Still Relevant? Hell, Yeah!
I just finished re-reading 1984 which is very timely right now as I’m sure everyone knows. There are parallels between Orwell’s dystopian society and the one we are presently living in. Let’s try listing some:
- Endless war. In 1984, there were only three super-powers on earth: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania. Oceania is always at war with one of them and allied with the other. Although none of these powers can seriously threaten the security of each other, the government keeps up a constant barrage of propaganda to keep the people whipped up in a patriotic froth. We Americans have been at war with one country or other as long as I have been alive. The present-day war(s) are justified in terms of keeping us safe even though the United States is the strongest military power on earth.
- Investment in Hate. Oceania is quite upfront about the fact that they embrace hate as a positive value. They have formal 2 minute hates as well as hate weeks. President Trump has openly fomented hatred of Muslims. He has instigated an embargo on many Muslims entering the country. He wants to build a wall separating us from Mexico and has accused Mexicans of wanting to sell us drugs and rape our women. Racist groups have become emboldened. Hate is normalized. There have also been more mass killings than ever before but the people who voted Trump in are still as determined as ever to block gun control.
- Reality Denied. Trump started his presidency by declaring mainstream media to be the purveyor of “fake news.” He declares things that objective examination proves to be false. The religious right has been undermining our sense of reality for years, insisting the earth is only two thousand years old and denying global warming, to mention only two examples. Oceania has what they call doublethink by which good citizens deliberately hold contradictory views, fully accepting both. O’Brien, speaking for the party, said, “The earth is no older than we are as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”
- Necessary Characters. Every totalitarian society needs a paragon to worship. In Oceania, it’s Big Brother, of course. Trump is worshiped by his followers. The fact that more than half the adult population of the United States does not worship Trump or even consider him a decent president is what keeps the USA from becoming as totalitarian as Oceania. But, to his people, Trump is a paragon. One sign at a rally stated, “Thank you, Jesus, for President Trump.” Another person declared his hair was like “spun gold.” Not only is he physically beautiful, “Trump’s heart is so pure!” and “Trump always tells the truth!” Another archetype that I see in both Oceania and the United States is the brilliant but fanatical fascist. O’Brien is the one in Oceania, although another guy named Syme fits the bill as well. In our country, it is Steve Bannon. There is something fascinating about somebody who is so intelligent and yet chooses such a repellent system to promote. Smith found himself drawn to O’Brien whether he should turn out to be a friend or an enemy. He was a person who could be talked to.
Philosophy of Ingsoc
So the parallels are there which makes 1984 a timely novel. Quite an accomplishment for a futuristic novel in a world that has passed the time that had been supposed to have those characteristics. But now let’s look at the philosophy of the regime. The best thing about this book is the long period in which Smith is being brainwashed under the direction of O’Brien. The party isn’t just interested in enforcing it’s rule and killing dissenters. It wants to change the mind and soul of every dissenter and make them loyal citizens who love Big Brother. I have a problem with their belief that they have really succeeded when the brainwashed subject is no longer good for any sort of real participation in the society. The newly loyal patriots only work part time. They are really free to sleep late and sit in a bar drinking gin all day. Eventually, the party has them shot. Not a very successful transformation if you ask me.
But the dissidents have the privilege of learning what their society is really about, something many outer party members probably never understand. For starters, the value underlying all others is collectivism. The individual is nothing. The three powers had similar philosophies with different names. In Oceania, it was Ingsoc. In Eurasia, it was Neo-Bolshevism and, in Eastasia, it was Deathworship, which probably translated better into Obliteration of the Self. Note how similar this sounds to Buddhism. I suppose all the major religions preached some form of self-abnegation.
In return for negation of their self or ego, they got the glory of identification with a power greater than any individual could be. The party became a living entity. Big Brother was a mythical embodiment of the party. Interestingly, in our present society, the Corporation is an organization that is imbued with the quality of Selfhood. O’Brien raptly confides to Smith that only this kind of collectivism allows for true immortality. “‘You are thinking,’ he said, ‘that my face is old and tired. You are thinking that I talk of power, and yet I am not even able to prevent the decay of my own body. Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism.'”
The party has eliminated the pleasure principle. The natural drive of an individual to seek personal pleasure is repressed in favor of the drive for power. Nobody, not even members of the inner party, has personal power. The party has all the power. By aligning with the party, a member partakes of that power but at the price of his own private identity.
The party denies all objective reality. “‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull.'” Of course, when technology is needed, they allow for reality to the extent that they need to make things work. But, with doublethink, they can accept two versions of reality, the subjective one imposed by the party and the objective one needed to make things work in the physical world. The party, as a super-entity, has the most solipsistic, narcissistic and egocentric attitude ever dreamed. It is like a child stating that the world is what he wants it to be. With physical power over everyone, this child, the party, can enforce his stubborn grandiosity. Members of the party accept the “discipline” of an irrationality which is used in a rational manner. They know they are enforcing a fantasy. But as long as nobody has the power to break the bubble of that fantasy, the party’s will is done.
Psychopathy and the Party
Where would a psychopath fit in to this dystopia? We like being our own person so we would naturally chaff against a totalitarian state. But I could see the advantages of going along with the program too. Of course, I would want to be a member of the inner party. The outer party sucks. They have the disadvantages of being overly monitored without the advantages of the better living conditions enjoyed by the inner party members. If I couldn’t be in the inner party, I’d prefer to be a prole. “Proles and animals are free,” is a slogan of the party. Of course proles are dirt poor. Their food must be even worse than that of the outer party. But they would enjoy autonomy.
But what would it be like to be in the inner party. One would be privy to many of the secrets in how things are run. And the mental discipline is interesting. Take doublethink. Isn’t it really an elaborate form of lying? “For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself. You must know all the while that it is there, but until it is needed you must never let it emerge into your consciousness in any shape that can be given a name.” We are used to wearing a mask. How is this different?
O’Brien is a very interesting man. Smith saw that in him right away. His intelligence drew him in. There’s something fascinating in a man who is brilliantly intelligent and yet disagrees with one in the most drastic way possible. Is there something to be learned from him? Is he privy to secrets? There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy. Being naturally curious and desirous of expanding my knowledge and understanding, I am drawn to the mysterious and inexplicable.
I think there is a fascist inside every one of us, not just psychopaths. Everyone. The party values power above all other values. The way power is proven is by the infliction of pain.
“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.
“Exactly. By making him suffer. 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 tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing….If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
I am reminded of ascetic orders of monks spending every moment mortifying their flesh, rejecting the natural world in which mortal life grows and seeks the light. These people seem to be seeking something beyond the natural which, however pleasant it might be, is mortal. They are seeking “god,” something unnatural, beyond nature. I believe that is an underlying quality of all religions. Man, having evolved to the point we are now at, wants to go beyond his natural capacities, to become omnipotent. The party in 1984 is clearly seeking omnipotence.
“But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever.”
“What are the stars?” said O’Brien indifferently. “They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.”
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
“For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according a we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?”
An interesting problem for this idea is that in order to deny reality as thoroughly as they have done and live in their fantasy universe of their own creation, they had to first conquer the reality of the actual universe. In seeking a collective solipsism, they have to conquer the individual minds of everyone in their society. The more they exert power over their subjects, the more they need their subjects. Look at how much energy they expend in the task of bending a single mind to their will. It’s kind of narcissistic. They create an imaginary universe in which they are supreme but they still depend on supply. Slave and master are symbiotic. To that extent, absolute power can never be possible.
Speaking for myself, I would not wish to pay such a heavy price for power, especially collective power. At most, I would use the party to get what I want but I would not relinquish pleasure. I would not give up myself for an elaborate game of power that is, at its roots, delusional. I guess that’s why I don’t follow any religion. I have toyed with different religions at different times in my life but, in the end, I value myself too much to relinquish reality.