Opinion

Are We Living in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World?

In a world where surveillance and technology coexists with human activity, Alex Lever explores whether 2017 reflects Orwell’s or Huxley’s novel.

By Alex Lever

Earlier this year, the novel 1984 by George Orwell jumped up to number one book bestseller on Amazon. This prompts reflections on the themes of both novels and comparisons between the worlds depicted in 1984 and 2017, which can both be contrasted with the world of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. 

Firstly, let’s compare 2017 with 1984. 1984 is set in a Britain called Air Strip One in a world divided between Oceania, Eastasia and Euraisa. The novel follows Winston Smith and his rebellion against the totalitarian society led by The Party and their leader Big Brother.

Surveillance is widespread in 1984. There are two types: panoptical and surreptitious. Panoptical surveillance is interiorised self-surveillance. In the belief that one is under surveillance, one censors oneself to avoid unorthodoxy which if detected would be detrimental. Surreptitious surveillance is the opposite. One believes they are in a private space not under surveillance so is disinhibited and acts and thinks freely. This makes it possible for an unsuspected spy to detect one’s true beliefs.

The term “panopticon” comes from Jeremy Bentham, who used it to describe a building from which at a single point a single inspector could monitor many occupants. Believing they were under inspection, occupants would avoid incriminating behaviour. For this effect to occur, it is not necessary that occupants are actually under surveillance at a given time, but that the person should always feel as if they are under surveillance. Bentham called this the “inspection principle”. This is different from the panopticon as a structure enabling ubiquitous surveillance. Ubiquitous surveillance would not engage the inspection principle if people under inspection were not aware that they were. It would be engaged if people believed that they were under surveillance, even if they were not. In 1984, Winston thinks to the point of instinct as if his every sound is being overheard and except in darkness his every movement followed. Winston self-censors and plays for the camera, pretending to believe and think what he is supposed to whilst hiding his true thoughts. Crime extends from action and thought itself – “thoughtcrime”. There is also the belief that Big Brother’s eyes and ears can reach into the private domain. This leads to total panopticism where it is prudent to not just avoid the signs of unorthodox thought, to the extent they can be avoided, but unorthodox thought itself, to the extent it is possible to never have thought of it in the first place.

Surreptitious surveillance works not to prevent thought or speech like panopticism, instead to detect what people really think or believe by surveilling their speech and action when they are disinhibited in the false belief that they are in a private setting. For example, when Winston is not in the range of a camera, he is disinhibited and acts and thinks freely, revealing his true thoughts and beliefs. The two surveillance strategies work in contradictory ways, whereby on the one hand Winston seems to believe surveillance is ubiquitous and there is no escaping it as propaganda reminds, but on the other hand he believes that sometimes he is not under surveillance. In this belief he reveals himself without inhibition, allowing spies to detect his true thoughts. He believes his secret diary is private and writes his innermost thoughts. He believes the room he rents with Julia is private and so expresses his true desires. But he is mistaken; these seemingly private spaces were being surveilled, which Winston suspected in accordance with the contrary belief he held. His habit had not become instinct.

Surveillance works in tandem with propaganda in 1984. There are posters that read “Big Brother Is Watching You”. This is propaganda about surveillance which propagates the belief necessary for panoptic surveillance. One effect is that the eyes of Big Brother are made to seem like they are following Winston. The eyes appear on items such as stamps, cigarette packages and books which in Winston’s mind creates an image of no escape. These metaphorical eyes refer to surveillance whereas the items are instruments of propaganda. The poster also works as propaganda for the belief in Big Brother. He is depicted as handsome in order to dispose people to love him. The image works to persuade people he is watching and that it is comforting.

One form of propaganda is the control of information, managing and rewriting all newspapers and histories. Winston works at the agency in charge of this, the Ministry of Truth. The Party doesn’t allow individuals to keep records of the past such as photographs. Consequently, memories become unreliable and citizens believe whatever the Party tells them to. By controlling the present, the Party manipulates the past. By controlling the past, the Party can legitimise its actions in the present or “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. This information is all lies presented as facts, which also serve a role in propagating values or value judgements. What matters to the Party is the beliefs people form on political concerns from the information provided by the facts. For example, people are led to believe that life under the Party is better than it was before the Party took control.  The other type of propaganda is that of fiction. Within the Ministry of Truth is the Fiction Department where its members work on novels, art and literature. These mediums purport to entertain or provide aesthetic satisfaction. Political messaging is indirectly included in this propaganda.

The Party’s project is also to control what people think and believe. The control of thought is the imposition of orthodoxy. This has to do with having the right beliefs in accordance to what the Party wants people to think. This refers to any desired belief including ideology, facts and values. The objective is for people to believe what the Party says is true and what it calls good is good. There are no laws to follow but there are norms, the transgression of which is a crime. It is not enough to even just conform to the ideas; one has to believe them wholeheartedly. Propaganda instils the beliefs; surveillance polices them. Panoptic surveillance is preventive self-policing. Surreptitious surveillance weeds out those who hide their deviance in public, catching them out in private. These tasks fall to the Thought Police.

Big Brother can be linked to today’s all powerful spy agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ. There is a technological screen in Winston’s world called ‘telescreens’. These are twenty-four hours operating screens placed in the homes of inner Party members since not everyone can afford them. These effectively monitor citizens. In addition, telescreens act as propaganda devices through broadcasting information. This level of surveillance is similar to the way the NSA uses warrantless wiretapping, maintaining a cell database and engage in data-mining. In Britain new powers for spy agencies under the Investigatory Powers Bill includes allowing security services to hack into computers, networks, mobile devices, servers and more, internet history data will have to be stored for 12 months and intelligence agencies will also be able to obtain and use “bulk personal datasets”. This is quite clearly more advanced than Orwell’s imagination and a whole lot more encompassing. We all own a ‘telescreen’ which we carry everywhere we go, and willingly paid for ourselves. Information is readily accessible via social media where people provide you with their name, age, date of birth, location, address and number. Through webcams spying on people is quite easy. The private domain is not really protected at all by freedom of privacy and is rather easy to penetrate.

The propagation of false facts could be likened to the emergence of ‘alternative’ facts which was coined in a conversation between Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and news anchor Chuck Todd. This concerned falsehoods about the alleged size of the crowd at the inauguration of Donald Trump. At the heart of this is the distorting of facts and the truth in order to shape a certain view of an issue or event. This shows the power of information as a means of telling the truth to readers and how some politicians want to manipulate the truth and structure the narrative. It shows how falsehoods can be conceived as the truth depending on who is saying it. This can have a major effect when people choose to believe a person, or read and believe something that is false. This could lead to the same consequence in 1984 – that people believe whatever someone or something says.

Language is used as a means of control. Through the structuring of language, the Party alter language so it is impossible to conceive of rebellious thoughts because there would be no words to express them. This is manifested in Newspeak which the Party developed to replace English. The Party are constantly refining it, as seen by the words in the dictionary dwindling with each edition, with the goal being that no one will be able to conceptualise anything to challenge the Party’s power, therefore eliminating thought and making orthodoxy part of unconsciousness. In the real world, this emphasises the importance of the freedoms of speech and expression as with these freedoms individuals can question government policies.

The Party also utilise psychological manipulation. This is designed to prevent independent thought. The telescreens spew out propaganda that turns the shortcomings of the Party into successes. Family structure is undermined by the Party inducting children into an organisation called the Junior Spies, which brainwashes and encourages them to spy on their parents and report any disloyalty. The Party also forces individuals to repress their sexual desires, seeing sex as a procreative duty to produce new Party members. The Party channels the frustration of members into emotional displays of hatred against the Party’s political enemies. Many of these enemies, namely ‘Emmanuel Goldstein’, have been invented by the Party. In addition, “doublethink” is an important consequence of the psychological manipulation. Doublethink is the concept of holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time. As people lose independent thought, it becomes possible for people to believe anything the Party says even while holding information that runs counter to it. For example, people are able to accept the different ministries’ names though they contradict their functions: the Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages, the Ministry of Truth conducts propaganda and historical revisionism, the Ministry of Peace wages war and the Ministry of Love is the centre for torture and punishment.

The level of psychological manipulation depicted in 1984 is not seen today. The closest comparison is channelling hatred to an ‘other’. To an extent, Donald Trump utilised this to win the US election by presenting Muslims as a threat to the US national security; a representation now being put into policy through the attempts to pass a Muslim ban. This othering effectively finds a scapegoat for the problems facing a society; in this case, Americans have someone to blame rather than the government, who can use the scapegoat to deflect attention away from their failings. The insecurity and fear developed through this leads to support for the man or policies acting against it. “War is Peace”, one of the Party’s slogans, is used to keep the people united through having a common enemy.

“War is Peace” is similarly utilised through The Party’s policy of continual war, with the enemy alternating between Eastasia and Eurasia, in order to eat up economic surplus and keep the people poor and under control. The objective is not the same, but we can see this slogan in action when observing the US military engagements having withdrawn from Afghanistan and now fighting in Libya then Syria. The main enemy here are terrorists, which back in the US justifies the continuation of the NSA surveillance measures and the encroachment on privacy.

Another slogan is “Freedom is Slavery”. In our free society, there is corporate slavery. A need for income forces people to often work two jobs in order to earn enough to survive. The work day is regimented with 9-5 working hours in a day. Many professions require contracts signing over the athlete or performer’s rights of image, artistic integrity and performance expectations. The cost of attempting to end a contract often leads to its termination.

In 1984 the vast majority of the population, the Proles, are not under surveillance. The Party give them a regular infusion of food, alcohol, the lottery and pornography, keeping the Proles under control. This could be likened to today’s infusion added with television entertainment and sport. This is like the idea of “bread and circuses” coined by the Roman writer Juvenal. This describes the appeasement of the people by politicians which results in the people becoming less concerned with effective public policy and more concerned with the satisfaction of their needs. However, in current times people may have become more politically aware as seen by the reaction against globalisation, the EU and the emergence of support for right-wing forces. Although, political apathy could be linked with appeasement. This could be because people feel satisfied enough with the government at the time in their country, do not feel affected directly by politics or politics is a low priority compared to the tribulations and concerns of their personal lives.

Political apathy ties in with the Party slogan of “Ignorance is Strength”. A general ignoring of politics can allow a government to pursue their policies unchallenged by the public. These ideas of not debating rationally and scrutinising could be termed anti-intellectualism. An anti-intellectual society could lead to people being motivated by fear, susceptible to tribalism and simplistic explanations, incapable of emotional maturity and prone to violent solutions. Vested interests and politicians can take advantage of this. For instance, in America corporations are politically dominant actors, which has led to large degrees of conditioning of people to materialism and consumption with people spending money on goods and services they do not need. An uninformed and distracted public cannot question the influence of lobbying and the government policies created by corporate lawyers and lobbyists. Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is testament to the power of excessive fear-mongering and nationalism fuelled by the power of emotion. This is similar to the conduct of the Brexit Leave and Remain campaigns in the UK around the fears of leaving the EU or the fears of remaining in the EU. There are also few safe places to discuss politics with even the use of language in such discussions being policed by political correction. This misses the idea of challenging opposing views, whether they are discriminatory or not, and engaging in a constructive debate whereby being presented with new information can lead one to change their opinion.

Ultimately in 1984 it is torture that defeats Winston. Winston’s unorthodox thoughts and his love for Julia are changed by his experience in Room 101. In this room he faces his greatest fear – rats. Winston is “reeducated” through the systematic and brutal torture. He comes to the conclusion that no moral conviction or emotional loyalty can overcome the power of physical pain. Other forms of physical control include the Party viewing facial twitches as signs of disloyalty, mass morning exercises called the Physical Jerks and working long days at agencies to keep people in a state of general exhaustion. In today’s world torture is a human rights offence and is legally prohibited in many countries. However, some governments do conduct torture for the purposes of finding out information namely for national security reasons such as preventing terrorism. This does not make torture any less bad but underlines that the power of physical pain can push individuals to the breaking point.

Alternatively, how close is our current world to that of Brave New World?

Brave New World is a utopia of sorts. It is a world controlled by a World State wherein the rulers have various methods of control with some similarities to the present day. Firstly, babies are created in test tubes. This leads to genetic engineering in which a caste system has been developed splitting society between workers and intellectuals. The babies have no family, mothers or fathers thus no familial attachments. This is because humans do not produce offspring and instead surgically removed ovaries produce ova that are fertilised in receptacles and incubated in special bottles. This allows for the state to condition children to be dedicated to the World State. This shows one aspect of how technology can be used for control. The caste system can be seen as similar to class systems as proposed by Marxism whereby one class, the bourgeoisie, precede over a lower class, the proletariat. Indoctrination can be observed today through the general acceptance of capitalism in the West despite challenges against it and signs of its failures.

Secondly, there is control exerted through a drug called “soma”. It provides instant self-gratification. As a means of control soma removes people from reality by replacing it with happy hallucinations. This promotes social stability, since no one faces the truth of their situation and therefore act against the World State. The influence of soma alludes to the prevalence of drugs today, legal and illegal. According to the UN World Drug Report 2016, one in twenty adults used at least one drug in 2014, and 29 million drug users suffer from drug use disorders, with cannabis the most commonly used drug with an estimated 183 million people using it in 2014. These statistics highlight the widespread use of drugs in the world. It could be questioned whether governments are intentionally not doing enough to stop illegal drug use in order to maintain some control over their societies by keeping people occupied with drugs. For instance, in the US, marijuana has been legalised for medical use and/or decriminalised for recreational use in several states, including Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Could drug legalisation and/or decriminalisation have a correlation with social order? Possibly not, due to the number of crimes related to drugs. The UN World Drug Report found “A stronger relationship was found between drug use and shoplifting, general theft and drug dealing than between drug use and other crimes”. Furthermore, there is the effect of drugs on breaking up families and health issues among other problems. All of these issues add to social problems, which means it is to a large extent not plausible that the widespread use of drugs could be a mechanism of control.

Ultimately, the largest means of control is the society the World State creates. It is a combination of the worst of capitalism and socialism: from the former the subordination of the individual to the supremacy of the World State, and from the latter the reduction of the individual to compulsive consumer. Society is kept so happy and superficially fulfilled that they do not care about their personal freedom. The consequences are a loss of dignity, morals, values and emotions-a loss of humanity. The World State is attempting to destroy ‘human’ truths such as love, friendship and personal connection. The search for truth is an individual endeavour that the communal society of Brave New World, based on anonymity and lack of thought, cannot allow to exist. Thus, the World State aim to maintain control through the destruction of the individual, as signified by the World State motto: “Community, Identity, Stability”.

In relation to the real world, Huxley’s vision may not be far off since it is a satire of our consumerist society, where the World State represents an extreme version of contemporary economic values in which happiness is the ability to fulfil needs and success as a society is linked with economic growth and prosperity.  Consumerism can be defined as the preoccupation of society with buying goods. One of the consequences is an attachment to materialistic values. Some of the effects of this are the promotion of hedonism, the eroding of cultural values such as family orientation and the work ethic, as individuals become more obsessed with satisfying themselves and more motivated by material reward than a work ethic. It is more of a societal issue today than whether governments allow the consumerist society to flourish in order to maintain control. Although it could just as well be a more subtle manner in which governments control people. Furthermore, on the one hand individualism is an important aspect of society today as people seek to stand out to compete for jobs, become famous, and are known by friends and family because of their characteristics and personality. However, homogenisation of society can be seen as people look to conform with societal expectations, people who do not are labelled ‘outsiders’ and difference is not always celebrated.

Anyone up for writing 2017? In my opinion, the contemporary world is closer to a combination of both Huxley and Orwell’s visions of society. The mass consumerism and soma of Brave New World are very relatable to modern society’s consumerist society with the prevalence of drugs. The capacities of surveillance and the power of torture from 1984 come the closest to reality; the ideas of “War is Peace”, “Ignorance is Freedom” and “Ignorance is Strength” also reflect today’s world. Falsification of information and the spreading of lies as facts are also prominent today. Both novels can be viewed as satires presenting extremes, with Brave New World presenting the ultimate utopia on one hand, and 1984 the ultimate totalitarian state on the other. Both books can also create uncertainty over fact and fiction, and not just what one is supposed to believe but also what one ought to believe. Ultimately, through a reading of both books, light is shed on many aspects of society, politics and governments which can make the reader more attuned to noticing the similarities and differences between today and the world of the novels.

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