When I first read “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Orwell’s dark vision where the “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions” terrified me. Orwell’s bleak dystopia was fascinating, compelling and a warning from an imaginary, cruel totalitarian state. Re-reading the book in 2017, it continues to resonate and I found several themes I wanted to explore further this time around. Namely the role of alcohol in society, democracy, fake news, the weaponisation of language and violence.
The differing strata of society were identified by what liquor they consumed:
- The Inner Party members drank wine.
- The Party members drank gin.
- The Proles drank beer.
At the beginning Winston “gulped down gin like a dose of medicine”. He consumed it to self-medicate. It was the only way he could cope in a world where “war has been continuous”. It was instructive that, after falling for Julia, Winston “dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. He seemed to have lost the need for it”. Once he began to experience the joy of falling in love and living a caring, peaceful life outside of the tightly controlled state apparatus, he did not need to drink to excess.
Fast forward past Winston’s dehumanisation at the hands of the Party and he began to spend all day drinking himself to death at a “corner table with ever-flowing gin”. The “tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle”. Winston became a fully blown alcoholic to erase the memories of his torture at the hands of the Party. His situation was so bleak that he could not even sleep without drinking to excess, “it was gin that sank me into a stupor every night”.
The “cheap and plentiful supply of synthetic gin” was a pointed policy from the oppressive Party to numb its citizens. Everything else was rationed – coffee, tea, cigarettes, chocolate. Not alcohol though as they used it to keep people under control.
Goldstein, the arch enemy of the Party throughout, consistently “denounced the dictatorship of the party, advocating freedom of the press, freedom of thought”. Thus he became the focus of “hate week” and was ridiculed as somebody so far beyond the school of normal discourse that he had to be ostracised. The Party could not even consider people thinking about ideas like this. Any free thought or speech had to be curtailed so that the Party could copper fasten complete control over its people.
In this drab wasteland, “democracy was impossible” since “the Party was the guardian of democracy”. They took the concept of democracy and twisted it, crushed and forced people to forget it ever existed. Any opposition to the Party running the state with a vice like grip was so miniscule that Julia “refuses to believe that it exists…or could exist”. The majority of people had no say in how the system was run. Like his other great novel, Animal Farm, Orwell held up democracy as the only just way to run a society. With democracy in 2017 spewing out some horrible results, this lesson stands out as clearly now as in 1946. Democracy is not a panacea and is not linear yet it is the best, most just way to run society. The alternatives are unthinkable. There are currently 2.7 billion people currently living in theocratic and authoritarian regimes.
Orwell warned repeatedly about the dangers of “all the main currents of political thought being authoritarian”. When he was being brutalised by O’Brien, Winston had the clarity of thought to cry out that “you are ruling over us for your own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves”. He tried to speak for the individual who had been annihilated in the Party’s absolute domination over even the most minuscule mark of individuality.
Democracy will always allow more personal liberty than communism as it permits disparate, individual ideas. One of the great benefits of the introduction of Capitalism was the right people had to own their own property. The state could not control it. This was illustrated by the apartment Winston and Julia rented. It was the only place they could relax and it was where they enjoyed their happiest moments.
Winston rejoiced in the fact that the proles may someday have had a voice. It was the only sense he could make of the craziness he was living in. Of course, the Party understood this threat, “perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals”. The Party thought of would be contributors in a democratic system as “animals”. They dehumanised Winston and any dissenting voices to maintain their grip on power.
Fake news, in 2017, is designed to create an air of uncertainty where people lose their critical faculties and are unable to decipher what is real or fake. What is the difference between a dictatorship or a democracy anyway? Orwell foresaw this. Take Winston. His job was to change the facts of the past to suit the present. To lie professionally every day. The propaganda peddled by the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four left Winston unable to use his critical faculties, “at these moments, his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector”. He was confused, and he worked for the Party! The misinformation killed his ability to discern the truth. Elsewhere, the writers in the Times had to get authorisation when they were made to “rewrite it (an old article) in full and submit your draft to the higher authority before filing”.
Fake news is not solely a problem in closed societies. The volume of corporate money has also clouded the issue in democratic Western countries where an institutionalised form of media bias generally sided with the status quo. Winston dreamt of“a time when thought is free, to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone”. He craved the truth, but could not get it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning not to take a free press for granted and, moreover, not to let too much money pollute it either. As biased as corporate media has become, there is an important distinction, that there is the freedom to choose between types of media in an open society which is not the case in autocratic regimes. At least, you can choose in open democratic countries.
On the topic of “fake news”, let us consider for a moment the amount of lies that Trump has told in 2017 and the brazenness with which he tells them. For example, the levels of obfuscation that he and his team went to deny the real number of people who were at his inauguration despite the photographic evidence being definitive. It is almost as if his team were trying to “thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED”.
Trump’s strategy is straight from the Putin handbook. Use fake news to confuse people. Consequently, they cannot tell when Trump is lying or, worse yet, they eventually do not care which makes lying without fear of reprisal an easy option. Once again, Orwell foreshadowed all of this. Think of the passage about who invented the aeroplane. Winston knew that they were invented before the Party but, as there was so much misinformation out there, he was unable to glean the truth, “it was true, for example, as was claimed in the Party history books, that the party had invented aeroplanes. He remembered aeroplanes since his earliest childhood. But you could prove nothing. There was never any evidence”. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lines between fact and fiction were blurred to an extent that nobody can tell what is real. Worryingly, in 2017, the leader of the free world is attempting the same nefarious trick in order to throw people off the scent of his corruption.
One of the themes that runs through Orwell’s writing is how totalitarian states learn to control and weaponise language. It happens constantly throughout the book. It is telling that Telescreens, the primary mode of communication, contain “strident military music”. The news is repeatedly reporting on all matters related to the military. You can see this in the modern day Chinese media too. Watch any of their “CCTV” stations of an afternoon and you will be bombarded with images of tanks, nukes, giant bombs and marching soldiers etc.
The concept that there were different editions of Newspeak was intriguing. Language was so tightly controlled that certain words were banned. I have written about this occurring in modern day China before. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four went even further than controlling them, it wanted to kill them, “we’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone”. They endlessly pruned language to its plainest, most effective form, “the eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete”. Reducing the vocabulary limited the creativity of the individual and kept them on the tight leash of the Party. Similarly, when the question of “what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word?” was asked, we understand the real consequence was control. Control of language meant control of thought or what Pinker called our “Mentalese”. The Party did not want to merely weaponise the modern Canon but all past versions too, “the whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist in Newspeak versions”. If the Party cannot control the message, they destroy it.
Violence was so widespread that it scorched people’s receptors to feel, it bleached their ability to decipher what was good or bad, what was love and what was violence. When Winston first met Julia, he wanted to “flog her to death with a truncheon”. He had a “desire to kill” because society taught him that was the way to gain power and earn respect. Said Winston, “I hated the sight of you…I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards. Two weeks ago I thought seriously of smashing your head in”. Citizens go to public hangings to cheer on the killing of traitors. Violence has replaced love as the emotion that is necessary to function.
The torture that Winston endured while he tried to maintain his independence brought to mind modern day Syria. When we learn of his emaciation at the hands of the Party, it was difficult not to picture the images of the prisoners at Saydnaya prison, many of whom were deliberately starved and tortured to death.
Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four created more questions than answers for me:
Should the world have regimes that demand “complete intellectual surrender” in 2017? What should we be doing about countries such as North Korea?
Should countries like China have the right to own language? Do the inevitable consequences of this lead to regimes deleting words such as “HONOUR, JUSTICE, MORALITY”?
As regimes blur the lines between Real and Fake News, do we need to “believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right”?
Orwell may not have the answers but, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he articulated a clear vision of a future in totalitarian states, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.