George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948 as a chilling indictment of post war/cold war society. Since its publication in 1949, the book has been hailed as one of the 100 most influential in the modern Western literary tradition. The question must be put: Influential how: as a warning against totalitarianism; or, as a handbook for those in power today?
In 2002, after inaugurating the new millennium with 9/11/2001, we, like Orwell, are living in troubled times characterized by warring ideologies, religions and global classes. We are living in a world where economic policies are girding a rigid divide between the haves and have-nots while the propaganda industry of the West promises ever more equality through the free market. We are living in a world where the past is daily reinvented to suit the interests of those in power and where free-thinkers must be cautious. Orwell?s masterpiece has much to tell us of the horrors of the path we tread and bears re-analysis in the light of the War Against Terror, neo-liberal Globalization and the appearance of many new global divides.
The Uses of Nineteen Eighty-Four
The easiest parallel between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the present, and one that has been described repeatedly by generations of high school students, is that of ?Big Brother Watching You? through sophisticated technology like video cameras and helicopter surveillance. This parallel is interesting though perhaps facile and doesn?t capture the thrust of Orwell?s warning. Orwell was no mere science fiction fantasist warning of the dangers of technology, he was a political and social analyst and it is here that we must attend his dire predictions.
Perhaps the most commonly used sociological element of Orwell?s work is the idea of Doublespeak, the language of the state in which words are used to mask the truth thus often connoting their semantic opposition. Some examples of doublespeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four include the slogans ?War is Peace,? ?Slavery is Freedom? and ?Ignorance is Strength.?
Inspired by the rhetoric of the Vietnam War when carpet bombing Cambodia was referred to as ?air support? by Col. David Opfer, there was even, too briefly, an annual Doublespeak Award given to the public personage who coined the best doublespeak phrase. True to the heritage of the award, military terms like Peacekeeper Missile and Collateral Damage (civilian casualties) have provided the best fodder for doublespeak analysis. More recently, columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times published a doublespeak analysis of the politics of US war with Iraq noting that Hilary Clinton supported Bush on war in order to prevent Bush from going to war and that Bush himself has argued that Iraq must be attacked or it will launch weapons of mass destruction while his own intelligence tells him Hussein will only use these weapons if attacked, and so on.
One could devote entire books to the doublespeak we now take for granted and the truth it masks. Without straining too hard, some examples worthy of critique include ?Free Market? with its attendant rich-country agricultural, industrial and taxation subsidies guaranteeing it to be anything but; the World Bank and IMF definition of ?Development? which has resulted in increased poverty and backsliding on social indexes around the world; and, ?American Democracy? where only those with the right political bent can be certain that their names will be registered or their votes counted. The study of doublespeak is fascinating and often makes for witty political commentary but I think we can mine Orwell for even greater insight to our current condition.
War is Peace
The society Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four is part of a global system dominated by three superpowers. Oceana, where the story unfolds, is perpetually at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia and war is used to justify harsh political and economic measures while simultaneously legitimizing the protective role of Big Brother and The Party, the state?s leadership.
The equivalence of war and peace is, in some senses, a truism in Western history. Since we began to live in societies characterized by class divisions, which is to say for a very long time, war has been used by the elites to distract us from other more pressing problems or dangerous pursuits. Knights were sent on Crusades to distract them from fighting amongst themselves for limited land and riches, excess population has often been used as cannon fodder in pointless and hopeless conflicts and both world wars have coincidentally resolved crises in the capitalist system. It should be remembered that the first ?Great War? came just around the time of the crash of the first experiment in globalized liberal economics. The second one, of course, ended the Great Depression, which itself galvanized Western governments to impose rules and limitations on capitalists in order to prevent a repetition of this most obvious demonstration of capitalism run amok. War does indeed distract and since the birth of the nation-state in the last 200 years, it also inspires nationalistic fervour, thus turning criticism away from the homeland and focusing it on the enemy ?over there.?
Since the Second World War, another type of ?war is peace? has emerged to keep us busy without the expense and mess of actually sending us off to fight and burying our corpses when we return. This new type of war is designed to be un-winnable and un-endable because enemies are defined as and by ideas. The Cold War pitted the doctrines of Communism (also known as Socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism) against Capitalism (usually simply referred to as Freedom or Democracy). Some would have us believe that this ?war? has been won. Certainly, it was won or lost with the lives of non-Westerners many times on many far away battlefields. It is true that the Soviets no longer represent the challenge of an alternative system. But, it is unclear at best that anything resembling Freedom has graced the lives of the majority of humanity as a result of our supposed victory ? this, despite Capitalism?s rampage across planet Earth.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some scrambling around looking for another diversion. The War Against Drugs was only moderately successful in getting our attention, though it certainly has the attention of the peasants of Latin America and Asia who have had their crops destroyed along with their livelihoods. In particular, it has the attention of the Afghan people who are starving after 3 years of drought and no poppies to trade and the Colombians who are now governed by a former paramilitary warlord who is prepared to suspend any and all civil liberties to fight the guerrillas in the name of this war. But it never really caught on as a crusade the way the Cold War did. One might argue that it didn?t work because such a war could be won if anyone actually had the desire to win it but the real battle had to be fought in the consuming rather than the producing countries. Reporting time and again that drug use was on the rise while spending billions to thwart distant producers and doing precious little to improve the lives of deprived children at home just got a little tiresome. We tuned out.
Thankfully, a chap named Osama Bin Laden decided to do the unthinkable and attack the biggest of the Big Brothers at home. And so was born the War Against Terror (WAT). Now this one has the ring of a winner and may rival the Cold War for its ability to distract and divert over the long haul. It will work as a long-term distraction because it has all the essential ingredients of a permanent diversion:
It is un-winnable. There is no point when we will be able to conclude, once and for all, that this war is over. Unlike the Cold War, where the fall of a wall was a cogent symbol of victory, no walls will crumble in this war. Even if we chased terrorists into the most remote corners, there would always be the fear that we were brewing more somewhere. In fact, the very policies of such a war will brew new terrorists like bacteria in petrie dishes. This, from an Orwellian point of view, is the perfect situation.
There will always be an enemy. Given that ?terrorists? can be constantly created out of any conflict between groups, we will never run out of an enemy even if Osama is eventually run to ground. Currently, Muslim dissidents in China have been granted this prestigious title as have Muslim ?extremists? in Indonesia. So, even if our repressive economic and political policies don?t hatch new terrorists, we can simply ?invent? them anywhere anyone resists anything.
It is a powerful motivator. Like the Cold War with its missile shelters and B-movies about Russian invasions, the WAT strikes fear into our hearts. Terrorists, like the Russians before them, are believed to be ?evil? and capable of invading our most sacrosanct spaces. As an added bonus, opposing evil can only make one good and everyone wants to be good. Of course, one is also prohibited from critisizing the good guys lest it be construed as siding with evil.
Most important information is secret. Again, like the Cold War, the WAT allows the experts and pundits to exempt themselves from full disclosure. We can be fed limited and erroneous information and if we should discover the truth, we will be told that it was kept from us for security reasons. This will make it very difficult for us to critically assess our ?enemies? or oppose our ?protectors.?
Nothing can be as important as The War. Today, we are girding ourselves for another pointless conflict and the elites are delighted that in our humble and confused concern over whether, when and how to engage in war, we are not asking the tough questions about the future of a global economy or environment. These concerns pale in the face of looming Terror despite the fact that every piece of evidence tells us that if we don?t soon pay attention to the state of nature, it will be irrelevant who wins or loses. Likewise, if we don?t soon pay attention to the great global class divide, we may find ourselves starving for those cheap imports we are so dependent on as poor nations retrench and withdraw from the lion?s den of the world market. We may not miss the cut flowers and diamonds, but we will sorely miss the oil and food.
So we are in the midst of a perfectly Orwellian war as peace, war as distraction and war as self-destruction. How many will die and how many more will live anomic lives as a result? The end won?t come by pumping more money into weapons of mass destruction, not even ?smart? ones. This war can only end when we all refuse to fight on these terms; when we all return to the table as equals with no place set for those who benefit from continued fear and hate.
Ignorance is Strength
Key to the absolute control of the masses by The Party or state bureaucracy in Oceana is control over information. As Orwell so aptly noted, controlling the present and the future is only possible when one controls the past. An entire industry is devoted to this end housed in the Ministry of Truth. Whenever the enemy shifts, history is rewritten to project the current state of affairs back into the mists of time. Likewise, any promise made by the state can be erased if it proves to be inconvenient and even people can be vaporized. In order to keep the masses suitably distracted from these arbitrary changes in their collective history, they are divided into three hostile classes, the Inner Party or the rich, the Outer Party or the middle class and the Proles or the poor. Through propaganda, the classes despise one another and are kept far enough apart socially that this hate can never be ameliorated by actual experience. Thus the state system guarantees a distracted and docile populous.
Ignorance can be strength as when strength of belief and brute strength result from an erroneous or partial grasp of reality. We can only maintain ideas about good and evil if we remain completely ignorant of the subtle shades of grey, the liminal state between these poles, that colours most of the world most of the time. To understand subtlety requires much energy leaving one rather less capable of dogmatic ideas or brutal actions. However, thanks to the octopi of media with its tentacles reaching as far as our public bathrooms and the overwhelming flow of information we are exposed to, we are more ignorant and therefore stronger than ever in our commitment to the status quo. Perhaps in today?s world, a more apt slogan would be Information is Ignorance.
We hear an awful lot about Muslim fundamentalists, for example, but how often are we told that the Saudis sponsored these groups under US direction to counter Nasserite left-wing groups in the Islamic world at the height of the Cold War? We know Noriega and Hussein are evil, but we forget that we created them. We suspect Hussein has biological weapons, but we should know that he does because we sold them to him to use against Iran. Greenhouse gases are changing the world?s environment and this will have serious consequences, yet Kyoto is reduced to a symbol of regional bickering in Canada and sales of gas guzzling SUVs continue. Knowing only part of the story, or better, remembering only the parts that suit, make it very easy for us to commit otherwise unthinkable environmental and human atrocities, racisms and bigotries in the name of good (and often of God).
At home, we know about welfare abusers and lazy people who just won?t work, but we forget about NAFTA and the rust belt phenomenon, forget about social services cutbacks and forget how close most of us really are to that magic line between smug self-sufficiency and destitution. My favourite middle class quip regarding the homeless is that we shouldn?t give them money since it just encourages them. Anyone who has spent a Canadian winter night on the streets would know that 50 cents from a passing stranger is hardly incentive to risk freezing or starving to death. How many poor people do you know? How poor have you ever been? Have you ever been hungry and had no way to address the problem, no way at all? We just don?t know what it means to be poor and we, apparently, could care less to find out. In fact, we, as the world?s Inner Party, are prepared to plant our boots firmly on the faces of the poor to avoid discovering poverty?s stark reality for ourselves.
Globally, our ignorance is even more profound. Most of us can only imagine all those urban slums sprawling across the southern hemisphere. If we?ve travelled to these countries, we have cocooned ourselves in fancy hotels or worse, in pseudo-local friendly establishments masquerading as Ecotourist hotspots where the water is bottled and the servants suitably well-trained not to bother us. When we return, our ?meaningful? engagements with English/French speaking guides become new cultural capital for the Kaffee Klatch or Cocktail Circuit but we remain as ignorant as ever about life south of the Rio Grande or Mediterranean or Himalayas. Meanwhile, we consume the products that spell small and large scale disasters for our southern cousins. Every Mother?s Day and Valentine?s Day we contribute to sterility, birth defects, labour abuse and water contamination in the cut flower fields of Ecuador. Mangrove forests around the world are slashed and the communities that depend on them dislocated so that Red Lobster can offer us dozens of shrimp for a few dollars. Twelve year olds are exposed to toxic pesticides washing our bananas before they are shipped. Children roam the streets begging because their parents are denied access to a job by the global vicissitudes of unregulated Capital. The same Capital that offers us literally thousands of cheap consumables at the expense of underpaid workers denied basic labour rights. No wonder we prefer ignorance.
It is an old adage that racism is based on stereotypes, themselves rooted in ignorance. That is also true of classism, and religious bigotry. On a global scale, we are pursuing policies to ensure that our ignorance will not be forced onto the defensive by meaningful dialogue or information exchange. We are bolstered in our false belief that it is only a question of good and evil; we?re good and deserving, they?re not. Any sensible person stopping to ponder this for one moment has to realize that it just can?t be true that 2/3?s of the world?s population is lazy, stupid, and undeserving of a secure living. It can?t be that millions of Muslims are blood-thirsty maniacs crying for Christian blood. I remember a Sting song from the 1980s, “The Russians Love Their Children Too.” It was such a simple common sense idea that evoked the response, “well of course they do.” Sting?s point was that people capable of love can?t be evil. Now?s the time to remember that the Muslims love their children too and so do the poor and it?s high time we started to love our own by promoting a world in which everyone has the right to human dignity and humane living conditions. Ignorance will not save us or them if we don?t address global and natural inequities and this will require much strength.
Slavery is Freedom
As a member of the Outer Party, Winston is expected to work 60-90 hours a week in a dreary office. The Party also expects members to attend Community meetings and nature hikes in their spare time. Work and attendance at Party functions are carefully scrutinized by colleagues and absences can lead to trouble with the Thought Police.
This may be the core (un)truth of our time. Slavery is indeed freedom, but slaves are never free.
The poor nations of the world, the Proles, are told that only by harnessing (enslaving) their productive energies to the high speed train of free markets and global trade will they gain their freedom from killing debt and murderous poverty. Those that have accepted Big Brother?s wisdom find themselves selling self-determination and human dignity at bargain basement prices. Productive farmland and natural areas are converted to ?factories in the field? for Western luxury goods. Forests are ripped up by their roots to supply our oil, our bananas, our cocoa and our coffee. When locals protest that there is not enough home-grown food to feed them, they are told not to worry, genetically modified corn, soy and wheat are widely available and cheap at the price. It doesn?t matter whether or not they eat those foods or whether or not they want to.
Big Brother is still not satisfied. The Inner Party of the world also wants to enrich itself by abusing Prole labour directly. This is viewed by Prole nations as a great thing; “lucky us, another sweatshop wants to underpay our people!” So they unwrite their labour law history, roll back corporate taxes, tell the people that there can be no unions or workers? rights because corporations will not tolerate such effrontery, and invite the multinationals in. Men, women and children enslave themselves for pittance producing our clothing, our furnishings, and our appliances. They do not deserve the freedom to consume these items because they are, after all, only Proles and their slavery means our freedom.
To add insult to injury, when these nations resist through the polls and elect Little Brothers who promise to re-write labour laws and put limits on corporate greed, we punish them with capital flight, currency devaluations and bad credit ratings. We used to have to get our hands dirty with messy military coups, but neo-liberalism and Globalization mean we need hardly do more than call our stockbrokers to insure punishment is duly meted out. Our consciences are assuaged by the Ministry of Truth who proclaim such errant nations part of a new Axis of Evil as the Financial Times recently did, lumping Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela together as leaders who have won elections on the basis of reforming neo-liberal economics in their respective countries. Despite the triumph of Capitalism/Freedom/Democracy, it is quite clear that of the three, only Capitalism is tolerated in the modern world.
Within Inner Party rich nations, we strive to attain our freedom through our own unrelenting slavery to the market: the labour market, the commodity market, the stock market, the mall. Happiness is always just around the corner in the next SUV car lot or sidewalk sale. Freedom is ?having? and having means ?sacrifice.? We sacrifice not just our time here on earth and our relationships with friends and family, we sacrifice the planet and its future. We commit ourselves to environmentally- and self-destructive life-ways in the name of freedom through consumption. We fear loss of consumer power much as we fear AIDS or cancer.
When we begin to question whether this is a sane or sustainable lifestyle, the Ministry of Truth kicks into high gear to convince us that not only is it good and right, but we should consume even more even faster. After some ten to twenty years of growing environmental consciousness and global awareness, everywhere you look today, things are bigger. The average size of a North American house has increased 50% over the last 30 years while family size has shrunk. People go into debt just trying to furnish their monster homes. How much space does a human body occupy at any one time? It turns out, a Canadian body does require more space because some 30% of us are obese from eating too much and doing too little. SUVs have cornered the automobile market and they are exempt from gas mileage regulations. The hottest market in new cars today is not just the oversized, overprized SUV, but the luxury model with more bells and whistles for more money. Despite a series of oil shocks, a depleted ozone and numerous global climatic disasters, we now consume more petroleum products per capita than ever before. It?s as if on learning that the ship is sinking we have decided to pump water into the hold while playing the music loader to drown out the sound of certain doom. We have come to define ourselves by what we own and what we consume. For the purposes of self-identity, more is always better and all means are justified to achieve it.
The ultimate proof of this ethic came with 9/11 when a shocked and grief-stricken population was told that for God?s sake, don?t stop shopping regardless of your inchoate sense that there may more to life, because shopping is life as we know it.
The hard cold truth of this matter is that we have volunteered ourselves for lives of drudgery and sacrifice to ?the system? in order to earn fleeting and illusory moments of self satisfaction through consumption. We fool ourselves that we are the beneficiaries of this slavery, but it is really the elite who benefit. Corporations are well-served by our fear of unemployment and our willingness to sacrifice anything to avoid it. Economic indices only point up as the bar is set ever higher on what defines the good life while quality of life plummets. Politicians delight in the fact that most of us are too tired at the end of a day to pay much attention to the mayhem going on ?over there? or even ?right here.? Our slavery is indeed their freedom.
Winston Smith is Orwell?s hero. He works for the Ministry of Truth erasing history but he is troubled by deep anomie. He finds a renewed interest in life through independent thought and critique of the system. He is duped by a spy of the state who befriends him posing as a fellow dissident only to double cross him later. Once captured, he is tortured at the Ministry of Love until he repents and accepts the party line. Torture of dissidents culminates in Room 101 where people are exposed to whatever it is they most fear. For Winston, it was having caged rats strapped to his face that finally broke his resistance. In the end, a reformed Winston weeps as he ponders his deep love of Big Brother.
There are dissidents in today?s Oceana; people who fight the anomie of watching the madness play out by thinking critically and voicing those opinions. Despite proclaiming over and over that we live in a free society, dissidents are punished. Newspaper editors in Ottawa are fired for expressing contrary political opinions and medical health officers in Calgary face the same punishment for voicing concerns that annoy corporate Big Brothers and The Party. Losing one?s job is certainly a serious threat in today?s unstable economic climate, but there are more transcendent rats in Room 101 keeping us all in line.
What we seem to fear most and what keeps us from seeing the truth of the modern world is our gut level terror that we may lose our right as the global Inner Party to spend our lives wantonly consuming all available resources or worse, that once we stop consuming, we will realize how facile, how superficial and how violently meaningless our lives have been. Our rats are nothing more and nothing less than a fear that our great Western ?Way of Life? and the values it promotes and exports is vacuous, nothing more than a rapacious drive for control and dominance for their own sake with no higher goal, no moral to the story. We collude in our own delusion by time and again substituting further consumption, further control, further dominance to distract us from the elephant in the room in the form of the question “why?”
Winston asked why. Why did the party do what it did to remain in power? The chilling answer was power itself. In other words, there is no moral, no guiding principle, no good reason for Big Brother?s tactics of control, for wars waged against invented enemies or for promoting intractable class and ethnic differences. Big Brother and The Party do what they do to remain in power. Period.
We too have a chance the capacity, to ask why. But we are unlikely to get any sensible or meaningful answers from those who benefit most from the system so I propose that we ask ourselves. Why do we need to possess more in order to be good people? If we lived in smaller homes and drove smaller cars and ate less, would we be evil? I don?t think so, in fact, the more we reduce our consumption of the planet?s resources, the more we think before we waste, the more we leave for future generations and for existing ones in need, the more we win, the better we are as people and the better we should feel about ourselves.
Heroes of the New Millennium
Winston is not a hero in the grand tradition and indeed, in the end, he is broken. The power of Orwell?s work is precisely that Winston is an everyday Joe who begins to suspect that something?s not right with the world. He discovers that indeed much in the world is amiss. He doesn?t launch a revolution, he merely thinks but that is enough to make him an enemy of the system and a hero.
I have begun to suspect, like Winston, that all is not right in our world and I think that a man who died over fifty years ago knew what was wrong then and had a good idea of where it would lead. I think we have arrived at Nineteen Eighty-Four and if it?s not already too late, we have to follow Winston?s lead and start to think for ourselves.
Some of the anomie, the sense that life is meaningless, can be lifted by a critical engagement with the world. Who cares if JLo is depressed? Isn?t more relevant and interesting that depressed oil prices through reduced consumption may encourage democracy in the Middle East? Who cares if Oil of Olay removes wrinkles and fine lines. Isn?t is far more exciting that less than 1% of annual investments in oil exploration and production would be enough to make solar power competitive and that one day?s energy for the sun would keep us all, all 6 billion of us, supplied with energy for over 20 years? Do we need to be plagued by inchoate fears of the ?Evil Empire? over the waters? Shouldn?t we be more concerned that Amnesty International cites Canada for mistreatment of Canadian indigenous peoples and that the UN accuses Canadian mining companies of misdeeds in war torn Congo? Isn?t it more relevant to daily life to know that EnCana, Canada?s largest oil and natural gas company illegally cuts trees in the Amazon? These are not all pleasant facts, but they are relevant and immediate. These are things we can fight for and against and in so doing, gain a true sense of value and goodness ? one not dependent on falsehood, rumour and misinformation or on destruction of self, others or planet.
If we can counter ignorance we may find the strength for a peace without war and freedom without slavery. Instead of a boot on a face forever, let?s make the image of the future just the face, with eyes wide open to see clearly, ears cocked to hear the stories of others, and mouth open prepared to shout the truth, however unpleasant, over the din of ignorant babble, forever.
Dr. Leslie Jermyn is a professor at both the University of Toronto and the University of Trent. She specialises in social issues and Latin American Studies.
Courtesy of Global Aware.