George Orwell, perhaps one of the most influential English novelists of the 20th century, was a heavy opponent of totalitarian regimes, especially after what had happened in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.
He depicts what a world could possibly look like under an authoritarian regime in his dystopian novel 1984, coining neologisms such as thoughtcrime, Big Brother and doublethink.
Published in 1949, it remains highly influential in popular culture, and you have probably heard about the term Orwellian before. It is no wonder that it is the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer, even more common than Kafkaesque or Machiavellian.
It is, however, often misinterpreted. His most famous novel, 1984, depicts an oppressive society under a totalitarian and authoritarian regime, along with mass surveillance. However, the term Orwellian goes much further than this, it includes the manipulative and deceptive use of language to brainwash and control the society.
Nothing more sinister and utterly terrifying can be thought of as a society under the dystopic world of 1984. People are in a perpetual state of war, hunger, without privacy and under surveillance twenty-four hours a day, no leisure time either. Falling in love or writing are also considered crimes, as acts of unorthodoxy. The ideal Party member is one who is celibate, a non-smoker and non-drinker, whose only conversations are the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism), and at most spends an hour of his free time at the gym, with no aim in life except the defeat of the enemy, and hunting down of spies, saboteurs, and thought criminals. One who is literally devoted 24 hours a day to duty, where all energy is to be put into the Party, which frequently arranges programmes to keep the citizen occupied and minimise his time for critical thought.
85% of the population of Oceania (where the story takes place) are made up from proles or proletarians, a Marxist term for working class citizen. They are poor, uneducated, and living in a state of blissful ignorance. These are the only ones sufficient in numbers who could rebel against the regime. However, the State does not care about what they think since they are unable of critical thought, and thus, unable of ever rebelling. They are somewhat more “free” than the rest since they were not under surveillance and without any need of indoctrination from the ideology of the Party.
The rest of the population are composed of the Inner Party Members (the brains) and the Outer Party Members (the hands), who work for the Party, the apex of which is Big Brother. Their every move is scrutinised through telescreens (which act as a combination of a television, security camera and microphone) run by the secret Thought Police. Living under a constant worry of the smallest thing giving you away, a constant risk of being vaporized, to be considered never to have existed, an unperson, with all the evidence of your existence thrown into memory holes. Wearing an improper expression on your face was itself a punishable offence, facecrime it was called.
The main work of a Party member consists of “rectifying” (a euphemism for manipulating) all historical facts and statistics to satisfy the regime’s political agenda, the result being undetectable by society. In other words, what is conceived as “truth” is not actually the real situation of things, but rather a false view that is forced to be seen as “truth”, therefore brainwashing the minds of the citizens.
The Three-Year Plans, similar to Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, were plans to increase industrial production. However, it is doubtful if they actually ever expanded production. They were used to give a false sense of increasing the quality of life and keep the population satisfied. Even announcing increasing the ration of food or certain items when they actually decreased it, the citizens being oblivious to that and of course, celebrating the event.
All these lies are manufactured in the Ministry of Truth, which is one of the four ministries of the Party. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.
The party’s slogan is: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.
The government’s control on language goes so far as to eliminate words from the English language, to create the official dialect of Newspeak, which has simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary meant to limit the freedom of thought and discourage critical thinking that threatens the ideology of the Party, a heretical thought, one who diverges from the principles of Ingsoc, should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependant on words, it is designed to diminish the range of thought, eliminating synonyms, antonyms, verb tenses – all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been erased.
Bad would be replaced with ungood, warm with uncold, dark with unlight. The prefix doubleplus would be added to add emphasis, such as doubleplusgood meaning very good, and so on.
People who exercise freedom of thought, commit thoughtcrime or crimethink, which areunorthodox thoughts (ungoodthink) that contradict the tenets of Ingsoc.
The word “free” only means the absence and lack of something. It ceases to mean “intellectually free” and “politically free”, both have been replaced with crimethinkful.
This has an effect on people’s minds known as doublethink, a process of brainwashing the subject, where he is expected to disregard all what he believes to be true, forced in accepting the false and fake reality that is dictated by the Party. In other words, holding simultaneously two contradictory beliefs accepting both of them. One belief might seem real for you but is disregarded as false, and one is false but is real in the eyes of the Party, and hence, must be adopted regardless of what you believe. Your thoughts are to be swept under the rug. It is a sort of reality control, which lies at the very heart of the ideology.
It is a world where the privacy of your thought process is violated, and if caught with a thoughtcrime, it may result in being vaporized or spending 25 years in forced labour camps, called joycamps. Or even worse, being brought into Room 101, the place where they present to you your worst possible nightmare, unique to each individual.
It is a world inundated with words that contradict themselves, in the spirit of Ingsoc. This demands a continuous alteration of the past and stripping yourself from all logic and rationality, even the laws of nature. For this, one must be cut off from the past and safeguard the infallibility of the Party. This day-to-day falsification of the past, is carried out by Ministry of Truth, and is absolutely necessary to the stability of the regime, the mutability of the past being the central tenet of Ingsoc.
After all, past events only survive in written records and in human memories. And since the Party is in full control of both of these, the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.
“Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.”
Everything that happens in the mind is what truly happens, the mind develops what is known as crimestop, an automatic process of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the possibility of any dangerous thought.
There is absolutely no plans of having another kind of society. War is always present and has been so for the past 25 years, between the three super-states: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. A war between the undisputed territory, never actually reaching the borders of the super-states. Alliances are changed, which has a dramatic impact on the society of Oceania, where the Party members of the Ministry of Truth work restlessly to eradicate all public documentation and evidence of ever being at alliance with the enemy, making the public think that they have always been in alliance with one of the super-states, and never with the other.
The Party also organises events such as the Two Minutes Hate and the Hate Week, psychological operations designed to increase the hatred of the population for the current enemy of the party.
In reality, the three super-states or unable to destroy one another. War means no more than a continuous shortage of consumption goods, and the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which brings havoc amongst the people, and which may very well be launched by the state itself. It is always the same war, there is nothing to fight for in a material sense, only for labour power to produce goods, but which are never distributed to the public, they are solely used to make more war weapons and artillery. In other words, the constant warfare is a way of destroying material possessions which might otherwise end up in the hands of the masses, making them comfortable, and hence, in the long run too intelligent, meaning that they might rebel.
War is always planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. And since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. There is only war, and the only scientific advancement is concerned with war.
This helps preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs, keeping the structure of society intact. The very word “war”, by becoming continuous, ceases to exist. In other words, a permanent peace between the super-states, would be the same as permanent war. For in that case each super-state would still be a self-contained universe, free from external influence. It is this, which amounts to the real meaning behind the slogan of the Party: War is Peace.
The story ends up with the main character, Winston Smith, being tortured in the Ministry of Love to make him say two and two makes five. And later, after being found guilty of hating Big Brother, is sent to Room 101, where he is tortured with his worst nightmare – finally breaking him and giving in. This is their ultimate weapon, to threaten you with something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. You want it to happen to the other person, to the person you most love, you don’t care what they suffer, all you care about, in the end, is yourself.
And after that, you don’t feel the same towards the other person any longer. You cease to be an individual and become part of the collective mass. For true power is power over human beings. Over the body, but above all, over the mind.
So, remember – next time you hear the word Orwellian being used, it is not just constant surveillance and an intrusive government – this is simply authoritarian. However, if there is a deceptive and manipulative use of language, such as political language designed to make lies sound truthful or make atrocities acceptable by using euphemisms, that is Orwellian.