by Ryan Joseph Slater
People often remark that science fiction novels are written to prevent the future— not to predict it. Nonetheless, commentators applaud George Orwell’s 1984 for its foresight into the modern dystopian surveillance state. America’s rapid march towards increasing powers of government surveillance, obstinate herd mentality, endless wars, and rampant inequality vindicated the English author’s fears. But the book’s accuracy renders it completely banal: the book’s anxieties about government are superfluous; simply existing is enough to catch the Orwellian vibe. Luckily, we can make the book interesting by examining the more subtle forms of authority exercised by Big Brother.
After all, even brutally repressive regimes produce violent confrontations with their citizens, which is something largely absent from both 1984 and contemporary America. Events like the Waco siege, the MOVE bombing, and the Malheur standoff all cast doubt on the longevity of this detente, but such incidents remain uncanny for now. Governments need covert forms of power.
It is easier to prevent a population from rebelling than it is to control a rebellious group. In 1984, Big Brother categorizes the populace into two groups, each of which receives a tailored a form of control. For the masses, it is adequate to create an environment in which the subjects are merely human: they are free to enjoy certain perversions, so long as they don’t think much. Their repression is intellectual because the government fears that they could conceptualize their enslavement and then rebel against it. Party Members, on the other hand, must be domesticated such that they cannot enjoy basic animal desires: the Party must repress their animal instincts for sex and passionate ambitions. In sum, the basic formula is that governments must police peoples’ minds through the control of ideas and must restrain peoples’ bodies through a combination of force and puritanism. Thinking people must be repressed through the control of instincts and feeling people must be intellectually neutered.
While the most visible and egregious forms of government power exist in the form of the surveillance state, an aggressive military, and manipulative media, 1984’s most powerful and insidious means of exercising authority is by inscribing beliefs directly onto the mind by the control of language and by psychiatric tyranny.
What Oceania Is Like
Standard-stock dissidents are likely to believe that America closely resembles Orwell’s Oceania, the setting for his novel. After all, the book’s protagonist finds himself in a world filled with surveillance, constant warfare, social distrust, and unification between the Media and State — all of which are deeply familiar to us. People mostly remember 1984 as the book about government surveillance, but the effects of government surveillance are more interesting than the power itself.
In the novel, every citizen has a telescreen in their housing unit; it constantly listens to their conversations, watches their every movement, and tracks their behavior. The surveillance is so intense that some people are arrested for things they say in their sleep. Winston, the novel’s protagonist, is only able to keep a diary because his apartment has a unique, accidental spot which is free from the telescreen’s view.
As a result, people begin to perform actions that will please Big Brother’s watchful eye. They also keep an eye out for neighbors’ suspicious neighbors. Overly emphasizing Big Brother’s top-down role in surveillance obscures the fact that it also creates a bottom-up style of surveillance in which everyone is a potential spy. It creates a Foucauldian panopticon which, “induce[s] the … state of conscious of permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 201). Stern government violence is hardly necessary when every person becomes an arm of the state. Anyone living through the coronavirus pandemic knows that the police are hardly necessary to enforce mask wearing when businesses and social groups enforce the rules through other means.
The Party knows that humans are social creatures and that social bonds can never be fully eradicated, which is why penetrating those relationships is so powerful. The government can draw power from social bonds even as they try to make them obsolete. It plays both sides of the field by trying to strip people of all amiability while also admitting that the campaign has limits. For example, even as it tries to abolish the family, they admit that, “the family could not actually be abolished… [but] the children… were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations” (Orwell, 133). Not even family life acts as a refuge from a cruel, paranoid world, which only heightens peoples’ susceptibility to propaganda and their willingness to turn on their neighbors. The distrust runs so deep that Winston initially plans to kill the girl who merely has a romantic interest in him.
The current attack on the family is much more robust than Big Brother’s. Defending the contemporary family must occur on several fronts, while Orwell’s citizens must only combat the influence of Big Brother. In contemporary America, corporate agendas, in the form of aggressive financialization of the economy, and progressive agendas, in the form of anti-capitalist ideology, attack the family. Progressives bluntly declare that the family is an outdated social structure that only benefits capital, while bankers and corporations inflict longer hours, less pay, and fewer benefits on workers, which decreases peoples’ ability to own a home and provide security for a family (Ho, E_Flux). The percent of people who don’t marry has more than doubled over the past 60 years, and people who form families divorce at rates vastly higher than in the past (Parker, Duffin). The great irony of socialists who call for the abolition of the family is that our economic order is already destroying the family. And as people become less able to care for their children, the State, the school, and psychotherapists become increasingly potent in rendering parents obsolete. In either case, just as in 1984, individuals become atomized, free-floating servants of an ideology— which is something modern socialists and corporatists agree on.
While 1984 offers us a top-down view of power, in which all power is immediately linked to The Party, modern America presents a much more diversified plane of power conflicts. Perhaps that is because we still experience domestic power struggles that overlap with international struggles. While Google and the US Government’s National Security Agency cooperate with one another, thereby bolstering the idea that Big Tech is an arm of the State, Google also sometimes forms alliances with the Chinese Communist Party (Keane, Vincent). Google is also itching to form an alliance with the International Monetary Fund, a supranational financial group with no clear national ties to any country’s people (Papadopoulos). Instead of a clear-cut vision of omnipotent power, we actually inhabit an anarchic field of power conflicts in which various factions pursue independent goals and form various alliances. While we can lump them all together in some kind of unholy cabal, arguing that Wall Street, the CCP, Big Tech, and the US Government are all working in tandem, that conclusion becomes tenuous when we realize that certain politicians take anti-CCP stances or that certain Wall St. investors are betting against the longevity of the CCP. Perhaps we will reach a 1984 style governance here in America once there are no competing power players.
The Suppression of Thought
It seems obvious that people should object to rule by elites who run a system like Oceania. While the system is unambiguously repressive, it does run different strategies for two differently identified groups. In general, The Party creates an environment in which the unwashed masses are merely human; they do not rise above their current circumstances: they obey, they don’t think much, and they enjoy certain perversions. On the other hand, The Party ensures that its members are domesticated such that they cannot enjoy basic primordial needs such as sex and animal desire. In sum, people capable of thinking must have their animal instincts repressed, and people capable of feeling must have their thoughts repressed.
Repeatedly throughout the novel, Winston thinks about the majority of Oceania’s population, a.k.a. the proles. If there is hope, it lies in the proles he tells himself. He believes that their sheer size and pent up repression could catalyze a meaningful revolution against the Party. And yet, year after year, decade after decade, they submit to the Party’s rule; submission is not beaten into them, nor are they totally controlled. Although people like Winston cannot even slightly transgress, “there was a vast amount of criminality in London, a whole world-within-a-world of thieves, bandits, prostitutes, drug peddlers, and racketeers of every description; but since it all happened among proles themselves, it was of no importance… As the party slogan put it: “Proles and animals are free” (Orwell, 71-72). Big Brother does not take the proles’ revolutionary potential seriously.
The Party just wants the proles to work and breed, and keeping their behavior within such a small scope of behavior is rather easy. All that was needed was, “A few agents of Thought Police [who] moved always among them, spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous” (Orwell, 71). Whereas Party members must be true believers, the majority of people are allowed to be ignorant of Party ideology. This goal does not require intensive social investment; a little bit of ideological patrolling goes a long way.
The Party merely desired, “ a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. And even when they become discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus on specific grievances” (Orwell, 71). In short, their freedom is non-threatening because they lack the ability to express their unfreedom as a result of Big Brother; so long as they are worried about petty nonsense, the Party has no reason to fear.
While Marxist theory suggests that humans eventually will become so alienated from their essential human nature that they will eventually rebel, The Party inverts this and renders the proles conservative by making them more human. This sounds counter-intuitive, but recall Henry Miller’s famous quip about being human: “to be human seems like a poor, sorry, miserable affair, limited by the senses, restricted by moralities and codes, defined by platitudes and isms” (Miller, 256). Human life is rather pathetic. Rather than great conquest or revolution, people prioritize, “individual relationships, a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man…The proles… were not loyal to a matter or an idea, they were loyal to one another” (Orwell, 165). Winston eventually realizes this, which makes him feel foolish for thinking they would inevitably spring into revolutionary action. People rarely group Orwell and Nietzsche together, but, knowingly or not, Orwell seems to suggest that, “Man is something that shall be overcome. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman— a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end” (Nietzsche, 4). Big Brother prefers that people descend into something much lower than an animal: human beings enslaved to their morality.
Domestication of Man
On the other hand, Party members are treated like domesticated animals. In Oceania, even sex is stripped of all emotional, social, or familial meanings: one should only have sex to beget children, and one should be careful not to develop intense emotional ties to those children. Sex is an obligation to the party— not something to enjoy. When Winston thinks that, “the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion,” he means that the animal instinct, which supersedes ideological constructs, is what will destroy the party (Orwell, 68). That’s why he prefers Julia to enjoy sex in general, not sex with him. He likes knowing that she has slept with dozens of other men because it proves that she’s in-touch with her animal desires.
Sexual passion causes people to be indifferent towards the party, which cannot be permitted among Party members. Julia remarks that, “when you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you don’t give a damn for anything…If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes of hate and all the rest of their bloody riot?” (Orwell, 133). More deeply, however, “sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship… All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour” (Orwell, 133). In order to create good followers of Big Brother, The Party keeps people on-edge, sexless, and hysterical— reduced to biological beings without their biological desires addressed. The proles are reduced to their essential humanity, and party members are reduced to caged animals.
Everything else flows from that essential perversion. Once a person is on-edge and sexless, the government can usurp that energy for their own purposes. The government makes sure that this energy doesn’t move towards any radical acts, which is where the surveillance, group think, and manipulation of history become important. But that energy must first exist in order to create an enthusiastic political base.
Inscribing Power Onto the Mind
To be consistent with the fact that I have a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, I have to bring Michel Foucault into the mix. For him, there is a general recipe for the, “exercise of power over men: the ‘mind’ as a surface of inscription of power… [and] the submission of bodies through the control of ideas” (Foucault, 102). We have already seen the submission of bodies and control of ideas, so it remains to be seen if Big Brother successfully inscribes power onto the minds of his citizens. For that, The Party enlists the powers of language and psychiatry against its population — something which is often missed when people think about Big Brother’s omnipotence.
Eventually, Winston is arrested and faces brutal interrogation. When O’Brien, the man interrogating him, outlines his deviances, the emphasis is not on his clandestine sex life or his suspicions about the legitamacy of the Party. He tells Winston that, “You are mentally deranged,” and that he hallucinated all evidence that the Party manipulates historical records (Orwell, 245). Accusing Winston of holding onto false evidence or accusing him of treason would require an admission of the Party’s faults. To avoid doing that, they instead declare that anyone who doesn’t love Big Brother is insane and participating in an alternate reality. What underlies this possibility is a solipsistic philosophy in which, “Reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else” (Orwell, 249). That means that there can’t be any recourse to a physical, shared reality that could help prove any claims against the party. All ‘evidence’ is a false perception.
The battlefield, therefore, is the mind itself. O’Brien tells Winston that, “the act of submission [to the Party]” is “the price of sanity” (Orwell, 249). He adds that, “only the disciplined mind can see reality… You must humble yourself before you can become sane” (Orwell, 249).
The right to diagnose mental illness is power in itself. It is the right to condone certain types of behavior— and our current socio-medical quagmire is pointing towards tensions within this domain. For example, people readily argue that white supremacy is a form of mental illness (Pouissant). Conservatives could also easily point out the strong correlation between being left-leaning and being diagnosed with a mental illness (Kierkegaard). Importantly, once one establishes that the political opponent is mentally ill, they cease to be a respectable foe and become a madman unworthy of serious, non-medical attention. 1984 does not fully mirror our society in that regard, but it does point towards a possible evolution of power systems already at play within our society.
Psychiatric tyranny hides itself behind the veneer of medical authority. It appears to be clinical and objective. While psychiatric medication provides valuable medical care for many people, medication largely helps people adapt to the current social order, but we could just as easily create a social world in which people feel less depressed and anxious. Psychiatry naturalizes what is unnatural.
But power always wants to hide itself, so Big Brother tries even to avoid this level of confrontation as much as possible. It still inscribes power onto the mind itself, but in a much more subtle way: by defining the contours of thought through language. Instead of policing deviance, The party attempts to make deviant thought impossible to think criminal thoughts, which are any thoughts that question the legitimacy of the regime or its mores. As such, it continuously updates its Dictionary, which, our Oxford dictionary, actually creates the legality of which words can or cannot be used— especially in print. When a word is removed from their dictionary, it no longer appears in print and, over time, fades from social use too. As such, according to the Party, “the revolution will be complete when the language is perfect” (Orwell, 52). At that point, no surveillance will be necessary, nor will psychiatry be necessary. Revolution becomes a foregone impossibility once people cannot think or communicate their oppression. Language creates the confines of what is possible.
Certain theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek, remark that we have already arrived at such a state. He writes that, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom” (Zizek). Luckily, actually-existing language is much more lively than Orwell is willing to admit. We can always add to language, which is why we can eventually create words and metaphors with which to understand our unfreedom; perhaps Oceania’s citizens are unable to create language, but we ican. We currently fumble around for new terms: economic nationalism, populism, Modern Monetary Theory, cryptocurrency, etc. We will see if any of these become vital fulcrums for changing the world. Perhaps “Orwellian” will become increasingly useful, but I doubt it; our struggle is much more complicated than Orwell envisioned.
Until we create better words and metaphors, we will continue to reproduce the current social order. If language and sanism crush opposition in the long run, I doubt we’ll be allowed to discuss George Orwell.
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