The idea of power and 1984
“Born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India, in 1903, George Orwell, novelist, essayist and critic, went on to become best known for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” (biography.com 1)
1984 is a dystopian novel, set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world. It seeks to portray a chilling “what-if” scenario, in which most of the world is ruled by a totalitarian regime. Great Britain, now known as Airstrip One, is also one of them.
Winston, the main character of the novel, recalls the leading party being called “English socialism” in the past – or Ingsoc in Newspeak, the new official language of this all-encompassing super state. The subject matter of the novel is inspired by the context of rising Stalinism, following the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. The novel paints a grim picture, one in which every citizen is constantly monitored by authorities, and people who are deemed problematic are “vaporized” – erased from existence, not only physically but also from pictures and newspaper articles, a tactic also employed by the Soviet Union. Nothing is sacred, historical documents can and will be altered, if need be. In other words, the leading party holds what many would consider absolute power.
This absolute power is exercised in many different ways, both directly by arresting and torturing dissidents and subversively by monitoring citizens at all times. This is where the concept of the “Panopticon”, introduced by Bentham, first ties in.
The Panopticon is, in simple terms, a prison. It is not just any prison, however. Its peculiar spherical shape, with a tall watchtower in the middle, allows guards to monitor inmates at all times from a vantage point. Foucault argued that “power only exists when it is put into action” (Foucault info 1), so from a different perspective, authority is meaningless if not taken advantage of. What the Panopticon enables is an ingenious way of exerting pressure, authority and power without having the need to physically or actively do anything at all.
To their knowledge, the inmates are under constant surveillance. The guards can see them, but inmates cannot see into the tower in return. Therefore, they have no way of knowing if they are watched at all times, or if they are watched at all. This single fact, however, that they could be watched at all times inhibits their behavior and inhumanely obstructs their freedom.
What is worse is that in 1984, it is not just inmates that live under these conditions, but the whole of society. Everyone has a telescreen in their home or office, a machine that receives and transmits sound and images simultaneously. Perhaps even inner party members have others monitoring them. But then, who would be left to watch the leader and keep them in check? In a normal society, the people would have the power and responsibility to overthrow a tyrant. This is however not possible in Oceania, at least not in the foreseeable future.
“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. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” (1984, p 5)
It is a well-established military concept that defeating your enemy without fighting or casualties is preferable to facing them head on. It would seem that the leaders of the Party have taken this to heart. They do not simply limit themselves to punishing criminals and enforcing rule of law as societies nowadays do. They want to stop crimes, or even thoughts of crimes, before they are even set in motion. In abstract, if we ignore the Party’s malevolence, this might seem to be a reasonable concept. It is often said that you do not have anything to fear if you have nothing to hide, yet this warped statement can be a slippery slope. Freedom itself presupposes privacy and freedom of expression.
In the novel, as well as in real life, surveillance is control. This notion remains true and is applied today as well, although not to such sickening degrees. For example, security cameras in a supermarket or random stop and searches executed by police. More often than not, more than a way to catch criminals in the act or keep ones tempted by evil in line, they also work as a deterrent. The simple fact that they exist, that you could be seen doing the deed or caught before carrying it out. These are some of the ways in which the state exercises power, despite not actively doing anything in the case of the cameras.
A parallel can be drawn between the large, overbearing ministries, especially the Ministry of Truth, and the Panopticon. The telescreens represent the very walls or windows guards would use to look into the cells of the inmates.
Another important concept in Foucault’s works is the use of discourse, of language. Being able to censor what one might say gives you great power. Surprisingly, this censoring doesn’t always have to be enforced through violent means. It doesn’t have to be direct, it can be subversive. Once again, the Party has come up with an ingenious way of solving the ‘problem’ of free speech.
If you exercise your power openly and try to forcefully censor the masses, you always run the risk of running into resistance. This could mean anything from protests or strikes to outright revolution. As such outcomes are undesirable, Newspeak was invented. It is a flagrant attempt at fooling the people into self-censorship, disguised as a new official language.
“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone” (1984, p 65)
No matter how good crimestop, the process designed to stop one from believing or accepting any information or arguments that contradict what the Party says is true, it can never be perfect. It can never guarantee total authority and loyalty. Therefore, the Party has come up with a way to extinguish the very flame of rebellious thought – by taking away all of its fuel. The introduction of newspeak is expected to eradicate thoughtcrime altogether. As opposed to a normal language, newspeak seeks not to enrich, but diminish vocabulary. It seeks to do away with all unnecessary words, all synonyms or nuance in speech. They are deemed unnecessary. If you take away their words, their language, they won’t be even able to think of bad things anymore. And even if they do, they will have no way to express it.
In “Discipline and Punish”, Foucault opens with the subject of torture. He argues that while in the past executions and torture were public events, for all to see, they now happen behind closed doors, in prisons. While in the past, the punishment itself was to be feared, nowadays, the scariest part is the certainty that you will be caught and punished (Foucault 1). This seems to also be a constant fear in 1984.
“Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.” (1984, p 24)
It seems the main concern is not what will happen to you when you get caught, but when you will. Unfortunately for dissidents, it does not seem to be a matter of it. Arrests happen under the cover of darkness, deep in the night and with no records or official reports. People usually did not make it back, but if they did, it was for confessions and public executions held by the party.
“Some Eurasian prisoners, guilty of war crimes, were to be hanged in the Park that evening, Winston remembered. This happened about once a month, and was a popular spectacle” (1984, p30)
Language is not only important from the point of view of what the masses can or cannot say. The language used by those in power is equally important. A perfect example is the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” (1984, p 3). This circles around to the idea of the Panopticon. Those oppressed need to constantly be reminded that they are being watched – and that they need to act like it. Whether Big Brother himself or someone in the Thoughtpolice is actually watching them at all times is irrelevant. The very fact that one could be watched at any moment, yet not know when, forces them to act on the assumption that they are in fact always watched.
A very interesting subject to tackle is whether Big Brother actually exists at all. An argument could be made for either side of the debate, yet neither camp has watertight arguments. In the end, the novel does not give enough information. The reader is not meant to know, same as the citizens of Oceania are not meant to know if they are constantly surveilled or not.
Is Big Brother a real person? Is he just a fabrication, a fictional character managed by the top leaders of the Party, since it is easier to love a person or a figurehead than to love a party or abstract notion? In the grand scheme of things, in the tapestry of power, it might just be irrelevant. His influence remains the same. The situation Oceania finds itself in would not change in the slightest no matter the truth of Big Brother’s existence.
In conclusion, Orwell’s 1984 is a mold that fits Foucault’s ideas about power and its uses very well, and which still serves as a fair warning to not forfeit freedom at the promise of security for the people of today.
Publisher A&E Television Network. Last access date: August 20th, 2018.
https://foucault.info/documents/foucault.powerLast access date: August 23rd, 2018.
https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/1984.pdfE-book of 1984, last accessed August 23rd, 2018.
https://zulfahmed.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/disciplineandpunish.pdfE-book of Discipline and punish, last accessed August 23rd, 2018.