George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), 326pp
Given the political influence of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is sometimes forgotten that it is actually also an engrossing read. It is not quite a thriller, nor is it science fiction, though it has elements of both of these. The oppressive, omnipotent regime of Big Brother ensures that the book is unceasingly bleak, but nevertheless one cannot help but to want to know more about Oceania and its ruling Party. It can't possibly be so overwhelming and controlling, can it? There must be a crack somewhere, right? Some sort of flaw in the system that allows for dissent or non-conformism to emerge, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant? Something that allows Winston Smith, our everyman protagonist, and by extension ourselves, to retain our humanity in the face of such malice?
Orwell provides, in essence, a blueprint of the most undefeatable, omniscient dystopian society imaginable. The concepts he describes, such as doublethink, crimestop, Newspeak and thoughtcrime, are so well thought-out that one could spend ages, like the protagonist, Winston Smith, trying to seek ways to overcome them. Towards the end of the book, Winston turns to love, and to the integrity and 'spirit of Man' as his salvation - no amount of physical oppression, he reasons, can subdue a person who retains these qualities. But the most chilling aspect of the book is the sheer futility of fighting the regime. Organised resistance, and consequently political change, is impossible - that is a given. But Orwell also shows us that individual resistance, the resistance of one's own soul, is also impossible when the mental hold that the Party has over you is so complete that they can change your very thoughts. As Orwell convincingly demonstrates, such a regime would not so much corrupt the soul of a man as reboot it - to reformat it in their favour. There is an element of metaphysics and meta-philosophy that presents itself, particularly towards the end of the novel, which suggests that reality exists only in the mind. Our connections with the past are twofold: through written records and through our memories. The Party destroys the former as a matter of routine; Orwell shows us, through the degradation of Winston Smith, that the memories can be twisted, erased and eventually rebooted. For one who has read the novel, there can be no better exampling of this than the question, asked repeatedly in the final part of the book: "How many fingers, Winston?" The implications are profound: the human soul, like everything else human, is malleable, despite Winston's earlier reassurances that it was impregnable (page 174 seems particularly heartbreaking in retrospect). Orwell exposes the frailties of mankind in even starker terms than Winston is exposed in front of the three-sided mirror: nothing is incorruptible; nothing is sacred; nothing is eternal except the will of the Party. Winston, in his darkest days, believes that "To die hating them, that was freedom." (pg. 294). Orwell shows that the Party can make a person die loving Big Brother. Freedom, consequently, is unobtainable.
It is by emphasising these points that Orwell shows how evil could win a decisive, and complete, victory over good. And once it happened, there would be nothing that could be done; partly because struggle would be futile, but mostly because history would be rewritten - not in a way that the bad would be painted as good, but in a way that the bad would, for all intents and purposes, become the good. As Winston muses on page 63, "Why should one feel it [the regime] to be intolerable unless one had some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different?" Believing otherwise would be thoughtcrime, and would belong to a few stragglers in society who, like Winston, would inevitably become ensnared by the Thought Police.
Before reading this book, I had thought that its influence has been exhausted. Words and phrases coined by Orwell such as Big Brother, thought crime, Ministry of Truth, Room 101, doublethink, Newspeak and Thought Police have become rather commonplace; one rarely reads an article or hears a debate on surveillance and civil liberties without one or more of these terms popping up. The overarching term 'Orwellian' will inevitably be uttered. Yet Orwell describes the Party coming into power as a result of a Marxist-style revolution of the masses - a prospect that is unlikely today. When used today, Orwellian phrases are employed to warn about a gradual encroachment of authoritarianism and erosion of civil liberties. The idea that there could be an omnipotent, truly totalitarian mega-society brought about by revolution seems inconceivable. Yet I realised that it is precisely because of Orwell's novel that such fears and warnings seem fanciful. Nineteen Eighty-Four, through its popularity, became the handbook for conscientious citizenship. By showing us the true terror of a society like that existing in 1984, it stiffened the collective resolve that, through vigilance, sometimes hyper-vigilance, it should not be allowed to occur. As Ben Pimlott points out in his introduction, the novel "can be seen as an account of the forces that endanger liberty and of the need to resist them" before it is too late (pg. xvi).
Though a revolutionary dystopia may be a far-fetched idea in the 21st century, there are still a number of elements of the story which have a contemporary relevance. Of course, Orwell drew some of the story's details from his own generation's confrontation with totalitarianism; the indoctrinated children informing on their parents was a reality in Nazi Germany with the Hitler Youth and, obviously, Orwell drew heavily from the Soviet system which, when he was writing, was the ghoulish champion of authoritarianism. But when one witnesses the idolisation of Big Brother, particularly the Ministry of Plenty's announcement on page 61, is not one reminded of the personality cult of the 'Dear Leader' in North Korea? When Orwell describes the debasing torture in the Ministry of Love, with the sleep deprivation, physical pain and the incessant light, does not one think of Guantánamo or Bagram? Indeed, when the principle behind the Floating Fortresses is described on page 199, is one not reminded somewhat of the wastefulness of the defence industry and the military-industrial complex? ('Defence', itself, arguably an example of Newspeak). It is said that the Brotherhood resistance movement "cannot be wiped out because it is not an organisation in the ordinary sense. Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible." (pg. 183). Could not one also apply that description to the current amorphous, hydra-headed incarnation of al-Qaeda, or to global jihadism as a whole?
Orwell was not a prophet or a time-traveller; his novel retains its relevance, even nearly thirty years after the calendar year of 1984 has passed, because he understood the essential fact that man will always try to impose his power over other men. To paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, inhumanity is one the chief and defining characteristics of humanity. Whilst the value and influence of the various elements of Orwell's work will rise and fall depending on the political climate, this core message will always stand. In Orwell's futuristic world of 1984, the part which requires no suspension of disbelief is the idea that man could conceivably perfect the art of coercion and domination. It is why the book remains as timeless and salutary as it was when it was written.