Lessons from George Orwell’s ‘1984’
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell
Some fictional literature is so profound as to be relevant for decades. George Orwell’s timeless 1984 is one such literary work. One of the most influential books of our time, its message resonates today as much as it did when it was first published over 65 years ago, as shown by a surge from 2017 to the number one spot on Amazon’s bestseller list.
So what can 1984 teach us about the modern day?
At its core, 1984 is a post-WWII interpretation of the relationship between individuals and institutions. It changed the course of social history by spawning new language relating to the structure and mechanisms of our society, expanding the scope of human language and thought, and therefore, humanity’s understanding of itself. And that legacy seems perfectly fitting, for in the story of 1984, the world is controlled by so many restrictions that even the expressiveness of the official language, Newspeak is deliberately narrowed by the ruling institutions in a way that limits the ability of individuals to express “thoughtcrimeˮ, that which is deemed illegal by the “Inner Party”, the State.
As a work of fiction, 1984 provides a stark view of a burgeoning culture of totalitarianism. As a work of symbolism, however, it stands as a reflection of modern fact in the USA and the world today.
Within its narrative, the five freedoms of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution were infringed and removed; in particular, the freedom of speech was so restricted that there was only one source of news operated by the official governing body and an entire branch of government was dedicated to steadily eliminating language deemed detrimental to the State.
Orwell created new phrases like “Newspeak” (the official, limited language) and its antonym “Oldspeak”, “Goodthink” (thoughts that are approved by the Party) and its antonym “Crimethink”, and “Doublethink” (the normalized act of simultaneously accepting two contradictory beliefs). The new language allowed his narrative to portray and expose age-old structures of thought and language manipulation, structures that have exponentially escalated in the modern day.
In 1984 all opposition is controlled and absorbed into the background. Big Brother is the human image that represents The Inner Party (and the Party line) via the Telescreen providing an ‘official’ narrative while appropriating and misrepresenting the notion of brotherhood and unity into a ‘brand name’, one that actually instills a psychology of collectivism, not brotherhood, just as the controllers in our own world instill nationalism and war-mindedness in the name of “freedom” and “liberty”.
Indeed, the Telescreen is the primary means through which norms were forced on the society and false imagery and narratives embedded in its collective consciousness. Totally transfixed on the Party line, as told by the Telescreen, the fictional society of 1984 has lost the ability to think such that it will believe two plus two is five, as the saying goes, as long as it is presented as such on the Telescreen.
They have been captive to this set up their entire lives, and, with language and thought restricted and outlawed, they are blind to their own captivity, unable to discern for themselves. Thus, lies are made to be “truths” using logic so distorted that it not only convinces the masses that two plus two equals five, but that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
In reality, individual ignorance is strength to institutions. Such distortions of language and thought (and, incidentally, history) are the perfect means by which to disempower and co-opt an entire society, means that are not limited to the works of fiction.
Orwell knew that ideas do not exist separately from language. Language, in both spoken and written forms, is essential to our ability to form and communicate thoughts and ideas. That is why today the United States government, the shadow powerbrokers that control it, and the mainstream media that support it (the entirety of which is owned by only six corporations) continue their war on “fake news”, ideas that are skeptical of government pronouncements, and information that proves them to be false, taking aim not just at independent journalism but independent thought itself.
While government surveillance of its own people continues to increase, government secrecy is at an all-time high, the sharing of ideas that challenge the status quo is becoming more heavily censored, releasing information on institutional and State activity is now punishable by law, and whistleblowers from inside the State are systematically destroyed.
If that wasn’t Orwellian enough, Donald Trump’s advisors have begun coining phrases like “alternative facts”, and we have even seen the creation of an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”, an “international fact-checking network” charged with deciding what is “truth” and what is “fake news”.
If the events of 1984 continue to hold true, and the ruling Party of today gets its way, words and ideas will soon become not only censored, but illegal and eliminated altogether, controlled by increasingly totalitarian governments steering our society down a dystopian path of censorship, blind belief, and misinformation, all in the name of the State.
However, as our minds are freed, one at a time, we are ultimately finding that our society is heavily embedded with such norms and structures that perpetuate false imagery, preserving the status quo of the State from the ‘threat’ of individual thinking, hence the modern war on “fake news”. We are beginning, as a society, to question such falsehood, and exercise our inherent freedom to expose it.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”. George Orwell
The Last Man in Europe
The original working title to 1984 was The Last Man in Europe. This descriptive and evocative title idea provides a clear glimpse into George Orwell’s intent, and encapsulates a main point of 1984, a title perhaps too revealing to be anything but a working title. Certainly, that is the way many of us feel when we first become aware of lies and partial-truths that are presented as reality by those in control of our society today, and accepted in totality by seemingly everyone else. It is as if we are the last lone person. Indeed, the road of the freethinker can be a lonely one, and the story’s protagonist, patriot Winston Smith, is made to believe he is the last person who questions, who looks, listens and speaks.
In a totalitarian society, be it Orwell’s fictional world or the increasingly authoritarian political regimes of today, the official narratives portrayed by the “official” media portray that a society is in consensus with the State, and that those engaged in Thoughtcrime (whether or not it is legally a crime) are isolated social outcasts and lunatics, and demeaned as “rebels” and “conspiracy theorists” (despite the existence of actual conspiracy, against which the truly conscious mind must inevitably rebel.)
Yet in reality, Crimethink is what differentiates we freethinkers from those who are lost in the spell of societal illusion and, therefore, pose a threat to the status quo of the State. But this is part of the trap of Goodthink, it creates the illusion of consensus, and therefore, engenders isolation in those who do not concede.
As a master of his craft, nothing Orwell wrote was off the cuff. Now it is not overtly spoken in the book, but there are four types of people in the fictional realm of 1984. There are three described classes and a suggested fourth, only later is it implied that the Brotherhood, anti-establishment rebels — has been eliminated from the narrative jut as those in power sought to eliminate them from the society.
The Secret to 1984 is ‘4’
1984 is in part an expose on the four basic types of people in a society, the four types of institutions and the four types of institutional lies that enable them.
Characterized by how they respond to information, modern societies are made up of four archetypes of people, idiots, zealots, elitists and patriots. Idiots refuse information, zealots blindly refute information, elitists misuse information, and patriots seek and distribute information.
Despite dramatic alterations in the world’s geopolitical landscape, and some fluctuation of individuals from one group/role to another over time, the dynamic between these groups has historically remained the same, and are inevitably intertwined. Idiots avoid all new pertinent information in order to maintain their perspective, never questioning the status quo. Zealots ask certain questions of certain information, ignoring unaligned information in order to maintain their perspective, supporting the status quo at all costs. Elitists question information in order to manipulate and reap gains off those who don’t know, benefiting from the status quo. Patriots question information to educate themselves and share it with others, in order that we might enhance our lives and progress beyond the status quo.
It is no wonder, then, that the patriot has been all but deleted from today’s socio-political landscape, with those acting as true patriots being demonized by the State, and the meaning of the word “patriot” distorted and confused (by the likes of George W. Bush Jr.) to mean an unquestioning, flag-waving, with-us-or-against-us brand of nationalistic idiocy.
Using a practice so well-defined by Orwell that it is known today as Orwellian speak, institutions transfer and confuse words and ideas by mixing up themselves, their policies and their products with patriotic ideas and words. They take the meaning of words and archetypes, and flip them on their heads: War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and true patriotism (such as that shown by government whistleblowers) is traitorous.
In reality, the true patriots, the rebels who see through the lies of institutions and act accordingly, are removed from public consciousness in exactly the same way. In “Orwellian” fashion, the fourth deleted class of people in 1984, the Brotherhood, who are working to bring down the fascist Inner Party, are deleted through the admission of language.
The other three types, which are specifically mentioned in the-book-within-the-book, the fictional The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, are the High, the Middle and the Low castes. Similarly, the other three types of people depicted in the society of Oceania are the Inner Party, the Outer Party and the Proles. The social classes interact very little.
The Inner Party and Outer Party make up 2% of the population, and are the institutionalized controllers of Oceania. They are akin to modern politicians and the financial elite, working with and against one another, and clamoring to gain and maintain power. They have privileges the other castes do not, including being able to (temporarily) turn off the propaganda-spewing Telescreens.
However, there is a pecking order within the Party. The Outer Party are given state administrative jobs and are composed of the more educated members of society. They are responsible for the direct implementation of the Party’s policies but have no say in decision making. They are the “artificial middle class” and as such, have strict rules applied to them. They are allowed “no vices other than cigarettes and Victory Gin”, are spied on via their Telescreens, and are encouraged to spy on each other, and to report suspicious activities to Big Brother.
The lower class of workers that perform the majority of menial tasks and labors are known as the Proles. They live in the poorest of conditions, are not educated, and instead are kept entertained with alcohol, gambling, sports, fiction and pornography (called “prolefeed”), the 1984 equivalent of “bread and circus”.
According to the Inner Party and the Telescreen it controls, those who might challenge the system, the important fourth type of person, simply do not exist. The Brotherhood, the organization of patriots, are portrayed by the controlling Inner Party as only a rumor, and the notion of their existence is belittled by the Inner Party, via the Telescreen.
In Oceania, if the Telescreen is to be believed, there are no patriots, nor is such action allowed and any who think that way are isolated by the divide-and-conquer tactic used by empires past and present. Thus, like so many in our failing society, Smith believes himself to be ‘The Last Man in Europe’.
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell
And yet, as the character of Winston Smith accurately observes in his diary, “If there is any hope, it lies with the Proles”, just as our hope for today lies with the so-called “99%”. The proles in our society must begin to look beyond the bread and circus, beyond the prolefeed, and become a true brotherhood, and sisterhood, by questioning information, educating themselves, and sharing what they learn with others in order that we might overcome institutional oppression and finally create the ‘golden age’ that is our combined potential.
God and Gold is Within
“We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” George Orwell, 1984.
Nothing Orwell wrote was by accident. The name of the character who leads the Brotherhood rebellion is named Emmanuel Goldstein, a name that translates roughly to mean God (Emmanuel) and gold are within (Goldstein). The use of this character name by Orwell asserts a developed, even transmuted human being, who has transcended the imposed limitations of the system he is opposed to, and grown from dull to refined, disempowered to empowered. It also reveals Orwell’s knowledge of how such patriotism and rebellion can become revolution.
The word prole is short for prolétariat, a French word derived from the Latin proletarius, meaning “a man whose only wealth is his offspring, or whose sole service to the state is as father”. A word evoking pure institutionalized collectivism, it suggests that the individual has no value other than the labor and progeny he provides to the State. (If you’re only value to the state is as a breeder and consumer, well what kind of world does, sorry, would that result in??)
Now if someone compares that definition to the name Emmanuel Goldstein, Golden Godliness is Within. In complete contrast, it is a statement of inner development, of individual enlightenment and empowerment, which, as Orwell knew, are the only forces that can successfully lead a rebellion against the institutional oppression of both fiction and reality.
So, you see, the secret to 1984 is ‘4’. Its most powerful message is in its omissions: in the omission of information, which is the only way the Party/State can maintain authoritarian control, and in the deliberately-omitted fourth human archetype, the righteous rebel, the marginalized voice of descent who is led to believe he is the “last man in Europe”.
But in fact, the last man in Europe is people nowadays. We are everywhere. And, as we open our minds and our mouths, and embrace the gold within, we re-tell the lost narrative of the Brotherhood, and turn our Proles into our Brothers.
March 28, 2018