Any dictatorship seeks to control the thoughts of the populace. Ideological loyalty from the hapless citizenry is essential if the State is going to exist in the long-term without any serious challenges to the perception of its legitimacy. Government, at some point during its reign, must wage psychological warfare techniques against the population in order to preserve its own power.
Set in an alternate historical timeline during the 1980s, nation-states do not exist. They have been replaced by three gigantic superstates, one of which is Oceania, which encompasses most of the former British Empire, plus all of the Western Hemisphere. What used to be considered England is now dubbed Airstrip One, although London is still referred to as such.
A single entity known only as the Party is the only government in power over Oceania, even though there are not any codified laws anymore. Behavior is regulated by strict adhesion to the ideology of English Socialism; any deviation from it is punished severely. The Party has several organs within itself that rule over Oceania; the Ministry of Truth spreads propaganda, the Ministry of Plenty dispenses food stamps, the Ministry of Peace wages war, and the Ministry of Love tortures dissidents and assorted malcontents who were initially monitored and then captured by the Thought Police (who are the secret police of the Party). Big Brother is the single titular figurehead of the Party that is to be worshipped as the omnipresent God that the Inner Party thinks he is.
Probably the most pernicious way the Party attempts to control individual thought is by manipulating the language; in fact, they even created their own language, Newspeak. One of the key characteristics of Newspeak is to deliberately reduce the range of thought by eliminating words that were present in Oldspeak (that is, our current use of English). For instance, the word “bad” would be rendered obsolete by the word ungood, since the prefix un- already denotes an antonym. Newly contrived prefixes such as plus- and doubleplus- are used to connote degrees of emphasis, so something that we would describe as “very good” and “extremely good” would instead be described in Newspeak as plusgood and doubleplusgood. Hence, in this example alone, our English words of “bad,” “very,” and “extremely” have been simply deleted by the Newspeak concoctions of ungood, plusgood, and doubleplusgood.
The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party who worked at the Ministry of Truth in the Records Department. In one scene, a memo is sent to him in Newspeak:
“times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefilling
“In Oldspeak (or standard English) this might be rendered:
“The reporting of Big Brother’s Order for the Day in the Times of December 3rd 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory and makes references to non-existent persons. Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing.”
Such is the Party’s version of historical revisionism, which they do on a nearly daily basis, but it’s worst than that. They also destroy the original records that directly contradict their version of events. For example, Oceania was currently at war with Eurasia (since it had always been at war with Eurasia); by extension, this meant that Oceania’s ally was Eastasia. During Hate Week, Winston’s job entailed doctoring all the records of Oceania (including the original source material) so as to reflect that Oceania was instead at war with Eastasia and always had been, which would also mean that Eurasia was now Oceania’s ally.
It is fundamentally essential at this point to grasp the underlying principle behind Ingsoc (English Socialism), which is doublethink, that is:
“[T]he power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and [unconditionally] accepting both of them.”
This is why the four Ministries act contrary to their selfsame names, it is why Ingsoc violates classical socialism, and it is the source behind the three main slogans of the Party, which are:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Newspeak is not only the vehicle used for expressing doublethink, it is also the manner by which any thoughts outside the scope of Ingsoc are mentally obliterated, for how can you express the concept of freedom if the word “freedom” doesn’t exist in the first place? Doublethink also explains why, when dissidents are sent to the Ministry of Love, their torturers want them converted fully to Ingsoc before they are dealt with, or why it is never supposed to be consistently clear as to whom Oceania is at war with; it is literally the epitome of what we would understand today as “political correctness.” It is fundamentally a demonic mechanism by which cognitive dissonance can never be resolved, so the juxtaposition that an individual is left in is inherently designed to get him to distrust his own sense of reality and thus wholeheartedly rely upon the authority of the Party to tell him what “reality” happens to be this week.
Besides the Inner Party and the Outer Party, there are the proles, that is, the common people. Orwell describes the proles thusly:
“So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern. They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds.”
If such was the case, then did the Thought Police surveillance and capture them the way they do with actual Party members? Apparently not, for the most part:
“To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumours and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous; but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.”
It was in this way that Winston’s hope for any sort of victory laying solely with the proles was thus proved ineffectual, for the Thought Police and the Party in general had managed to deal with the proles in such a manner so as to automatically contain any revolutionary fervor that would threaten their own power. As the Party slogan said, “Proles and animals are free.”
Oceania is the epitome of the surveillance society. Telescreens, which are televisions that also have microphone and camera capabilities, are used to monitor Party members for thoughtcrime, which is behavioral deviation from Ingsoc. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in public squares and roads. The Thought Police live amongst the proles, Outer Party, and Inner Party members to simultaneously enforce orthodoxy and prevent revolution. Oceania is a police state in every way that matters.
Within this dystopian hell, Winston experiences the very beginnings of seeing through the fog of the Party’s illusions when he begins keeping a diary where he expresses his most sincere thoughts in Oldspeak. Eventually, he acquires a lover, Julia, who joins him in resisting the Party by continuing to sleep with him, given that sexual activity by Party members which is not sanctioned by the Party is thoughtcrime (in Julia and Winston’s case, it would be more specifically considered as sexcrime). After they are caught by the Thought Police in their lover’s nest, both of them are sent to the Ministry of Love where they are socially re-engineered to love Big Brother by ultimately betraying each other.
George Orwell’s 1984 is a ominous warning about the dangers of totalitarianism set up against one of the better imagined mise-en-scène I have ever read in a fictional novel. If there was any lesson to be learned from Orwell’s work, it would be that you can never allow tyranny to take root within any given civilization, for it is what can permanently destroy humanity itself. Perhaps also being noticeably less fearful of the enemy rebel government can be helpful in beginning to instill some much needed courage that would be pivotal towards overthrowing these Orwellian bloodthirsty psychopathic authoritarians from the throne of power that they have usurped.