The Presentation and Philosophy of State Control in 1984

1984 explores philosophy of state control as its central theme, and the novel has been extolled as a prime presentation of a dystopian society.  A typical feature of dystopian literature is the idea of a totalitarian ruling elite whose directives are upheld by social conditioning of the populous via such methods as fear, propaganda and instilled distrust of anything outside the perceived societal norms.

George Orwell’s 1984 draws heavily on the world in which he lived.  Orwell himself was reported to have claimed that his writing was a report and exploration of the state of Britain in 1948, the year in which he wrote the majority of the book.  The economy at that time was in a fragile state and the British Empire already dissolving. 

It is known that Orwell spent several years working at the BBC (then under the control of the Ministry of Information—an arm of the government) and the volume of Party propaganda in the story is likely to relate to this, since Orwell’s dissatisfaction with the way the Ministry exercised control over the media was well known.  It isn’t too difficult to see Oceania, the State in 1984, as the British Empire taken to an altogether more threatening and uncomfortable level—the British Empire was primarily a naval power, and the name Oceania, coupled with frequent references to the ‘floating fortress’ naval vessels used by the State, certainly suggest strong similarities between the real and fictional empires. 

The State of Oceania is ruled by an ‘elite’ few called the Inner Party.  Oceania exists for the benefit of this elite, the masses of its population (particularly the subservient Outer Party) existing only in order to serve the Inner Party.  The Inner Party’s primary tools of control are fear, suffering and violence.  It exists solely to gain power over its subjects, as O’Brien says: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means, it is an end… How does one man assert his power over another?... By making him suffer”.  With characters such as O’Brien and the rest of the Inner Party, Orwell is making a statement about the absolute corruption than can happen to a person or people with authority, and about the way they can lose sight of their original purpose—that of being stewards of the population—if left to progress unchecked. 

With the authoritarian tendencies of the British Government of the time, Orwell’s intention would seem to be to convey fear about what those tendencies had the potential to become, rather than commenting on the stance they held at the time of writing.  The methods of control utilized by the Party are both brutal and inhuman; mass propaganda is used to drum home the Party’s ideals and rules, everywhere people go, posters and slogans surround them: ‘…the posters were plastered everywhere.  The back-mustachio’d face gazing down from every commanding corner… BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’.  The Party also makes use of three slogans, which are prominently displayed on their ministry buildings: ‘WAR IS PEACE … FREEDOM IS SLAVERY … IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’.  Orwell is illustrating the way a State can affect the thoughts of its population by manipulation of mass media.

One of the most enduring images in the story is the Telescreen: ‘…an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror… The Telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.  Any sound that Winston made above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard’.  With this menacing description, Orwell explores the idea of constant surveillance, and the effect it has on the behaviour of the populace.  These soon become clear—the Telescreen is like a constant observer, of which people are very afraid: ‘You have to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard…every movement scrutinized’.  The idea that people can be conditioned to assume they are being watched (‘became instinct’) is very important.  Orwell communicates the idea that people can be trained to accept great hardships, even the complete elimination of personal privacy, given enough time and exposure to the offending behaviour.

In addition to the constant propaganda bombardment from Telescreen and posters, the populace of Oceania live in perpetual fear of the Thought Police, an arm of the Inner Party that closely resembles the ‘Secret Police’ organizations of both the German Nazi party—only recently defeated at the time of Orwell’s writing—and the Communist party in Russia, which was just starting to consolidate its power at the time.  Everyone in Oceania is afraid of the Thought Police, since they are portrayed as an all-seeing, all-powerful organization; their omnipotence and omnipresence ground into the minds of the people: ‘The Thought Police would get him just the same… Thoughtcrime was not something that could be concealed forever… sooner or later they were bound to get you’.  Orwell makes some well-informed comments about the nature of fear and its application as a tool of societal control. 

Having seen the effects of the Gestapo in Germany and the acts of the Cheka in Russia, Orwell was only too aware of the ramifications of using fear as a State tool.  Throughout 1984, Orwell describes the constant fear of the Thought Police and the menace with which they conduct their activities, and in the final stages of the book, Winston is captured and tortured by O’Brien and the Thought Police in the paradoxically named Ministry of Love.  With the brutality Winston suffers at the hands of the Thought Police, Orwell shows how effective fear can be: ‘There were times when his nerve so forsook him that he began shouting for mercy even before the beating began, when the mere sight of a fist drawn back for a blow was enough to make him pour forth a confession of real and imaginary crimes’.  Orwell shows that the threat of violence and personal injury coupled with the psychological effect of being constantly watched is both a barbaric and extremely effective way of maintaining a State’s control.

The character Winston Smith is something of a loner by nature, feeling out of place in the society in which he exists.  A member of the Outer Party, he works in the Ministry of Truth (which, paradoxically concerns itself with writing lies) falsifying records so that they fit the ideals and position of the Inner Party.  Winston is constantly troubled by the principles of doublethink – the Party’s way of manipulating minds by telling people that what they know is wrong and using their fear to make them believe it, even if proof to the contrary sat before them.  An outsider, Winston dislikes taking part in the Party’s community activities, although he still reluctantly participates in order not to draw unwanted attention from the Thought Police.  Throughout the book Orwell keeps Winston in a high state of tension, emphasizing his outsider status.  There is no place for individuality or even variety in a highly controlled society.  Orwell uses the Thought Police to illustrate this; anyone who appears different is guilty of Thoughtcrime, and is ‘disappeared’, either to be ‘reeducated’ or killed.  When Winston is captured and tortured by the Thought Police, he eventually gives in and is converted to a love of Big Brother.  This suffering is both a reference to the fascist governments from which Orwell derived many of his ideas for the book, many of which murdered and tortured those whom they felt did not fit into their society, and an exploration into the prejudices that a powerful leadership can exhibit.  An unchecked State can become bloated with power, torturing citizens with impunity simply for being only slightly different.

It is clear that Orwell intended to portray the concept of an omnipotent, authoritarian state as an undesirable and dangerous entity.  With his dark depiction of a world of perpetual suffering, he focuses on the possibilities that excessive fear and terror could produce in the hands of a controlling, totalitarian state.  In this way he warns of the possible consequences of creating a state that forces its subjects to conform in a certain way through terror and violence.   

Some suggested further reading relating to 1984

'Why Orwell's 1984 could be about now', BBC Culture Story  (2018)

'The 100 best novels', The Guardian, UK (2015)

'The Message for Today in Orwell's 1984'New York Times (1984, Archived)

You can read 1984 for free by clicking this link

Alternatively, the book is available from most retailers in all the usual formats.  To download to your Kindle from Amazon, tap this link

(Please note that an ebook was used for the purposes of this essay, therefore page numbers have not been supplied).

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