Nineteen Eighty-Four – Now?

My 1969 Penguin Modern Classics edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

You know you live in curious times when satire merges with reality, or rather reality begins to assume the form of the world that has been satirised.

Increasingly that’s how I feel reading about developments in the United States, Russia, China, India, the UK and Eastern Europe – not all in equal measure, but in varying degrees.

After a gap of some 50 years, I re-read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and was struck by his prophetic vision and fears – how totalitarianism, control by a group of oligarchs, stifles freedom of expression, freedom of action and most disturbingly, freedom of thought.

In Orwell’s portrayal of such a world in Nineteen Eighty-Four, language and morality are deeply connected. Words, meanings, sense, truth, honesty, integrity, and values are inextricably entwined. Their fate and ours are bound by a Gordian knot. Sever that and, as William Yeats wrote in The Second Coming,

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”

In this curious world we live in, what disturbs the most is the merging from opposite ends of the political spectrum of similar moves to control actions, thoughts and votes, accompanied by nationalistic slogans about protecting people’s freedoms. You shake your head in puzzlement, wondering how you entered this Lewis Carroll upside-down, back-to-front, topsy turvy world. Or, perhaps it’s more like Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

How can this be this happening? And how come so many people seem to accept it, indeed welcome it?

I wondered what Orwell was thinking when he wrote his dystopian satire, and then I found this remarkable letter online, courtesy of Open Culture.

Headlined,  George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984, the letter, sent to one Noel Willmett, is revealing of Orwell’s fears of centralised economies and emotional nationalism. His observations in the extract below resonate as strongly now as they did then. Just change the names and the dates.

I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase.

Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means. Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.

Five years later, in June 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published to critical acclaim and has become a literary classic.

Now, more than 70 years on, Orwell’s fears seem eerily prophetic with their references to centralised economies .. which are not democratically organised’, ‘the horrors of emotional nationalism’, ‘a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible Fuhrer’.

A world in whichhistory has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered’.

I wonder what Orwell would make of today’s embrace of populism with its strident appeals to nationalism, its denial of objective truths and scientific evidence, and its leaders’ flagrant use of lies to manipulate the perception of reality.

Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined a society that is founded on lies

Big Brother presides over a state-constructed reality, one that relies on reconstructed history, a world in which everything is the opposite of what it should be; in which “The Party rules by the agency of four ministries, whose power is absolute – the Ministry of Peace which deals with war, the Ministry of Love (headquarters of the dreaded Thought Police) which deals with law and order, the Ministry of Plenty which deals in  scarcities, and the Ministry of Truth which deals with propaganda”.

In the world of 2022, lying and distortion of truth have become so blatant that they ought to be laughable, and yet millions are sucked in. They want to believe what they are being told.

It’s also a world without privacy – microphones and telescreens listen to and observe everything that citizens do, something many of our modern electronic, wifi-connected devices such as smart phones, laptops, smart speakers and displays, and smart TVs are disturbingly able to do.

As an exercise to examine how closely fiction and reality have merged, I chose a section to adapt from Nineteen Eighty-Four, one where the protagonist Winston Smith is reading ‘The Book”, the possession of which is a crime. Winston has been told that The Book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism reveals the true, totalitarian nature of the dystopian society that the Party has established.

The section from The Book could be ascribed to any one of the obviously totalitarian regimes we are familiar with today, but it is in my view more powerful and perhaps shocking to see how it can also reflect trends in supposedly democratic countries, notably the country that holds itself to be the flag-bearer for democracy, the United States of America.

Taken from Part 9 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, pages 169-171 in the Penguin Modern Classics edition, here is my ‘adaptation’.

“American society rests ultimately on the belief that the President is omnipotent and that the Republican Party is infallible. But since, in reality, the President is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The keyword here is falsetruth. Like so many Fakenews words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that truth is false, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Republican Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that falsity is truth when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that falsity is true, and more, to know that falsity is true, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Fakenews as doublethink.

The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons, one of which is subsidiary and, so to speak, precautionary. The subsidiary reason is that the Republican Party congressman or senator, like the base, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from reality, just as he must be cut off from truth, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off existing in falsetruth and doublethink. But by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. If, for example, China or Russia (whichever it may be) is the enemy today, then that country must always have been the enemy. And if the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered. Thus, history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Party, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression carried out by the senior party officials.

The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Republicanism. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. For when it has been recreated in whatever shape is needed at the moment, then this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed. This holds good even when, as often happens, the same event has to be altered out of recognition several times in the course of a year.

At all times the Party is in possession of absolute truth, and clearly the absolute can never have been different from what it is now. It will be seen that the control of the past depends above all on the training of memory. To make sure that all written records agree with the orthodoxy of the moment is merely a mechanical act. But it is also necessary to remember that events happened in the desired manner. And if it is necessary to rearrange one’s memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so. The trick of doing this can be learned like any other mental technique. It is learned by the majority of Party members, and certainly by all who are intelligent as well as orthodox. In Oldspeak it is called, quite frankly, ‘reality control’. In Newspeak it is called doublethink, though doublethink comprises much else as well.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.

Doublethink lies at the very heart of Republicanism, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

Ultimately it is by means of doublethink and falsetruth that the Republican Party has been able — and may, for all we know, continue for many years — to arrest the course of democracy.”

(If you would like to check this version against the original – scroll to the bottom of the blog)

You might think, well that’s an intriguing exercise, but carefully selected and one chosen to fulfil an agenda, and I suppose that could be true. But it is an exercise undertaken not in a vacuum but in response to some disturbing trends in US society (and elsewhere), that make me (and many others) feel uncomfortable and worried about the future of democracy.

Here are some recent story headlines and brief extracts which caught my attention:

US could be under rightwing dictator by 2030, Canadian professor warns

3rd January 2022

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/03/us-rightwing-dictatorship-2030-trump-canada

Thomas Homer-Dixon, founding director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, who describes himself as a professor and author who uses ‘complexity science to examine threats to global security’,wrote:

“By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a rightwing dictatorship.”

The author cites eventualities including a Trump return to the White House in 2024, with the possibility of Republican-held state legislatures refusing to accept a Democratic win.

The Guardian article was a reprint from Canada’s The Globe and Mail on the previous day, headlined:

The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare

January 2, 2022


6 in 10 Americans say U.S. democracy is in crisis as the ‘Big Lie’ takes root

3rd January 2022

https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069764164/american-democracy-poll-jan-6

“One year after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future of democracy.

A new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” That sentiment is felt most acutely by Republicans: Two-thirds of GOP respondents agree with the verifiably false claim that “voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election” — a key pillar of the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Fewer than half of Republicans say they are willing to accept the results of the 2020 election — a number that has remained virtually unchanged since we asked the same question last January.”


America is now in fascism’s legal phase

22nd December 2021

This extract comes from an opinion piece by Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Fascism Works.

“How to topple a democracy

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/22/america-fascism-legal-phase

We are now in fascism’s legal phase. According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted and suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election – as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines.”


One in three Americans say violence against government sometimes justified: poll

1st January 2022

https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/587889-one-in-three-say-violent-action-against-government-sometimes

“One in three Americans said it could sometimes be “justified for citizens to take violent action against the government” in a new poll, up significantly from previous years. 

The poll from The Washington Post-University of Maryland published Saturday found that 40 percent of Republicans said violent actions could be justified, compared to 23 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents.”


US is ‘closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,’ a leading expert on civil wars says in a new book

22nd January 2022

https://www.businessinsider.in/politics/world/news/us-is-closer-to-civil-war-than-any-of-us-would-like-to-believe-a-leading-expert-on-civil-wars-says-in-a-new-book/articleshow/89055970.cms

Barbara F. Walter has spent more than 30 years studying civil wars around the globe and, according to her new book, the US is a lot closer to one than most people think. A political scientist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, Walter is one of the world’s leading experts on civil wars. She’s a member of the Political Instability Task Force, a group of analysts that study data to predict where volatility and violence is most likely to break out.

            Here is an extract from the article:

“She said one of the best predictors of civil war is if a country is moving towards or away from democracy. If a country is an “anocracy” – a term used to refer to countries that are not fully democratic or fully autocratic but somewhere in between – they are more likely than both full autocracies or democracies to experience violence.

Today, the US is an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years, according to Walter.”


Canadian officials caution against ‘foreign interference’ as U.S. Republicans back ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests

8th February 2022

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/08/canada-freedom-convoy-truckers-desantis-paxton/

“Calling Trudeau a “far left lunatic,” Trump said in a statement Friday that “insane covid mandates” are destroying Canada and urged the convoy to come to Washington to protest the United States’ public health measures.

Canada’s public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, said: “We’re Canadian. We have our own set of laws. We will follow them.”

The article reports that in response to comments from US Republican state officials on the protest in Ottawa,

“Mendicino shot back Monday, saying: “It is certainly not the concern of the Texas attorney general as to how we in Canada go about our daily lives in accordance with the rule of law.”

“We need to be vigilant about potential foreign interference. … Whatever statements may have been made by some foreign official are neither here nor there,” Mendicino said during a news briefing.”


The Future of Democracy

A special series from The New Yorker.

27th January 2020

https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-future-of-democracy?verso=true

“Our democracy is in crisis. Many institutions of our government are dysfunctional and getting worse. Our electoral system has produced, in a single generation, two Presidents who received fewer votes than their opponents. A changed media landscape has—with the shrewd assistance of malicious actors at home and abroad—loosened our collective grasp on reality. Our politics have become alarmingly acrimonious; one of the potential disasters of the 2020 election is a result that is widely considered illegitimate. Technology is enriching some and leaving many others behind. Meanwhile, as the country’s demography shifts, a nativist far-right is resurgent. Although President Donald Trump, with his scant regard for the values of justice and the rule of law, is undeniably a leading actor in this crisis, it precedes him and seems certain to persist after his departure, whenever that may be.”


Of course, a collection of headlines and articles warning of the end of democracy doesn’t mean it will happen. However, when a range of well-credentialed writers, researchers, academics and historians published by well-respected newspapers and magazines warn us to be alert to such a possibility, we should be highly vigilant.

As with any complex structure, natural or man-made, democracy is easier to tear down than to rebuild. We’re not just talking about an electoral system, we’re talking about a complex web of values, ethics, morals and social norms, human behaviour and society bound and held together by laws, judicial processes, administrative structures, institutional integrity. Rip that fabric apart and who knows whether we could repair it, let alone restore it.

As Orwell exemplified in his social, political and moral fable, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the new order will do everything in its power to retain and exercise control, to the extent of constructing a reality of lies upon lies, governed by fear to confuse, suppress and manage the population.

Without the social fabric of democracy and its value system, there is nothing to prevent a totalitarian regime from doing what they want.

In the words of the 1960s soul song:

‘You don’t miss your water ‘til the well runs dry’

Positive Postscript

As I was about to post this blog, I received an email from my old alma mater, the University of Cambridge. The university’s Centre for the Future of Democracy has just published a report, titled, “The Great Reset: Public Opinion, Populism, and the Pandemic”.

It contains both good and bad news. The good news is that:

Support for populist parties and politicians, and agreement with populist sentiment, has fallen amid the pandemic, according to a “mega-dataset” taking in the attitudes of over half a million people across 109 countries.

The research team reports that ‘there are clear signs of a turning tide for the “populist wave”, as the mishandling of coronavirus by populist leaders – along with a desire for stability and a decline in “polarising” attitudes as a result of the pandemic – starts to move public opinion.’

Researchers also found that ‘political “tribalism” – fertile ground for populists – has declined in most countries.’

That is certainly a hopeful sign that common sense is percolating back into global consciousness.

However, the bad news is that disaffection with democracy remains high, as the researchers note,

‘While trust in government has steadily climbed since the pandemic hit…..faith in democracy as a political system barely changed’.

‘In the US, the percentage of people who consider democracy a “bad” way to run the country more than doubled from 10.5% in late 2019 to 25.8% in late 2021’.

Co-Director of the Centre for the Future of Democracy and the report’s lead author, Dr Roberto Foa comments, “The pandemic has brought good and bad news for liberal democracy. On the upside, we see a decline in populism and a restoration of trust in government.

“On the downside, some illiberal attitudes are increasing, and satisfaction with democracy remains very low.”

It is more than ironic that it has taken a global pandemic inflicting the threat of widespread death and disease to sober up people’s infatuation with populism. It begs the question, what will it take to re-engage them with democracy. Hopefully not the threat of world war.

If you want to compare my adaptation with Orwell’s original, here it is.

“Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.

The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons, one of which is subsidiary and, so to speak, precautionary. The subsidiary reason is that the Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising. But by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. If, for example, Eurasia or Eastasia (whichever it may be) is the enemy today, then that country must always have been the enemy. And if the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love.

The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. For when it has been recreated in whatever shape is needed at the moment, then this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed. This holds good even when, as often happens, the same event has to be altered out of recognition several times in the course of a year. At all times the Party is in possession of absolute truth, and clearly the absolute can never have been different from what it is now. It will be seen that the control of the past depends above all on the training of memory. To make sure that all written records agree with the orthodoxy of the moment is merely a mechanical act. But it is also necessary to remember that events happened in the desired manner. And if it is necessary to rearrange one’s memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so. The trick of doing this can be learned like any other mental technique. It is learned by the majority of Party members, and certainly by all who are intelligent as well as orthodox. In Oldspeak it is called, quite frankly, ‘reality control’. In Newspeak it is called doublethink, though doublethink comprises much else as well.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.

Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. Ultimately it is by means of doublethink that the Party has been able — and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years — to arrest the course of history.”

                                                         The End

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