(Double)think before you speak: 1984’s reflection of modern politics

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  "1984"   is a dystopian novel by George Orwell that warns the consequences of government surveillance and government-sanctioned propaganda.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"1984" is a dystopian novel by George Orwell that warns the consequences of government surveillance and government-sanctioned propaganda.


Doublethink, perhaps one of the most famous portmanteaus to come out of Orwell’s magnum opus “1984,” has taken on a far too literal meaning in 2017’s America. Regardless of one’s political opinions it is impossible to deny that the recent election and the incoming administration have been defined by fake news, denial of truths, silencing of alternative voices and the destruction of evidence. 

With the government’s increasingly shadowy presence, it’s only natural that one of the nation’s favorite anti-totalitarian novels, “1984,” returns to popularity.  Now, according to CNN, a “Robin Hood of literature” has anonymously ordered 50 copies, leaving them free for patrons in a San Francisco bookstore, and the Huffington Post details an ongoing surge in purchases ever since the 2013 NSA surveillance scandals. According to a recent CNN report, “1984” is also being ushered onto the Broadway stage this June. But with this increased focus on a story about surveillance, subversion and ultimately, tragedy, we also must look at our fictional everyman, Winston Smith. We must ask ourselves whether “1984” is truly deserving of its quickly growing symbolic power of quiet resistance.

“1984,” published originally in 1949, documents the journey of Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party in the dystopic Airstrip One, meant to be what once was London, in the warmongering empire of Oceania. He works for the Ministry of Truth, the single-party government’s propaganda machine. Smith works “to reconstruct the past” by altering newspaper articles so that they reflect the party’s current line. He lives under constant surveillance, inundated with ceaseless government propaganda. Spending his days in constant paranoia that his subversive thoughts will be discovered by the “Thought Police,” he resists quietly by writing down his thoughts in a “prole” notebook — illegal for Party members — and fantasizing about violently assaulting a young female Party member, later identified as Julia. He and Julia begin a sexual affair — also illegal for Party members — and through their liaisons in the “prole” part of the city, are eventually discovered by party elite O’Brien. They are then tortured in the Ministry of Love, have the nature of “Ingsoc” or “English Socialism” explained to them and eventually renounce their love for each other, becoming recommitted to the Party. They finally fade back into their repressive society with the conviction that 2+2=5 if the Party declares it so.

“1984” is characterized by its graphic and violent prose, the bleakness of its society and what some claim to be the prophetic prediction of the modern surveillance state. However, it doesn’t offer many discourses for resistance. Winston himself is middle-aged, balding, with an ulcer on his ankle and yellowing skin — a reflection of the diseased, repulsive society in which he lives. Julia is beautiful, but uneducated in her subversion, unable and unwilling to comprehend the nuances of Party politics in pursuit of her own illicit pleasure. They both are unsuccessful in their subversion of the state, ultimately coerced back into the mechanism of the Party. They leave the story as shadows of people, shells filled with nothing but government-sponsored propaganda. 

Orwell’s message, though debated, is generally thought to be that society should never be allowed to reach such a point of totalitarian control, or it will become a self-perpetuating machine too powerful to stop. However, its vagueness, hopelessness and frankly blatant misogyny should make it a more questionable choice for “a symbol of the revolution.” “1984” rails against the totalitarian state, but calls the totalitarian state “English Socialism.” As it was published after the rise of the fascist National Socialism in Germany and socialism in the USSR, this is itself a reflection of its time. 

Such naming allows “1984” to be interpreted as anti-Communist in the same way that it is interpreted as anti-fascist, and Orwell, a democratic socialist, is commonly interpreted to be promoting the centrist horseshoe model (that is, the notion that far-right and far-left ideologies grow in similarity as they depart from an arbitrary “center” of the political spectrum) instead of traditional Marxism. 

Despite the best intentions of many buyers, the symbolic rejection of modern politics, totalitarianism and the surveillance state that comes from buying “1984” actually reflects Winston and Julia’s small and ultimately meaningless subversion of Ingsoc and Big Brother; a gesture that has personal value but does little to nothing to revolutionize politics, add to discourse or mobilize society against the government that oppresses them.