I have just reread 1984 for the first time in 6 years. It’s always good to refresh once in a while, and I was driven to it by the odd comment here and there that 1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual.
I kept this comparison in mind through my read, and found some interesting parallels and differences that I found worth mentioning here. There are plot spoilers, so read on only if you’ve enjoyed 1984 for yourself.
First, I had not remembered that the Party was portrayed as socialist/communist. The only thing that stood out in my memory was authoritarianism. I had originally intended to share 1984 with a friend from work who hasn’t done quite as much philosophizing politically as I have. He was saying something along the lines of “spying isn’t bad – if you’re not doing anything wrong, what could go wrong?” I’m of the opinion that they can change the goal posts on what is wrong, and you can find yourself a criminal for simply not agreeing with someone. 1984 takes that to an extreme, and I hoped that it might highlight for him how conceivably bad being spied on can be. However, with the nominal nod towards communist as evil, I fear many people will simply dismiss the warning and use it to support their anti-socialist mentality. The strongest support against the use of 1984 in this light was the part towards the end when O’Brien is reeducating Winston (trimmed for brevity.)
O’Brien: What is our motive? Why should we want power?
Winston: You are ruling over us for our own good. You believe that humans are not fit to govern themselves, and therefore—
O’Brien: That was stupid, Winston, stupid! You should know better than to say a thing like that. Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. […] [N]o one ever seizes power with the intent to relinquish it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revoltuion in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
The Republican party and media of today is smearing Obama’s governance as socialist. Inasmuch as socialism interpreted as greater equality and care for humanity as whole, I believe that Obama has made some effort. This socialism is not the socialism of 1984, and condemning Obama’s efforts with 1984 as justification is inappropriate. However, I also feel the undercurrents of a direction towards a police state over which Obama may or may not have much control. Police brutality, authoritarianism of the TSA in airports, legalization of domestic drones, domestic spying programs, increasing prosecution of government whistleblowers – all of this is taking America to the dangerous land where dissention (and thus change of conditions) is no longer possible.
Composition of the Party
The nominal makeup of the Party struck me.
The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.
As a scientist, I find this makeup fascinating. There was a sort of technocracy in the first part of the nuclear age, where it was more realizable for scientists and technicians to have some influence over government policy. I feel that that period passed with McCarthyism. Those who were traditionally in power – professional politicians and the financial forces behind them – recognized the danger of placing power in the hands of people whose opinions were based primarily on reason, and were ultimately trained to operate on their own evidence-based conclusions. In modern times, it is as though most of the people that Orwell mentions have intentionally been ostracized and politically neutered. Particularly, scientists, technicians (who are often considered inferior scientists, perhaps a step or two above janitors these days, generally unsupportable on grants, and thus a dying breed), trade-union organizers, and most importantly teachers are discarded as elitist at best, and varying degrees of greedy, useless, and subversive at worst. Scientists are kept in check with funding (or lack thereof) and by bureaucratic control over communication. Labor leaders are villainized (sometimes justifiably, mind.) The most painful to me personally are the teachers. Education is key to egalitarianism. The golden ages of civilizations are those in which education is valued, supported, and encouraged. Uneducated people do not generally evaluate information under the light of reason, and can be controlled by religious beliefs and media misinformation campaigns. By maintaining slogans such as “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and never rewarding the teaching profession adequately, we limit recruitment to those who are truly dedicated to teaching (those invaluable individuals who truly make a difference in people’s lives), and those who are actually not as capable in their understanding of content (the bane of my educational upbringing, and the death of curiosity for many.) The other classes are primarily focused on the control of public opinion, and have indeed claimed power, if only as back-scenes operators, mouthpieces, and enablers. Those truly in power are the capitalists of monopoly industry and the centralized government that for the most part, rests in their collective pocket. They are so extraordinarily wealthy that wealth in itself cannot possibly be their motivator. There is nothing that they can’t buy. It is power that their money buys, and in that, they represent the Orwellian purpose of the pursuit and maintenance of pure power. In a way, I guess I hope for the change that Orwell describes. I am not so pessimistic that scientists and teachers would be so thirsty purely for power. I have experienced a broad concern for egalitarian advancement amongst my scientific peers and teachers. Perhaps it is a lack of power that allows that to exist, but I am wishful that it would be better.
Scarcity of goods
A theme of 1984’s world is the lack of common goods, and the maintenance of just less than what was necessary. The constant need kept people out of luxury, and ultimately kept them from pursuing idle means that may have educated them. Modern America does not have that at all in my opinion. We have fully embraced the production capacity that industrialism has offered. Rather than keeping people in want, America has emphasized overconsumption. It is not consumption of the necessities of life, but value of junk – plastic, and ceaseless novelty and obsolescence. The net effect is no different – constant want, and enslavement to your desires, and thus employment that enables some degree of fulfillment of these manufactured desires. The further key in this pattern in America is the always increasing exportation of manufacturing. The destruction of valuable real-life skills further prevents the population from breaking away from the enslavement to the system. This is extremely personal to me. My wife, a PhD geneticist, has been unable to find work for the past 7 months. It is absurd that without me, her livelihood would depend on welfare of some sort – whether governmental or familial. She has myriad skills, especially in traditional fiber arts and gardening. The devaluation of her practical skills, and the apparent unemployability of her so-called modern, valuable education has highlighted the absurdity of our society, and left me longing for a simple agrarian self-sufficiency where our efforts are directly correlated to our livelihood, and not subject to someone else’s ability to employ our skills.
The Party has complete control over information in all media in 1984. They retroactively maintain control of reality by rewriting history as necessary to maintain the truthfulness of any current statement. Dissent results in complete removal from society – you aren’t merely killed, you cease to exist in the past as well as the present and future. America is decent in this regard. History is generally written by the victors, and a large part of our educational content is horribly distorted against any opponent of America. However, deeper, often contradictory information is available for those who seek it. The leadership and media of America do not have complete control over the past. However, by instilling the distaste for intellectualism and discouraging any curiosity about true history at the earliest age possible, America controls perception of the past effectively enough, bending it to serve whatever end anyone with power finds necessary. It is infinitely more difficult to dislodge an initial idea than it is to put it there in the first place. Modern media’s exceedingly effective spin networks serve as an echo chamber for people of any political persuasion. It is not the same ultimate control that the Party has, but it is more distributed reality control inasmuch as people allow someone else to define the world they live in.
In the world of 1984, sex is a necessary evil. It is solely for propagation of the species. Winston’s wife calls their duty to the party. She is described as “stiffening as soon as he touched her … she seemed to be pushing him from her with all her strength, even when her arms were clasped tightly round him.” Young women were encouraged/required to be part of the Junior Anti-Sex League. America has a fascinating dual approach to sexuality. On one hand, in (Christian) religion it is for the most part strongly discouraged. On the other, sex is a remarkably effective marketing tool, and we are bombarded more or less directly from the onset of our consciousness. With regards to the former, I actually respect the simplistic viewpoint of saving sex for marriage for the sake of avoiding pregnancy and STDs until one is old enough and mature enough to understand and deal with the potential physical and emotional consequences of the joyous act. The so-called promise-keepers of modern society are related to the Junior Anti-Sex League, but certainly less extreme. Delaying sexuality, but ideally not destroying it. I grew up Catholic. I am still so terribly mixed up about sexuality. I want it, I’m afraid of it, ultimately I am not completely in touch with those feelings. You can’t expect sexuality to suddenly turn on like a switch when it is suddenly allowed at the time of marriage. It took me several relationships and a great deal of sinful premarital sex to establish a healthy place for sex in my relationships. Society would be greatly improved by encouraging healthy sexual relationships at age-appropriate times, and by implementing effective sex education and provision of easily accessible contraceptives. Sex as a marketing tool is exceedingly destructive to this end. Attaching sex to consumerism perverts sex, distorts people’s psyche, and ruins the natural evolution and development of sexuality. More than anything, it feeds and creates images of what sex should be into people’s minds. Sex should be the movies. Sex should be the completely perfect girls in magazines. Sex generally occurs independent of emotional relationships. This exploitation of sex has taken a brutal toll on women, and is extending to ever-younger populations.
Children in the world of 1984 serve the dark purpose of spying on their parents, propagating the party rather than their family. In this regard, I am thankful that modern America is not so terrible. Children are manipulated through advertising into tools for extending consumerism, but they are not trained to betray their parents to Thought Police.
Perhaps the most philosophically offensive aspect of 1984’s world was the continual war that served no purpose aside from consumption of industrial output. In this regard, America does not compare favorably. We have entered the war on terrorism. It can never be won, as it is a war on an idea. The Cold War was nominally a war on communism. However, it was still a war against easily recognizable nations, and could thus come to a close. As long as America is offending someone sufficiently, there will always be malcontents, and ultimately someone angry enough to act on their emotions. Killing people will never solve the problem; it can only make more people angry at worst, and merely scared at best. A cornered wild animal is the least predictable and most dangerous. War in modern times is similar to war in 1984 – a convenient reason to spend vast sums of money that produce no good will, and generally impacts the lower class in the most negative ways. It also serves as a critically important means of thought control. It provides an easy external source of fear, and reason to believe in the government. It promotes ostracizing anyone who questions the government – do you not want to be safe from “those savages?” If you don’t care about being safe, then I hate you for not wanting me to be safe. In 1984, it is a channel for hatred. The government steers all of the dissatisfaction of the people to something that is completely controllable, not crushing dissent, but actually preventing it by diverting negativity towards the outside. Is our hatred for muslims any different? What about the Nazi hatred of Jews? The perceived threat from outsiders is an exceedingly effective distraction from the disastrous state of domestic affairs.
All of this is political conjecture that you may or may not agree with. One thing I hope we can agree on is that it is atrocious to offshore American manufacturing for so many of our daily needs, and yet maintain our capacity to manufacture the implements of death and destruction. What sick society would rather maintain the capability to kill people over the capability to clothe its own people? What country abandons its pride in quality manufacturing and collectively settles for undeniably inferior products, solely for the sake of instantaneous cost (as opposed to total cost of ownership over the lifetime of a superior, easily repaired product)? It is myopic at best and unsustainable at worst.