Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited, Part I:
What Orwell Can Still Teach Us
Part 1 (Part 2 here)
Everyone thinks he knows what’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Is there really anything left to say? It’s as if George Orwell’s masterpiece has been sucked dry. At least, that’s what I thought until I recently reread it, for the first time in over thirty years. It would be no exaggeration to say that revisiting Nineteen Eighty-Four was a revelation. There was much, of course, that was familiar. But also much else that I had never noticed before, or, perhaps, that I could never have noticed before.
Reading some passages, it felt as if Orwell were reaching out from the grave to directly address the times in which we live, and the predicaments we face – in ways I found genuinely surprising. Like every great work, it speaks to later generations. Indeed, it means more than it originally did; it means more than its author thought that it did. I must also confess that I found the book to be much more emotionally moving than I expected. Emotionally moving, and genuinely disturbing. When I reached the celebrated torture scenes, reading the book on a transatlantic flight back to the US, I found I had to set it down for a while, so horrified was I. This time around, something about the book struck too close to home. I did not return to it for several days. I have no recollection of having been so moved by Nineteen Eighty-Four years earlier when I read it for the first time. Why is that? I’ll try and offer some reasons later in this series.
I do believe that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a genuinely great novel, certainly one of the greatest of the twentieth century. What other novel has contributed so much to our everyday vocabulary? Thoughtcrime, thoughtcriminal, Thought Police, memory hole, Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, unperson, and, of course, “Orwellian.” These terms are in general use and are especially dear to those of us on the Right. We particularly enjoy applying the adjective “Orwellian” to the Left’s continued unironic generation of fresh Newspeak terms and slogans like “extremism,” “hate crime,” “hate speech,” and “diversity is our strength” (which makes about as much sense as “Ignorance is Strength”).
The world has changed a great deal since I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was probably in the year 1984 itself (and, yes, I did see the excellent film version by Michael Radford, in the cinema when it was first released). A superficial reading of the novel is that it is a warning about the dangers of Communism. And this makes it easy to dismiss Nineteen Eighty-Four as no longer particularly relevant, since Communism collapsed, more or less, thirty years ago, a mere five years after the setting of Orwell’s novel. Of course, one can argue that what constitutes “Communism” has simply changed with time. And indeed I will maintain, in the course of this essay, that Nineteen Eighty-Four should be understood more broadly as a critique of the Left – even though, as everybody knows, Orwell considered himself a socialist. One thing that is fascinating about the novel is that much of what Orwell writes about has come to pass, but through means other than those he predicted. While our present situation in the West is decidedly “Orwellian,” as I shall discuss in much detail, it often is so in ways Orwell himself would have found surprising.
There are two major disanalogies between the novel and the present “Orwellian” social and political situation. The first was essentially identified by Aldous Huxley, during Orwell’s lifetime. In a letter to Orwell dated October 21, 1949, Huxley offers a respectful critique of Nineteen Eighty-Four that could be accurately summed up as, “No. It won’t be like that. See Brave New World.” While this may seem self-serving, Huxley’s position is substantially correct. The future did not bring a triumph of Stalinist-style terror and repression, as a means to rule over humanity. Instead, men are now ruled primarily through appeals to their appetites. For the most part, one does not need to terrorize them; one need only promise them rewards for their conformity: consumer goods, sex, drugs (soma), and pleasurable distractions of all kinds.
Brave New World depicts a “soft totalitarianism,” where the worst thing that can happen to non-conformists is being transferred to Iceland (which seems an awfully tempting punishment to me, I must say). For the most part, it is such a “soft” system that we live under. Huxley got this right. Nevertheless, our “liberal democratic” soft totalitarianism has been getting progressively harder in recent years; more and more “Orwellian,” as no one on our side ever tires of pointing out. One of the interesting aspects of this, however, is that much that is Orwellian today has not been brought about through centralized government control, but through other means.
This brings us to the second major disanalogy between the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the present. Tyranny has not been achieved through an all-seeing, all-controlling centralized governmental apparatus, but in a number of different ways, through a convergence of both government interests and private interests. This is where Orwell and Huxley both got things wrong. While the dystopias depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are radically different, both their authors believed that centralized, authoritarian government was the wave of the future. Huxley’s vision of a world in which Communism and capitalism (Marx and Ford) have merged is remarkably prescient (and echoes Heidegger’s thesis – of which Huxley could have known nothing – about the metaphysical identity of the two systems). Yet Brave New World does not portray this as a society in which the interests of Leftist politics and private enterprise converge. Rather, it is a society in which autocratic “world controllers” have adopted assembly line methods and consumer culture as a way to actualize collectivist ideals.
Nevertheless, it would be superficial to treat Nineteen Eighty-Four simply as an attempt at “prophecy” – and this is true of Brave New World as well. Orwell did apparently believe that the Second Word War would lead to the collapse of British democracy, either through a fascist coup or a socialist revolution. By the time he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, he had realized he was mistaken. Orwell certainly did not write the novel as a “prediction” that a Big Brother-type tyranny was inevitable. Rather, Nineteen Eighty-Four should be seen as an attempt to identify the essence of Communism, as it then existed in the Soviet Union.
This fact has been somewhat obscured by Leftists, who have insisted in the intervening years that the novel is “just as much” an attack on fascism and National Socialism. This is a dishonest claim. There are, indeed, a few discernible ways in which Orwell references aspects of Rightist regimes, but they are few and far between. In reality, the novel is very straightforwardly based on aspects of the USSR under Stalin. And Orwell himself stated as much. In a letter to (of all people) the Hollywood producer Sidney Sheldon, Orwell stated that Nineteen Eighty-Four “was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office.”
Just as the novel is not “prophecy,” so it is also not “parody.” It is sometimes claimed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a “parody” or an “exaggeration” of Communism. What is often interpreted as such is really an aspect of Orwell’s project of identifying the essence of Communism. When seeking the essential features of something, one usually winds up emphasizing and enlarging upon those features, while at the same time omitting or downplaying non-essential or accidental features. One sees this in art. For example, a sketch of a person’s face will often emphasize features the artist sees as truly defining the face, omitting or merely suggesting other features.
Of course, one also sees this in caricature, which is a type of parody. For example, cartoons of Prince Charles usually overemphasize his ears, which are his most striking feature. Certainly, there are some elements of parody and extremely dark humor in the novel (the very appellation “Big Brother” is amusing, as are other odds and end, such as the “Two Minute’s Hate”). For the most part, however, the portrayal of Communism is fundamentally accurate. Indeed, the truth is probably far worse than what Orwell portrays. Where he writes of technology or methods the Communists never developed, such as the two-way telescreen which both transmits and receives, one feels quite certain the Communists would have used them, had they been available.
In what follows I am going to proceed thematically, distilling what the novel has to teach us, concerning the nature of power, thought control (censorship, conformity, surveillance, “doublethink”), truth and history, human nature, and hope for the future. My focus will be on the relevance of the novel to our present situation. And, again, the reader should not make the mistake of assuming that he “already knows” what the novel has to say on the subjects just listed. The reader should be prepared to be surprised. In particular, while the novel’s outlook is generally described as bleak, I believe that it does offer hope – in ways that seem peculiarly relevant to the situation we Westerners now find ourselves in.
Before I turn to our first topic, which will be Orwell’s theory of power, I will offer a very brief plot summary, for the uninitiated. Those who are already quite familiar with the story can skip ahead to Section Two.
The world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four has been shaped by nuclear war and revolution. The story takes place in Britain, which has been rechristened “Airstrip One” and absorbed into Oceania, one of three totalitarian superpowers that vie with one another in a perpetual war for control of the Earth. (The other two superpowers are Eurasia and Eastasia.) Oceania is dominated by the ideology of Ingsoc, or English Socialism, overseen by an absolute ruler referred to only as Big Brother (who may or may not actually exist). The Party of Ingsoc ruthlessly crushes all opposition and independent thought, relying on terror and sophisticated surveillance technology. Even the English language is being revised into “Newspeak,” in an attempt to make it impossible even to think thoughts that do not conform to the ideology of the Party.
The hero of the tale (or, perhaps “antihero”) is Winston Smith, a member of the “Outer Party” whose job is to rewrite history in order to bring it into accord with what the Party teaches. Winston is also a thoughtcriminal. Secretly, he despises the Party and records his heretical thoughts in a forbidden diary. Winston is obsessed with the past; with life before the absolute rule of the Party. The trouble is that the past now only exists in fragmentary form, since the Party (with the help of men like Winston) has wiped out most traces of it. Searching for knowledge of what life had been like before the Party, Winston ventures into the districts of London occupied by the “proles” (or proletariat), who are regarded by the Party as little more than animals, and who make up eighty-five percent of the population. He discovers a curiosity shop run by an old man named Mr. Charrington, from whom he buys valueless antique nicknacks. Winston recognizes that the proles seem to be about as mindless as the Party makes them out to be, but unlike men like himself, they seem to have held onto the semblance of a normal, human life. “If there is hope, it lies in the proles,” he writes in his diary.
In his job at the Ministry of Truth, Winston is under constant watch. He must participate in various indignities such as the “two-minutes hate,” in which he and his coworkers scream at images of Eurasian enemy forces and Emmanuel Goldstein, Big Brother’s chief political rival (an obvious pastiche of Leon Trotsky). He suspects that one of his superiors, an Inner Party member named O’Brien, may share his hatred of the regime, but he cannot be sure. He also suspects that Julia, a co-worker in the Ministry and a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, may have discerned his heresy, simply through observing his facial expressions (something known as facecrime). It turns out, however, that he couldn’t be more mistaken.
One day Julia slips Winston a note that reads, “I love you.” With considerable caution, they arrange to meet in the country, where they make love in the woods. Later, Winston rents a room above Mr. Charrington’s shop, where he and Julia, at great risk, begin to meet regularly for trysts. After some time, O’Brien invites Winston to meet him at his well-appointed, Inner Party living quarters. Winston brings Julia along, and O’Brien informs them that he is indeed a member of The Brotherhood, the rebel organization founded by Goldstein. And he provides Winston with a copy of Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which lays bare the methods and ultimate motives of Ingsoc.
Winston and Julia know that they cannot evade capture forever. One terrible day, Mr. Charrington reveals himself to be an agent of the Thought Police. Winston is separated from Julia and taken to the Ministry of Love, where he is confined and repeatedly beaten. O’Brien arrives to personally take charge of Winston’s torture, claiming (with what appears to be complete sincerity) that his intention is to cure Winston of his “insanity.” O’Brien had never been in league with the Brotherhood (who may or may not exist), and he was part of the Party committee that wrote Goldstein’s book (though, oddly enough, everything in the book appears to be true). As O’Brien tortures Winston, he explains to him the Party’s philosophy. There is no objective reality, O’Brien asserts. The truth is whatever the Party claims to be true. If the party asserts that two and two make five, then they do. He tells Winston, further, that the Party has no ambitions beyond the pursuit of power for its own sake.
After many months, Winston is reduced to a pitiable condition – though his spirit is not yet completely broken, since his love for Julia remains intact. Knowing this, O’Brien takes Winston to the dreaded Room 101, where everyone must confront the thing they fear the most. In Winston’s case, it is rats. O’Brien places a two-chambered cage onto Winston’s head. In one chamber are two hungry rats, separated from Winston’s face by a small door which O’Brien can open at the flick of a switch. Finally driven to his breaking point, Winston screams, “Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”
Winston is then released, a thoroughly broken man. One day, by chance, he happens to meet Julia in the street. She reveals that she too was tortured and, in the end, betrayed him as well. There seems to be nothing left of her spirit, and the two no longer feel any love for each other. Is Winston now capable of any feeling at all? We find out in the last scene of the novel. He sits by himself in a café, watching a telescreen report of recent victories over Eurasia. Tears trickle down his nose. “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, contains many ideas which we can safely attribute to Orwell himself. Among these ideas is an intelligent and extremely cynical theory of power and how power changes hands in all societies. Goldstein posits that there are essentially three classes in any social system: the High (the ruling class), the Middle, and the Low (pp. 210-212).
The ambition of the High is simply to “remain where they are,” to remain in power. The Middle aims to change places with the High. Orwell describes the Low as “too much crushed by drudgery” to be aware of much outside the grind of their daily lives (and this is certainly how he depicts “the proles,” as we shall see later on). When the Low do conceive of an aim, however, it is to eradicate all distinctions between men and to create a society based on complete equality. This is obviously a function of “slave morality”: the Low are so beaten down and resentful that their overriding ambition is not so much power as revenge; the leveling down of former oppressors (both High and Middle). Orwell alludes to this (sort of) when he has Goldstein describe socialism as “the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity” (p. 211).
According to “Goldstein,” the High often forfeit power when they lose the confidence to rule; when they lose belief in themselves. (This certainly describes the position of the white majority in the West today.) Or they may, for one reason or another, cease to govern effectively. For example, they may become effete and decadent. Orwell’s observations here dovetail with those of Bertrand de Jouvenel, who (in his On Power) pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, it is not strong, tyrannical regimes that get overthrown, but regimes that have grown weak and ineffective.
Seizing on the opportunity presented by the weakness of the High, the Middle maneuvers its way into power, by one means or another. For example, the Middle may enlist the aid of the Low in overthrowing the High, perhaps by promising the Low that, through their alliance, the egalitarian society will finally be achieved. However, as soon as it has achieved its aims, the Middle will “thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High.” Of the three groups, only the Low never succeeds in advancing itself.
In every case, it seems, the power structure remains the same: High, Middle, and Low. It is only those who occupy the High and Middle positions that ever changes. Orwell seems to understand that every justification for revolution as merely a pretext for one group seizing power over another. For example, Orwell has Goldstein describe how the case of Oceania and the other superpowers involved the Middle attaining power through a perversion of socialism (a matter I will return to shortly). O’Brien later remarks to Winston that “[t]he German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives” (p. 276) – suggesting that even when men think they are moved by ideology or ideals, they are secretly moved by power lust. Again, one suspects that this is Orwell’s own position. While he did seem to believe that there were genuine idealists (and probably counted himself among them), he does not appear to believe that they ever attain power. Ultimately, the factions that win are motivated purely by the desire for power. Winston breaks off reading Goldstein’s book just when he comes to a passage where Goldstein promises to reveal “the central secret . . . the original motive, the never-questioned instinct that first led to the seizure of power . . .” (p. 226). O’Brien later reveals this secret while torturing Winston: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake” (p. 275).
Goldstein argues that the ruling class could remain in power indefinitely if it managed to avoid four possible scenarios:
- Being conquered from without, by invasion.
- Governing so badly that the masses revolt.
- Allowing a strong, disaffected Middle to come into being.
- Losing its own self-confidence and will to govern.
The reader will be hard-pressed to find any historical example of “regime change” which is not attributable to one or more of these. Therefore, the ideal regime, from the perspective of the High, would be one that has managed to find ways to prevent all four. Oceania and the other two superpowers seem to have done this. Seeing exactly how this is the case gives us the key to understanding the regime of Big Brother, as well as invaluable insights into the nature of totalitarianism, including the “soft” variety we now live under.
Let’s first consider how the regime of Ingsoc is supposed to have come to power in the first place. Goldstein writes that “by the fourth decade of the twentieth century [i.e., by the 1930s] all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable” (p. 213). Orwell is here referring to the fact that by the twentieth century, advances in science and industrialization made it possible for human beings to live in a state of relative material equality, at least in the West. And yet he means more than this, for on the preceding page he establishes that the “earthly paradise” he has in mind is one in which “men should live together in a state of brotherhood, without laws and without brute labour . . .” (p. 212).
One wonders if it is only Goldstein who is naïve enough to believe that such a society had become possible by the 1930s. Regardless, it is very clear that Orwell did believe that both Soviet Communism and National Socialism were authoritarian ideologies masquerading as socialism (a typical conceit of the Left). Indeed, for Orwell they are both instances of “oligarchical collectivism,” to which the title of Goldstein’s book refers: a faux socialism ruled by a powerful, privileged elite. According to Goldstein, the ideologies of all three of the super-powers are similar perversions of socialism. Oceania bases itself, as already noted, on Ingsoc, while the ideologies of Eurasia and Eastasia are, respectively, “Neo-Bolshevism” and “Death Worship,” or “The Obliteration of the Self” (which Orwell says little about, but which one surmises is something like Zen by way of Kim Il-sung).
Although each superpower claims that the ideologies of the others are pure evil, Goldstein reveals that they are essentially identical. Each pays lip service to the values and terminology of socialism, but each “had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality” (p. 211). The Ingsoc Party of Oceania (as well as its equivalents in the other superpowers) “rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism” (p. 225). Significantly, Goldstein goes on to mention that while the Party extolls “the worker” and dresses everyone in coveralls, “it preaches a contempt for the working class unexampled for centuries past” (p. 225). This must inevitably remind us of today’s Left and its complete disdain for working class and rural voters. In a grotesque parody of the “earthly paradise” of the socialists, the Party has eliminated all laws (p. 7). But this is just so that it may terrorize the citizens, who can never really know whether anything they do is or is not forbidden. The Party claims to have “abolished” private property, but in fact what this means is that property has been concentrated in fewer hands (pp. 214-215).
But whose hands are those? Who is the new High under Ingsoc, which had once been Middle? Goldstein tells us:
The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. [p. 213]
This, of course, call to mind the drab, middle class, technocrat globalists who currently rule us, and who certainly seem to flourish equally well in “the barren world of monopoly industry” and in government. Indeed, the lines between the two are now exceedingly blurry, though they have not been officially erased, as both Orwell and Huxley imagined they might be. Goldstein goes on to tell us that these technocrats, as compared with the ruling classes of the past, “were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury.” While our own globalist rulers certainly do not seem “less avaricious,” they are “less tempted by luxury” in the sense in which Orwell means it: They seem relatively less vulnerable to the dissolution and dissipation that ruined the aristocracies of the past. No doubt this is due to their middle class “drive.” In any case, though some of them may live in palaces, they are far less likely to lose themselves in pleasures and eccentricities and to slacken their grip on their subjects. After all, they are, as Goldstein puts it, “hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they [are] doing and more intent on crushing opposition” (p. 213).
Indeed, the grey men who rule us do seem to be far more cynical than their predecessors. Only the smallest and most insubstantial ideological fig leaf (“diversity!”) conceals their lust for power and control. And there is nothing that restrains their ambition, since religion is essentially dead in the West, and morality (when not dismissed as entirely “relative”) has been shrunk down to the liberal celebration of autonomy (which simply amounts to freedom from all standards). C. S. Lewis tells us, in the third chapter of his Abolition of Man, that the elimination of morality will lead to rule by elites who recognize no limits on the use of technology to shape humanity however they like, purely for their own personal advantage. And Goldstein tells us that “[b]y comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient. . . . Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards” (p. 214). There is indeed something soul-crushing about the tyranny of technocrats. Given the choice, I would much rather be oppressed by the Borgias, the Bourbons, or the Tudors than by the Merkels, Clintons, and Zuckerbergs. At least the royal houses of old covered their power lust with a large and luxurious fig leaf of honor and tradition, and seemed really to believe in it.
Goldstein tells us that part of the reason for the unparalleled tyranny of the new elite was its ability “to keep its citizens under constant surveillance” (p. 214). This is one of the most-discussed aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I will treat it at length in the next installment. Arguably, discussion of this aspect of the novel – especially the “telescreen” – has been at the expense of richer and more important aspects. We are, of course, deluding ourselves if we think that tyranny means telescreens, and that we are free so long as they’ve not yet arrived. And “surveillance” in Nineteen Eighty-Four takes numerous forms. Citizens of Oceania fear their neighbors, co-workers, and even their own children much more than they do the telescreen.
The tyranny under which we live does involve the Thought Police, if you live in Canada and Europe, and the threat of fines and imprisonment. But for the most part, the tyranny has been privatized. Thoughtcriminals live in fear of being “outed” at their jobs and fired, having promising careers derailed, or having damaging material posted online that will linger for eternity. Disappearing into the Ministry of Love is not going to happen, but the effects are more or less the same: careful self-monitoring of words and facial expressions, sneaking around, paying lip service to ideas one doesn’t actually believe, and so on. Like Winston Smith, one hopes that there are others who share one’s heretical views, perhaps sitting in the same subway car, or working in the next cubicle. But one doesn’t dare try and find out. The Internet informs us that there are, indeed, countless thoughtcriminals on the loose. But the social oppression is so effective this seldom translates into real-world human contact.
The rulers of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia keep their citizens in line through much the same sort of social oppression, backed up by the threat of torture and death. This is one of the means through which they try to stave off the third of the causes of loss of power, mentioned above: allowing a strong, disaffected Middle to come into being. If the members of the Middle cannot even communicate their dissatisfaction to each other, there is little likelihood that they will organize and become a threat. Newspeak is an adjunct to this, since its ultimate aim is to make it impossible for certain ideas to be expressed, or even to be thought.
Another means Orwell discusses is enforced poverty. Goldstein writes that
if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. . . . It is deliberate policy to keep even the favored groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. By the standards of the early twentieth century, even a member of the Inner Party lives an austere, laborious kind of life. [p. 199]
As memories of better times fade (or are deliberately suppressed through, for example, the destruction of literature), poverty becomes the new normal. The Middle, which in Oceania is the Outer Party, knows it is better off relative to the Low, the proles, and can feel superior to them. Further, it is possible for ambitious and capable members of the Outer Party to move up into the Inner. Instead of thinking about revolution, the members of the Outer Party are thus preoccupied with finding ways to work the system. Small increases in privileges are enough to satisfy many of them. As for the proles, they pose little danger since they are kept too ignorant and beaten down to occupy themselves with much more than the pursuit of simple pleasures to alleviate their drudgery. The Party also works hard to provide them with ample forms of mindless distraction: sports, films, pop music, and pornography. This is also the principal means through which the Party deals with the second of the threats mentioned above: governing so badly that the masses revolt. So long as the proles are kept focused entirely on feeding their vices, and the Party can keep up a steady flow of prolefeed, they pose little danger.
The main device used to get the populace, Middle and Low, to accept poverty is perpetual war. Through this means, the Party actually addresses several of the causes of loss of power listed earlier, as we shall see. At the beginning of the novel, Oceania is at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia. This has not always been the case, however. At earlier times, the situation was precisely the reverse – and during the course of the novel, Oceania declares itself at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. However, the regime never admits that the enemy changes. The official policy is that “[w]e have always been at war with _________.” Part of Winston’s job, and those like him, is to erase any record of things having ever been different. The erasure is so thorough and the propaganda so intense that the citizens doubt their own memories. Even a rebel as perceptive as Julia is confused: “I thought we’d always been at war with Eurasia,” she confesses to Winston. But then she adds, “Who cares? . . . It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway” (p. 161).
I was reminded of these lines a couple of years ago when, much to my dismay, a relative of mine revealed that he had been taken in by the whole “Russia collusion” hoax. Broadening the topic a bit, I asked why it is that we are still enemies with Russia, even after the fall of Communism. My relative (who ought to have known better) replied, “But we’ve always been enemies with Russia.” Well, no, we haven’t. We were allied with Russia in the First World War, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. When the Communists took over and made plain their ambition to conquer the world, they were correctly seen as the world’s greatest threat to liberty, and our natural enemies. Mysteriously, however, we were allied with the Communists during the Second World War, against the Germans, who, contrary to popular belief, did not want to take over the world or even all of Europe. After the war, the Russians went back to being the world’s greatest threat to liberty. Then Communism fell, but for some reason the Russians have remained a useful boogeyman. It’s enough to confuse the average man, especially Americans, whose memories are rather short term. Americans also can’t be expected to remember that their country was once allied with “new Hitler” Saddam Hussein and had provided him with the weapons of mass destruction America used to justify the 2003 invasion. “But we’ve always been at war with Iraq . . .”
To return to Oceania, perpetual war is one means by which the Party justifies its tyranny. Goldstein tells us that “being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival” (p. 199). There is thus additional social pressure on the populace not to criticize or rebel against the Party: doing so would be “unpatriotic” given that the country is at war. (We’ve got to support the troops, after all.) The Party uses nationalism in particular as a means to keep the dopey proles in line.
The war also, of course, serves as a public justification for the austerities under which the people live. One of the esoteric purposes of perpetual war, however, is to “use up the products of [industry] without raising the general standard of living” (p. 196), given that, as noted earlier, leisure and security would lead to the masses beginning to think for themselves, and to question the authority of the elite. While the war takes place in distant lands (never in the superpowers themselves, but always in “disputed territories”) now and then, it is brought close to home by rocket attacks on London. Julia suspects, however, that these may be “false flag operations” carried out by the Party itself.
Goldstein asserts that the two principal aims of the Party are to conquer the entire planet and to wipe out all independent thought (p. 201). He also notes that the economic purpose of the war (aside from the hidden purpose of simply keeping industry busy) is to acquire the cheap labor that would be provided by the teeming hordes occupying the disputed territories. Nevertheless, while these are the ostensible objectives of the Party, it has no illusions about ever winning the war and, in fact, has no real desire to win. Neither do the other two superpowers. An end to war would mean an end to one of the principal justifications for authoritarianism, and to the poverty under which the overwhelming majority of the populace lives.
Not only is it impossible for the superpowers to conquer each other (they are each too powerful, with unlimited resources at their disposal), they serve to support each other: “so long as they remain in conflict they prop one another up, like three sheaves of corn” (p. 205). Thus, perpetual war is also a means by which Oceania – and all of the regimes of the superpowers – secures itself against the first of the mechanisms of regime change: being conquered from without, by invasion. The superpowers have no desire to invade and conquer each other; they need each other too much. They need enemies. (For this same reason, Goldstein – if, indeed, he still lives – will never be captured and tried by the Party.)
Only one cause of regime change is left to discuss: the ruling elite losing its self-confidence and its will to govern. How does the Party guard against this? The answer seems to be that it is through being ruthlessly honest with itself, concerning its motivations (at least within the Inner Party). (Certainly this seems to be the case, if we may assume that O’Brien is fairly typical.) Ruling classes usually lose confidence in their right to govern if they somehow lose faith in whatever ideals they have held. In the case of the white majority in Europe and America, their confidence in their right to their own lands has been shaken by a relentless process of “transvaluation,” in which their virtues have been redefined as vices, and in which their own principles of “fairness” and “justice” have been perverted and used against them. The Party’s solution to this problem is simply to have no ideals at all. The Party’s inner circle has no ideals to lose faith in, and no moral sensibilities that could weaken it. They seek power and only power, and feel no need to deceive themselves about this. Since, for most, the “intoxication of power” (p. 280) seldom fades, why then should the Party ever lose the will to rule?
What lessons can we nationalists draw from Orwell’s theory of how power is lost? This is obviously a topic that could justify an essay unto itself, but I will set down a few brief notes here. Much is obvious. For example, to avoid foreign invasion we must maintain a strong defense, ally ourselves strategically with other states, and abjure all tendencies toward conquest and colonialism. We must govern well and fairly, enacting measures that would reduce extreme inequalities of wealth, privilege, and access to the means needed to maintain a decent and dignified standard of living. Such measures guard against parts of the populace feeling itself disenfranchised, which creates unrest. (The solution, in other words, is a kind of moderate socialism.) Further, rather than fear a strong Middle, we have to cultivate one – for reasons not unlike those offered by Aristotle in his Politics. We want to avoid exclusive rule by a High, for this tends toward oligarchy, a situation in which a decadent elite rules for its own sake. Whereas a strong Low (and in any society there will always be a Low) means the influence of a rabble moved by ressentiment.
But what of the fourth possibility: losing power through losing confidence in ourselves? How do we prevent that from happening – again? I will surprise my readers by saying that, in a certain way, the Party is on the right track. We nationalists, should we ever take power again, must be just as ruthlessly honest with ourselves. We must rule in the name of a hard truth – a truth that idealistic liberals find just as objectionable as “power for its own sake.” We must renounce any notion that the state exists for some purpose other than the safeguarding and flourishing of its own people. We must renounce all tendencies to justify ourselves and our existence by reference to any ideal other than the life of our people, lived for its own sake. In a sense, we do “seek power for its own sake,” only it is not personal power; it is the power of the whole. And the “power” in question is not sought at the expense of some other people; it is “power” in the sense of thriving and flourishing. Eudaimonia as power.
Power to the people! Our people, in our own lands.
There is obviously much more that could be said about these matters. In the next installment of this series, I will discuss in more detail Orwell’s treatment of “thought control”: surveillance, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, doublethink, unpersons, and something that strikes uncomfortably close to home, something Orwell called “a state of controlled insanity.”
 I say “of all people” because Sheldon would later be best known as the producer of the ‘60s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and as a writer of trashy, bestselling novels. He had written to Orwell about the possibility of adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Broadway stage.
 I will employ intertextual references to the following edition: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992).
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