While Norman Bel Geddes' beautiful extravagant vision of the future no longer speaks to our hopes, George Orwell's great dark novel 1984 still speaks to our anxieties.
I've posted a reading from George Orwell's 1984 before.
Here is another reading from the same novel, from a lengthy scene that reminds me a lot of the famous Grand Inquisitor scene from Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. In Dostoyevsky's novel, Jesus returns to 16th century Spain and is arrested by the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor knows exactly who He is, and explains to Jesus why He must die again, and die at the hands of the Church. In that novel, only the Grand Inquisitor speaks while Jesus is thunderously silent. In Orwell's 1984, a character called O'Brien who the protagonist Winston Smith once thought he could trust, assumes the role of Grand Inquisitor. Instead of Christlike silence, Winston cries aloud in pain, agony, and terror as he is beaten and tortured in the cold brightly lit windowless rooms of the dreaded Ministry of Love.
Winston demands to know why he is being tortured if is going to be killed anyway. O'Brien answers:
"We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We will not destroy the heretic because he resists us, so long as he resists us we will never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely heart and soul."
Eventually over the course of much torture, O'Brien reveals all and answers all of Winston's questions about the Party and the nature of the world that they are creating:
"Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy -- everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. There will be no love except love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, literature, or science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping a human face -- forever."In the end, the Revolution, Big Brother, The Party (INGSOC, newspeak for "English Socialism"), its agenda and ideology, none of that matters. What matters only is power, the power to totally dominate people down to their very core. O'Brien makes this explicitly clear in the course of the interrogation. Everything that Winston took for granted is cast into doubt. All that he has ever known he no longer trusts as real. He asks if Big Brother is real, if the endless warfare between Oceania and Eurasia or East Asia is real, if Goldstein and his conspiracy were ever real, if all of this was just one big fabrication to keep people in line. He gets no answer and neither do we. Even the sense of time throughout the novel is uncertain. Winston has no idea how long his confinement and interrogation has lasted, days, weeks, months, years, he has no idea and neither do we. He is not even certain that the year is indeed 1984. He knows that the Party has complete control over all information including clocks and calendars. He worked in the Ministry of Information as part of that effort to control all knowledge and to edit memory and evidence. He knows first hand how official fabrication works. He is finally left wondering if all of it was fabricated. All that he knows for certain, and that O'Brien confirms, is that a constant sense of threat must be maintained, that people must always be aware that attack is always imminent from Eurasia or Eastasia (indeed there are periodic missile raids on London that are devastating and deadly), that Goldstein and his conspirators are always plotting sabotage and terror attacks. The regime needs enemies, even when there may be none. If there are no real threats, then threats must be invented. We do not know if the air raids really were from Eurasia, Eastasia, or perhaps even from the regime itself. All that matters is that the state of war and emergency is constant and without end.
In so many respects, Orwell's 1984 remains deeply rooted in the 20th century. His INGSOC is transparently modeled on the early Soviet Union and Big Brother is Stalin. Oceania is a miserable squalid place of constant deprivation and dirt where everything is rationed very grudgingly. Technology remains frozen in place and not likely to move forward anywhere except in the military and surveillance. Orwell's Oceania (and presumably the other big states described in the novel) remain fixed in the early 20th century.
Anti-Communist crusaders and earnest Cold Warriors always used Orwell's novel as fodder for their campaigns against not only Communism, but against socialism of any kind and liberalism. Orwell deeply resented this since he was himself a true believing socialist to his dying day (as was that other Cold War novelist Arthur Koestler). Orwell once attended a speech by a leading British conservative who called for the remilitarization of Western society to meet the Soviet threat, and blamed liberal pluralism for making the West weak and vulnerable. Orwell asked if he really feared the Communists or envied them. I've always wondered if all the folks who cite Orwell's novel ever really read it.
Orwell savaged capitalism and colonialism in his writings as much as Communism (e.g. Down and Out in Paris and London). Just how truly Communist is Orwell's fictional Oceania remains an open question. What appears to have survived the Revolution intact is the English class system. Winston Smith is a Party member and an educated mid-level bureaucrat subject to the Party's direct control; Oceania's version of the Oxbridge crowd. INGSOC hardly bothers with the working class at all except to keep them busy and pacified. The proletariat remains just as despised and exploited in Oceania as they ever were in the old UK. There is no "Workers of the World Unite!" anywhere in Oceania's propaganda programs. The propaganda is all about love for Big Brother and the Party and bitter hatred of enemies, but nothing about class consciousness or solidarity.
The novel's fame and reputation should have perished with the end of the Cold War, but it clearly hasn't. Orwell's 1984 transcends the world of 1949 when it was published and still speaks powerfully to us more than quarter century after the Cold War ended.
Orwell's 1984 is not really about Communism or the Soviet Union, it is about power, and about those darkest recesses of fear and ambition in the human heart that seek to bend people to our will.
In our time, the enforced poverty and technological stagnation that Orwell describes in fictional Oceania are a thing of the 20th century past. Post Modern capitalism began when Deng Xiao Peng discovered that liberal democracy is not necessary for a thriving market economy. The Chinese regime made the transition to capitalism, and went through an unprecedented economic expansion that began when China's economy was but a fifth of the size of Taiwan's to become the world's second largest economy poised to supplant the USA as the first. Millions of people rose out of poverty, a major achievement comparable to the middle class expansion in the USA in the 20 years following the end of the Second World War. The Chinese regime did this without conceding one iota of power, and even in the wake of the violent suppression of a popular democratic uprising in 1989. Despots around the world took notice. Vladimir Putin, a far more repressive ruler than either Brezhnev or any of his string of short lived successors, keeps not only his hold on power but his popularity with the Russian people by bringing them a large measure of prosperity. After a decade of poverty and humiliation at the end of the Cold War, Putin and the market economy delivered the highest standard of living Russians have ever known.
Controlling and dominating people is not limited to states and governments. In the USA where government has long lived in the shadow of far larger and more powerful corporate interests, and has been their willing tool, Americans are now among the most monitored people in the world through bank accounts, credit accounts, employer surveillance, store surveillance, even corporate and government tracking of the GPS devices in our phones and cars. We all carry miniature versions of Orwell's telescreens in our pockets as phones, credit cards, bank cards, and ID cards. Our actions, our utterances, our transactions, even our desires are constantly monitored and quantified. Debt plays the role that secret police play in other countries, it pacifies potential malcontents and intimidates dissidents. On top of all of that, we now have large scale data gathering by the government of all citizens and residents as revealed by Edward Snowden. Governments, corporations, banks, schools, and even churches want to minimize the risk in dealing with unpredictable individuals as much as possible.
The libertarian alternative is a gated community of isolated individuals who came out on top in the Social Darwinist struggle of all against all, an inevitably small number. As for those outside the gate ("losers" and "moochers"), they should feel lucky that their betters allow them to live at all, even as slaves. The libertarian state is neither democratic nor liberal.
Terrorism is a gift to demagogues and aspiring despots everywhere. Terrorists (Islamist, Communist, Christianist, racist, etc.) are not interested in liberating anyone or destroying the police state. They are only mad that they are not the ones employing the secret police. Their sectarian and racist doctrines want to replace one form of despotism with an even stricter and more violent tyranny. The terror and hysteria that they inspire are the playground of demagogues bent on stampeding a frightened electorate. Despots and demagogues like nothing better than a frightened population feeling constantly threatened. Terrorism works much better than endless wars with Eastasia or Eurasia to keep the population always anxious and feeling threatened. The comments section on any far right website is Orwell's Five Minute Hate come to life. Terrorists (especially IS) do a brilliant job of magnifying their real potential for harm out of all proportion in the minds of the public. It is useful to remember that more people in the USA die from falling furniture than from terrorist attacks. Likewise, the biggest and most lethal threat to Americans is other Americans.
All of this is not the main issue according to Orwell. The problem is not one doctrine or ideology over any other. The problem is in the very nature of doctrinal and ideological thinking itself (as Hannah Arendt demonstrated in her work). Indeed, in the novel O'Brien dismisses all the Party's ideological positions as mere pretext.
"Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power? Go on, speak"...
"You are ruling over us for our own good," [Winston] said feebly, "You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves and therefore ---"
He started and almost cried out. A pang of pain shot through his body. O'Brien pushed the lever up to thirty five.
"That was stupid Winston, stupid!" he said "You should know better than to say a thing like that."
He pulled the lever back and continued:
"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. 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 or long life or happiness, only power, pure power."
As I get older, I'm becoming more and more convinced that all doctrines, all ideologies, all the --isms (even anarchism) eventually degenerate into mere pretexts for dominating people and bending them to our wills. The issue is something deeply rooted in human nature. It continues to strike me how evil manifests itself as a shadow parody of good. The self sacrifice of the saint and the hero becomes the suicide bomber's act. The dedication of the community of saints or the fellowship of heroes becomes the selfless discipline of the terror cell, or of the secret police, or of a band of cut-throats. Just as saints and heroes give up long life and happiness for the sake of love and justice, so the truly evil forsake those same things for the intoxication of power and the thrill of victory.
One of Orwell's most brilliant strokes is to name the most feared ministry in Oceania as the Ministry of Love. I think he means something much more than the usual newspeak inversion of meaning. This ministry is indeed about love, not love between individuals or among humankind, but love for the Party. The Party demands from its subjects what no one, not even God, can command or compel, love. The Party wants the willing voluntary spontaneous love of its subjects, a knowing inversion on Orwell's part of Christian doctrines about the love of God. The one thing God wants most from mortals, according to Christian Scriptures, is the one thing He can neither command nor compel, love. In Christian mythology, God tries to win the love of mortals through service and self-sacrifice. In Orwell's novel, INGSOC completely destroys and hollows out its subjects to leave nothing but love for Big Brother and the Party, a strategy that ultimately works according to the novel.
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain
--William Blake, "The Human Abstract" from Songs of Experience