Even though Stephen Fry reads every audiobook like it’s a bedtime story, even his mellifluous tones can’t conceal what an utterly depressing book George Orwell’s 1984 is. I last read it in, well, 1984. Listening to it on Audible last week, I was struck by how pertinent it is in this strange post-truth age.
There are so many aspects of the book I could go into, but for now I’ll keep it to three, based on the slogan of Big Brother’s Party:
War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.
[This post got rather long, so I’m going to split it over two weeks – also because I’m away in Austria next week, speaking at the Fifteen Seconds Festival in Graz.]
War is Peace
In 1984, war is constant, but mostly invisible to the populace. Apart from the occasional aerial bomb – which a few suspect of coming from their own government – citizens only know about the war through the news as mediated by the Ministry of Truth. The world consists of three superpowers, and once in a while the enemy will become the ally, and the ally will become the enemy. All news archives are then be amended to make it appear that this has always been so, and anybody who says otherwise is treated like a lunatic.
So what is the point of this perpetual state of war? There seem to be two main reasons – economics, and preserving the status quo of power:
“It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs.”
In other words, war is not driven by ideology, human rights or justice. The enemy is arbitrary. There just has to be a state of conflict to restrict the flow of consumer goods so that the Proles can remain oppressed.
“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
So the masses must be kept just sufficiently downtrodden so that they are more preoccupied with meeting basic needs than with challenging the dominant power structures:
“It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”
So how does this compare with our real world?
Could the “war on terror” be seen as a way to hold an increasingly fragmented Western society together? It’s obvious we would all want to see an end to terror – that goes without saying – and yet terror will always exist somewhere in the world, depending, of course, on how you define “terror”, and correspondingly who you designate as “terrorists”. Bombing the living daylights out of a foreign country may seem like a strange way to reduce terror, but if everybody back home agrees that this is a good thing to do, then you make the destruction of a foreign country the price you pay for peace at home.
Following hard on the heels of reading The Shock Doctrine, in which Naomi Klein argues convincingly that various US wars, especially Iraq, weren’t what they purported to be. She argues that war was a fig leaf for a much more cynical agenda, not entirely unrelated to the profit motive.
Also reminiscent of The Shock Doctrine is the electric shock therapy that O’Brien inflicts on Winston Smith to reprogram him from resistance into compliance. Naomi Klein goes into a lot of detail on historical attempts to use electric shocks to create a tabula rasa so that a new, more conformant personality could be installed.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
I’ll leave it to you to fill in your own blanks if you see any contemporary examples of the public psyche being disrupted and reassembled in modified forms. See, for example, some of the examples in Stolen Focus. This may be an inadvertent side-effect rather than a deliberate strategy, but it’s definitely happening. Do we create culture, or does culture create us?
What do you think? Am I being too gloomy? Is life actually the best it’s ever been, with increasing peace and prosperity for all? Are social media platforms increasing transparency, or creating confusion and diminishing the quality of public debate?
Next week I’ll return to 1984 with Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. Meanwhile, I’m going to recommend that you DON’T read it. I found it terribly grim, and I haven’t quite recovered yet.
Thanks to all who came to the event at Hulse Hall in Breamore in the New Forest last week. Great to see you there! My thanks to the event organisers for a wonderful evening.
And congratulations to Her Majesty on her Platinum Jubilee. Regardless of your view on the monarchy, 70 years of public service is a phenomenal accomplishment. That’s quite a life she’s had, and quite honestly, you couldn’t pay me enough to live in that gilded cage. Theoretically, she can do what she wants. Realistically, she can do very little. Freedom is slavery?