When I first read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I remembered visualising 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” and being thankful that a world at constant war with itself could never exist. It was the late 1990’s and it felt like the planet was on a linear trajectory towards a peaceful and democratic future. Orwell’s bleak vision felt fascinating, compelling and a warning from an imaginary, cruel totalitarian future where Hitler and Stalin had won the day. It is still a reasonable opinion to suggest that we are evolving. As Obama said in his article in the Economist before leaving office, if you had to be born at any time in history: it would be right now. However, it is undeniable that elements of Nineteen Eighty-Fours’ dystopian vision of the future have increasingly come to pass. The “Fake News” phenomenon surely being the most obvious one. Re-reading the book in 2017, it resonates more than ever. I found several themes worthy of discussion this time. Namely the role of alcohol in society, Democracy, Fake News / Propaganda, the weaponization of language and violence.
The job of Alcohol in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The differing strata of society are identified by what liquor they consume:
- The Inner Party members drink wine.
- The Party members drink bland gin.
- The Proles drink beer.
At the beginning, Winston “gulped down gin like a dose of medicine”. He consumes it to self-medicate. It is the only way he can cope in the vicious and violent society where “war has been continuous”.
It is instructive that, after falling in love with Julia, Winston “dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. He seemed to have lost the need for it”. Just as he begins to experience the joy of falling in love with a partner and experiencing a caring, peaceful life outside of the tightly controlled state apparatus, he does not need to drink to excess.
Fast forward past Winston’s Assad style dehumanisation at the hands of the Party. He spends 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”. He has become a fully blown alcoholic to erase the memories of his torture at the hands of the Party. His situation becomes so bleak that he cannot even sleep without drinking to excess: “It was gin that sank me into a stupor every night”. He forces down alcohol to suppress his thoughts and emotions.
The “cheap and plentiful supply of synthetic gin” is a pointed policy from the oppressive Party to numb the citizens. Everything else is rationed – coffee, tea, cigarettes, chocolate. Not alcohol though. It is a tool utilised by the Party to keep its population under control.
Goldstein, the arch enemy of the Party throughout, is consistently “denouncing the dictatorship of the party, advocating freedom of the press, freedom of thought”. For this he becomes the focus of “Hate week” and is ridiculed as somebody so far beyond the school of normal discourse that he must be ostracised. The party cannot even consider people thinking about ideas like this. Any free thought or speech must be curtailed so that the Party can copper fasten complete control over its people.
In this drab wasteland, “democracy was impossible” since “the Party was the guardian of democracy”. They take the concept, twist it, crush and destroy it and force people to forget it ever existed. Any opposition to the Party running the state with a vice like grip is so miniscule that Julia “refuses to believe that it exists…or could exist”. The majority of people have no say in how the system is run. Like his other great novel, Animal Farm, Orwell holds up democracy as the only just way to run a society. With democracy version2017 spewing out some unwelcome results, this lesson stands out as clearly now as in 1946. Think of the 2.7 billion people currently living in theocratic and authoritarian regimes.
Orwell warns repeatedly about the dangers of “all the main currents of political thought being authoritarian”. When he is being brutalised by O’Brien, Winston has the clarity of thought to cry out “You are ruling over us for your own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves”. He tries to speak for the individual voice, which has been annihilated in the Party’s absolute domination over even the most miniscule boot print of individuality.
Democracy will always permit 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. You see that in the apartment Winston and Julia rent. It is the only place they can relax. In their own private abode, they enjoy their happiest moments. Everywhere else, they know the Party will subsume them. The tragic irony being that even that miniscule secluded space in the apartment is an illusion of freedom in a totalitarian communist regime.
“Where there is equality there can be sanity”. Democracy is not a panacea. It does not guarantee success, but it does mean that the will of most of the people is carried out. So, on the surface, sanity might not seem a lot to ask for. Yet there are still countries on our planet that more closely resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four than civil, tolerant societies. North Korea for starters. A state which prioritises equality will at a minimum be sane.
Winston clearly identifies the proles as the best shot we have of an equitable system. He rejoices in the fact that they may someday have a voice. It is the only route he can see out of the madness of the world he is living in. He understands that most people must buy into a collective decision on the future of society to kill the nightmare that endures in a totalitarian state.
Of course, the Party understand 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 language used here is deliberate and pointed. The party thinks of would be contributors in a democratic system as “animals”. They must dehumanise Winston – and any dissenting voices – to maintain their power. I think of Animal Farm as the rise of totalitarian communism and Nineteen Eighty-Four as taking it to its logical conclusion.
Fake News / Propaganda:
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. People become lazy and assume that all politicians lie and this plays into the hands of dictators like Putin who feed off the uncertainty. He gets people to think: what is the difference between a dictatorship or a democracy? People are hoodwinked into believing there isn’t any.
Orwell foreshadowed this phenomenon. Take Winston – his job is 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 leaves Winston unable analyse the ethics of the Party: “At these moments, his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector”. He is confused – and he works for the Party! The misinformation has killed his ability to discern the truth.
The editors and programmers of Russia’s state run TV station, Russia today, must get authorisation from their superiors when deciding what stories to run with. Likewise, the writers in the Times newspaper in Nineteen Eighty-Four when they are made to “rewrite it (an old article) in full and submit your draft to the higher authority before filing”. They are both media that serve the illusory purpose of providing objective information, when in reality they are communicating what the regime authorises them to. Granted, the modern Putin version is slicker and more imperceptible. So much so that it has tricked many intelligent people in free and open Western societies.
Fake news is not solely a problem in closed societies. The volume of corporate money has also clouded the issue in democratic Western countries. It creates an institutionalised form of media bias in that it tends to side with the party in power. Winston dreams in his diary of “a time when thought is free, to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone”. He craves the truth, but cannot get it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning not to take a free press for granted. Furthermore, not to let too much money pollute it either. As biased as corporate media has become, there is an important distinction to mention: that there is the freedom to choose between types of media in a free society. Not so 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 denies them. For example, the levels of obfuscation that he and his team went to deny the real number of people that 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 – to use Fake News to confuse people. Consequently, they cannot tell when he is lying – or, eventually, do not care. Then he can lie without fear of reprisal. He intends to dazzle people with Real and Fake news. Think about the passage about who invented the aeroplane. Winston knows that they were invented before the Party but – as there is so much misinformation out there – he cannot recall the truth of the matter. “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 are 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, to throw people off the scent of his corruption.
Doublethink, Newspeak and the weaponization of language in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
One of the themes that runs through Orwell’s writing is how totalitarian states learn to control and weaponize language. It happens constantly throughout the book. It is telling that the 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, marching soldiers etc.
The concept of having different editions of Newspeak is intriguing. Language is so tightly controlled that certain words are banned. I have written about this occurring in modern day China in other articles. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four goes further than controlling them- it wants 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 try to prune language to its plainest, most effective level: “The eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete”. Reducing the vocabulary limits the creativity of the individual too, keeping them on the tight leash of the Party. Similarly, when it is said “What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word?”, we know the real intended consequence is control.
They do not want to merely weaponize current language 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 is so widespread that it scorches people’s receptors to feel, it bleaches their ability to decipher what is good or bad, what is love and what is violence. When Winston first meets Julia, he wants to “flog her to death with a truncheon”. He has a “desire to kill” because society has taught him this is the way to gain power and earn respect.
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 endures while he tries to maintain his independence brings to mind modern day Syria. When we learn of his emaciation at the hands of the party, it is difficult not to picture the images of the prisoners at Saydnaya prison – many of them deliberately starved and tortured to death. Like Fake News, torture at the hands of brutal regimes is still happening in the world in 2017. Sadly, we have not evolved past this as a global community.
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 articulates a clear vision of the future in totalitarian states: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.