Lessons from George Orwell

Note: Started this draft last year, but the post still holds true.

George Orwell (1903-1950) wrote classics that people still read. And in no other year than this one (except for the one that makes up its title) might Nineteen Eighty-Four be considered more relevant reading. Since Orwell witnessed imperialism in then-Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police and fought Fascism in Spain, he was particularly clear-eyed in his assessment of what a dystopian future would look like under an authoritarian regime.

His was not the first book to tackle this issue. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which was banned in 1921 in the former USSR but was subsequently published abroad, dealt with a similar subject, though Orwell’s world was not, as Zamyatin’s book was, as insider’s account of the Soviet Union with a nod toward the future, but rather a model that built itself upon all the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Brave New World came out in 1932, and so also precedes Nineteen Eighty-Four, though its focus is more on sociological forces than political ones.

What Orwell showed more clearly than the other two novels is how a totalitarian regime could keep power forever. In essence, it boils down to control.

1.) Control the past

If the past is constantly altered so that its original form only exists in memory, and memories can be questioned, then the past never existed, or only existed as those in power wish it to exist. It also means that any time outside of the present reality never existed.

2.) Control facts

If you can make people believe that “two and two is five”, then facts no longer exist, and people will believe whatever you say. Winston, the protagonist of the novel, states, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Except that holding onto truth makes you mad in the eyes of the state.

3.) Control emotions

People in this book are admonished if they show emotion, unless it’s anger or rage.

4.) Control relationships

Children are encouraged to spy on their parents. Men and women are only to have sex in order to procreate, and cannot enjoy it. Married couples are placed together based on incompatibility.

5.) Control society

People are put into Upper and Lower Parties. Beneath them are the proles. Each group is controlled in different ways:

The proles: “To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous, but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the party. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.” (p. 62)

The Lower Party is controlled with telescreens, Hate Week, and the Thought Police.

The Upper Party is controlled by their anger against the other, stoked by a continuous state of war with the other world powers.

This is the point when my rough draft ends. It lacks an ending, but what kind of ending can I provide? Orwell isn’t very hopeful when it comes to overthrowing such a regime, and the only thing that can give us hope is that no authoritarian regime in history has lasted forever. The tragedy is that they last at all.