Classic Remarks: 1984 and the Orwellian State

Classic Remarks
Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  We look forward to seeing your responses!


This Week’s Question

George Orwell’s 1984 is often referenced when discussions of privacy and oversight arise.  Do you think an Orwellian state could happen or is that overstating the case?

 

Answer

1984

I enjoy 1984 as a story–it’s tense and presents a world that’s truly horrifying in its attempt to stifle freedom of thought and free will.  However, to me, the book is appealing in the way a story about ghosts or aliens is; the thought of it happening  gives me delicious chills, but I know it’s highly unlikely it actually will happen.

I won’t say with 100% certainty that a society like that in 1984 can never exist; after all, anything is possible under the correct set of circumstances.  However, the problem with creating and maintaining the Orwellian state is that people really don’t want to consent to it.  You need force to create the society, and you need constant force to maintain it. And when you’re using force to maintain a society, people start getting the sense there’s something wrong and maybe they should rebel against you.

The characters in 1984, even though government officials try to keep them content and oblivious of the true nature of history and the current society, are all too aware that there’s something unpleasant going on.  A number of them are actually employed in tasks that contribute to the rewriting of history (see our main character).  When maintaining the fiction of the society requires a large number of workers, there’s a reasonable chance some of those workers will refuse to submit quietly to their given task.  Furthermore, the constant surveillance–even within people’s own homes–is too much of a tip that the government is trying very, very hard to control people.  The main takeaway seems to be that maintaining this type of society takes a lot of effort and a lot of manpower.  It’s difficult to establish in the first place and difficult to keep safe from rebellions.

This why, although I think 1984 is the better story, Brave New World is more prescient dystopian.  In Brave New World, people aren’t forced (too much) to conform to the new world order; they want to conform.  The society offers the people things that are appealing to many people: sexual freedom, recreational drugs, stable employment and a clear place in society, etc.  The people who rebel do so because they seem to have some inherent sense that the manufactured happiness is boring; they aren’t rebelling because the government is too obviously trying to force them to do things they don’t want to do.

So, no, I won’t be fearing the imminent coming of the Orwellian state. I understand we’re getting feasibly closer with the development of new technologies and a growing demand to have more cameras in society for the prevention of crime. However, we’re a long way from willingly giving up our freedom and letting cameras into our homes.  And even though it’s possible to collect a large amount of data about a large number of people, right now there’s no desire and no manpower.  Could the government tap everyone’s phones? Probably. If they wanted. But they don’t, and if they did, they don’t currently have enough employees to deal with all the gathered information.  Maybe in the future desires will change and new technologies will be able to handle the data.  Right now, though, I’m not worried.

What are your thoughts? Link us to your posts in the comments!

Briana

9 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: 1984 and the Orwellian State

  1. Eve Messenger says:

    Whoah, cool thought-provoking topic. To the extreme degree that Big Brother is able monitor and plumb the minds of average citizens, I agree, I don’t see it happening quite that way in our society. However, with all of our society’s cameras, satellite images (and who knows what other crazy surveillance capabilities NSA, etc. has cooked up), plus the sheer fact that SO many people give up their privacy every day by posting every little thing about themselves, I think there’s a trend toward way too things being known about us as individuals than what’s healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It has been fascinating to watch how our concept of privacy has changed. In the early days of the Internet, I remember there were so many tips about how to stay safe online–don’t post your name, your contact info, your picture, etc. Now we willingly post all these things and more, and don’t give much thought to who is collecting our data and why. It’s simply the norm not to have privacy, and I think younger individuals in particular have trouble envisioning life any other way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I agree. I think that’s how we get to something beginning to look like the society in 1984. How much are we willing to give up privacy in the name of safety? People will agree to cameras in all kinds of places on the basis that it makes them safer. I think it’s the cameras (with audio and apparently constant surveillance) in the home that makes things go too far in the book. Sure, someone might point a camera at their front door under the assumption it will make them safer if they can film a break-in. But who’s going to think it’s totally cool for the government to constantly watch their kitchen and bedroom?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    This book still resonates with a psychological sort of fear that can only be created by the “what if” for me. And to think that Orwell touched on a topic that is still so relevant this many years later. Totalitarianism, while maybe not as likely is some countries is not completely unimaginable or without possibility. Such a moving piece of work! Fantastic post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Maybe it’s in the little areas that this book remains powerful. Even if we don’t expect the Orwellian state to arrive, we can see how technology has encroached into our daily lives, how people manipulate language, etc. The book kind of asks us to be aware of what is happening around us. That awareness doesn’t need to mean that something bad is happening, but hopefully prevents something bad from happening?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lost In A Good Book says:

    Such an interesting post!! If we’re looking at 1984 primarily with a view to it’s technology, then I can see how it is far-fetched. However, I have to say that the degree of control that it shows being used on this society is not unrealistic. I think the key is as you mentioned use of force, I agree that it would be hard to foist this on an unwilling populace and then maintain it. An alternative is to get the people to believe that this level of control is necessary, and that the government is doing it for their own good. Fear is the key. As an example, fear following 9/11 led to the American people allowing the government to control them in unprecedented ways through the NSA/Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Remember that the people in the book 1984 were dealing with a constant state of war. They were already in a state of upheaval. This level of control also probably didn’t come on them all in one night. It would start slowly. Plant the fear, block truthful reporting, sow seeds of division and suspicion, and things start to unravel quickly. Is it possible? I would point to the devolution of Iran, the high control in North Korea. I would have to say yes it’s possible, in fact, to a certain degree in some places it’s already here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Agreed. I’ve talked to many people who said they were willing to give up privacy, constitutional rights, all kinds of things if doing so would make them “safer.” So the question is really how much the government can persuade people to willingly go along with methods of control. I totally believe cameras in public places. We’re already starting to demand cameras on traffic lights, street corners, police, car dashboards, etc. to make us safer. But will we agree to the government watching us in our own homes? How far can the government get people to agree, and how much must be forced upon them? Adding things gradually could definitely help, but will there then come a breaking point when people stop and think, “Wait, this is too much. How did we get here?”

      Liked by 1 person

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