Orwellian; A term often brought up by people at any point on the political spectrum. But what does it actually mean?
This is a series examining common talking points in current political discussion. It will serve as a reference in future content.
Eric Arthur Blair, better known under his pen name George Orwell, was an author of the 20th century, most known for his anti-authoritarian works Animal Farm and 1984.
Almost everyone on the political spectrum will, at some point or another, cite Orwell or one of his ideas in support of their argument. This is interesting because Orwell himself was a convinced socialist and fought alongside anarchists (of the communist kind,) in the spanish civil war. He even wrote an entire book about it.
The word you'll most commonly hear is Orwellian, often as a stand-in for censorship in the dystopian vision of 1984. In the rarest cases, use of the term does the actual concept justice.
In 1984, the part of the world which we experience is ruled by an authoritarian superstate and its only party, which uses a few methods to control their people and stay in power which make up “Orwellian”, none of which are based on pure censorship. The Grand Narrative, the State Panopticon and the erosion of Language and Truth.
The Grand Narrative is the most conventional mechanic by which the party stays in power. It consists of the leader of the party, representative of the system and embodiment of virtue itself, Big Brother, and, on the other side, Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy number one and personified evil advocating the harmful and disruptive. All propaganda revolves around this conflict, where desirable traits are attributed to Big Brother and undesirable ones to Golstein. Anything bad the party can not or does not want to hide from the population is attributed to Goldstein in regular broadcasts named “Two Minutes Hate”. This is not a unique concept in 1984, but it does work well in tandem with the ones which are more unique.
The State Panopticon, no worries if you've never heard the word, is the part which is most often brought up today in reference to surveillance and technological progress. A panopticon was originally a form of prison where the cells would be arranged in a ring, facing inward towards a courtyard, with an observation tower in the center. The observation tower would either have tinted glass or one-way mirrors. Any inmate of such a prison would have to assume being watched at any time, compelling them to act as expected, even if the guards could not watch more than a few inmates at a time. Telescreens in 1984 fulfill a similar role. Chapter 1 describes them this way:
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 they 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 scrutinised.
They are, in a sense, the safety net of the regime. Even if someone is entirely unaffected by the state propaganda they will be brought to conformity by the uncertainly of being watched or listened to and the threat of a visit to the Ministry of Love.
Talking about the Ministry of Love, the most interesting way the party holds control over the people is the Erosion of Language and Truth. The official language, newspeak, is a version of English that is constantly being simplified. But simplification is not the only thing that is happening, some words vanish entirely, or are robbed of all meaning. This is where the famous 3 statements “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength” come from. In newspeak, these words are equivalent. An idea that cannot be put into words effectively doesn't exist. A mind with no concept of rebellion will not rebel. This is censorship on such a sophisticated and advanced level that whatever people usually call Orwellian pales in comparison. Complimentary to this, the Ministry of Truth holds strong control over every piece of media ever released, removing anyone who steps out of line from history permanently or correcting predictions made by Big Brother not come true.
1984 is, in a lot of ways, a timeless classic, and while the apathy sometimes observed in our times might be more relatable to works akin to Huxley’s Brave New World, a lot of concepts are still relevant. Panopticism, for instance, as part of the analysis of the modern penal system in french philosopher Michael Foucault’s 1975 book “Disclipine and Punish,” and more recently in context much more relevant to 1984, in Glenn Greenwald’s coverage of the NSA surveillance disclosures. But looking at Orwell’s work in a historical context reveals 1984 to be a clear denunciation of the socialism of Joseph Stalin. The cult of personality and the way Stalin disposed of political enemies, often attempting to remove their entire existence from collective consciousness, matches the modus operandi of Big Brother and the party in 1984.