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Orwell On Totalitarianism And Language …

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On the novel 1984 (1949) and the essays “Politics and the English Language” (1946) and “Notes on Nationalism” (1945).

What's the relation between language and totalitarianism? In 1984, Orwell presents us with a society where the ruling powers have mastered the art of retaining power, and one element of this involves "Newspeak," where the vocabulary is purposely limited to the point where subversive sentiments can't be expressed. And if you can't say it, you can't really think it either, so the "thought crime" that begins the protagonist's journey of despair would be impossible.

We get some context from the two essays: "Politics and the English Language" tells us that when we parrot metaphors and other phrases given to us ready-made by those in power (or anyone else), we cease to authentically think. "Notes on Nationalism" describes the difference between patriotism, i.e., authentic pride in your locality, and nationalism, which should really be called factionalism, which involves putting all your efforts (à la Beauvoir's "serious man") in the service of country or party or whatever.

In 1984, citizens are expected to surrender their individuality to the party (i.e., the state), and the full foursome is here to talk about exactly how that's supposed to work in the story and who counts as a citizen ("outer party") vs. a prole (whom those in power starve of the means to revolt but don't bother to indoctrinate on an individual level). So, was this Orwell's version of Marx's theory of history, i.e., through some kind of Darwinism of ideas, factions that exhibit these kinds of defensive mechanisms will inevitably rise to the top (note that this happens to all three of the world's empires in the story, though each of them had different starting ideologies)? Or was he engaging in satire, or just warning us of where certain tendencies of his day's socialism might lead if left unchecked? (Note that he was a dedicated socialist himself.) Or is this just a thought experiment to show what kind of organization one would need to ensure continuous power?

What Orwell describes is extreme: Purposefully and constantly revised history to reflect current party priorities, constant surveillance and even entrapment to "educate" citizens to love the state (which in the case of our protagonist breaks him to the point of his being essentially useless to the state's efforts), the necessity of "double-think" that involves citizens both purposely lying to themselves and then forgetting that they have done so, and finally, the overt avowal by the rulers (the "inner party") that they pursue power purely for power's sake, not for the sake of some good apart from power. Given this extremity, could the depicted society possibly plot out a realistic trajectory from our current one, or even amount to a particularly illuminating thought experiment?

Orwell has thankfully helped inoculate against disingenuous political speech, such as calling the Republicans' current plan "The American Health Care Act" when it is in fact designed to undermine care for many (I pick this example only for its recency; there are many others available of various partisan varieties). Does lying by our government in this way, or trying to restrict speech to only "acceptable" modes, or working up fear of an external, mostly illusory threat to keep the citizens in line… Do these measures represent a slippery slope to totalitarianism, to anything like the world that Orwell describes? Or is calling such things "Orwellian" really just a cliché of exactly the sort that Orwell himself would object to?

Orwell picture by Wan F. Chang-Hamachi. [Part One ]

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