Foucauld and the idea of power in 1984 – George Orwell
Written by a British novelist, essayist, journalist and critic George Orwell, the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a nightmarish vision of totalitarianism, published in 1949 after the Second World War. It is a meditation on destiny of tyranny in the future, which examines the consequences of oligarchy, totalitarianism and collectivism.
The novel describes a Great Britain after a hypothetical nuclear war between East and West which would have taken place in the 1950s, where a totalitarian regime was built, inspired by what was once Stalinism and by certain elements of Nazism. Freedom of expression as such no longer exists. All the people’s thoughts are thoroughly supervised, and immense posters that storm the streets tell everyone that ‘Big Brother is watching you’.
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Orwell’s exploration of the mechanisms of institutional power inevitably carries one to Michel Foucault’s work on the subject: ‘Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures. The plague stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies-this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city’ (Foucault, 6). Extracted from ‘Discipline and Punishment: Panopticism’ by Michel Foucault, the quote describes perfectly how the citizens of Big Brother’s Oceania were controlled in Orwell’s novel. A ‘PANOPTICON’ is a prison containing a central watch tower, idea which has been designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Orwell makes use of this idea, and even if there is no tower in the novel, it has elements which could be associated with the idea of ‘panopticon’. Big Brother’s government system is considered by Foucault as being a “Utopia”. As noted by him, this Utopia relies upon more than one method of control, but the far most significant method is the surveillance: ‘The telescreen received and transmits simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, about the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, as long he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque was commanded, he could be seen as well as heard’ (Orwell, 6). The surveillance and the Utopian Society were the main ideas of Foucault’s article. Considering that ‘Power exist only when it is put into action’ and ‘Freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised’, Foucault emphasizes the importance of every individual to be watched, thinking that this is the way a perfect society would involve. Throughout the whole work, he talks about control, power, watched actions of individual and a perfect society.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the surveillance is achieved by the constant presence of the telescreens. Having a dual role, to blare constant propaganda and observe citizens, the telescreens represent the symbol of the totalitarian government which abuses technology for its own ends instead of using its knowledge to improve the civilization. People could not do anything which was against the Party as the vigilant telescreen was always watching them. Even though Orwell does not use in his novel a panoptic prison, the telescreen may symbolize very well this kind of prison, as people never knew who, when or if was anyone behind it. People were living in a virtual prison, at the centre of it BIG BROTHER acting as the watch tower: ‘Panoptic prison cell in which all the inmates and prisoners are in a circular confinement with a tower in the centre of the facility making it appear that everyone is always being watched, even if no one could see if anyone was in that tower…the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.’ (Foucault 6). Science and technology were not used in a good way, but to curtail human freedom and privacy and to control the human behaviour: ‘In Oceania at the present day, Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist. In Newspeak there is no word for “Science.” The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc. And even technological progress only happens when its products can in some way be used for the diminution of human liberty.'(Orwell).
The government was a totalitarian one which was seeking to monitor and control every aspect of human life in Oceania, having the absolute power. ‘INGSOC’ in Newspeak or the Inner Party is the fictional political party of the totalitarian government of Oceania. BIG BROTHER is the face of the Party, known as the leader of the nation and the head of the Party but no one knows if he really exists or not. This totalitarian government uses a number of techniques to control its citizens. One of them is the ‘THOUGHT POLICE’, the secret police of Oceania who discovers and punishes the ‘THOUGHTCRIME’ which represents personal and political thoughts which are not approved by the Party: ‘A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone.’ (Orwell 210). But how do they manage to monitor thoughts?! When people were sleeping, it happened to talk in their dreams, those words reflecting actually their inner thoughts: ‘It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.’ (Orwell 79). Besides the telescreens and microphones, the children were also used as methods of surveillance. The children of Parsons were members of the Junior Spies, indoctrinated and overcome with love for the Party. This leads to the death of their father, as he is turned in by his own daughter after she had heard him talking in his dreams. During a conversation with Winston, Parsons affirmed: ‘Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man, … It’s insidious. It can get hold of you without you even knowing it. Do you know how it got hold of me? In my sleep! Yes, that’s a fact. There I was, working away, trying to do my bit—never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all. And then I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying? Down with Big Brother!’ Yes, I said that!’ (Orwell 294). Also, during the Hate Week, which was a psychological operation designed to increase the hatred of the population for the current enemy of the totalitarian Party, people who seemed to have any kind of hesitation, no enthusiasm or no sign of patriotism, were considered guilty of ‘THOUGHTCRIME’. It indicates that their thoughts were rebellious and they were not loyal to the Party.
Another method which the totalitarian government uses in order to exert influence over the citizens is represented by the slogans placed everywhere: ‘WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’. These are paradoxes which show us that the society of Oceania was an upside down world. By using the war as a method of keeping peace in a society, Orwell wants to show the audience how the totalitarian government was expressing oppression over the citizens: ‘The hatred for the enemy it was mainly what keeps the people united. Every person in the inner Party has one thing in common and that is the hatred for the enemy. Therefore they are all able to strike together in a unified fashion. However, the war of Oceania is a never ending war that has been going on for over 25 years. But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous.’ (Orwell). Without war, the security of the Party would have been threatened. What presupposes a war? Well, patriotism, sacrifices and devotion to the country, things that were keeping people under control and preventing rebellions against the Party. These slogans represent the one of the main mind-programs used by the Party, the so called ‘DOUBLETHINK’ which ‘describes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts.’ Even though the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ are by far two contradictory words by definition, they are both accepted as correct by the citizens of Oceania. According to the Party, people who were seeking freedom were doomed to fail: slavery for the masses, freedom for the elite. These contradictory and paradoxical ideas are put together in order to show the irony of language, words, and actions. In Orwell’s novel, ignorance representing strength represents one of his ironies used in order to transmit us that ignorance of the masses can be translated into government’s strength. If people remain ignorant of the facts, they would not been able to raise questions against the Party and its governance. If they became aware of their manipulation, they would rebel and this is what the Party does not want to happen. Also, anyone who dared to show resistance against the Party risked to be arrested and subsequently all the information about them was erased: ‘It was always at night—the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: VAPORIZED was the usual word.’ (Orwell 24). The Party decided also to narrow the range of people’s thoughts for that they could not be able to conceptualize revolution. As a solution, they came up with the introduction of the so-called Newspeak: ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism’ (Orwell 376). ‘The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.'(Orwell 377).
The interests of humanity are affected by government for the purpose of power and privilege. Government seeks to channel the activity through its own control rather than allow independent and free activity. The Party’s quest for power is for power’s own sake: ‘The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were- cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?'(Orwell 332).
In conclusion, the idea of Foucauld regarding the power is emphasized in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell through the use of the permanent surveillance and its tools in controlling the citizens of Oceania. His fundamental objective was to turn a negative conception upside down, the same technique as we saw in the novel.
‘Nineteen-Eighty-four’, George Orwell
https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/1984.pdfFoucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. Panopticism. Penguin, 1979.
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