Friday, March 03, 2006

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is 1984 a prophetic novel or a logical extension of history?

In many ways 1984 is a prophetic novel and, in many ways also, it could be considered as a logical extension of History as it was in 1948, the year the book was published. Starting from the latter, the World of 1948 undoubtedly showed signs of an incredible similarity with the world described in the novel; the communist block was in perfect tune with the society of 1984; in the US, the years of McCarthyism were about to install paranoia and fear in the minds of citizens; in liberal Britain the Labour socialist governments, too, portrayed regrettable indications of a mood towards collectivism.

However, by the end of the XX century, the notion that the World was heading in an inevitable path towards a totalitarian global society, suddenly, crashed. This happened whit the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent fall of the communist block. The optimists hailed: Orwell has been defeated we shall never ever have a totalitarian rule over the globe!

Therefore, as a logical continuation of history, the novel apparently had been dismissed by the course of historical events themselves; It was but a question of a few more decades before a global democratic order could be established; humans were by nature “good”, totalitarianism was not and, consequently, Orwell’s society, as depicted in 1984, could never triumph. Now the problem with this is that it took merely for a handful of lunatics to crash a few planes against some targets of relevance in the US for the nightmare of an Orwellian society to come back in full force.

More than being one of the possible logical extensions of human History, 1984 is a momentous study on totalitarianism and on how modern totalitarian procedures are put into action. In that sense, 1984 is a prophetic warning to all future generations. Reading 1984 provides citizens with a remarkable tool-kit to analyze their own societies; because it is such a complete and thorough study of totalitarianism, it is a perfect instrument for checking totalitarian moves from those in power. It is in that sense that the book talks to readers as a prophetic warning: read me and apply what you read to your own society. I have done so and now I will modestly try to apply it to Contemporary Society, namely the American Society.

In 1984 the ruling political structure was a self-perpetuating dictatorship. This was achieved by putting into action several mechanisms. One of the most important devices for the maintenance of the totalitarian regime was the fact that it was in a perpetual war against some other totalitarian regime.

For those in power a perpetual war was an absolute necessity. In fact, they were not aiming at winning the war, just at perpetuating it. As Orwell tells us in 1984, there are several major advantages in having a never ending war: Firstly, you have an external enemy and this binds your citizens together, under your leadership. Secondly, because there is a threat you can always have "traitors" in your midst (i.e. those that oppose your policies), and blame them for whatever goes wrong in your country. (In this sense Goldstein and Ben Laden are, in the Present, interchangeable figures). Thirdly, since there’s a threat you can enforce a policy of spying on citizens, of restricting their liberties and argue that, if you are doing so, it is because you have only their best interests in mind; Big Brother is watching you not because he suspects you, because some within your midst might go astray, and, more importantly, to prevent you going astray also.

This is what happens in 1984. Now I ask you: What is happening in America today?
Can the war on terror be won? Can it possibly end? It cannot: there will always be terrorists and we can never know when or where they will strike again. What are those who are against this big lie of the war on terror? Un-Americans, "traitors". What is the Patriot Act? Legislation aimed at locking up the “traitors”, spying citizens, restrict their liberties, ergo, control them.

In the previous example I have looked at the device of “perpetual war” as described in 1984 and attempted applying it to today’s reality. Now let us look at some others, namely the relation of Media and Power. In the novel, control of the media is fundamental to exert control on society. This is staggeringly exemplified by the work taking place at the ministry of Truth. Here the Past is continuously being re-written, in order to adjust to all the lies of the Present. However, this is done having in mind merely the inner and outer parties members, for all the others, the vast majority of the proles, (and if there is hope it lies in the proles) the approach was somewhat different. In 1984 the proles were continuously feed with sentimental, futile and vain media cultural products. There was “a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”.

Today, in the West, and particularly in America, there is growing talk of a Media crisis: "The media crisis is not due to incompetent or corrupt journalists or owners, but rather to a highly concentrated profit-driven media system that makes it rational to gut journalism and irrational to provide the content a free society so desperately requires." So says "Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy," written by media activists John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. Now if you want to control your citizens the best way to go about it is to keep them uninformed. The role of mainstream Media in America today is extremely similar to the role played by the media for the “proles” in 1984. In the US, mainstream media is more concerned with "filling time and entertaining the audience," says Nichols, "than informing them and getting to the truth". It can be added that knowing what is going on with Michael Jackson or the Laci Petersen trial does not provide you with sufficient information to act as a citizen, or does it? Of course it does not and, in fact, the greatest irony of the Age is that a TV show, called Big Brother, has achieved such high audience ratings… In 1984 the proles, were continuously feed with syrupy, pointless and futile media products. Are we the “proles” of Bushism?

Media also is important because it uses language. Orwell noticed the importance of the relationship between language and power structures. Newspeak was a linguistic totalitarian tool, gradually suppressing inconvenient concepts or changing them beyond recognition. After all, how can you think Peace if the only record of Peace is War? You can do that or suppress words altogether.
Now, just a few weeks ago, in the US, a poll, (that you can find here, was conducted in the lines of 1984. It asked voters: "Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?" And 64 per cent said yes. This was later used by right wing commentators to justify the benevolence of the eavesdropping program. However, there was a small linguistic difficulty in the question asked: it lacks three important words about what is really happening with this spying program. These words were deleted from the question. They read like this: “Without a warrant”.

To continue and deepen my analysis I will now look at a crucial concept in 1984: Doublethinking. A key example of Doublethinking is that “the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement ever stood, and chooses to do this in the name of Socialism.”
I will now describe how it is being applied, in present day, namely when it comes to the war in Iraq… First we were told "Mission Accomplished", but this was hastily submitted to the memory hole, and we must understand that that sign appearing on the aircraft carrier never existed.
This is somewhat disturbing. What we see and read on television is true at the time but they cease to be true, and you go check it on the net and it is extremely difficult to get the record straight. We were told by vice president Cheney that the insurgency was in its last throes, and we cheered, we cheered. We lifted to the seventh level of ecstasy. Now we are know that the Iraqi war will not end anytime soon. Rumsfeld says it is going to continue for at least a decade. More recently we were told by Bush that not only we will win the war, we are wining, wining! But the hate sessions are going really well. We hate the terrorists - bearded Muslims in turbans.
This is how doublethinking is forced on citizens: corrupt the past, contradict yourself constantly and if you are adamant in your big lies you are bound to be believed. Still, the most interesting feature of Doublethinking lies elsewhere. An illustration: Bush admitted just a few weeks ago that he authorized a secret spying program (previously mentioned). Not only that, he also seemed proud of it: "The American people expect me to do everything to protect them and our civil liberties".The statement is, of course, an absurdity. How can you claim to protect the liberties of your people and, simultaneously, enforce a policy of massive spying on phone calls and email traffic of Americans, without a warrant? Destroy Democracy in the name of Democracy that is what the given example is all about. More interestingly, Bush seems truly to believe in what he is saying; the logical conclusion is that, like in 1984, lie to yourself, and you can bend reality, you can make unreal become real and vice-versa… In 1984, “The world view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening”. Still bearing in mind the spy program example, considerer that in the US discussion about it somehow made a pathetic turn, for the Administration is claiming that all it did it did legally. Bush claims that spying on your fellow citizens is legal and, surely, there is a gigantic team of lawyers at work, right now, in finding a legal way to corroborate Bush’s argument. In addition, most of the proles, if Orwell’s insight is to prove correct, will, inevitably, buy it.

We have looked at the mechanisms of endless war, media and language and Doublethinking. Now, to spice things up, we will look at sex. In Oceania, “There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?” Today, the Republican administration in the US clearly demonstrates that it has learned the Party’s lessons on sex; although Bush dares not go so far as the Party in the matter, he has nevertheless poured millions of dollars into “true love waits”-style programmes in America. These programs teach that abstinence out of wedlock is the best way to avoid underage pregnancy. Chastity and political orthodoxy have a strong connection…

Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and a politician of significance until his assassination in 1935, once said: "Of course we will have fascism in America, but we will call it Democracy!" Long never read Orwell but his prophecy immediately echoes Orwell’s concept of Doublethinking.
1984 is the ultimate study on totalitarianism. It remains as one of the best accounts on how totalitarianism works; which tools it uses to enforce the will of a very few on the vary many. Coercion, propaganda, technical and psychological methods of control, everything is scrutinized in Orwell’s analysis, to its last consequences. It is done in a thorough manner, but yet with such lucidity and in such a clear style that it can be a real eye opener, even for the untrained reader.

The novel is a prophetic warning, and more people should be reading it. In present day America it seems as if only the “bad guys” are actually doing so. And here lies the danger. Winston himself, when he sat down to start his diary, “did not know with any certainty that this was 1984”. Hence, as a logical continuation of History, 1984 could materialize anywhere in the future.