I just finished re-reading 1984 (the Centennial Edition), by George Orwell, and as he himself says
The best books are those that tell you what you already know.
1984 depicts a dystopian future wherein three superstates -- Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia -- are engaged perpetual warfare, which is used to maintain the poverty and ignorance of the masses, and hence the power at the top of entrenched hierarchies within each geopolitical entity. The Party in Oceania uses a combination of technology -- such as ubiquitous telescreens with cameras and microphones monitored by the Thought Police -- and psychology -- such as the training children receive through a group called the Spies, which encourages them to alert authorities whenever their parents or other elders commit thoughtcrime (thinking -- or saying -- anything against The Party) -- to maintain a culture in which everyone distrusts and fears everyone else in Oceania (except the dictator, Big Brother, who is beloved by all), and hates everyone outside of Oceania.
There are no laws in Oceania, but any hint of ownlife -- individualism or eccentricity (think think different) -- is a punishable offense, and most people adopt the safe approach of compliance and complacency in the name of comradeship ... with the exception of the protagonist, Winston Smith, who works in the Records Department of Ministry of Truth (where he participates in the ongoing effort to rewrite history to ensure that The Party is never retrospectively wrong) and his girlfriend, Julia, who works in the Fiction Department (where she runs the versificator machines that automatically churn out books and music for the masses).
The book offers many insights into -- and raises many questions about -- human nature, sexuality, truth and reality, and I could write at great[er] length about many of these topics. However, for this post, I'm going to focus on Orwell's ideas about hierarchies, wealth and power, and how these ideas are playing out today.
Many of these ideas are expressed in a book that is banned in Oceania -- often referred to as the book, or "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism", allegedly written by Emanuel Goldstein, the allegedly traitorous archenemy of Big Brother.
Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low. ... The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim -- for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives -- is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.
Over time, the High become inefficient, insecure, or otherwise ineffective (e.g., being too "liberal or cowardly" or unwilling to use adequate force) at governing, the Middle seize the opportunity and enlist the aid of the Low to rise up against the High, on the premise of liberty and justice for all, after which elements from the Middle become the new High, and the Low are relegated to their former status, and the cycle starts up again. Or at least, it had been a cycle before the rise of The Party (and its contemporaries in Eurasia and Eastasia):
The new movements ... had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality ... the purpose of all of them was to arrest development and freeze history at a chosen moment. The familiar pendulum swing was to happen once more, and then stop ... the High would be able to maintain their position permanently.
And the best way to maintain their position of power was to embrace perpetual war:
The primary aim of modern warfare is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. ... If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. ... [b]ut ... an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction -- indeed in some sense was the destruction of a hierarchical society. ... In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. ... The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.
As I (and others) have noted before, the current "war on terror", of which there is no end in sight, results in a massive shift of economic and political capital away from investments that could have [more] widespread benefits. The primary beneficiaries of the current situation are the High (friends and business associates of the Bush administration, e.g., Haliburton). While the administration likes to claim the purpose of the war is (was?) to make us safer, it is increasingly apparent that the U.S. and its citizens are far less safe than we were before the start of hostilities (and it is worth noting that we are also far less popular, currently ranking below China in world opinion) .
Orwell notes that there are additional benefits to being at war:
[T]he consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.
Since ignorance is an essential component for maintaining power by the High, education is replaced with indoctrination and fundamentalism, and science is only supported when it is in the service of conducting war and/or controlling or "monitoring" the population ... reflected today in the proportion of funding for scientific research that is channeled through the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), recent changes in the White House Science Advisor policies, and initiatives such as the Total Intelligence Awareness (TIA) initiative.
O'Brien, the Inner Party member who "interrogates" Winston Smith toward the end of the novel, elucidates The Party's views on 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. ... Power is not a means, it is an end.
In addition to perpetual warfare, the other way that The Party maintains power in 1984 is through reality control -- reminiscent of the way the Bush Administration (and the press) handled "intelligence" about the weapons of mass of destruction purportedly being developed in Iraq -- and newspeak, redefining language so as to reinforce sanctioned ideas and eradicate unsanctioned ideas (thoughtcrime) -- reminiscent of George Lakoff's observations in Don't Think of an Elephant. As O'Brien notes:
Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.
The book also talks about a "general hardening of outlook" and practices that were becoming common (in 1984) after years of abandonment, such as "imprisonment without trial, ... torture to extract confessions ... [and] deportations" ... practices we see today. Fortunately we have not [yet] returned to the public executions or use of war prisoners as slaves that are a normal part of life in the fictional 1984.
One of the most troubling aspects of the future depicted by Orwell is the ascendancy of hatred. In Oceania, there is a daily Two Minute Hate and an annual Hate Week, which are used to maintain support foa constant state of war (... for some reason, the arena of sports also comes to mind):
Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation and orgiastic triumph.
This hatred -- indeed, all hatred -- is based in large part upon drawing artificial distinctions between us and them, which is why all contacts with foreigners are strictly forbidden in Oceania:
If [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and most of what he has been told about them is lies.
In the age of the Internet, it is difficult to prevent people (outside of current totalitarian regimes) from having access to foreign people, places and perspectives, but at least in this country, I see an increasing polarization of the population, and suspect that few, if any, supporters of the current U.S. regime are risking exposing themselves to alternative views ... as Orwell might observe, a sort of self-imposed reality control ... or as Pogo might say, we have met Big Brother, and he is us.