1984 Today Essay: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever” (Orwell 337). This impactful statement by O’Brien highlights the “point of no return” of authoritarianism in 1984. The powers of the state had been internalized, and the Orwellian society had spiraled into a dystopian nightmare in Oceania. In order for this extreme system of control to be avoided, we must be particularly vigilant against the increasing use of government punishment and surveillance.
One particularly dangerous exercise of power is the enforcement of cruel and unusual punishments towards supposed criminals. Winston explained one such punishment, saying, “When once you had succumbed to thoughtcrime it was certain that by a given date you would be dead” (130). Winston was absolutely sure of this, because he was taught this all throughout his life – that you will be eliminated if your thoughts didn’t align with the Party’s. He understood that once you began freely thinking, you were destined to be caught thinking thoughts that did not align with the state. If a Party member began to understand that the state is not actually working for good of the people, he/she would be in a never-ending struggle to avoid getting caught by the Thought Police. As large public showings of power were displayed through these humiliating capital punishments (and became a well-known consequence), the people of Oceania became ever-more compliant, rather than rebelling against the state. This inevitably led to a rising fear of becoming a “criminal” (punishment, torture, and death) in order to get subjects to do what they are told. Although one may argue that punishment is necessary in many cases, the real reasoning behind the Party’s growing enforcement of severe punishments is internalizing the state’s power and reinforcing obedience in the Party members. These measures taken by the state must be avoided at all costs.
We must also be especially wary of the capability for constant surveillance. As a result of the possibility for constant surveillance, the Party members must assume that they are being watched at all times. This fear of being watched was shown in 1984: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment … there was always the danger of concealed microphones by which your voice might be picked up and recognized” (148). Although Winston was not literally being watched 24/7, he feared the chance of being watched (because it was always possible). This assumption of surveillance contributed towards Winston’s unwavering obedience towards the Party, because he feared being labeled a criminal. Another example of surveillance in 1984 is explained here: “Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected” (268). There always existed the chance of being observed by the government, even without his consent or knowledge. Most importantly, there existed a fear of being watched even when Winston was all alone. This was vital in order to keep him abiding by the system, because being alone is when an individual is most vulnerable to “thought crime.” Winston was scared to commit any crime against the Party, because he knew that he would eventually be caught (as a result the possibility for constant surveillance).
Forced disciple through constant routine is another form of surveillance used. Every morning, one such procedure was performed by Winston: “he mechanically shot his arms back and forth, wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper during the Physical Jerks” (49). Also, his tasks at work were described, “the piece of work he was engaged on was mere routine, the rectification of a long list of figures, not needing close attention” (135). Mundane tasks were necessary throughout Winston’s day, in both his work and his morning procedure. This created a daily routine which required no deviation or critical thinking by the participants. Additionally, this mindless activity was reinforced by the Two Minutes Hate, making these actions second nature: “The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate, and the speculations which might possibly induce a skeptical or rebellious attitude are killed in advance by his early acquired inner discipline” (267). Disciple through repetition was used during the Two Minutes Hate, and Winston was just one victim of this repetitive scheme. This standardization of daily tasks made surveillance particularly easy by the state. Any deviations from this norm were easily caught and considered a criminal act. This effectively prevented any “thoughtcrime” or negative thoughts towards the Party. Also, one slogan was constantly reiterated throughout 1984: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” For the members of the Party, this slogan was a fact. There were absolutely no other alternative ways of thinking offered. What the state told them was truth – no questions asked. Constant repetition is essential to foiling independent thought, and the agenda of the powers that be were reinforced through these forced recurring routines.
Another warning of power corruption is surveillance through a development of a monopoly on knowledge and information. One such monopoly blatantly existed in 1984. The Party’s control of history records were explained: “the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested… He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” (313). They were able to alter written history whenever needed, and this resulted in the people not even trusting their own memory. The ability to control what historical records said allowed the Party to feed the public lies in order for them to continue being obedient workers. Furthermore, this disallowance of certain thoughts was shown when Winston was being questioned: “We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world” (322). In fact, it was not even possible for the lack of obedience to be displayed: “there is no way in which discontent can become articulate” (261). The Party even controlled what words existed in the dictionary, which resulted in the expression of discontent being completely unfeasible By doing this, the means of communication (Newspeak language) was able to be extremely limited. If there existed no words which could be used to rebel against the state, then then uprising would be extremely more difficult.
In today’s society, we must be particularly vigilant against the increasing use of government punishment and surveillance. These modes of power execution were shown to be extremely effective for means of control in 1984. Even though similar such measures are used daily in America, people continue to be ignorant towards the facts. We must open our minds and be true to ourselves. George Carlin pointed out, “They [the owners of this country] don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.” By thinking for ourselves rather than following the crowd, we will hopefully prevent such extreme internalized tyranny and obedience like that in 1984.