What I am reading: 1984


With all the buzz lately about the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, and the surveillance state, I thought I would pick up my copy of 1984 and re-read it.

Set in the year 1984, it is a masterful piece of fiction that is remarkably prescient in many of its predictions, given that it was published in 1949. The two way telescreen is particularly poignant, with the amount of listening that is apparently being done by BB.

I didn’t read this, or its other kin when I was in High School like most people. I picked this up in my 30’s, along with Animal Farm, and Aldus Huxley’s: Brave New World. So I didn’t have a literature teacher guiding us through the analysis, so I was free to take my own views.

First, the world is different from the time when George Orwell wrote this. At that time, it appeared that “socialism” would sweep the world, and that there would be three major centers of socialism, Ingsoc (or english socialism), eastasia, and eurasia, that would be perpetually at war with each other. Like the Russian and Chinese form of socialism, society has been structured into two halves, the proles (proletariat) making up about 85% of the population, and the “party”; the apparatus that keeps the proles in check. Within the party, there is the inner circle, who don’t have much privation or limits on what they can do, and the rest of the party, who lives in a state of fear/hate.

The protagonist, Winston Smith works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth (minitrue), “adjusting” prior published facts to ensure that the official party line from today matches what was said yesterday.

There is a whole group who works on newspeak, a language that is used to communicate to the party. New-speak phrases like “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” are the mantra of the party, and talks about the double speak.

While I don’t think that we have devolved to a society where common household goods are rationed, and there is a black market for things like coffee and razor blades, it is hard to not see the parallels with the modern state. A significant amount of history revision is common in the political class (both parties are equally guilty), and the policy makers /  “aristocrat” class seem to become ever more isolated from the plight of the common man.

I am also reading a detailed history of Europe from the middle ages to the present, and much of the societal structure outlined in 1984 is aligned with typical European societies in the past. Of course, the mechanization of production, and the shifting of power to labor, and now back to capital, is part of the shifts in society.

Along the way, Winston starts doubting the world order when he comes across incontrovertible evidence of fraud in the ruling class. From that point on, he begins with small rebellious behaviors, and escalates.

The story is a great tale of fighting the system.  If you haven’t read it since your secondary school, I would highly recommend picking it up and reading it again.

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By geoffand

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