I finally read it. For years I have heard it discussed by political pundits and for that reason felt in many ways that I had already taken in this novel. It was not a particularly enjoyable read and the parts that I found fascinating were limited to certain small sections.
Many people praise Orwell for his critique of totalitarianism. And while I definitely agree that his vivid imagination conjured up a detailed and intriguing dystopia, I am hesitant to grant him the praise he normally receives for predicting the world as we see it today. After all, he seems to have only observed what totalitarian states were already doing during his lifetime and then speculated how future advances of technology would enable surveillance and political control. He did accurately predict the partitioning of the world powers that took place during the Cold War, but neither was that a major theme of the book nor did he accurately predict the ideological polarization between those powers. In fact, the Neo-liberalism embraced by the West, namely the United States, goes completely missed by Orwell. For this reason, in Western Civilization we must apply Orwell’s accurate observation of nefarious phenomenon (described below) not only to the government, or even primarily thereto, but also to the media, academics, and celebrity cults who are controlled by the elite globalists and multi-national corporations.
Nor is Orwell a particularly astute observer of human nature, morality, or the human condition. His characters are flat and two-dimensional, at best. They have no higher drives or ambitions. He has high regard for sexual immorality and never associates it with political revolution, which is something he missed with both Bolshevism and Nazism. His grim outlook is a direct reflection of the hopelessness of his atheism. He never mentions either religion or spirituality, which are pervasive across human history.
Lastly, and related to the above, the Party Orwell conjures up as the head of Oceania’s political establishment lacks any cause, which is part and parcel to every ideology. They seem to love power for the sake of power. Okay, sure, but that’s not exactly how totalitarianism works. Communism was ostensibly obsessed with class warfare and elevating the worker to have ownership in the means of production. Fascism’s purported goals were elevating the state for the sake of its nationals. And observers cannot begin to fathom the atrocities committed by either the Soviets or the Nazis until you understand they were the logical result of their respective ideologies. In Orwell’s vision, the state’s totalitarianism comes off as extremely arbitrary, because it has no ideology nor values. This is historically retarded as every oppressive regime in history has at least ostensible goals of why it came power and deserves to maintain power.
But while the book lacks a coherent vision of totalitarianism it is still brilliant in certain regards.
The primary reason that 1984 has endured as a classic is because of Orwell’s ability to rhetorically label certain phenomena into neologisms. “Big Brother”, “Thought Police”, “Memory Hole”, “Newspeak”, “Doublethink”, “Unperson”, and “Thoughtcrime” are the best examples. These labels have not merely survived but have become even common vocabulary in articulating political/cultural control tactics. In this way, Orwell’s observations have remained relevant to what is transpiring now under Neo-liberalism and certainly does take place under proper totalitarian states. These concepts accurately coin how people can be manipulated by redefining words, controlling the flow of information, and social shame.
The irony is that Orwell takes only a negative view of such tactics and concepts. As a stereotypical Libertarian Atheist, Orwell holds “Freedom” to be the highest good. He wants unrestricted freedom of thought, desire, and action. Certainly the seventy years that have transpired since the publishing of this novel should give us pause in advocating for this style of freedom. Nevertheless, people persist in doing so.
The truth is that such freedom is naive and impossible. Individualism is a lie. People are always controlled by groups even if the individuals themselves within those groups are unaware of it. So while Orwell’s observations and coinage are brilliant they are also excessively pejorative. The same tactics, used in a softer/moral manner, are how all societies maintain social cohesion. It’s not that someone is in charge that is the problem, but rather the wrong someone is in charge. There is a line in the sand between maintaining social cohesiveness and tyranny.
The other great observation in the book is best recorded in the following dialogue between Winston and O’Brien.
““There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.” “‘ Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,’” repeated Winston obediently. “‘ Who controls the present controls the past,’” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?” Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted toward the dial. He not only did not know whether “yes” or “no” was the answer that would save him from pain; he did not even know which answer he believed to be the true one. O’Brien smiled faintly. “You are no metaphysician, Winston,” he said. “Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?” “No.” “Then where does the past exist, if at all?” “In records. It is written down.” “In records. And—?” “In the mind. In human memories.” “In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?” “But how can you stop people remembering things?” cried Winston, again momentarily forgetting the dial. “It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!” O’Brien’s manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial. “On the contrary,” he said, “you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.””
This dialogue is particularly relevant today in our time of historical revisionism. The past is constantly being redefined so that it fits the current Equalitarian narrative. The flow of information, both about past events and current ones, are filtered through this narrative. And if the information cannot be bent to fit, then it must be broken by erasing it entirely.
But the dialogue is commenting much more than just on informational control and historical revisionism. It is a speculation about the nature of reality itself. Is reality objective or subjective? Are we empirical beings or solipsistic? Is truth a matter of the will or do we deduce it from sensual observation and logic? This is no minor or irrelevant issue in 2020. “Science” has become increasingly unreliable as of late because it is tending towards the subjective. Men born with a penis claim they are, in fact, a woman, or if you prefer, any number of innovative genders that were discovered last week. Let’s not even dive into the labor theory of value or what the proper definition of anti-semitism is.
In the end, 1984 was not a particularly enjoyable read. It was grim, humorless, and and somewhat lacking in both plausibility and coherence. Nevertheless, it was absolutely brilliant in certain regards and Orwell’s neologisms will endure. It is definitely worth a read.
4 Stars Out Of 5