In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s easy to tell that things in Oceania are somewhat amiss. The first clue should be the numerous signs that say “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” The ubiquitous grime, rubble, ugliness, and destitution also hint that we may not be in a worker’s utopia. The citizens dress identically, they watch videos of refugees being blown to smithereens, they celebrate “Hate Week.” The beer is bad, nothing works properly, and government propaganda blares at all hours. The clocks strike thirteen.

There is plenty, then, to immediately disturb the casual visitor. In the real world, it isn’t always like that.

In They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945, originally published in 1955, Milton Mayer reveals something startling about life in Nazi Germany: To many ordinary citizens, it didn’t feel like they were under a totalitarian dictatorship. As the title says, they thought they were free. In fact, years after the war, nearly all of the 10 Germans Mayer talks to still harbor nostalgic feelings about Hitler. They may not have cared for the war, but they gave Hitler credit for solving unemployment and making Germany great again. Certainly, they hadn’t found the society oppressive. If you didn’t cause trouble—and why would you?—you could live a pleasant, comfortable life. That is, presuming you were racially pure, heterosexual, and never accidentally said or did anything that could arouse suspicion.

Mayer writes that even for those who did become horrified by what their country turned into, it could be difficult to notice the transformation while it was occurring. The death camps were not introduced the moment the Nazis achieved power. They were the culmination of a process, the endpoint of which most people did not foresee at the start:

In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D. And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.

Of course, for those who were the Third Reich’s victims, it was easy enough to see the country’s descent into the abyss. There was, nevertheless, an illusion of normalcy. The forms didn’t change. Children still played. Street sweepers swept streets, lamplighters lit lamps. There were more swastikas, yes, but everything wasn’t one big swastika. At least until the war, many people’s daily thoughts were still mostly consumed with non-political things: jobs, relationships, weather, survival. The skies did not suddenly turn grey, the plant life did not all instantly wither and die. Evil was banal. It got up in the morning and put on its shoes, it dragged itself home at night and had sex with its wife. The trains, it is said, were unusually punctual.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite different. It is a nonstop nightmare for nearly all of its residents, with the possible exception of Big Brother himself. It does not have a single feature to recommend it. It is not even clean, which one would at least expect of a machinelike society. It is all stick and no carrot, held together entirely through fear.

As more than one critic has noted, this makes George Orwell’s novel somewhat limited as an exploration of how authoritarianism works. The only society that has ever come close to resembling the Orwell vision is Khmer Rouge era Cambodia. There, the entire population was indeed put in uniform and worked to death, while party slogans blared in their ears. The party called itself the “Angkar,” or The Organization, which was perfectly Orwellian. Its slogans made no secret of its general approach, e.g., “to destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain,” or “he who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.” But the Khmer Rouge regime stands out even in the annals of 20th century Communism for its extraordinary level of senseless terror, and it lasted for about three years.

Stalin’s USSR, on the other hand, was more complicated. All of the features Orwell described were indeed present: arrests in the night, mass purges, ubiquitous surveillance, denunciation of neighbor by neighbor, blatant revision of history, a constant barrage of propaganda. But even Stalinism was more subtle in its methods than Oceania’s ruling Party. Life in the Soviet Union was indeed unenviable, but there were many improvements over life under the Tsar. As the country became industrialized, infant mortality decreased and per-capita GDP consistently increased. The standard of living remained lower than in the United States, though that was in part because at the time of the Russian Revolution, the country was already far behind the United States. There were material gains under communism. Not for everyone, of course. But the real gains helped justify the system, and make many true believers, even if the system was ultimately actually stifling the country’s development and well-being. To see communist rule as maintained purely by intimidation is to underappreciate the many sources of its appeal.

Illustration by Christopher Matthews

Alright, so Orwell was not talking about how totalitarianism actually operated in 1948. Instead, he was imagining 1984, the logical extension of existing tendencies. The book was a warning: If prevailing trends continue, here is where we will end up.

That is not where we ended up, however. And it’s not just because “capitalism beat communism.” It’s also because “the constant terrorization of everyone” is not an efficient way to maintain power. Stalin himself had to mellow in his later years, since it turned out that if you shoot anyone you suspect of treachery, and have a loose enough standard for what constitutes treachery, pretty soon all the intelligent and useful people end up dead. Kim Jong Un has discovered the same thing, apparently. In North Korea Confidential, Daniel Tudor and James Pearson document the pockets of freedom that exist under dictatorial rule. People party, people watch movies, people have hobbies. The degree to which this freedom exists depends on one’s place in the hierarchy. But this most Orwellian of contemporary societies has still not reached Orwell’s vision of total control, in which “nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” 

Parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four in fact seem completely mistaken. Protagonist Winston Smith reads from a banned book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which argues that the Party has found it necessary to keep everyone artificially poor through endless war since improved standards of living would risk causing instability:

But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction—indeed, in some sense was the destruction—of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.

But there can be an “all-round increase in wealth” without wealth being “evenly distributed.” In fact, that is exactly what has happened since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Living standards have, on the whole, increased, but they have increased much more for the extremely wealthy, and the gap between rich and poor is much larger. Increased standards of living do not necessarily threaten a hierarchical society. In fact, they can serve to perpetuate it, because people will see their own lives improving slightly and not realize how much more their lives could be improved if gains were distributed more justly.

Those who have faulted Nineteen Eighty-Four’s analysis often single this out as his key mistake: You don’t maintain power by depriving people of all pleasure, but by keeping them content so they don’t ask questions. Cultural critic Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves To Death, contrasted Orwell’s dystopia with the one depicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. There, pleasure-drugs keep the population lost in ignorant bliss, reducing the need for overt repression. Postman concluded that the modern world resembled the one Huxley worried about rather than the one Orwell worried about:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Or, as Watchmen creator Alan Moore memorably put it: “Orwell was almost exactly wrong in a strange way. He thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother.” People are, according to this argument, kept in line through stupefaction. Governments do not rewrite history; the books are there for anyone to read, if they are curious. But they don’t teach it, and nobody bothers to find it out, and we reach the same level of ignorance without any need for outright censorship. Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky-like figure deployed as the national enemy and made the subject of the Two Minutes Hate, would not need to be put on television and shouted at. Instead, he would simply be kept off television, and would languish in obscurity. The New York Times would simply use its column space to profile influential neo-Nazis instead.

Read an excerpt from “The Very Bad Dictatorship,” our parody of an Orwellian dystopian novel…

Yet there is a reason Nineteen Eighty-Four endures, and it’s easy to notice contemporary parallels. I was always reminded of the Two Minutes Hate whenever I saw how the media discussed Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Undoubtedly, these men were horrible. But in the years after 9/11, hating them became a national pastime, and kept Americans from critically examining their own country’s behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan. ISIS and MS-13 serve a similar function now. Likewise, Orwell’s idea of permanent war (“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”) usefully shows why the never-ending “war on terror” is such a dangerous absurdity. Orwell bequeathed a powerful gift to generations of civil libertarians by giving them something to point to as a demonstration of where certain lines of thinking can lead.

It’s a shame, then, that Nineteen Eighty-Four had to be such a ridiculously over-the-top cartoon. In some ways, the reductio ad absurdum is memorably vivid, and Orwell’s concepts (doublespeak, thought crime) have lasted for good reason. But real-world dystopias generally do not have have flashing signs on the front gate saying “Welcome To The Dystopia,” and I wish Orwell had succeeded in conveying the way that surveillance, torture, inequality, and unaccountable government can come to be ubiquitous without anybody really noticing. Why would they put a notice up that says “Big Brother Is Watching You”? It should say “Big Brother Is Watching Out For You,” or “This Camera Operates For Your Protection. If You See Something, Say Something.” Don’t say “Ignorance is Strength,” say “Strength is Knowledge.” Don’t say “Freedom is Slavery,” say “You Are Free.” The entire way propaganda operates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is unsophisticated and unlikely to succeed for long. You can’t actually refashion language to get rid of all the rebellious verbs. Instead, just don’t teach people anything. There is no need for the kind of heavy-handed methods used by the Party. Why discourage sex if you don’t want the proles making trouble? Instead, have them compete to see who is the most sexually attractive, and tell them they’re losers if nobody wants to fuck them. Honestly, Big Brother could have fashioned a far more effective repression apparatus if he’d bothered to hire a marketing agency.

The best imaginary dystopias actually do present a world that could conceivably come true, and it’s part of why they’re so creepy. Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You envisages a frighteningly plausible Silicon Valley company that offers people lifelong comfort in exchange for permanent indenture. It’s easy to see how Riley’s “WorryFree” corporation could come into existence: People are struggling to make rent and pay for their necessities, so they sign their over their lives in order to become, well, worry-free. When I talked to friends about WorryFree, some even seriously said that they’d consider such an offer. In fact, the real surprise is that no forward-thinking entrepreneur has yet introduced such a program. It seems like a matter of time until Peter Thiel funds an indentured servitude startup.

To the left, Nineteen Eighty-Four is also frustrating because of how it has been interpreted and used over the years. The ideology of “English Socialism” that Orwell depicts is so unpleasant and inhuman that it seems to make out a strong case against any kind of socialism, English or otherwise. Anyone who knows Orwell beyond the two famous novels knows that he was a thoroughly committed socialist, though a firm opponent of its authoritarian variants. He left no doubt about where he stood: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” For Orwell, equality was desirable, but it had to be meaningful equality, not simply a lie told by the state in order to justify its incompetence and cruelty. Nineteen Eighty-Four has nothing to say about “socialism,” and is instead an indictment of hierarchy, repression, and censorship.

Yet even though nothing in Nineteen Eighty-Four indicts socialism itself, it is exasperating for the left in another way. In its heavy-handedness, it doesn’t actually attune readers to the real way that authority operates. It sees the future as “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” But it fails to point out that the boot doesn’t stamp on everybody’s face. It singles out particular disfavored populations, while many people can remain blissfully unaware that there even are any boots stamping on any faces.

The Germans who thought they were free were willfully oblivious to the true nature of their regime. Their lives were comfortable, and so they chose not to see its victims. And because the dystopian aspects of society usually lie slightly beneath its surface, or are off in faraway camps or gulags, most people don’t need to notice them if they don’t want to—and why would they want to? In the Orwellian society, everybody was unhappy, but they were forced to simply put up with it. That kind of society does not seem destined to last long. The truly scary one is the one in which the state still murders, indefinitely detains, and surveils people, but in which only the victims feel the effects. In that society, the majority will never rouse itself to prevent atrocities from occurring, because it won’t even seem like there are any atrocities occurring. And in that society, the signs won’t read “Big Brother Is Watching” or “Freedom is Slavery.” They will read: Everything is Fine. Life Is Good. Have A Coke. Keep Calm and Carry On. Our Borders Are Secure. Enjoy Your Freedom. 

This article was originally Published in Issue 14 of Current Affairs. Get your copy today in our online store or by subscribing.

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