Friday, February 23, 2024

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Born Eric Arthur Blair, George Orwell was one of the foremost writers of the 20th century, whose works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty- Four carried warnings of the dangers of totalitarianism and of revolutions turning on themselves.

 “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone – to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink – greetings!”

So writes Winston Smith in his diary. While it may seem a seemingly innocuous act by our standards, Winston’s simple act of keeping a diary makes him guilty of a capital crime.

And that is because Winston Smith lives in a different reality. A reality where the State has absolute control over the lives of the people. Where the media is tightly controlled and the government manipulate records to change memories of history. Where everyone is under a constant state of surveillance. And where dissent, or even the mere act of thinking differently, will lead to a bullet in the back of one’s head.

This is the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) – our Book Pick for this issue of International Business Review.

A Warning of the Future?

Written by English novelist and essayist George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) and published in 1949, 1984 is undoubtedly one of the most influential novels written in the 20th century. Today, more than 70 years after, many of the phrases used in the book have gone on to become part of popular culture. These include words such as “Big Brother”, “Thoughtcrime”, “Room 101”, “The Thought Police” and more.

1984 is supposedly a look at a dark and grim future. Set in the year 1984, the world had changed entirely, with most nations having been subsumed into one of three super-states Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. Naturally, the names of individual countries have also changed. Or at least one of them definitely did, because Great Britain is no longer Great Britain in the novel, but has taken on the new moniker of Airstrip One in Oceania.

But London remains London. And it is in London that the novel begins on 4 April 1984. We are introduced to the protagonist – the aforementioned subversive diarist Winston Smith. A 39 year-old man, Winston is a member of the Outer Party – a normal rank-and-file member of Oceania’s ruling party known as Ingsoc (which is Newspeak – the official parlance of Oceania – for English Socialism).

The world of London in the book, in fact the world of Oceania, is one where people are separated into three unique categories. At the very top – making up just 2 percent of the population – are the members of the Inner Party. These are the elite members of society, who have access to various luxuries that are denied to normal people.

And at the bottom are the Proles – the working class. They comprise more than 80 percent of the population and work as manual labourers, tradesmen, shopkeepers and other such work. Ingsoc does not pay much attention to the Proles, as it believes that they do not have the intellectual capacity to cause any problems. Just like the famous Roman maxim of “breads and circuses”, it keeps the Proles satisfied and docile with copious amounts of alcohol, pornography, and sex (prostitution is legal for the Proles).

Then at the middle – which makes them the middle-class of Oceania – are the Outer Party members like Winston Smith. All dressed in blue overalls (Inner Party members wear black ones), members of the Outer Party are the administrators of the great bureaucracy that runs the state.

And at the very top of the pyramid is the mysterious leader of the Party – the entity known as Big Brother, whose visage is everywhere accompanied by the menacing reminder of his omnipresence and omniscience – “Big Brother is Watching You”.

Manipulating History

As with all members of the Party, Winston works for the government. In his case, it is in the Ministry of Truth which, along with the Ministry of Love, the Ministry of Peace, and the Ministry of Plenty, is one of the four Ministries of the Oceania government.

Their names are ironic, because Minitrue (to use the Ministry of Truth’s Newspeak name) is responsible for propaganda and falsifying documents even past news articles. Minipax is responsible for conducting Oceania’s seemingly endless wars and alliances with either Eastasia or Eurasia. Miniluv runs the dreaded secret police known as the Thought Police and the secretive detention centres where subversives are “disappeared”. And as for Miniplenty… needless to say it’s another misnomer because Oceania has undergone constant cuts in rations.

One would think that such discrepancies would not be lost on people. However, such is the totality of the Party’s control over, not only the lives but the memories and thoughts of people, that they are able to believe that what is a reduction in rations is an increase, that a person whom they had previously lauded as a great hero never existed, and that “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia” even though a few months ago, Eastasia was heralded as a great ally against the hated enemy Eurasia.

Such is the dissimulating nature of Doublethink. And of the manipulation of historical records, which is part of Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth. In this role, he alters past newspapers to ensure that what was reported then fits in with the direction of the party.

For instance, if the new news is that the butter ration was going to be half an ounce rather than one ounce, it was Winston’s job to change the past news to show that during the previous rationing exercise, the butter ration was a quarter of an ounce rather than one ounce. And in several strokes of the pen, a cut becomes an increase.

There is one line in 1984 that sums up the modus operandi behind such manipulation – “Whoever controls the past controls the future. Whoever controls the present controls the past”.

In Oceania – the Television Watches You!

Given that they perform such crucial roles in the administration of the government, and they are privy to so much information, members of the Outer Party are seen to have the ability to bring down the Party, should they ever become conscious of the reality. That is why they are the ones who are subject to the most intense scrutiny and surveillance, with all their homes having a Viewscreen.

A two-way television, people can watch the news and other Party approved shows on the Viewscreen, and their movements, actions and words are watched in return. It is impossible to turn off a Viewscreen, and while there may be some nook and cranny in one’s home that is out of its line of sight, staying too long out of sight is sure to arouse suspicions. Incidentally, it is at one of those nooks and crannies in his home that Winston starts his highly illegal diary.

Viewscreens are not the Party’s only way of checking up on the people. Your neighbours, your co-workers, even people you pass by on the streets may be watching you. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents and turn them in if they dare commit thoughtcrime. The most heinous of crimes in Oceania, Thoughtcrime – as its name implies – is the crime of thinking differently from what the Party wants you to think.

You cannot just say that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, you must believe that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. You cannot just say you love Big Brother, you must really love Big Brother.

Rebellion for Rebellion’s Sake

And because he remembers the past as it was and not how the Party wants it to be remembered, by starting the diary and by writing “Down with Big Brother” in big bold letters, Winston Smith commits thoughtcrime.

What is interesting is his reasons for doing so. While thoughtcrime is usually portrayed as a subconscious act, Wiston’s thoughtcrimes are conscious actions. And it is because they are his way of claiming his thoughts, individuality and autonomy over his own actions, as well as being acts of rebellion against the all-powerful Party.

In his mind, he is winning because he dares to go against the grain. The Party forbids romantic relationships – he forms one with another rebellious Outer Party member Julia. The Party frowns on sex that is not meant for procreation within a marriage – known to married couples  as “Our duty to the Party” – he and Julia have a clandestine physical relationship. The Party forbids love that overrides love to Big Brother… Winston loves Julia.

1984 in Orwell’s Reality

Without giving too much of the story away, suffice to say that the ending of 1984 is rather bleak. Winston trusts someone – an influential Inner Party member known as O’Brien – whom he thinks is a fellow rebel, but who turns out to be a die-hard Party loyalist and an official in the Ministry of Love.

O’Brien betrays Winston and he is tortured – physically and emotionally – until he is willing to give up everything, even that one thing whom he holds most dear to himself… His control of his own thoughts, beliefs and conscience.

We should take note however that the despondency of the ending is a reflection of the time that Orwell was living in, and his own pessimism over the future. In 1948, the countries of Eastern Europe had fallen to Communism and were ruled by parties that were controlled by the Stalinist Soviet Union.

In fact, many of the examples of totalitarianism displayed in 1984 happened in real life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The cult of personality around Big Brother was modelled on Stalin’s own cult of personality. The incidents of children turning their parents in for thoughtcrime reflected those of Soviet children who reported their subversive parents to the NKVD – the Soviet secret police. And even something as seemingly outlandish as changing past newspapers? The Stalinist regime engaged in touching up of photos to remove images of disgraced former leaders.

For Orwell, the post-war economic crises in Western Europe and the UK made the region susceptible to falling to Communism. Of course, having died in 1950, he did not live to see the death of Stalin, de-Stalinisation or the end of the Cold War.

Messages Still Relevant Today

Yet, while the threat of a totalitarian Communist takeover of the West may have passed, the themes of 1984 are still as relevant today as they were back when Orwell started writing it in 1948. Perhaps even more so.

Today, more than ever, people who hold heterodox views that do not conform with established “safe and proper” opinions are pilloried rather than being engaged in reasoned debate. They are the thought criminals of our age. And we engage in our version of the Two-Minutes Hate, namely condemning, shouting down and no-platforming those we disagree with, sometimes on social media, sometimes in person.

The important thing to remember is that we do not know how exactly the Party took over Oceania and transformed it into that dystopian, totalitarian state. Yet one thing is clear, it most likely happened because people started feeling that it was acceptable for their individuality to be taken away.

Perhaps they were cowed by the minority… a very vocal minority who soon became a majority because the path of least resistance is the easiest path. And that is the most important lesson that 1984 has to teach us; that we must always value those key elements that make us human – our consciousness, our conscience, and our individuality. Lest we end up under the spreading chestnut tree…

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