“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake”
George Orwell’s 1984 is a novel exploring power. As literature, I found the writing good but not particularly compelling. The novel was clearly written to discuss political and philosophical points of view. From a purely literary perspective, one might object to such a practice. In the case of 1984, however, I find that Orwell’s imagination and creativity overcomes any objection to writing a novel for the sake of theoretical discussion. In actual practice, I do not think that it is possible to divide the message from the media, the content of writing from its language. The two are inseparable.
The genius of 1984 is Orwell’s ability to create a totalitarian world that explores power, politics, and the human subject. The Orwellian world of Oceania sets its characters in a context of absolute power and domination. The Party differs from the Fascist or Communist powers of the modern world in that they do not pretend to embody any humanistic ideals. Their objective is clear: “power entirely for its own sake.” The undoing of German Fascism or various Communist regimes is their ideological pretense. The Party recognizes that it must root all of its activities in terms of power, stated explicitly.
The symbol of The Party is Big Brother. Big Brother is a giant face that can be seen on posters, walls, and screens throughout Oceania; but Big Brother is also the representation of the power of the state, the symbol of its strength, the divine and eternal metaphor.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. Big Brother is omnipresent. Big Brother is ever-present, keeping watch to be sure that there is no one who will oppose the power of the Party. Through technology, Big Brother is able to monitor the masses and every individual. Everyone at every time knows that they are being watch.
Big Brother is given credit for his benevolence. If the economy grows, manufacturing forecasts are surpassed, or food rations increase (as they always do), this is due to the wisdom and foresight of Big Brother. Big Brother provides all that is needed.
Big Brother is omniscient, all-knowing. Big Brother demands that your speech be controlled by controlling language. The language is continually being reduced so that the fewest words may be used. As language is reduced, the capacity for consciousness, reflection, and critical thought decrease accordingly. Free thought is a vice. Big Brother can do all of the thinking necessary for the world. Big Brother knows all.
Big Brother is the one who is everywhere, monitoring your movements. Big Brother is the all-knowing one, controlling your speech and thought. In addition to these two exercises of power, there is a third method of domination: the power to crush any rebellion. Big Brother is the omnipotent, all-powerful one who can unleash a force that will bend any will. Big Brother can use violence to exterminate any act or expression of freedom. This is not just any independent act that threatens the Party; rather, Big Brother will destroy any act of a free self. Through violence, torture, and pure force, Big Brother will break the mind and will of any rebel. What is most shocking, however, is that Big Brother will even unleash such immense power as to force a person into loving Big Brother.
“Winston, you are no metaphysician”
Within this context of absolute power, there are two individuals who dare to assert themselves as human beings, each in a different way. Winston Smith is the primary character, the main protagonist. Winston is the everyman, and as such he is not a philosopher of surpassing intellectual powers. Nonetheless, he is no slouch, and his self-discovery is a theoretical and ideological one.
Winston works for the Party. His job is to rearrange the “facts” of the past so that Big Brother is always correct and always looks good. Winston changes history. It is through this that he begins to question the Party and desire to defy Big Brother.
Julia’s path is not ideological. Winston was born before the Party took power; Julia was not. All that she knows is the power of Big Brother. So she plays along with the whole thing as though it were a game, and she looks for opportunities to slip outside of the watchful eye of Big Brother and live her life as fully as she can. Her sensuality and lust for life are her way of rebelling and asserting herself as a self.
Together Winston and Julia seek to defy the Party by meeting in secret. They become lovers, friends, and co-conspirators.
Orwell’s world in 1984 is one in which technology advancement allows the government a level of god-like omniscience, monitoring the movements and speech of each person. Technology is also used to transmit a continuous stream of media propaganda, to keep all citizens aware of the power and glory of the Party. Controlling the language and speech of individuals is important to Big Brother. There is a word, “duckspeak” that is praised by the Party. It is not speech in the true sense; rather it is “noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”
If Orwell’s world appears to be one in which technology has invaded the freedom of individuals, is the situation all that different in our contemporary, Western world. The Orwellian totalitarian future is one in which there is a centralized intelligence that controls the media stream and monitors the speech and actions of citizens. Our media world is perhaps much more random and chaotic. There is no centralized control of media, but does this mean there is more freedom?
The contemporary discussion usually presumes that because we can choose to shut of the television or log off of the internet that we are free. However, the fact remains, that most of us in the developed tech-savy West we are no less plugged in than the members of Orwell’s dystopian society. It begs the question of whether we are really more free. Are we more free because most of our populace can choose between Fox News or CNN? Or is this choice more a matter of illusion. Perhaps the point is not that we can choose between cable news or the internet, perhaps the greater point is that we are constantly plugging in to media, a media that always seeks to capitalize on ratings by selling advertising.
In a sense, our current climate is sort of a voluntary limiting of freedom, based on a perceived choice between which media we want to be our Big Brother for the day. While we often praise ourselves in the U.S. for being the land of the free, there is a disturbing parallel between Big Brother and the media.
Every society and culture has its mechanisms of control and manipulation. What perhaps is most disturbing about life in the States is that we seem to be under the naïve assumption that our perceived freedom of choice with regard to media means that we are less subject to manipulation. In reality, our nation has become polarized into two ideologies, both of which are often inconsistent and seemingly random. On any particular issue, we can be sure that the same people will line up on either side, and that the discussion will be less rational or fact-based, resembling more the quacking duckspeak of Orwell’s novel.
This all raises a very serious question of what it means to be free in an era of our eternal news-byte media. If the result of media submersion is the same in Orwell’s novel as it is in today’s Western society, a sort of “duckspeak,” then how much “freedom” do we truly have? When public discussion is more about “noise uttered in unconsciousness” than it is about creative and original thought, then what right do we have to say that our freedom (so-called) is really and truly all that superior to Big Brother. That we choose to submit our minds to hours a day of connectivity does not make us any more free. In fact, it is probably more the perception of choice, much as an alcoholic may have a momentary sense of freedom in choosing between spirits for his next drink.
“God is Power”
Reading 1984 is helpful to me because it states that the Party’s explicit aim is to power for its own sake. Our modern Western ideals center on democracy as a control measure for power. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So we assume in the United States that if we have appropriate checks and balances, then we can gain more freedom. Many in the U.S. are disturbed by any perceived expansion of government power. An expansion of governmental power means a loss of freedom. It is an equation that is a given in many circles of thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche believed strongly in the will to power. He criticized democracy. Democracy, Nietzsche believed, will limit the ability of great people to do great things. It will, in essence, make everyone mediocre and prohibit the rise of great creative people. Democracy, says Nietzsche, merely gives rise to a herd mentality.
Looking at the current state of political discourse in the U.S. today, with its tone of “duckspeak,” groupthink, and talking points, it is clear that there is a marked inability for individuals to cultivate their own unique perspectives. For me, this speaks in favor of Nietzsche’s critique of democracy.
While Big Brother pursues power for its own sake, in our democratic society the power plays are more subtle but no less real. The lesson of 1984 in light of our contemporary society is to understand that power is always at work. Power is no less controlling or manipulative in democratic societies as it is in Orwell’s totalitarian state. In democracy, the masses must simply perceive themselves as making their own choices. Because democracy requires the illusion of choice, the manipulation and control mechanisms cannot be overtly manipulative, as they are in 1984.
What seems to me to be the commonality between Big Brother and contemporary society is that both evidence a lack of rationality and love in public discourse. We tend to see the worst in our opponents, the various sides being convinced that other political parties are out to limit their freedoms or otherwise do harm to their fellowman. This intense fear and suspicion, ironically, makes one most vulnerable to manipulation by those who are presumably “on my side.” When one proceeds in public discourse with humility, reasoned arguments, and charity toward those who disagree, one is far less inclined to fall into duckspeak, and far more likely to create a society where members are far less naïve to the workings of power.
Power is always with us. Power is god, in the lower “g” sense.
“You must love Big Brother”
In the end, Winston and Julia are caught by the Party. They undergo torture to cleans their minds. By sheer force, Big Brother forces Winston to believe what they want him to believe.
But belief is not enough.
“To die hating them; that is freedom,” Winston thinks to himself. If he can retain this thought, this private, inner rebellion, then at his death he will have reserved for himself a moment of freedom and independence.
Big Brother knows this, and so it is not enough to merely bend the will and mind, Big Brother will use his power to force Winston to love him. And it works. In works because Big Brother breaks down his body and soul, forcing Winston to deny Julia, his only true love. After months of torture, Winston is completely broken. There is nothing left. He spends most of his days drinking. Everyone pities him. The Party no longer monitors him. There is no need, because Winston’s psyche has no power left in it to assert itself in anyway.
Striped of all power of the mind, will, and heart, Winston is sitting in a café, drinking some filthy gin. He hears a report of a military victory of Big Brother. He is genuinely cheered by the news. And finally, something clicks in Winston. He realizes the folly of his rebellion. He understands now. Everything is clear.
“Oh cruel, needless misunderstanding. Oh stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast…but it was all right…he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
With this the novel closes. Winston loves Big Brother. Big Brother, of course, does not love Winston; but even if he did, the love was gained by force. Here, at the end of the novel, we find the correlation between love and freedom. We understand, at a fundamental level, that love gained by power, by brute force, is not love. Love without the freedom to choose love is still brutality. Love is only true when the lovers are free to reject or embrace the other.
On their own, these sayings can seem cliché. As such, it is the narrative of 1984 that brings to life phrases that have been overused. The story, the characters, the world that is created through fiction can bring us to really see love and freedom in real life. This brings me back to my first point in this review: that the form of writing and the content are inseparable. The ability for ideals to stir us through story is directly related to the ability of the writer to take us into the narrative and into the minds and hearts of the characters. There are certain things that we have to be shown, not merely told.
I believe 1984 to be an important novel. By carrying power to an extreme, we can reflect on the ways in which power is always working, in ways that are subtle but no less extreme. It would only be a superficial and shallow reading that would presume that the control and manipulation of Big Brother is no less present in all societies. This tends to give support to the idea that power itself is not the issue. Rather, power must be discusses in the context of a society whose modus operandi for public discourse is charity, humility, and rationality.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Thursday, April 01, 2010
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake”