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Looking forward to 1984

by Jack J. Woehr
web posted July 23, 2001

George Orwell, dead over 50 years now, left as his legacy the scariest piece of political fiction ever written in the English language. While his roman à clef of the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm, is wittier and his autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London more poignant, it is 1984 which will ever be remembered as his masterpiece.

In some ways, 1984 is harder to read and appreciate at the present day than when it was first published in 1949. At that juncture in history, not many in the West possessed Orwell's heightened awareness of the epistemology of Soviet Communism. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon had only been read by the cognoscenti, and was to a certain extent shouted down at the time (1941) by an active, influential, and tragically self-deceived Communist Party of the USA. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich still lay in the future; in 1949 it was being lived by its author in the flesh.

George OrwellOrwell, a working-class lad who received a scholarship to Eton and grew to manhood a socialist idealist, went off to fight for the Spanish Republic against Franco and saw at first hand the deceit and betrayal of the Loyalist cause by the Stalinist machine. He was not so much disillusioned as terrified, having intellectually penetrated the logic of Comintern. He opposed their treachery not merely as cynical opportunism: he recognized it as an assault from hell upon reason and objectivity themselves.

Orwell's grasp of the true nature of the challenge presented by authoritarian communism to free men was as unlike the hysterical and jingoistic Nixon/Jenner/McCarthy anti-communism of the 1950's as Catholic mass is dissimilar to the snake-handling fundamentalism of the Appalachians. That difference is obscure to today's reader to whom the word "communism" has come to mean the corrupt state capitalism of China, Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, at a time when the citizen of nominally capitalist Singapore probably partakes no more of the Rights of Man than his or her counterpart in nominally communist Hong Kong. And this obscurity into which Orwell's work fell with the falling of the Berlin Wall is to be regretted, because 1984 still has a message, a warning for our day, albeit a warning obscured somewhat by the receding of the phenomenon of world communism which provided the lurid context of the novel.

The message which Orwell conveyed in 1984 is threefold:

  • First, that the threat of totalitarianism is independent of the political system in which it arises.
  • Secondly, that all totalitarianisms possesses the same taxonomy which is easily recognizable and identifiable despite all euphemisms and indignant denials by their purveyors.
  • And thirdly, that much of the impetus to totalitarianism derives from the very advances made by free societies.
This is pretty thick stuff for the electronically truncated attention span of the "telescreen"-drugged modern, but it nonetheless has practical application. 1984 has been on the lips and in the news in the past few weeks as Tampa, Florida installs computerized face-matching cameras in public places to dispatch police to question citizens who appear to the software to resemble known felons. A similar computerized system was announced last week by the in Colorado Dep't. of Motor Vehicles to scan drivers' faces. The brutally frank explanation of the bureaucratic "inner party" in both instances was that the citizen in a public place possesses no reasonable expectation of privacy. How true, and how telling that the political Newspeak of our day leaves us almost no vocabulary in which to formulate our indignation. Ignorance is Strength.

To my mind, 24-hour covert automated surveillance of the general public is no more than background color, merely an artifact of the self-indulgence of the police in their passion for high-tech toys. There are more profound issues to consider in the light of Orwell's thought. In 1984, the three powers of the world, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are in a perpetual state of war, an endlessly shifting alliance of two against one, not in hope of conquest, but as a means of preserving internal control of their societies. The Trotsky-like Goldstein who leads the underground opposition to Big Brother explains the perennial state of war as follows:

The problem is how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world ... In practice the only way of achieving this is by continuous warfare. The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is way of shattering into pieces ... materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival. The war is merely an imposture.
Well, hmm. This seems to explain a great deal about American society in recent decades, in particular our nation's War is Peace drug policy which serves precisely the goals of consuming excess human resources and productivity while enervating the populace and accustoming them to submission to the ruling oligarchy. It also tangentially sheds some light on Waco, if  the Orwellian aspect of that tragedy had not already been summed up for us by Janet Reno in that quintessential piece of doublethink,"For the children."

Yes, the danger of an American police state along Orwellian lines, with constant surveillance accompanied by pious enumeration of freedoms which have in fact ceased to exist, with televised news that is not merely lies but a conscious daily rewriting of history, with a constant state of war to keep the sheep scared and huddled; that danger doesn't seem to have receded with the collapse of the Soviet state. Freedom is Slavery. If anything, it's closer today than it was when Orwell lived and wrote.

Jack Woehr of Fairmount, Colorado offers this advice: Whenever you sense that Big Brother is watching you, do something embarrassing and he'll look the other way.

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