else what to rewrite. Today’s world, riding high on American project management and other business organisation principles, is more than similar: in the world of project management, we find a few individuals who will think for the rest, but who are themselves not equipped with any power over those whom they tell what to do. Real ingenuity is substituted with tried and often failed processes that do not seek excellence but mediocrity. Just like schoolchildren are no longer told to compete with one another, but instead need to “fit in” and “work together” – though at what and for what purpose is largely never or at best ill-defined. Organisations are there to “meet targets”, in which real entrepreneurial drive has disappeared. Government departments churn out statistics, which by default say they are making progress, but employees complain that such reports cut into accomplishing the essential goals of those departments. Operations are not carried out, because hospitals would go over their assigned budget. Unemployment is going down, if only because people over 55 and people just out of school are not included in the statistics, for chances are small they will find a job easily and hence why include them in statistics – are they really part of the workforce?
This is our world. 1984 has often been seen as an attack against communism, but Orwell himself made it clear that it was a cautionary tale against totalitarianism, under whatever flavour it came. He did direct criticism towards Stalin, the worst example of a dictator in his time, a man who claimed to defend the Russian Revolution, but actually betrayed it. Equally, many aspects of Oceanian society were based on the Stalin-era Soviet Union, such as the "Two Minutes' Hate" on Stalinism's habitual demonisation of their enemies and rivals. Big Brother himself bears a physical resemblance to Stalin. But you could just as easily substitute Stalin with Hitler and communism with Nazi Germany, or another totalitarian state.
But Orwell’s influence did not come from communism alone. His work for the overseas service of the BBC, which at the time was under the control of the Ministry of Information, also played a significant role as the basis for his Ministry of Truth. The Ministry of Information building, Senate House (University of London), was the Ministry of Truth's architectural inspiration. And though Oceania may seem like the Soviet Union, it largely corresponded with the British Empire, plus the United States, with the currency the dollar. How true that was for the real 1984!
The people in power, of course, are far better off than anyone else. Today, we level the same charges against the “superrich”, who in countries like Britain can pay for peerages and in other countries also seem immune from tax. But what most impresses Smith is that O’Brien can turn off his television. But he equally lives in a relatively clean and comfortable apartment, and has access to a variety of quality food such as wine, coffee and sugar, none of which is available to the rest of the population. Yet, Orwell was right in pointing out that they too are victims of the regime, as their living standards in any other type of society would be far higher. As such, totalitarianism victimises all, including those at the very top.
Some may see Winston Smith as a revolutionary; some have described him as someone who “stands alone” against the corrupted reality of his world. But in the novel, Smith is powerless – and he knows it. He does not try to rally people for his cause. He does not protest; doesn’t stand alone in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, he merely wants to live in a way forbidden by society… Hence the original working name of the book: The Last Man in Europe. He is the last of his kind who still remembers and tries to live according to the old ways – if Smith falls, Big Brother’s victory will be complete.
The social change that affects the individual is therefore to control that individual and make him follow the required behaviour of the group. This includes:
- Encouragement to join in group activities, which are largely basic or meaningless. - Television to control what people get exposed to. In America, Fox News is probably the worst example of this, though all television programmes censor, if only because they “know” certain things will not interest the viewer.
- The impossibility to turn the television off. And wherever we turn these days, there are television screens informing us of “news”, either in stations, airports and even trains.
- Television cameras to follow what people do. In Britain, people are caught on camera more than 30 times a day and it is stated that this is for “their own safety”. But does it really, seeing there is an increase in violence as more cameras arrive? - Required morning sport, more to start the day conforming to the teacher, rather than for health itself. - “Thought Police”, a Gestapo, KGB or CIA incarnation whose power seems absolute. Ahead of the communist witch-hunt of the 1950s (or the terrorist with-hunt of the 2000s), the internal enemy is the dissident Emmanuel Goldstein, who “of course” has agents everywhere, trying to bring down Oceania from within. As the work progresses, you begin to wonder whether Goldstein actually exists, or is entirely the creation of the “Thought Police”. We also note his Jewish name, suggesting that the “Thought Police” have once again employed the tactic that the internal enemy is a Jew – as it was in Nazi Germany and other European countries before. (Just like Goldstein, Big Brother could be entirely fictional and a creation of the Party.) - Youth League, reminiscent of the Hitler Youth, who will spy on their own parents and will conform to the party line. - Endless propaganda and spin, turning every downturn into the economy into a useless positive message. Smith lives in a dump, but it is called “Victory Mansions”! The ministries' names are equally deceptive: the Ministry of Peace makes war, the Ministry of Plenty administers over shortages, the Ministry of Truth spreads propaganda and lies, and the Ministry of Love inflicts misery.
The three slogans of the Party, on display everywhere, are: WAR IS PEACE - FREEDOM IS SLAVERY - IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Each of these is of course either contradictory or the opposite of what we normally believe, and in 1984 the world is in a state of constant war, no one is free, and everyone is ignorant. The slogans are analysed in Goldstein's book. Though logically insensible, the Party claim that they do make sense. For instance, through constant "war", the Party can keep domestic peace. But meaningless in themselves, through their constant repetition, the slogans become even more meaningless, becoming at the same time axiomatic. This type of misuse of language, and the deliberate self-deception with which the citizens are encouraged to accept it, is called “doublethink”. In Britain, “spin” is now considered to be the biggest crime every government department is guilty off, of which just one example: “By the introduction of ID cards, we will root out terrorism.” It is like stating that by washing your car, you will have fewer accidents. The identity of people has nothing to do with terrorism. Knowing the identity of who is a terrorist or not cannot be established by giving people an ID card. Yet we are led – pushed – into accepting that the government is correct on this.
The power of propaganda and spin is probably one of the less underlined messages that was present in the book, if only because it equally applied to the West and the East and 1984 for a long period of time was seen as a warning against communism – so how could it apply to the “free West”? In painting this aspect of his message for the future, Orwell himself seemed to be mostly inspired by Nazism, in which Hitler and Goebbels came up with famous quotes such as “The broad mass of the nation ... will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one” and “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This sums up the Party. But in our current war on terrorism, perhaps we should listen to what Göring stated during the Nuremberg Trials: “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Smith is aware of this. And it gets confirmed when he receives a book allegedly written by Goldstein. It states that the war cannot be won, that its only purpose is to use up human labour and that the economy cannot support an equal (and high) standard of living for every citizen. It hints that in fact, there may not actually be a war. As Oceania's media provides scarcely believable news reports on impossibly huge military campaigns and victories (including an impossibly large campaign in the Sahara desert), it can be suggested that the war, in fact, is a lie.
However, as with many facets of the novel, the disputed existence of a war is neither confirmed nor denied, and the reader cannot be sure whether or not a war actually is in progress – and neither can Smith. This, of course, is the power of the Party – nothing can be proven: which is another aspect of our modern reality and climate into which we have grown in the last few decades. It formed, of course, the basis for the movie “Wag The Dog”, in which a wholly fictional war is created to salvage governmental popularity.
Finally, 1984 contains some elements which show great insight by Orwell, but which have not been identified by many social commentators of our era. For Big Brother, the final contest is love. Winston and Julia love each other – and are arrested for it. That is their crime. A man and a woman risking everything for love is frowned upon. Love has been reduced to sex, whose function is to procreate. But procreation without the “need” for the sexual act itself is deemed to be superior. Love and sex without purpose, for pure enjoyment, is the ultimate crime. When we look at our present society, we see the downfall of the marriage (not so much by people who have children outside of marriage, but more by those who do marry and divorce at the first sign of trouble), the public display of love and sexuality (the latter being one of the prime causes why Muslims in the Western world feel they need to be more conservative than they would be in their home country), and the landscape in which family and love were able to prosper in previous ages, has now all but disappeared.
Winston and Julia are interrogated separately in the Ministry of Love, where opponents of the regime are tortured and executed. There, O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party, reveals to Winston that he has been brought to "be cured" of his hatred for the Party, and subjects Winston to numerous torture sessions. During one of these sessions, he explains to Winston the nature of the endless war, and that the purpose of the torture is not to extract a fake confession, but to actually change the way Winston thinks. It is here that Orwell shows us that in a totalitarian state, it is easy to have fake confessions – you can use actors or invent characters – but that the true purpose is to dominate your mind. Big Brother is not a political dictatorship – it is mind control.
Orwell may have based himself on torture and like as it existed in Nazi Germany, often to “advance science” – “We are necessarily cruel, for the better good of humanity”. But he was ahead of projects such as MK-ULTRA, which occurred in the United States form the 1950s onwards, but which would only become official public knowledge in the 1970s. For Smith, the mind control technique is a combination of torture and electroshock therapy. Room 101 is the most feared room in the Ministry of Love, where a person's greatest fear is forced upon them as the final step in their re-education. Winston’s fear of rats thus becomes his challenge: a cage of hungry rats is placed over his eyes, so that when the door is opened, they will eat their way through his skull. In his absolute terror, he tries to think of the one thing he can say to stop the punishment; he says "Do it to Julia!" It shows the victory of the Party: he will not die for her. Love has died. At the end of the novel (and film), Winston and Julia meet, but their feelings for each other have been destroyed. Both now speak the party line and the “Last Man” may still be physically alive, but is already mentally dead. Big Brother has won. We love Big Brother.