Wednesday, June 28, 2017

1984 by George Orwell (Book Review #21 of 2017)


1984 - George Orwell

After reviewing Thomas Ricks' recent joint biography of Churchill and Orwell, I realized I needed to actually read 1984. Churchill and Orwell helped me understand some of the nuances in the book related to Orwell (the focus on smells, for example) and Ricks' work helped me appreciate how people living in totalitarian regimes the world over have commented how Orwell put their situation better than perhaps they could. I once read Animal Farm while living in Azerbaijan when Soviet times were not a distant memory and gave the book to a man well-acquainted with that system. 1984 is a bit like Animal Farm played out with people. There is a maddening element to it that reminds me of Catch-22. Both books also offer a commentary on the dangers of war and why we in free societies should work for them to be rare. Ricks and others have noted that the current American generation that has grown up since 9/11 and never known a time when the US wasn't at war in far-off places fighting battles for undefined territory. "In a physical sense war involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at..." (p. 179).

This same generation has never been unaccustomed to electronic surveillance and public activities being heavily monitored. They've also grown up with torture and other means being an almost expected way to conduct intelligence. Now, in a politically polarized country of declining church attendance there is less to bind us together and more opportunities to denounce the other. Current events and the political climate often made passages of 1984 difficult to read because it felt too real (Comey was fired while I read this book and I subscribe to The Atlantic, btw). If I studied North Korea, I would probably be absolutely amazed at the resemblance to Orwell's world (Otto Warmbier died while I prepared this review).

This book also gave me a greater appreciation for the importance of books and literacy. I related well to Winston who desired, above all, to maintain the belief--the knowledge--that the past was set in stone and was actually unchangeable, not malleable. That there were some objective truths that could not be changed. Orwell was apparently inspired by what he saw transpire in the Soviet Union, seeing history rewritten and lies made as truth both in his time on the front lines fighting on the side of Socialism in the Spanish Civil War, where he was a target of the NKVD, and the totalitarian Stalinist purges where any memories of Leninist revolutionaries were erased once they were executed. Winston's job is to re-write history when he actually has the idea to save it; but Winston is entirely alone in this desire. He is stunned by the cognitive dissonance on a daily basis, how the government can make a public announcement one day and then the very next day make the opposite announcement and re-write history as if it had never made the first announcement and everyone swallows it. (It's become a meme on Twitter to show how some people don't believe anything from certain sources even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that it's true. And people seem to increasingly be unable to remember what happened six months ago, much less six or sixty years.) Winston is dedicated to the preservation of memory-- things didn't always used to be this way! I was reminded of this lately reading an article about a woman who keeps a weekly list on Medium of the increase in authoritarianism she observes. She is basically recording the unprecedented actions currently being taken in government that we'll grow used to in a matter months and years and forget when things used to be done differently, and why they were done differently. Everyone needs to read 1984.

"the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH"

The Party maintains its power by these three slogans. "Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth." O'Brien explains the meaning of these slogans in his book and elaborates later in the tortuous re-education of Winston (p. 255):
"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. Power is not a means, it is an end." The power that the Party seeks is that of omnipotence and omniscience-- to be God.

When Winston reads Goldstein's book (really O'Brien's book) there is an explanation of the endless war between the three world powers that I took to be Orwell's commentary on the danger of nations seeking equilibrium only through continuous warfare (p. 184-185): "The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly," the war must simply continue. The enemy provides an endless scapegoat for all of society's problems, as well as an eternal source of hope for achieving an elusive goal. It provides an endless justification for sacrifice, further restricting freedoms, further propogating class differences, and endless propoganda on behalf of the Party (p. 191):
"But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded. As we have seen, researches that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war..."

I don't think we can understate the effect that endless war has had on desensitizing us to war.

The book also, oddly, gave me a greater appreciation for class differences in the workplace. There is the "Inner Party" that actually knows some secrets (though cannibalizes those that do) and makes the big decisions. There is the "Outer Party" who ostensibly live a better life than the Proles but who are only just intelligent enough to serve the Inner Party. These are "vaporized" when they either get ambitions or know or even speak too much. Then there are the Proles, who make up 85% of the population but live subserviently, with more freedom and apparent happiness-- their ignorance is almost bliss. The Proles simply take what the Party feeds them as their lot in life and move on; Winston finds this trait both frustrating and admirable. The Party manipulates the Proles' behavior through media and other means and largely lets them alone. "If there was hope, it must lie in the proles" (p. 67, 214). In many corporations, the Proles are those front-line workers who do the menial sales, customer service, and paper filing. Their work is indispensible but they are seen as easily replaceable. Proles are easily bought off with small incentives that you can just as quickly take away, they never remember a time when it was any different. The Outer Party are the mid-level managers, the analysts, the accountants. They are skilled enough at their positions but ultimately only serve the Inner Party. When they learn too much or get ambitions they must be eliminated as they become a threat to the Inner Party. They do a good job cannibalizing each other as well, each one trying to demonstrate Party allegiance at the expense of another. The Inner Party live a life much different than the Outer Party or the Proles. They pull the strings and enjoy the fruits. The difference in Orwell's world, however, is that the Inner Party life is not that great. Because overall standard of living is less than it was prior to the Revolution, the Inner Party sacrifices unknown happiness in order to maintain the all-encompassing goal of absolute power over every aspect of life and thought.

As an economist, I couldn't find a way for the economy of Oceania to survive. Human capital has been depleted and prevented from even being born. O'Brien has an intellectual conversation with Winston because they have both read books. But those books have been re-written and one gathers that it's frowned upon (since nothing is technically "illegal") to read, or even own books as no one seems to in the book-- even keeping a diary is "thoughtcrime." So, O'Brien's contention that the Party can create anything, invent anything from its systematic farm system of raising humans would appear to be false. You can't have science without a scientific method. O'Brien will eventually die, and who replaces him? Buildings are decaying and not being replaced, while also being bombed, and human health is not improving. Once the Party achieves ultimate power over an individual it appears to kill him. Such a society would inevitably collapse on itself, some plague or another would wipe it out. History is required to remember what was built and how it was built, without that history nothing can be built or rebuilt.

I'm leaving out much of the personal/emotional/sexual in this book because it did not strike me as very meaningful. Ricks' biography showed Orwell to be perpetually unhealthy, rather awkward around women, and acutely sensitive to smell and taste, particularly the unpleasant ones. This affects much of his writing here and elsewhere.

The ending of the book is particularly haunting. (spoiler alert.) The Party's goal is to break Winston, but it's not exactly clear in what way until the very end. Once they have broken his spirit and caused him to betray his only love in an act of self-preservation, there is nothing left to live for...except Big Brother. At that moment, Big Brother becomes for Winston what the Party wants him to be-- all-satisfying (God). "There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother..."
Winston finally abandons all of himself and becomes the convert: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." The understanding is that he is killed because the Party finally had what it wanted, ultimate power over him.

I give this book four stars out of five. It will haunt you and you will interpret current events through its lens.

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