Political and Social Criticism in 1984

There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. According to Ray Bradbury, You don’t stay for nothing. It is curious to think that a single work of art, a single poem, and a single book can radically change the minds of the populace as a whole and yet it has been a recurring theme throughout history.

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As a major source of political and social criticism, books have been implemented in criticism of political machines, social injuctices, the greedy and selfish side of human nature that works toward assuming total control. As sometimes a blunt and rude awakening, dystopian novels illustrate, often in exaggerated ways, a fictional reality that disturbingly mimics what has occurred or is occurring in reality and has the potential to prophesied the emergence many different types of societies along with the conflicts between the people and the government.

One dystopian writer who was influenced to write a novel criticising the totalitarian regimes of his time, such as Natzi Germani under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin, was the left-wing writer George Orwell. In one of his lesser praised books,1984, argued by critics as being a very underdeveloped story lacking interesting plot points and containing a harshly pessimistic outlook on London’s society, George Orwell warns that a similar society to the socially oppressive, totalitarian society of Oceania could arise if social oppression in the forms of degradation of the self, political greed and extreme patriotism and oppression of the working class through enhancements in technology and erasure of the past continue in his current society.

Orwell is well recognized for his inclusion of political and social criticism within his novels and essays. He used real world politics to be able to effectively depict and prophesize human greed for power and need to control people in totality through unquestioning loyalty. The critic Morris Dickstein comments that:
Orwell’s appeal to posterity brings to mind poems like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or Brecht’s “An die Nachgeborenen” (“To Posterity”), which begins, “Truly, I live in the dark ages,” and ends with an appeal for understanding: “Think back on us / With kindness.” Winston scribbles in his diary, as Orwell writes the novel, “for the future, for the unborn,” though he wonders if such communication is really possible, especially under a system that claims it can wipe out any trace of him. (105).

It is interesting to note that Orwell, with his lifetime numbered with a severe illness that took hold around the time of his writing 1984, rushed to get his message out to his future audience, in an effort to provide critical insight about political idealisms, such as communism and totalitarianism(Dickstein). Similarly, although he does not know how his message will be sent or received, Winston seems to want to relay a message for the future generation as a warning sign to be cautious with the seemingly desolate direction of total control that is Oceania. His desire is to make sure that his truth is spoken so that the future generation may know and understand the horrible conditions Winston lived in and aspire to change the negligent and oppressive lifestyle the government is forcing their own people to lead. Moreover Dickstein comments that Nineteen Eighty-Four has several minor characters who also serve as emblems of Orwell’s argument, including Syme, the ideological zealot, and Parsons, the slovenly, stupid true believer who is turned in by his own children(104).

The unbridled patriotism that the people of Oceania exude, unsurprisingly, backfires when extreme amounts of surveillance come into play. The patriots ignorance and the belief that unquestioning loyalty has the ability to protect the self from perceived unlawfulness are products of the governments want to assume control. Not only is this exaggerated form of patriotism needlessly present in the adults it is also disproportionately apparent in the younger generation because the propaganda in favor of the government was all the children ever even knew. The adults may have grown up in a time where Oceania had not formed yet and so may be less influenced by the propaganda but because the children were born when this government was fully fledged, they are able to be molded in such a way that makes them turn against their own kin for the benefit of the government. As illustrated by the main character Winston, the two minutes Hate was a prime example of this extreme form of patriotism in which: The most horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but it was impossible to avoid joining in…A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s own will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic…his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and big brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation(Orwell 15).

In his dystopian world, technology,specifically the telescreen, is used as a method for surveilling the populace to keep the people in a state of terror for their livelihood, specifically the telescreen, which is able to receive and transmit any sounds above a whisper to the thought police. This essentially gives rise to the effect of people believing that their every actions and thoughts can and will be heard and if anything goes against the belief system that the Party offers, the consequences are severe, in the form of torture and death. As an effect this causes the to be docile and unquestioning complacency of the populace. As the critic John David Frodsham pointed out how the system of surveillance to beget loyalty in 1984 mimics reality.

As one observer commented, as late as 1975: “China is an immense bar racks living in a permanent state of terror and fear. The Maoist way of life is based on surveillance of the citizenry. Several houses make up a cell whose members are required to report their thoughts and actions to each other. . . The individual has no right to personal life. . . where he goes, what he talks about, what he eats, what he reads, what he listens to on the radio, all this is immediately learned by those around him and reported to the neighborhood revolutionary committee !”Thanks to the bao-jia (mutual surveillance) system, Mao’s China did not need the telescreen. Thought-control had been achieved without elaborate technology (144).

With effectively little to no privacy, the government of Oceania, as well as China in the Maoist way of life, have efficiently stripped the populace of their identities and amassed control through surveillance (Frodsham). Likewise the fear factor in 1984 of being reported by someone or overheard by the Thought Police allows Oceana’s government to effectively assume control. To the people of Oceania the thought of being taken away to never be seen or heard of again and to have their entire life uprooted has effectively made the masses complacent and docile enough to not utter a single word against the government and to foolishly believe the propaganda that is being spread to further elicit complacency.

Frodsham continues to explain that For Orwell, Nature was essentially good and technology essentially evil. Technology in 1984 is used to enslave men, not liberate them(142). It is interesting to note that many technologies are in current use that help the government surveil and keep their people in line so utter chaos does not ensue. However, the extent of which the novel uses technologies such as the speakwrite and telescreen as a form of control is quite literally frightening as one misspoken word or action could get one killed. The extreme misuse technology in the novel is, quite literally, evil in the sense that, technology is innovative and meant to help one live a more comfortable life, but is rather used to constrain people into a very limited form of living where fear prevails and peace of mind does not.

In the novel, O’Brien explains that:”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. (1984, 175). The power that O’Brien is illustrating is in and of itself desolate. It is a power that provides for no security or peace of mind for the people as a whole but rather illustrates the burning desire of the few who are in power to gain more and more power, of course without second thought of the consequences and without second thought for the wellbeing of the people. The greed that is illustrated in O’ Brien’s explanation as claimed by critic H. Mark Roelofs, stems from the knowledge that, power of this order cannot be possessed by a single individual – except in and for the perpetuation of myth, to wit, the myth of Big Brother.

In fact, toted power can be possessed only by a class, or a party representing a class(23). In essence, having power of that extent possibly be held in the hands of one individual. However brainwashing the population into believing that there exists someone in the right who is all seeing and all controlling, Big Brother, and symbolically having someone who is trying to overthrow this myth of Big Brother who is in the wrong, as demonstrated by the enemy of Oceania, Emmanuel Goldstein, essentially makes the people ideologically complacent to the control of Oceania’s Party. As further explained by the critic Roelofs, In consequence, their power could be taken to the ultimate pitch… total power is more like an absolute perversion of love(23). As a result of the Party’s lust for power and greed combined with an overall lack of concern over the well being of the population as a whole, people like O’brien, who find those going against the societal norms to completely and utterly destroy the thinking, conscious and rational mind, essentially the self, allow for a almost mindless and unquestioning loyalty to the Party to be instigated.

Furthermore, in the novel O’brien exclaims If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever (178). Essentially, the Party has created a government without freedom, a grim reality that is substantially hopeless for the populace.

There seems to be an overall lack of compassion, gratitude, and true criticism of the power hungry government that stems from rational thought based on the idea that government is meant to protect the wellbeing of the people. Roelofs claims that, It must always be noted that party members “love” (i.e., “merge” themselves with) the Party, and that the populace – and Winston Smith in particular- must “love” Big Brother (23). Because the people have been conditioned to such an extent to believe that they must “love” Big Brother, they know only how to believe the lies the government is feeding them with a spoon and lack the ability to criticise and provide for intelligent debate that may help improve the well being of the people. Likewise the extreme forms of surveillance make this task quite difficult since so few are willing to stand up for better humane treatment at the expense of their lives.

The self is a concept that is constantly being sought after, along with individuality and uniqueness. However, due to the inhumanity and cruelty illustrated throughout the book, the self along with individuality is not something that is considered or even widely sought after. According to the critic Irving Howe, Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime..and Orwell has imagined a world in which the self, whatever subterranean existence it manages to eke out, is no longer a significant value, not even a value to be violated (195). The very idea of having an identity, within the dystopian society that orwell has created, is seen as being blasphemous.

The people are often depicted as robots, doing what the masses do, never stepping out of line for fear of severe judgement, and never once thinking or speaking their minds because they have been conditioned to not think. Therefore because the people are so far gone under the control of the government , none can ever have an original opinion or thought, none can critique, and none can ever be able to contemplate what it is to be human, to have an identity and a sense of self. The horrifying illustration of the older generation not being able to teach the younger generation how to think analytically and always question and have intelligent conversations comes into play through the portrayal of mindlessness throughout the novel. 1984 demonstrates the horrific society in which politics has overridden a person’s ability to express themselves freely without fear of reprimands along with society and how it functions as a whole and Howe describes the novel as a profoundly anti-political book, full of hatred for the kind of world in which public claims destroy the possibilities for privacy (196).

It should be noted that Orwell’s intention of the messages in the book are not anti-political in nature but are rather anti- totalitarian in which the entire state is required to have total subservience to a centralized and dictatorial authority. This is shown illustrated to the many instances of a lack of privacy and surveillance taken to extreme levels to garner complete and utter conformity of the people the government serves along with the utter lack of care of the government towards the people they are meant to serve and protect.

To further demonstrate the illusion of good living conditions and security, the government has workers such as the main character, Winston, erasing and rewriting history and facts to prevent truth from reaching the public and to spread lies. As illuminated by R. B Reeves: inhabitants of this world (of crowded apartment houses that reek of boiled cabbage, of foul smelling Victory Gin, of Victory Cigarettes that fall apart) cannot know how truly bleak their lives are since they have no means of comparison. All knowledge of the past has been altered; so there is no way of discovering whether life had been better previously(14).

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