George Orwell once famously wrote: “Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.”
Even though George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was originally written as a work of fiction, much of what is portrayed in the book mirrors the realities of our bleak world.
The similarities between the totalitarian systems being implemented in a clandestine manner in our world today and that of Orwell’s 1984 are uncanny. When a centralized power disguised as the state tries to virtually control all aspects of our life, it become a totalitarian system.
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Originally, it was communism and fascism that gave birth to and supported totalitarianism, which now has disguised itself as various ideologies that are intended to benefit our society. Even though they are considered to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, both communism and fascism have deep rooted attributes of a centralized all controlling power. It has been seen historically that both systems use force and propaganda to reach the pinnacles of power, crush any resistance to maintain that power, collapse economies, curb freedom of any form, poison the culture, impose mass surveillance and manufacture fear within the society with psychological tactics and brainwashing. If these aren’t enough, mass imprisonment and murder are used as a way to get their ways. Orwell was speaking of Stalin’s Communist Russia and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, when he said that “The two regimes, having started from opposite ends, are rapidly evolving towards the same system — a form of oligarchical collectivism.”
Manufactured fear was used as a tactic by the totalitarian state to control the population in the book 1984, and this is also evident historically in the communist and fascist political system. Author of the book ‘Rape of the Mind’, Joost Meerloo once said, “Totalitarian leaders, whether of the right or of the left, know better than anyone else how to make use of fear. They thrive on chaos and bewilderment. The strategy of fear is one of their most valuable tactics.”
Fear is also manufactured by the constant surveillance that the people are subjected to. Surveillance had become an integral part of the psychological warfare of the regime in Orwell’s book. Such covert surveillance allowed for efficient control, kill all protests at its infancy and induce paranoia. Under such a system, it was unlikely for people to dare to even think of doing anything that would go against the state’s interests. Orwell explains that this surveillance was carried out through the technology that was installed in everyone’s homes.
He writes, “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever the wanted to. You had to live- did live, from habit that became instinct- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
If we compare this scenario to our modern world, we would realize that such technologies already exist in our homes and could be effectively put to use for mass surveillance.
In 1984, mass surveillance was also imposed by the citizens themselves. Each citizen was watching the others and, in turn, was being watched by everyone. Any criticism of the Big Brother, or even a subtle statement, a nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety or a harmless expression was reported and considered a ‘thoughtcrime’ or a ‘facecrime’ and presented as evidence of disloyalty to the regime.
Writing about Stalinist Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in the book The Gulag Archipelago, “The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.”
In addition to the omnipresent manufactured fear and surveillance, a state of uncertainty and mental disorientation is created among the people. Falsification of history, propagation of apparent lies and the denial of truth were the tactics adopted in 1984 to execute this. Falsification of history eliminated anything from the past that could be used as a comparative reference point to hint that life in the past was much better than the present.
Psychological warfare through incessant and conflicting information designed to confuse the public and promote lies becomes a norm in such a regime. Enslavement of the individual is presented as freedom and censoring information is justified as protection of the truth in a totalitarian system. In 1984, the Ministry of Peace indulged in unnecessary wars, the Ministry of Truth propagated lies, and the Ministry of Plenty created shortages.
Orwell called it “that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow, and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree”. It creates a mental bewilderment that cause the average citizen to eventually stop knowing what to think. By blurring the lines between truth and lies or fact and fiction, the populace becomes completely dependent on an authority figure to feed them ideas.
In 1984, the main character Winston surrenders all logic and conscience and begins to accept the lies, after being arrested by the Thought Police and subjected to a “re-education”. He becomes an unquestioning slave to the totalitarian regime. While this ending might seem pessimistic to many, it is far from it. The ending not only cautions the reader about a dystopian future, but plants a seed in their minds to begin an awakening process within them and to inspire a revolution within people to overthrow any oppressive regime that might try to enslave humanity.
It has to be recognized that totalitarianism relies on public support, and so, we as a society desperately need more people to stand up to any brutal oppression. Orwell only had this to say: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”