Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Meccania: The Super-State

March 16, 2015

Before George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel of life in the totalitarian country of Oceania, there was a similar book written by, Owen Gregory titled Meccania the Super-State published in 1918. Gregory, like Orwell, was concerned about the growth of authoritarian governments in Europe with the consequent loss of freedom during and after the First World War. While Orwell took the contemporary rule of Stalin as his model for Big Brother’s tyranny, Gregory projected the authoritarianism and militarism of Prussia and Germany to what he saw as a logical extreme. By doing, Gregory was able to predict, with astonishing accuracy, many of the features of the twentieth century totalitarian state, which Orwell could observe.

Meccania

Meccania is set in the year 1970 and is a first person account of the visit of a Chinese man, Ming Yuen-hway, to Meccania, a thinly disguised Germany. After visiting Luniland (Britain) and Francaria (France), Ming decides to make a trip to Meccania to see if the stories about the country are true. His difficulties in getting into Meccania and travelling about the country would be familiar to anyone who has tried to visit Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It is not easy to arrange to get into Meccania and once inside, Ming is accompanied by conductors. He is not permitted to speak to Meccanians without permission and must follow a prearranged tour. He learns that he will not be permitted to take his diary out of the country, especially since much of it is written in Chinese.

In Meccania, Ming discovers a country in which everything and everyone are precisely and efficiently organized. The people are divided into seven classes, from unskilled labor, to skilled labor, artisans, professionals, businessmen, to the military and noble classes at the top. No one is free in Meccania. Everyone eats the food, wears the clothing, works the job, and even attends plays and concerts prescribed for him by the state. There is no private life; the state even requires its subjects, and foreign visitors like Ming, to fill out diaries account for their location and activities throughout the day. No one reads for enjoyment. Every book and children’s toy is educational.

This system began to be put into place by the great Prince Bludiron (Bismark) in an attempt to counter the influence of Spotts (Marx) among the working class. After Meccania’s defeat in World War I, it appeared that all of Bludiron’s work would be dismantled and Meccania would become democratic. Fortunately, Prince Mechow came into power and refined and extended Bludiron’s policies until Meccania became the Superstate. The Meccanians profess to believe that this system is superior to all others and look forward to the day when the whole world is ruled by a superstate.

Owen Gregory displayed a good deal of prescience in this book, at least in so far as the way in which totalitarian states attempt to impress foreigners. There is much that Ming is not allowed to see, but he is a perceptive observer and is able to deduce much that the Meccanians don’t want him to know. Gregory’s predictions are not perfect, however, though when he errs it is usually in underestimating the viciousness of such regimes. He wrote before the Holocaust or the Gulag, so perhaps that is expected. Dissidents in Meccania are not shot or sent to concentration camps. Instead, Meccanian psychiatrists claim to have discovered a mental illness, “chronic tendency to dissent”. Dissenters are placed into mental hospitals until they recover (recant). This is, in itself a remarkable forecast of Soviet psychiatric methods, but Gregory is apparently unable to imagine that a superstate dedicated to efficiency would be so irrational as to seek to eliminate sections of its own population for political reasons.
This Meccanian efficiency is Gregory’s greatest blind spot. He, through Ming, laments the loss of freedom of the Meccanian people and fears that other states might be forced to adopt Meccanian methods in order to compete with Meccania’s military and economic power. If the adoption of a totalitarian superstate really resulted in an increase of industrial and military efficiency, such that the standard of living of even the poorest was improved, then it might be worth the bargain. As it is, the results of command economies, such as the Soviet Union show that a superstate would be anything but efficient. No planners, however sophisticated can easily anticipate the needs of a modern economy and no citizen, however docile, will work as hard doing what the state requires as he would doing what he wants.

Overall, Meccania is a surprisingly enjoyable book to read, better than most dystopias, including 1984. It is a more pleasant book, since the main character is a visitor to the dystopian state not a subject trapped in it. It might is still a timely warning. Communism, Fascism, and other totalitarian systems may have been discredited, except on American college campuses, but the desire to create a super state, for our own good, is still very much in evidence among the do-gooders, the nanny statists, the Bloombergs, and they still bear watching.

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Rereading 1984

October 27, 2013

Generally when a book is called a classic, either it has stood the test of time for many years, centuries in most cases, and has had a significant influence on our culture and even language, or it is a recently published book that the publisher is trying to promote. George Orwell’s 1984 has not been around for centuries but considering the huge effect this book has had, it might be fair to call it a classic almost from the moment was published. If I say a word like Big Brother or double-plus good, or a phrase like Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, any English speaker will know instantly what I mean, even if they haven’t actually read the book.

I have just finishing rereading the book. Although 1984 is one of my favorite books, it has been some years since I have actually read it all the way through. With most good  books, you get something new out of the story with each rereading and I have found that 1984 is no exception. There are a few things I noticed which I hadn’t really thought much about before.

I noticed that Winston Smith is not a very good judge of character. It seems that his impressions of almost everyone he meets in the story are misleading. He believes Julia to be a sexless fanatic, O’Brian to be a covert member of the Brotherhood, and it doesn’t occur to him that the kindly, old Mr. Charington might be a spy for the Thought Police. He imagines that his neighbor Parsons is too stupid to be arrested for thought crime, you have to actually have thoughts, I suppose. With that in mind, I wonder if the impression Winston has of his estranged wife, Katherine as being “goodthinkful” is really accurate. He couldn’t admit the nature of his own heretical thoughts with the telescreens always monitoring them and the strong possibility that she would instantly turn him in to the Thought Police. Maybe she had similar thoughts about Winston.

Winston is also a bit of a wimp. He and Julia spend their lives assuming that they will eventually be caught by the Thought Police, they will be tortured and they will confess to imagined crimes. They seem to be unable to contemplate any way of avoiding this inevitable fate. When the Thought Police arrest them, Winston never tries to flee to fight back. Granted, any attempt to fight the Thought Police would be futile, still he might have done something other than standing still and waiting for them to hit him. In the holding cell, when the voice from the telescreen tells Winston to be quiet or not cover his face, he complies. Why? What would they have done if Winston told them to “F— off”? Torture or shoot him? He really didn’t have anything to lose at that point.

I don’t think it was cowardice on the part of Winston Smith. Although he hated the Party and all it stood for, he was still very much a Party man and he accepted their basic premises and discipline. This is similar to the way the Old Bolsheviks that Stalin purged willingly signed confessions to imaginary crimes and humiliated and degraded themselves at the show trials. They were tortured and worn down by the NKVD, to be sure, but they had spent their whole adult lives under the discipline of the Bolshevik Party and when the party told them to sacrifice themselves, they lacked the inner reserves to refuse. I imagine that someone outside the Party would have a better chance of resisting the Thought Police, especially of such a person followed a competing ideology, perhaps a devout follower of some religion or a fervent nationalist. I believe this was often the case with the victims of Stalin’s torturers.

Winston Smith believes, throughout the book, that someday the Proles will rebel against the Party and overthrow them. O’Brian assures Winston that this is nonsense. Since the uneducated Proles have no knowledge of any circumstances but what they are familiar with, they cannot know just how miserable and oppressed they really are. This is precisely why the North Koreans have never attempted to rebel against their government. Until recently, they had no knowledge of conditions outside of North Korea and could easily be led to believe that life in North Korea was better than anywhere else. But, even if the Proles did learn that people in the past were freer or more prosperous, or perhaps that Eurasians or Eastasians were better off, they still could not do very much. Successful revolutions require some degree of organization and the ability to fight. The Proles could not organize without attracting the attention of the Thought Police and they have no guns or other weapons. They might be able to riot, but rioting is easily suppressed. They could not overthrow the Party.

On the other hand, O’Brian boasts to Winston that the rule of the Party is forever. I have to wonder about that. The purges described in 1984 could not really continue forever. Along with Winston, virtually every named character in the book who is not an agent of the Thought Police is arrested and presumably shot in the end. Who is going to replace these people? At some point there simply wouldn’t be enough people to keep the machinery of government functioning. This is why Stalin was obliged to ease up on the purges after a few years and why his successors never attempted to purge the party on such a disastrous scale again. At some point, Big Brother or his successor would have to scale back persecutions and allow a small amount of freedom of thought.

Winston Smith’s job involves “correcting” newspapers and books so that the Party is always right. It seems like a lot of effort to recall every book and newspaper in every library throughout Oceania to keep changing the text so that the Party’s propaganda can never be proved to be false. I am not sure how they could possibly be sure of getting every single copy for alteration. Surely there must be old books on some forgotten bookshelf somewhere or old newspapers that were used to wrap something decades before and forgotten. Actually, Winston’s job would be a lot easier with today’s technology. As information is increasingly digitized and put online, all Winston would have to do is rewrite the stories on news websites. Unless someone happened to have an older version cached on their hard drive, no one would ever notice any alteration.

Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in the area around London, England. I wonder what the rest of Oceania is like. Goldstein’s book hints that Oceania has a very decentralized economic and political system. It may be more a loose confederation than a very centralized state the way real Communist countries like the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China are. The official ideology of Oceania is supposed to be Ingsoc or English Socialism. I wonder how much that would go over in North America. Maybe there the ideology is called Amsoc or American Socialism. Or, since Americans have never cared for Socialism of any sort, maybe just Americanism. Maybe instead of Big Brother, Americans are warned that Uncle Sam is watching them. Maybe in Australia the ideology is called Ozsoc.

Of course, we shouldn’t take it for granted that anything that the Oceanian government says is actually the truth.It may well be that Oceania is actually an isolated state like North Korea consisting only of the British Isles. Eurasia and Eastasia along with the entire war could simply be fictitious. Winston Smith has no way of knowing and neither does the reader.

I have to say that in general, George Orwell was not a very good prophet. After all, 1984 has passed almost thirty years ago and we are hardly living in a world of perpetual war with a tyrannical government that is watching our every move. Wait a minute. Come to think of it, we kind of are.

I love Big Brother

I love Big Brother

Sign of the Times

June 10, 2013
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Coming True? (Photo credit: beachblogger42)

 

According to the Washington Examiner, sales of 1984 have increased dramatically recently.

 

Sales of George Orwell’s “1984” are up 69 percent on Amazon, according to a list on the website.

The book marked its 60th anniversary on June 6 amid a flurry of real-world news stories on secret government surveillance.

Amazon lists the paperback version of the sci-fi classic as the 19th biggest book on its Movers and Shakers list. The current sales rank is 110.

The list identifies the biggest gainers in sales rank compared to 24 hours ago.

Update: As of 3:22 p.m. EDT, sales of Orwell’s “1984” are up 91 percent on the Amazon Movers and Shakers list.

 

I guess that George Orwell’s dark vision of a totalitarian government that watches its citizen’s every move doesn’t seem like fiction anymore. Incidentally, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has also been making record sales for the past several years, for the same reason.

 

Interesting times we’re living in.

 

 

 

2013

June 7, 2013

With all of the news coming out about how the US government has been spying on its own citizens, maybe George Orwell should have titled his book 2013 and set it in America. We do seem to be steadily getting closer to the sort of country where Big Brother is watching us, for our own protection, of course. Just looking at the headlines at the Drudge Report, we have the NSA tapping into the user information of Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook and others, the Post Office has been photographing mail, the NSA has been intercepting Americans phone calls and e-mail, and who knows what else. It is as if every idiotic conspiracy theory put forward by the tinfoil hat wearers is turning out to be true.

Big-Brother-Barack-Obama-61702

Our Future?

Of course, it is easy to go overboard over all of this. So far, there has been no indication that the government is actually spying on innocent citizens, at least not yet. The programs that have been uncovered do have a legitimate purpose. By having computers sift through billions of pieces of information, intelligence specialists can uncover terrorist plots, sometimes before they are even planned. We like to think that we have free will and we decide our actions, and we do, but our decisions are predictable if you have enough information. Any one working in sales or marketing already knows this. What the government is doing is simply taking the sort of data collection that advertisers do a further step.

The question is though, do we really trust the government with so much information? Can we rely on the people in our government to work for our protection and not use this information for partisan advantage? As the revelations about the IRS’s selective enforcement of the laws against the TEA Party might suggest, perhaps we should not trust them.

Meanwhile, It wouldn’t hurt to remind everyone that what you do on the Internet is never really private. Take it for granted that anything you post on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, or send in an e-mail can become public knowledge. Oh, and not to be paranoid,  but you may want to cover up that webcam that came with your laptop. They could be watching you.

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