Oceania’s war with Eurasia, and other 1984 comparisons
In the following, I will detail several ways in which the situation we find ourselves in today is similar to that of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. At the end of the article, I will mention a way that our situation in fact might be worse.
I realise that there’s a current tendency to say that the Nineteen Eighty-Four comparisons have been beaten to death; however, this is partly because many other comparisons have only detailed the more superficial likenesses, which has made it seem to not be as serious as it actually is, and partly because there is a resistance in the human mind against understanding how potentially dangerous it is that we live in times that are increasingly comparable to those of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is in the nature of this article that I have to present ideas that some people might find offensive. This is not because I enjoy offending people – on the contrary, I really don’t, and I will do my best to limit any offence as much as at all possible – but because I am going deep with the Nineteen Eighty-Four comparisons.
This might offend because Nineteen Eighty-Four is to a great extent about a certain set of totalitarian mind viruses that Orwell was warning against. Perhaps the deepest reason why the times we live in are reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that those very same totalitarian mind viruses have lodged themselves within our culture and within our minds. Now, as I proceed to expose those mind viruses, they will begin to defend themselves. The way that these mind viruses defend themselves is by labelling whomever is calling them out.
I therefore find it relevant to offer a disclaimer:
I do not in any way condone the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I believe that invasion should never have happened, and I want it to stop right now. This article is not about Russia or Ukraine, but about the psychology of what is happening here in the West and how it relates to the ideas of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Furthermore, I realise that Russia is not exactly a model of democracy, however I am not Russian and I know almost nothing about Russia. I therefore find it appropriate to focus on what is going on here, in the West, especially since it is here that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set. I am not too interested in politics, but I will seek to faithfully follow the comparisons between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the present day wherever they may take me.
(I will continue to sprinkle little disclaimers throughout this article, because the aforementioned mind viruses don’t have any memory to speak of – it’s rather that they hear certain words and get triggered.)
However before we get into the comparisons, let’s talk about the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in itself. Some of you have probably read it, and some haven’t. It is therefore appropriate to provide an overview of the world as it is presented in the novel.
I have just re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four and have once again been struck by this work of visionary fiction. When I read it the first time, what I found most striking was how much it emphasises control over the perception of reality. Before reading it, I knew it was about a totalitarian state, so I expected to find far more emphasis on the brutality of the repression. Brutality is present in great measure, to be sure; however Orwell reserves the most especial attention to the way that the citizens’ ability to process reality is sabotaged and perverted so that the Party gets to decide what is true, even when what it decides goes against reality itself. This is absolutely central to the novel, and as we will see in the second part of this article, it is central to the way in which we are seeing the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four manifest itself today.
So, let’s have a look at the setting of the novel.
The protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in London, in the superstate of Oceania. Oceania is one of the three superstates of the world and encompasses the Americas, part of Africa and Australasia. The two other superstates are Eurasia and Eastasia, whose names are quite self-explanatory.
Oceania is ruled by Big Brother and “The Party”, under the ideology of “Ingsoc” – short for English Socialism. It is a totalitarian state where it is a crime even to think thoughts that are not in line with whatever narrative the Party is currently promoting. The two other superstates are governed by comparable systems.
The superstates are constantly at war with one another, in shifting alliances. At the time of the novel, World War III has already taken place (in the 1950s), and it included the use of nuclear weapons. So the superstates are aware that nuclear weapons are a threat to their very existence. They therefore wage war with far less potent weapons, and the wars take place not on the territory of the superstates themselves, but in the “contested area” of the world. The stated purpose of the wars is to overthrow the other superstates, but in reality the superstates are using war as a device to keep down their own populations so that their people will not have the ability to carry out a revolution or demand reform.
Hate is a very important element of the Party’s brainwashing. This is because turbulent emotions can bury rational thought. Every evening, party members have to show up for the Two-Minute Hate, where film is rolled depicting dissidents and the marching hordes of the current enemy. Furthermore, there is the festival of Hate Week, where the masses gather for an entire week of hate, with events including public executions of enemy soldiers and dissidents. The public enemy number one of Oceania is Emmanuel Goldstein, who is depicted in front of the marching armies of Eurasia as he espouses his thought crimes on screen: the criminal ideas of peace with Eurasia and Freedom of Speech.
Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to revise past newspaper articles so that they harmonise with whatever the Party is saying at the present moment. One of the biggest tasks he and his ministerial colleagues get is upon the sudden announcement that Oceania’s enemy is in fact Eastasia and has always been Eastasia. There is no mention of a peace with Eurasia or a declaration of war against Eastasia, because now the narrative is that Eastasia has always been Oceania’s enemy. Winston and his colleagues at the Ministry of Truth then revise all newspaper articles, propaganda posters and other material in the archives so that they feature Eastasia as the eternal enemy and Eurasia as the ally of Oceania, rather than the other way round. The key is that they change the past so that now Eastasia is the enemy and has always been the enemy of Oceania.
Apart from the Ministry of Truth, Oceania has three other ministries: the Ministry of Love, the Ministry of Plenty and the Ministry of Peace.
The Ministry of Truth is, as we have seen, in charge of propaganda and spreading lies.
The Ministry of Love arrests, tortures and executes dissidents. The infamous Thought Police is an organ under the Ministry of Love, and is charged with the detection, arrest, torture and execution of thought criminals.
The Ministry of Plenty rations the scarce products. Scarcity is purposefully maintained in order to keep the population weak.
The Ministry of Peace is in charge of war.
The ministries have names that are the exact opposite of what they really represent. This is part of the Party’s perversion of reality in order to suppress the citizens’ ability to make sense of what is going on.
The three slogans of the Party are: “WAR IS PEACE”, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”.
WAR IS PEACE represent the way in which wars with limited scope keep a sort of balance that prevents a wider conflict from erupting. This happens, for instance, by keeping the citizens’ hate focused on the opposing superstate and the dissidents that are said to propagate its lies, or by keeping them focused on surviving the constant shortages.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY is about how the citizens should subordinate ourselves to the Party, because the Party knows what is best for them.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH means that as long as people believe anything the Party communicates to them, the government remains strong.
Like almost everyone else, Winston owns a telescreen. This is a sort of television that includes a camera and microphone, so that the viewer can be observed. It is possible to turn down the volume, but it is not possible to ever switch off the telescreen.
The telescreen thus serves the dual purpose of spouting Party propaganda at all times and keeping its owner under surveillance. This is where the phrase comes from that has become well-known in popular culture: “Big Brother is watching you.” Indeed, there is a word in Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, that denotes not having the prescribed facial expression, for instance as a reaction to Party propaganda seen on the telescreen. This word is facecrime, which is an indication that the person is indulging in crimethink, another Newspeak word. Winston has therefore trained himself to always wear the facial expression of “quiet optimism” when in front of the telescreen. This is very important to do, in order to avoid arrest by the Thought Police.
Now let us turn to a comparison with our own world.
One way of doing this is by looking at some Newspeak words and examining how they pertain to the present day. This is important because Newspeak is one of the Party’s main tools in its assault on reality, and thus its assault on the ability of citizens to make sense of what is going on. So let’s have a look at some Newspeak words:
Blackwhite: This means that a good citizen would believe that something black was white and vice versa, if told so by the Party. This is related to the concept that “two plus two equals five”. Winston wonders if the Party one day will declare that two plus two equals five, and whether the resulting belief in this lie will make it true.
I hesitate to say the following, but this is something that we find in “woke” ideology, which upholds the right of the individual to identify as something that contradicts his or her own biology. This can be to identify as the opposite sex (or something in-between) or to identify as a different ethnicity. Now, I realise that most people who subscribe to this ideology do so from the best intentions: mostly out of compassion and from a wish to allow each individual the right to self-determination. I believe in the same things: compassion and the individual’s right to self-determination. However, as a writer it is my job to investigate what is going on beneath the level of accepted truth; and as I do so, it is hard not to draw comparisons with this Newspeak concept. Orwell points out that when we insist that people are required to believe statements that conflict with physical reality, we find ourselves in dangerous, totalitarian territory. In fact, this assault on reality is so fundamental to totalitarianism that Winston writes in his secret diary:
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two is four. If that is granted, then all else follows.”
This is not as far removed from the situation we find ourselves in today. In fact, what brought Jordan Peterson to prominence was that he spoke out against the Canadian Bill C-16, which has since become the law “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code”, which makes it a criminal offence to not use a person’s preferred pronouns when talking to or about that person.
Peterson was not protesting against transgender people but was warning about the fact that this is the first case within English Common Law that a law makes certain speech obligatory: it doesn’t merely forbid the use of certain speech but actually tells you what you have to say, on pain of punishment. This is a slippery slope towards extreme totalitarianism. Furthermore, the law enshrines the claim that gender is socially constructed – a claim that is disproven by science.
Telescreen – This device, mentioned above, is perhaps the most obvious likeness between our times and those of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The viewer of the telescreen can never be sure when someone is watching and listening to him or her at the other end. We have a camera and microphone both on our laptops and our smartphones. We often show ourselves to others in Zoom and other applications, in more or less private situations, such as in our living rooms or even bedrooms. And even when we’re not consciously using the camera or microphone in our devices, there are many individuals and organisations that have the capability to turn them on without our knowing. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is not possible to ever switch off the telescreen. In our world it is possible to switch off our smartphone, but in many cases it keeps running in the background regardless, and anyway we have become so addicted to our smartphone that we hardly ever want to switch it off.
Vapourised – This is when a person is made to disappear and the records are altered so it’s as if he had never existed. Fortunately, this does not currently happen to citizens in the West. However, purely on the subject of controlling information, it is a little bit reminiscent of cancelling, when a person is de-platformed and can no longer broadcast his or her opinions. He or she disappears from the public square, just like that.
Malreported – When the news reports a fact which the government later decides is untrue, because the government’s narrative has changed and all news has to harmonise with the current narrative. Today we would call such inconvenient facts “misinformation”. As mentioned, it is Winston’s job to “rectify” such news items that have been “malreported”, to make it look like they were in accordance with the current narrative all along. This is despite the fact that those news stories were obviously written to harmonise with the narrative of the time when they were written. The practice of rectification is in accordance with the Party’s doctrine of The mutability of the past.
One example of this from our current day is the way Western media outlets, such as the BBC, The Guardian, DW and Time, were producing documentaries about the “far-right” and even “Nazi” militias of Ukraine until one year ago, and now seek to bury such assertions. For instance, the BBC switched off comments on its documentaries about what it claimed were “Nazis” on YouTube (BBC Newsnight, 2014: Neo-Nazi threat in new Ukraine: NEWSNIGHT and BBC Newsnight, 2018: Ukraine: On patrol with the far-right National Militia, even putting the latter one behind an extra check of “This video may be inappropriate for some users”, meaning that you have to sign in and press an extra button to view the video, which reduces the video’s exposure). The BBC has since produced a video about how the assertions about Nazi militias in Ukraine are “Russian propaganda”. (What untruths is Russia spreading about Nazis in Ukraine?). Please note that I am not making claims about there being or not being Nazi militias in Ukraine, but merely remarking on the way Western media is “rectifying” its previous assertions, just like the Ministry of Truth does in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The fact that the video documentaries have not actually been deleted (yet), is one of the signs that things are not as bad as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This means it is still at least in principle possible to reverse the situation.
Doublethink: The affirmation of two mutually contradicting views. For instance, in the current situation a person can rejoice that the Russian military is so weak that it is unable even to capture a city 30 kilometres from its border, and yet at the same time insist that we need to beef up our military and make Sweden and Finland members of NATO, because Russia is about to conquer all of Europe. Or we can insist that it’s never OK to express hate towards a certain ethnic group, and at the same time feel that if you’re not expressing hate towards Russians, there’s something wrong with you. This is exemplified by Meta, which has a strict anti-hate-speech policy on its platforms Facebook and Instagram, but has made an exception for hate speech against Russians, which is now allowed with some conditions.
Again, I’m not defending any action taken by the Russian state but only describing what is going on here in the West, in the light of the predictions of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Goodthink – this is a politically orthodox thought, as defined by the Party. This is comparable to political correctness, only in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, we’re not merely talking about expression; this takes it one step further, into the person’s mind, meaning that the person only ever thinks thoughts that have been approved by the Party.
Crimethink – This is the opposite of goodthink: holding any thought that is not allowed. This is similar to today when any verbalised independent attempt at trying to work out what is really happening can get you labelled as a Russian apologist, even if you have nothing to do with Russia.
Duckspeak – This is unthinking, vocal support of political orthodoxies. It’s when someone just rattles off correct terminology without much meaning, or when you say something as you honestly try to make sense of the current situation, and someone you otherwise have a good relationship with tells you without even thinking about whom they’re talking to, that your thoughts are “Russian disinformation”.
It is not far-fetched to draw parallels between the three superstates of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the West, Russia and China. When the novel begins, Oceania is at war with Eurasia. The wars between the superstates are always fought in the “contested areas” of the planet, and not in the superstates themselves. The parallel with our current situation should be obvious: there is hardly any area more contested between NATO and Russia than Ukraine.
Again, I do not in any way condone the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This article is not about Russia or Ukraine, but about the psychology of what is happening here in the West, and how it relates to the ideas of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Let’s have a look at how the three slogans of the Party are relevant today:
WAR IS PEACE is exemplified in the meme that the more weapons we send to Ukraine, the quicker there will be peace, and the more civilians will be saved from the effects of weapons of war. Now, I’m not a military expert but as a writer I do have some experience looking at things from different perspectives. And I must say that the concept of weapons creating peace sounds dubious to me.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY is the idea that it is only through subordinating your thought to the current narrative that we will triumph and freedom will once again prevail. This means that it is best not to think independently about what’s going on, but simply accept whatever the changing narrative dictates.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH means that if we as citizens don’t try to make sense of the current situation but instead unthinkingly accept the often self-contradictory assertions of our media and government, we make our side of the information war stronger.
How does the glorification of Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four resemble our current time? We don’t need to organise such events as the Two-Minute Hate or Hate Week, because we have the News and social media, where we can absorb and contribute to a constant stream of hate.
As we have seen, the public enemy number one of Oceania is Emmanuel Goldstein, who is depicted in front of the marching armies of Eurasia as he espouses his thought crimes: Peace with Eurasia and Freedom of Speech. This relates to our current time because anyone who suggests negotiation with Russia is more or less seen as a traitor, while Freedom of Speech is the biggest enemy of political correctness, and any speech on this topic that is not duckspeak is labelled “Russian disinformation”.
The best image of Emmanuel Goldstein at the moment of writing is probably Noam Chomsky. This is because he considered the situation and came to his own conclusion, independent of the emotionality of Hate. In an interview he presented his three-pronged argument:
1) Every war ends in one of two ways: either one side completely destroys the other or the two sides reach peace through negotiation.
2) Ukraine can win the conventional war on its own territory, but it cannot destroy the Russian state; however Russia has the capability to destroy Ukraine.
3) Therefore, if we want what is best for Ukraine, we should negotiate with the Russians.
This argument made Chomsky the subject of a torrent of hate from both the Right and the mainstream Left. As if that wasn’t enough, he went on to say in the interview that only “one Western statesman of stature” had so far argued for this correct solution of negotiation with Russia, and that statesman was Donald Trump. This assertion earned him a further storm of hate from many of his fellow socialists, as well as everyone else who hates Donald Trump.
In the interview, Chomsky immediately goes on to call Trump “maybe the most dangerous person in history”. No one could plausibly argue that Chomsky is a fan of Donald Trump. However rational thought seems to have been swept away by Hate: Chomsky’s thought crime is that he believes that Trump is right about something.
The reality is that the fact that Chomsky, who reviles Trump, is able to concede that Trump is right about one thing, demonstrates that Chomsky is focusing on finding a rational solution to the issue at hand rather than hating the people he has been told to hate. This sort of rational thinking is a thought crime in the current climate, because rationality is supposed to give way to hate; in fact Hate is a very useful tool in preventing people from actually thinking.
And no, I am neither a Socialist nor a Trumpist. My point is that we need to avoid being blinded by Hatred of certain people and instead focus on finding a rational solution.
War is a central element in the suppression of the population in Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Winston’s lover, Julia, says:
“It’s always one bloody war after the other, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.”
War is made to look as if it is waged against another superstate; however in reality it is waged against the population, because it keeps the population in a state of hate, fear, and perpetual hunger because the war hits the supply chain. We are beginning to see supply chain issues in our present situation, especially when it comes to gas and food. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the level of war and weapons production is calculated in order to keep the population in a state of scarcity. However in our time it is probably more dependent on the share price of arms manufacturers.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, nuclear weapons have already been used previously, and the superstates have decided not to use them any more, because they could lead to the destruction of the states themselves. Instead, they fight each other with less potent weapons. They always make sure that the stability of the superstates themselves are not threatened by the wars, but only bomb each other just enough to keep their populations down. It’s as if the superstates carefully coordinate their actions so that they can each stay in power.
This is where our situation may be more dangerous than that of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps what Orwell did not see was the danger of top politicians actually believing their own propaganda. For instance, the Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece entitled “The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War”, and there are even two US senators that have said we might have to use nuclear weapons against Russia. (Source: interview with Colonel and Senator Richard Black (video link with time code). This is something that would lead to a nuclear holocaust where more or less no one in the NATO countries or Russia would survive, and a large part of the rest of the world would die too. This is a risk that was treated with the utmost care during the Cold War, however now in this atmosphere of Hate and irrationality, it is blown off as a ridiculous joke whenever the Russians warn of the risk, and at the same time it is sometimes suggested as a viable course of action by our own politicians. This exercise in doublethink is perhaps the most dangerous threat that our planet faces today.
In a vicious twist, both the US and Russian governments have doomsday planes, which will keep the US and Russian leadership safe in the event of a nuclear war. This means that the people with the power to trigger a nuclear war are also the people who have the least skin in the game.
I believe that, as citizens of democracies, we have a duty to keep our democracies democratic. It seems that our Western values of democracy, freedom of speech and rule of law can get swept aside if we don’t stay vigilant and defend them. Unfortunately, we have not been defending and upholding them sufficiently in recent years – otherwise our society would not look so much like the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell predicted that this could happen, perhaps originally because he saw what happened in the Communism and Stalinism of the Soviet Union. However it is telling that he named the ideology of the Party “Ingsoc” or “English Socialism”. To me, this signifies that we should look out for danger not in a far-away land but at home.
In his 1941 essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”, Orwell presents English Socialism as an ideal, in contrast with both Marxism and the Labour Party. So it seems significant that in Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, “Ingsoc” is the ideology of the totalitarian state.
This suggests that Orwell changed his mind about the viability of his own idea of English Socialism, and that he is telling us to be vigilant towards the convictions not only of our own land but also of our own minds.
How can we stop the degradation of our society towards totalitarianism? I think the clues are in the novel itself. It’s worth looking at what the Party holds sacred, and oppose those very things.
It is crucial for the Party to be able to dictate its citizens’ reality and to sabotage their ability to independently make sense of what is going on. We may therefore conclude that in order to uphold our democracy it is crucial to think independently.
In order to do that, freedom of speech is vital, because expressing our independent thoughts in a free and respectful discussion with people who disagree with us is the most viable way to discover which of our thoughts are solid and which don’t hold water.
Another thing that the Party holds dear is Hate. We must resist Hate, not by censoring others but by thinking independently rather than hating collectively.