Orwell Was Right-And Wrong: George Orwell's 1984 Accurately Portrays Many Aspects of Totalitarianism, but This Tale of "Big Brother" Is Not without Its Flaws

By Scaliger, Charles | The New American, May 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

Orwell Was Right-And Wrong: George Orwell's 1984 Accurately Portrays Many Aspects of Totalitarianism, but This Tale of "Big Brother" Is Not without Its Flaws


Scaliger, Charles, The New American


Author George Orwell's old neighborhood is looking, well, positively Orwellian these days. According to a recent article in London's Daily Mail, 32 closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras keep the commons under constant surveillance within 200 yards of Orwell's old apartment overlooking Canonbury Square in North London. Two such cameras, perched on traffic lights, monitor the gardens in the square, while two more watch the area behind the apartment. Throughout London, from streetlights, lampposts, building walls, and other unobtrusive spots, in tube stations, bus stops, squares, and parks, CCTV cameras continuously monitor the comings and goings of London's millions of residents and visitors.

Elsewhere in England, some cameras are even being equipped with loudspeakers, enabling government personnel monitoring the cameras to bark warnings at people observed littering or committing other misdemeanors. Britain is said to have roughly 4.2 million CCTV cameras--one for every 14 people--and accounts for 20 percent of the world total.

American citizens are no strangers to surveillance either. Surveillance cameras record our every move in many public places, especially areas where security is deemed paramount, such as airports. Our e-mails and phone calls are subject to warrantless monitoring. And police checkpoints, where vehicles are stopped (and sometimes searched) and drivers interrogated, are becoming commonplace. Is it realistic to expect that a state with the power and inclination to monitor its citizens so pervasively would not, ultimately, abuse this power?

To be sure, we're still a far cry from Orwell's fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, featured in the famous novel 1984, where two-way "telescreens" and the omnipresent Thought Police monitor every facial expression, and where the suffocating orthodoxy of "The Party" has all but snuffed out individuality. But the general contours of the modern state, with its almost unlimited powers of surveillance and its penchant for constant propaganda, were foreseen more accurately by George Orwell than by almost anyone else.

The World of 1984

1984 opens with the decision of the protagonist, a mid-level Party functionary named Winston Smith, to commit "thoughtcrime." Winston begins keeping a journal chronicling his nightmarish life in a future London, an impoverished, bombed-out husk of the former British capital. England itself has become Airstrip One, a province of Oceania, a superstate that apparently includes the entire New World. Vying with Oceania for global dominion are Eurasia and East-asia, with which Oceania is alternatively at war, switching allegiances every few years, apparently at the whim of Party leadership.

The Party itself, loosely patterned after the Soviet Bolsheviks, is emblemized by Big Brother, the semi-mythical, almost messianic party figurehead. The four ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty, and Love are responsible, respectively, for propaganda, war, economic affairs, and ensuring the absolute obedience of the populace, especially Party members. The Party's three slogans embody its deliberately contradictory world view: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Orwell's tale follows Winston Smith as he spirals more and more deeply into thoughtcrime, knowing throughout that the Thought Police will catch him eventually. He develops a forbidden love interest in Julia, a young co-worker who detests the Party as much as he does. Winston even makes contact with what he believes is a subversive underground movement dedicated to the Party's overthrow.

Eventually both Winston and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love, where Winston finally comes face to face with the Party's monstrous and irresistible final aim: to stamp out utterly the last vestiges of human individuality and independence of thought, all in the name of the unalloyed and unapologetic pursuit of absolute power. …

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