1984 came thirty years late, some would have us know.
The total surveillance Orwell describes required technology that was still a dream in the 1980’s, but is commonplace now.
We are now living in a time when some televisions (and almost all computers) literally watch us. Our media is openly manipulated by government. The masses are regularly whipped into a flurry of anger resembling the “two minutes hate” thanks to cable news and social media. Doublespeak, doublethink, and thoughtcrime all have their references in our daily reality. Our politics resembles a small oligarchy within a faceless bureaucracy, surrounded by masses of ordinary proles who struggle to exist.
But the truth of the novel goes far beyond Orwell’s dystopian vision based on surveillance and control — and the degree to which he forecast our reality. It calls out something eternal.
1984 works well as a tragedy. Everyman protagonist Winston Smith takes on unconquerable odds, and loses. It’s also a love story, as he likely never would have gone there had it not been for his inspiring relationship with Julia. In later chapters, there are some interesting insights into how BDSM works as a false intimacy.
But really, the rest of the story almost serves as a wrapper for the political ideology described in Emmanuel Goldstein’s work smuggled to Winston and quoted at length in Part Two. This book-within-a-book is Orwell’s method of laying out his own political insights in a way that compliments the fictional narrative.
And the message is: The purpose of power is power.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.
In some important ways, 1984 shows the ultimate consequences of the Enlightenment. It’s the absolute inversion of humanity that occurs when a transcendent basis of truth is denied or eliminated. It’s the Gnosticism that Eric Voegelin levied against, but cranked up to eleven. It’s not enough for the Party to embody some value at odds with human tradition and posit the superiority of its own system. In 1984, the Party’s goal, purpose, and stated mission is to make truth. That’s the ultimate power the Party demands for itself, and at any human cost.
But that drive for power predates any recent technological advance. Power for the sake of power was the prime value of governments and elites thousands of years ago. We’re just far better at achieving it these days. Our “Party” has better methods, and a far greater degree of unknowing complicity, than ever could have been imagined before.
As a novel, 1984 remains a dark, deep, terrifying read. Orwell was not only clairvoyant, but could also write. However, some things get blotted out or slurred by his urge to lay out his argument. We can grant that Winston misjudges those who end up betraying him only if we allow that his love for Julia led him to make some major errors in judgment. He’s not a sympathetic character in many ways, so his fate might understandably leave some readers unmoved. The reasons the Party gives for torturing rather than just killing him seem jimmied-in at times. Nothing is absolute — not even power — so the world as the novel leaves it isn’t really satisfying. Something’s going to break at some point, and change — if not betterment — will occur.
And given how well the author foresaw things about our world of 2014, we can only hope so.