[Published at Independent Australia]
I’m not the only one having thoughts of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own reminder came through Donald Trump’s flirtation with Russia. Suddenly Russia switches from being the Evil Empire to being a useful ally. And when Trump feels his grip on power might be slipping he’ll pick a fight to distract us. Who will he pick a fight with? Obviously China.
We are in Orwell’s world. There are three superpowers: Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia. We are at war with Eurasia and Eastasia is our ally. No, we are at war with Eastasia and Eurasia is our ally. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
One gets the strong impression that this is how the inside of Trump’s head works; one hesitates to call it a mind. A wildly contradictory jumble of wants, notions, hates, lusts, all cohabiting in the one head with no sense of dissonance or contradiction.
To some degree this is a very human condition. None of us is as rational and consistent as we would like to think. However in better times more of us manage to refer to some kind of rationality and reality, and to avoid putting the raving nutters in charge. However when times get challenging, we do tend to turn to the raving nutters.
It is instructive to reread Orwell’s story. Obviously many details are different from the reality that unfolded. On the other hand there are some poignant echoes of his thinking in our present age.
Orwell was a disillusioned socialist writing in 1948. The fictional worlds he portrays in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four are worlds in which socialism has been captured by autocrats. He died in 1950 and thus never experienced what was Western capitalism’s most beneficial (or least destructive) period, in which not only did wealth rise dramatically but, not coincidentally, it was more equitably shared than before or since.
That period of democratic socialism, which ended in the 1970s, does not fit simply with Orwell’s analysis of history. He says societies have always comprised three levels: the top level, who are in control, the middle level, who would like to be in control, and the bottom level comprising workers and slaves who are so oppressed they rarely realise how powerful they could be. Sometimes some of the middle level rise and seize power, but then everything goes on as before.
In the postwar decades greater shares of power and wealth were claimed by the middle and lower classes. However from 1980 on the wealthy top level worked to recapture such power as the lower levels had attained. This program has been very successful, and the former social democracies are now more accurately described as plutocracies. We are now closer to Orwell’s scheme.
The central feature of Orwell’s story is thought control. His totalitarian society of Oceania has gone much further than controlling behaviour. It constantly monitors everyone for signs of errant thought. Not only that, it goes to great lengths to control perceptions of reality. It constantly rewrites history, and it requires its subjects to instantly forget they ever knew history was different from what is currently proclaimed.
The latter skill is described by the Newspeak word blackwhite. One must not only agree black is white, one must believe black is white, indeed simply know black is white. A larger skill is called doublethink. This is the ability to hold contradictory ideas without any sense of dissonance.
This brings us back to our own strange reality. Donald Trump is not the first US leader to be skilled at doublethink. The Bush II administration set about fighting for peace. Ronald Reagan called Central American Contra terrorists “freedom fighters”.
Neither is the manipulation of reality anything new. The Bushies proudly proclaimed that they created reality, that reality was whatever they said it was. Apparently, though, they weren’t very skilled, because the reality they created in the Middle East came back to bite them rather badly, though of course they never admit that.
Nor is thought crime anything new. It is now reported that a US congressman has introduced a bill to declare peaceful demonstrations and marches to be “economic terrorism” punishable by jail. This would be flagrantly unconstitutional, except for the convenient fact that there are now some minds occupying the US Supreme Court who are quite adept at blackwhite, with more to be added in the near future.
So the US Constitution becomes whatever the Supreme Court says it is. This is the body, of course, that found Florida’s voting system to be acceptable in 2000, and that later declared that corporations, long since regarded in the US as “natural persons”, can contribute as much money as they like to any political candidate they favour.
We are of course well along this path in Australia. New South Wales has a draconian law punishing protesters against mining and fracking with heavy fines and prison, and imposing much lighter penalties on miners and developers who violate the law of the land. Once and possibly future Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared that people attempting to use the courts to see that the law of the land is upheld were indulging in environmental lawfare.
The Turnbull Government is looking for a way to prevent citizens from speaking and lobbying collectively through bodies such as GetUp, while of course regarding systematic secret lobbying, massive and opaque political donations and incessant plutocratic propaganda from commercial media as simply being the natural order.
The increasingly flagrant attacks on the poor and disadvantaged, in the context of extreme and increasing inequality of wealth, echoes Orwell’s observation that “In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance”.
Orwell was pretty clear regarding the motives of the powerful. Dictators, he said, always claim to be acting for the good of the people, but in fact their dominant or only motivation is to gain power over everyone else. This leads him to the bleak conclusion that human societies will always be hierarchical and autocratic, if not totalitarian.
More modern understanding, echoing ancient wisdom, allows us more hope. The modern insight is that people become control freaks because they were not made to feel secure as infants. They spend their lives trying to make the world feel safe for themselves by controlling everything around them.
People who have more secure and happy childhoods are more resilient, and more capable of living with the uncertainty of a complex world. They have a greater capacity for tolerance and compassion. This seems to have been better understood by many traditional societies, in which ambitious or disruptive members were held in check by strong social restraints, and in which collective decisions were made more by consensus.
Modern studies show we have a large repertoire of behaviours that serve the coherence of the group we belong to, and that help to reconcile individual needs with group needs. It is this tension between the individual and the group that gives life its richness. This insight is equally lacking in communism, which stresses the group over the individual, and neoliberalism, which stresses the individual over the group.
Social coherence was easier to accomplish within small traditional communities, but we are still quite capable of more enlightened behaviour. The challenge of course is to draw forth and act on our better instincts within larger societies.