back to cybercadre homepage
part 2 of article
IS IT 1984 YET? part 1
by Joseph Miranda
It was a bright clear day for freedom, January 1st, 1984. We awoke not to the blare of the telescreens glorifying Big Brother, nor the Thought Police rousting us out of our beds, nor the explosions of Eurasian rocket-bombs. Freedom still had a future. Or did it? Now that it is more than a decade after George Orwell's destined year of 1984, what is the state of liberty in America?
CLOCKS STRIKING THIRTEEN?
As we all know, Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by George Orwell, one of Britain's leading democratic socialists. The book is the story of Winston Smith, a functionary in the totalitarian superstate of Oceania. Oceania's ruling Party has three slogans, "Freedom is Slavery," "Ignorance is Strength," and "War is Peace." These slogans symbolize the surrender of reality people are expected to make in accepting totalitarian rule. The Party keeps control of the citizenry through any number of means. Telescreens‹two-way television sets‹continually broadcast war propaganda about Oceania's endless war with the rival superstates of Eurasia and Eastasia. There are also government sponsored Hate rallies, youth organizations which turn children into spies against their parents, and the deprivation of the basics of life from decent food to sex.
Winston's job in the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite history to conform to current Party policy, and to glorify Big brother, Oceania's semi-divine leader. But Winston decides he can not accept all this, and so, like any good revolutionary hero, has an affair with Julia, a sexually active young woman. The lovers decide to join the resistance against the Party by contacting O'Brien, a member of the Party's inner circle whom Winston thinks is a co-conspirator. O'Brien turns out to be a double agent. Winston and Julia are duly arrested. They both end up in the Ministry of Love (secret police central) with O'Brien as Winston's chief inquisitor. The novel comes to "The End" with Winston betraying Julia and loving Big Brother.
"1984" has since become a catch phrase to describe any authoritarian government action. Critics can point to the similarity between 1984's telescreens and the widespread electronic surveillance in America today. Recently, the US government has been pressing for the implementation of various surveillance and decryption devices‹such as the clipper chip and digital telephoney‹into telephonic and computer equipment which will allow the government to monitor all forms of electronic communications. (1)
But this type of criticism is too easy. The occasional government abuse of power and general growth of bureaucracy are not the signs of totalitarianism we are looking for. Why then invoke the name of Orwell?
It is important to grasp that in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell was talking about the social instruments the modern state uses to control its citizens' lives, not the technological gizmos. Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning against totalitarianism, and for good reason. In the mid-20th century, much of the intellectual classes of the West had lost faith in democracy. Fascism, Communism, Nazi Germany, all had their admirers and advocates in Western Europe and America. But Orwell was not just talking about jackbooted stormtroopers or red flag waving commissars.
Much of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be understood as a satire on conditions in postwar Britain‹a country of unrepaired war damage, bureaucratic labyrinths, endless shortages, horrid alcohol, government sponsored propaganda, and militarization of daily life. The title year of the book, 1984, is an inversion of the last two numerals of the year it was written, 1948. There is also some dark humor, with the opening paragraph of the book proclaiming that the "clocks were striking thirteen", clearly an indicator that a disjointed world is ahead of us. What Orwell was concerned about was the general slide towards total organization of the citizenry's lives by the modern industrial state.(2)
A good starting point for an examination of the state of freedom is the year 1984 itself. This was the beginning of the second Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan came into office with the promise of "getting government off of people's backs," and his first administration did see some attempts to reduce regulation and slow the rate of government growth. Yet in the second Reagan term there were the initiation of the "war on drugs," the attempts to censor rock musicians, the general clamor for sexual repression, the rise of "political correctness" as a force on American campuses, and the beginning of the assault against "assault weapons." Obviously, these were not just the product of the presidency, but represented a permeation of authoritarian ideas throughout much of the political spectrum. To understand the transformation American society has made in the years since 1984, we must examine the philosophical underpinnings of the United States in the last decade.
Orwell supposedly based Oceania's Big Brother on the chief of the popular British Bennett Correspondence College, a Mr. Bennett. Bennett proclaimed "Let me be your big brother" and plastered his face on advertisements all over postwar England.
Now there is a name. If there has been any symbol of government policy in the last decade, it is William J. Bennett, leading neo-conservative, former Secretary of Education, Coordinator of the White House Office of Drug Policy, and general grand poobah of "traditional values."
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
William Bennett tells us in his many books, articles, and sermons that the problem with America is "cultural breakdown," a breakdown demonstrated by such indicators as the decline in participation in religious services, the increase in extra- and pre-marital sex, a rising divorce rate, widespread drug usage, and suspect attitudes towards civic duty. (3)
Mr. Bennett states that "the things that a society collectively chooses to affirm and condemn...make all the difference." (4) Note the emphasis on the word "collectively." What Mr. Bennett and his considerable followers object to is the right of the individual to make their own choices about the pursuit of happiness. His villain is essentially consensual activities.
Anthony Burgess points out in his book 1985 (which is a commentary on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four) that the moral tradition of the West is that the individual must be allowed to make his/her own choices. The needs of society must be subordinated to the rights of the individual. If this leads to public disorder, then so be it; that is the price of freedom. (5)
Take the following statements by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke: "No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions"; and "The great end of men's entering into society, being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety."(6)
These statements are exactly the contrary of what Mr. Bennett and the U.S. government‹under both Republican and Democratic administrations of the 1980s and 1990s‹have advocated. To the Bennett school of government, society's needs become the overarching demand upon the individual. According to Bennett, the government is to be the moral instructor for the people. What Bennett and company have done is to have philosophically overthrown the very concept of freedom which is the foundation for the United States of America, and, indeed, the Western world. (7)
But we can not blame the Reagan administration alone. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have continued in the same vein. Bizarrely, both left and right finally came together in the late 1980s. From the political right, there were the daily demands for abstinence, celibacy, and traditional family values. From the political left, there was the regime of radical feminists declaring that "all sex is rape", backed up with programs on rape awareness and sexual harassment.
Orwell has Winston observe, "...she had grasped the inner meaning of the Party's sexual puritanism. It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship." (8) The end result was an atmosphere of "fear, hatred and lunatic credulity" which the state exploited to keep people in a constant state of war hysteria.
What the current American campaigns against sex have done is to destroy relationships between people. They turn every encounter between the sexes into a potential criminal act and make prospective sexual partners into informants for the state. This comes to its ultimate form in the campaign for safe sex. Trust no one, we are told by public service announcements, for all may be HIV/AIDS carriers (or date rapists, or sexual harassers, or sexual predators‹"lunatic credulity" indeed!). This destruction of personal relationships has been a common feature of all totalitarian states of the 20th century as the only acceptable relationship is between the individual and the state.
The attack on sex is one of many against consensual activities. In today's America, everyone is a potential target for police action. This can be seen in the Bush-Clinton administrations attempts to ban wide categories of firearms, the war on drugs, the Food and Drugs Administration's assault on herbal medicines and vitamin supplements, as well as the increasingly successful attempts to classify nicotine as a drug. In effect, these prohibitions, combined with the near-infinite regulations on economic activities, the labyrinthian tax codes, and environmental laws, will cover virtually all Americans.
The advantages to the government in criminalizing consensual activities are multi-fold. People are given essentially two choices‹conform or be punished. Those who agree to follow the government's dictates on consensual activities surrender their freedom and become servants of the state. Those who do not comply are labeled criminals. And since everyone has desires (sexual or otherwise) which will not fall into the narrow range demanded by the state, then everyone becomes, de facto, a criminal. This inevitably creates feelings of guilt as people are convinced that they have done something wrong, thus justifying to them any action the state may take against them. The government therefore has granted itself the power to arrest anyone for anything.
While both the radical left and the cultural right claim to be fighting against a system dominated by opposing elites, the reality is that both these sectors have united to become the establishment. On university campuses the same leftists who a generation ago were screaming on the commons about free speech and sexual freedom are today enacting speech and sexual harassment codes which would do any gauleiter proud. And the political right, while pledging allegiance to the US flag, has embarked on a campaign depriving people of their rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness in the best commissar tradition. What happened was that both factions realized that they could gain all their political goals by exploiting the power of the state. Thus, the left can use the state to enforce its vision of a regulated, economically egalitarian society; the right can use law enforcement to make people conform to its values.
This type of alliance was predicated in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Orwell explained in his book within a book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, that the new ruling class would be drawn from "bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, socialists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians." (9) Orwell's inspiration for this evaluation of the ruling class came from the works of James Burnham, a one-time Trotskyite who later became a founder of the William F. Buckley wing of conservatism.(10) Burnham's two classic works of the 1940s, The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, presented a radical new approach to modern political theory. Summed up, Burnham said that the nature of advanced economies in the modern age required a new class of technocratic "managers" to run all aspects of modern life, from industry through the government. Burnham expounded on some length that the purpose of politics, despite the ostensible rhetoric and stated party platforms, was to give power to the ruling elite. People could only retain their liberty by safeguarding the right of judicial opposition and maintaining institutions independent of the government.
While Orwell was a sometimes critic of Burnham, he nonetheless respected him for "intellectual courage, and [writing] about real issues." (11) Orwell also used some of Burnham's geopolitical concepts as a foundation for the "world" of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with three unconquerable superstates warring for control of the world's resources. Burnham postulated that the United States [dominating the world's ocean-going countries], Germany [dominating the Eurasian heartland], and Japan [dominating the Far East] were each the nucleus of such states.
And managed is what the United States is today. Much of the United States is today governed not by elected officials, but by unelected administrative agencies. Congress has long since abdicated much of its legislative ability to these agencies, who have the power to not only to make laws but enforce them. Today's American elite, drawn from both the left and right, dominates all aspects of national life, including the government bureaucracies, federal level law enforcement, foundations, the media, the universities, and, to a degree, industry. While many universities and most industry are nominally part of the private sector, they are in fact so bound by governmental regulations and contractual requirements that they have become de facto branches of the state, and are used to enforce the government's power in various ways.
A good example of the unity of America's ruling elite can be drawn from the "war on drugs." Business enforces drug control policy through the process of drug testing. As is standard totalitarian practice, workers who fail to conform with government policy can be terminated from employment or sent to rehabilitation programs. Similarly, government acts as an industrial police, inflicting legal penalties on workers who are disrupting maximum industrial output by using drugs. The Partnership for a Drug Free America, which runs anti-drug public service propaganda, and supports drug testing programs for employees, is, of course, financed by much of corporate America. (12)
Both left and right claim to be fighting against established interests (i.e., the right claims to be fighting against the cultural elite, while the left claims to be fighting against the racist-sexist-homophobic establishment.). But the fact of the matter is that the left-right managerial groups are the establishment. As was true of both the National Socialist and Communist governing classes, the established power claims to be fighting in the interest of a permanent revolution. This justifies, at least to the ruling class, its authoritarian aspects. Orwell points out that in order to rule, the ruling class must maintain its own morale. The government contractor who requires his employees to take a drug test, the bureaucrat who closes down a business for violating an environmental regulation, the IRS agent who confiscates a taxpayer's bank account, the police officer who arrests a citizen for having sex with another consenting adult, all must feel what they are doing is morally right in order to continue functioning effectively. (13)
For example, on college campuses, students who dissent from established university policies are subjected to standard totalitarian means of control, including censorship of independent newspapers, show trials, attacks by university supported radical groups, and mandated attendance in sensitivity sessions. These sessions are an Americanized version of the self-criticism sessions employed by Communist states to obliterate individuality. The dissenting student is no longer an individual fighting against the established order. Rather, the student is accused of being part of a vast system of oppression.
What has happened is, then, a curious inversion of perspective, in which the individual who is attempting to live his or her life freely is made to appear as the oppressor‹and the state then becomes the liberator. The ultimate goal of the ruling class is to control the people's attitudes, because once peoples' attitudes have been changed, their actions will follow. The battle is truly for control of people's minds. The individual can only have government approved values about sexuality, race and class, and is forbidden the use of mind altering drugs. The state reaches into the individual's very consciousness to control what he can think and, consequently, what his actions will be. Any deviators will be hunted down by, most literally, Thought Police. In the state's view, only by conforming to societal standards is one truly considered to be free. To America's ruling managerial class, then, "Freedom is Slavery."
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
The icon of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ubiquitous telescreen. The telescreens have two purposes. First, they allow the government to intrude into individual lives‹since all actions are now monitored by police cameras, there is no possibility of open dissent. Just as importantly, they bombard the citizenry with a non-stop propaganda barrage, mobilizing the peoples' passions and directing their hatreds against the approved enemies of the state.
In America today, television has become a two-way process. Tabloid TV and "reality" based programs, such as Cops, Hard Copy, and America's Most Wanted, have become a staple of America's viewing habit. In these program, television's roving eye intrudes into every last private activity. A favorite feature on these programs is to show police SWAT type teams smashing into a crack house, or the surveillance of citizens attempting to solicit prostitutes. The "criminals" are consenting adults choosing to ingest illicit substances, or engaging in sex through a voluntary exchange of money. What the media is doing is turning the television viewing populace into secret police. The viewer becomes a participant in the process of detecting, monitoring, and apprehending the people who are supposedly subverting our society (i.e., drug dealers, sex criminals, etc.).
But at the same time, the viewer becomes the viewed. The individual American can expect to have the television cameras exposing their private lives, holding them up to public ridicule for daring to practice consensual activities. A sense of paranoia is thus created. Trust no one, the message is, except your television, for television shows you the true reality!
And, of course, the cameras are not turned on the state itself, or against its allies in the corporate sector. There are no network television "reality based" programs which routinely expose civil rights violations committed by the government and its agents. Nor do we see the cameras intrude into the boardrooms where corporate executives plan the violation of labor, consumer and environmental laws. The power structure is above the public view.
Reporting on the progress of the "war on drugs" has become a staple of television news. And it looks like a real war, with paramilitary police formations crashing into fortified drug laboratories and bringing in prisoners. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are reports of continuous victory in battles on far flung frontiers. At least once a week television proclaims that "the largest drug bust in history" has been made. Yet the "war" continues to no apparent conclusion. Reporting on this war is virtually the same programming repeated endlessly, a combination of sensationalized stories spreading fear of the menace perpetuated by drugs, and a glorification of the state as savior of the nation from the threat. (14)
But why this massive deception? As the 20th century closes out, the United States is facing a crisis of faith. This can be blamed on (depending upon one's ideology), the $5+ trillion national debt, a supposedly bankrupt social security system, leveraged buyouts, corporate downsizing, a growing gap between rich and poor, the incarceration of even more citizens, and so forth. The end result is economic decline and with it, increasing popular frustration. Rightly or wrongly, millions of Americans believe they can not expect to live lives as good as their parents did and that there is no guarantee of a better future. Crime, radicalism and cynicism, especially among the young, are the result.
Now, what has happened is that the government and it supporters in the private sector have done is create a very clever campaign to channel popular frustration away from the people responsible (i.e., the state and its corporate allies). Orwell shows how the government can focus hate and use it to turn popular frustrations towards conveniently placed scapegoats. (15) We see both the mainstream Democratic and Republican politicians blaming the nation's woes (crime, the deficit, etc.) on a shadowy network of saboteurs in the form of unwed mothers, drug addicts,youth gangs, illegal aliens and other such "threats" to the American way of life. (16) This works because to the average American, with a background based in the Puritan sexual and work ethics, the enemy are those who are at the bottom of the social order. At the same time, there is little or no governmental criticism of the incredible sums which it gives in the form of grants and subsidies to business, agriculture, trade promotion, and industrial research, all of which support the managerial class' allies in industry.
By blaming the underclass, a sense of solidarity is created between the ruling elite and the middle class. All can march together in a campaign against those who dare threaten America's way of life‹or at least those whom the government claims are a threat. In the America of the 1990s, "Ignorance is Strength."
part 2 of article