Eric Blair is an English novelist who is important to me, and I think he should be important to everyone now living. Under the name of George Orwell he wrote five novels and a political fable, all of which are masterpieces, as well as important works of social and political criticism which are as terribly relevant today as when he wrote them, for the problems he examined have not gone away. When he died at age 47 in 1950, he left a treasurehouse of essays, journalism and letters which were edited by his wife Sonia to form one of the greatest autobiographies ever written. His most important work was his last novel, called 1984 (written in 1948).
Orwell felt that the state he described in 1984 was going to happen, and he feared it would happen without people realising it. He wrote the book to bring to people’s attention the state of affairs he deplored and found tragic – the passing of responsibility for the way we live from ourselves on to someone else. Written when Orwell knew he was dying, 1984 is no political tract: it is a nightmare.
Two misconceptions need to be left behind. Firstly that the book is about Stalinist Russia. True, Orwell, from Socialist beginnings, came to abhor what was happening in communist Russia; but he saw the same thing happening in his own society, and in America. The book is really about the spread of totalitarianism. Secondly, there is nothing to be gained by elevating the book to ‘great’ status, putting it on school and university reading lists, and writing monographs on socialist trends in post WWII Europe. This is exactly what Big Brother would do.
Totalitarianism. What is it? It’s not just a 1930s phenomenon, but has cropped up in history many times. Rome between 100 BC and the career of Marius and 200 AD and the fall of the Antonines would be a good example. A not very democratic people gave responsibility for running the state to a small class of ‘patricians’, but when enormous wealth flowed in from conquests of other countries the patricians fought among themselves for riches and supremacy and placated the people with handouts: bread and circuses. The cost? Destruction of the economy, widespread wastage and starvation, reliance on the military for basic functioning of the state and eventual invasion and partition of the Empire. That it took 300 years is not a reflection of the relative mildness of the problem but of the sheer size and resources of the Empire, which took that long a time to be destroyed.
Between about 800 AD and 1400 AD the Catholic Church exercised a totalitarian control over most of the countries of Europe. It controlled how people thought about their lives and deaths, and used fear of damnation to control social, economic and political movements throughout the continent. It’s language, Latin, came to be a prerogative of the Church and a precursor to newspeak.
So totalitarianism involves complete control of people’s lives by governing forces, and helpless subserviency on the part of the governed. Under the Empire and Church both, political murder was rampant, distribution of wealth was polarised, bribery was used to obtain unjust preferment and dissent quietened through trivial handouts. But that was long ago. We’ve come a long way since, and we live in a democracy. It couldn’t happen here.
An important thing to remember about totalitarianism is that it is a tendency, not an exact state, not a philosophy. It leads to a condition where the destruction of civilisation can occur.
Orwell saw two main tools of totalitarianism. Misinformation and thought control. He wrote extensively on what he called ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’.
Newspeak is the new way of speaking (not the way of speaking the news). It is in a continual state of revision, the goal being to eliminate and restrict vocabulary so that divergent thoughts would no longer be possible and orthodoxy the only outcome. It is developed by the Ministry of Truth, which ceaselessly revises history to reflect the opinion of the dominant political party. The concept here is that language controls thought. If there is no word for it, you cannot think it.
There have been a number of studies of misinformation. One of the most effective in the 80s was Ralph Nader’s reprinting of newspaper articles on the USA’s involvement in South American political events side-by-side with reports from the national presses of affected countries.
Nader has of course made a career of being a political gadfly (http://www.nader.org) and his continued existence is a sign of a still existing democratic process in the USA. Yet his criticism of Obama for caving in to a right wing administration despite his election promises shows that a reforming US President has only two choices: conformity to the policies of the non-elected power elite who have controlled the country for the last 40 years – or death. See Jerry Kroth’s book Conspiracy in Camelot or the dozens of others that worry about the control of the CIA over American policies and administration.
But the political picture dissenters draw of the USA is overdrawn I think. The failure of the economy will eventually lead to widespread poverty and the enrolment of America in the list of ‘banana republics’; it could result in the rise of popular leaders in the Hitler mould preaching a doctrine of hate, the kneejerk opposition of the military elite by means of nuclear power, and widespread destruction of ‘civilisation’ throughout the world.
The optimistic opinion I want to propose is that these despairing predictions (and acute analyses) can only happen because people cease to think about what is happening about their world. Because their ability to think has been hampered by what Orwell called newspeak. And that can stop.
See how often you come across these words in your reading:
• inoperative statement
• terminological inexactitude
• benign neglect
• energy release
• hazardous waste site
• reflation, deflation, recession, disinflation
• terrorist, freedom fighter
• anti-personnel weapon
• nerve agent
• collateral damage
• pre-emptive strike
• preventive war
• second strike capability
(all from Neaman and Silver’s Dictionary of Euphemisms. Hint: these are all bad things).
Do you think at all of what they actually mean and imply, or accept them, perhaps as comforting words of no particular meaning?
The biggest development in newspeak has been in the area of military deployment. Once there were soldiers, professionals who took their chances. Then with the development of the firearm there came to be guerrilla fighters, who could not be identified as soldiers and whose attacks led to indiscriminate reprisals on civilians. Then there were bombers, who destroyed whole cities and all their inhabitants unseen, and mutilated millions. Soldiers murdering each other on a field of battle could be explained as a matter of bravery. But a bomb dropped on a hospital or school? The deliberate murder of women and children for being on ‘the other side’ required the development of a different language: countries were ‘pacified’ or ‘liberated’ during a war to avoid reporting that an eight year old child had had his legs blown off by a soldier throwing a hand grenade down a village street. You can’t glorify that.
Generally speaking we are used to indirection in language from advertising we experience every day. Thus the supermarket I go to is ‘the fresh food people’, meaning they buy produce in bulk from far away and it takes days to arrive in the store. If I look at a house and it is described as a ‘handyman’s dream’ then (eventually) I expect a property in need of extensive and costly repair work. Looking in the papers I find participants described as ‘terrorists’ in one paper and as ‘freedom fighters’ in another. Does it really mean anything different? Why form a police state when you can spout rhetoric about the ‘land of the free’ while doing the same thing?
There is a bigger issue at play here. Clearly the reporting of a war is an emotive issue, not a question of fact. There is no such thing as fact. Our brain works by selecting data from the billions of data it receives every second and aligning that information with what picture we already have drawn of the world. This is exactly what newspeak does, and why newspeak is so dangerous. It is the deliberate reconstruction of an automatic survival mechanism of the brain by others so as to gain control over individuals. If I live in a segregated neighbourhood and my skin is black, and you tell me whitey is driving people out of slum housing to buy cheap land, I’m going to get angry. If you tell me I’ve been starving for the last three years because the Jews are buying all the provisions and selling them on overseas markets, I’m going to agree they should be put in concentration camps. Here are instances where the selective method used by the brain is being manipulated by others to control me. The thing is, we all select, but we all select differently, and we clash over our different pictures of the world. Yankees or Manchester United are going to win, just as the Blues in ancient Byzantium, believe it or die! There’s a lot of power here, see any grand final match, and some people want to direct it.
To refuse this control, and we should refuse it, because it is destructive control, we need to realise that all of us know nothing. Nothing at all. We have opinions, that’s all. Those opinions fill our life with meaning, but we have to watch where they take us. For me homosexuality may be a sin, but for him it may not be. I can’t just say it is a sin, period, because I can’t know that. Any appeal to an authority is fruitless, because all such appeals can be disproved every time. When all is said, all I have is an opinion, and I can live my life in accordance with that so that it becomes a moral standard, and that’s all. Big Brother can do no more. But there has always been plenty of people willing to take control, to restore order, to use people’s conflicting emotions to gain power. There’s even an industry to teach people how to take control of others, how to be a fuhrer, called the personal development industry, and it’s big, very big. Good ol’ America: every man can be President, and the President turns out to be a cipher. No one worries that a disastrous war, massive inflation, total control of the media and an individual with developed control techniques produced the Nazi Party in 1930, and many are working away trying to produce the same conditions all over again. The choice is always there: learn from your mistakes, or repeat them.
The solution to increasing control by totalitarian forces, in government or elsewhere, is not a simple matter of electoral systems, democracy versus some kind of oligarchy. As Schumpeter and others have pointed out, democracy is a means of obtaining power just as oligarchy is, and is as open to abuse. In fact it is more open to abuse because of the assumption that democracy somehow means representation of the interests of the people. Democracy has its drawbacks: as well as persecution (see I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates), and reigns of terror (the French Revolution), there has come about more and more a lack of participation in democratic elections that leave the door open for power mongers to take control. People commonly vote in elections without knowing much about the various policies of the party they support; they never monitor the performance of a party, and as a result most election promises are never kept and no-one the wiser; while some object to electoral abuses, not many will work in lobby groups to rectify matters; and frequently, unless penalised for it, a substantial number refrain from voting, precisely because their lack of involvement makes the whole matter confusing to them. The door is open for Big Brother. Recent developments have left the door also open to hackers, who can now access programs used to analyse election results and falsify them: the process of counting votes can be rigged, even if the elections aren’t. The first world is catching up with the third.
The part that newspeak plays in all this is to desensitise the voter, to keep them confused, inactive, passive. Take acronyms for example. Handy, aren’t they? Yet, as Orwell points out, they also serve as ways of concealing meaning. He instances COMINTERN as avoiding all the positive but now undesirable associations of the words Communist International. Is the work of the CIA confined to gathering intelligence? Do you know who is a member of NATO or the UN? What does the UNRRA actually do?
But Orwell was also interested in thought control. Here the electronic media come into their own. Thought control was only marginal with print media, but by the 30s of this century the Nazi Party was able to utilise radio and film as well as print to ‘inform’ the German people of how wonderfully Adolf Hitler was looking after them.
In any revolution, one of the first aims of the rebel party trying to gain control is to capture media outlets. They can then describe what is happening so that people will act in such a way as to consolidate their control.
One of Schumpeter’s ideas was that of the growth of giant corporations, which would eventually supplant mere political organisations as a shift from political to economic concerns took place throughout the world. There seems to be some support for this view in the growth of media conglomerates.
In Australia, for instance, where I live, all news is controlled by an organisation called Associated Press, which is made up of just two companies, (Rupert Murdoch) News Corporation and John Fairfax Holdings. Radio is controlled by a company called Daily Mail and General Trust. Everything that Australians know about what is happening in the world is controlled by just three companies. At the turn of the 20th century there were about 17 independent newspapers in Australia.
In Europe two companies, Axel Springer AG and Bertelsmann, own most radio, television and newspaper and magazine outlets, and several major book publishers. In Italy, the Prime Minister, Berlusconi, has controlling interests in most TV networks, the largest publishing house, and the two major newspapers. In Britain most outlets are controlled by just two companies, News Corporation and DMGT. In the USA all music is controlled by the ‘big four’, all media by just five companies, Disney, CBS, Viacom, General Electric and News Corporation.
Consolidation is ongoing, and the controlling interest that some of these companies have in the others is hard to gauge, if not impossible to find at all. At the moment it is quite possible that one company, and one individual in that company, could come to control what everyone in the world read in a newspaper or magazine, heard on a radio, watched on television, listened to on a CD or saw at a movie theatre on watched on DVD. The internet, while not controlled by anyone (yet) is dependent on the giant telecommunications companies for its functioning. There’s scope for paranoia here. A saving grace in this sphere is the rapid development of new technologies, digital television for instance, which forces companies to redeploy and regroup, and brings new players into the market.
But this is not to say such a thing as thought control is being practised. True, there is subliminal advertising, suggestion or conditioning. Do we know of any regulations preventing anyone from using this to influence viewers? What evidence is there that people are controlled by what they see? Well, in my country and among my acquaintances, I notice that ‘issues’ come up from time to time on TV. Pollution, for instance, or illegal immigration. Suddenly everyone is taking groceries home in a paper bag instead of a plastic one, or worried that the government is forcing refugees back to a life of political persecution, or resenting that a flood of immigrants is taking jobs from Australians – and suddenly the issue is dropped, not because the problem has gone away, but because it is no longer a topic on TV. Would you call this thought control? I wouldn’t. But the conditions are there for it to be practised should ever Big Brother come along.
So my advice is to go back and read 1984. It’s by being aware of issues of self control and responsibility we will be able to lead rewarding and fulfilled lives, and that’s what we want. Isn’t it?
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Facts courtesy Wikipedia. Please inform post author of any violation.