“Totalitarianism: Of, relating to, being, or imposing a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed,” (dictionary.com). Essentially, totalitarianism is a type of government in which the person or people in power seek to maintain absolute control over every person under their authority, with virtually all importance eliminated from the concept of an individual. The term was characterized by Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist who wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, inspired by Hitler and Stalin of the just-finished World War II and just-starting Cold War.
Responding to the terrors of WWII that she experienced firsthand, Arendt describes the evils of totalitarianism as she saw them. George Orwell, an author living at the same time as Arendt, responded similarly to the widespread war and terrifying totalitarianism. In his 1984, Orwell creates a strictly totalitarian society, offering an alarming glimpse into a possible future. Orwell’s society shows every characteristic named above in the definition of totalitarianism, its government’s sole goal to maintain power.
The society of 1984 functioned on the belief that control over the human mind is control over reality. As O’Brien, an important member of the Orwellian government referred to as the Party, says, “Reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party,” (205). The Party is not concerned with objective facts. They argue that reality can only become reality when it is believed; additionally, the believed reality is the only reality.
When O’Brien tells Winston that 2 plus 2 equals five, Winston must believe it, for he is not permitted any other option. Expanding on that idea, the Party states, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” (204). Only the present out of the three times is tangible, so the others do not really exist. And since reality exists only in the human mind, the Party has only to control the thoughts of that mind to control the reality of past, present, and future.
In their attempt to control the human mind, the Party seeks to eliminate all thoughtcrime, the crime of thinking anything against the infallible Big Brother, the intangible being by which everything is ordered. The act of thinking about committing a crime is, as Orwell describes it, “the essential crime that contained all others in itself,” (19). That action is considered by the
Party the most horrible, for only with thought and a conscious decision to take action will any action be performed; without thoughtcrime, no crime would be committed. As such, the Party utilizes every possible method of eliminating thoughtcrime. Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, commits a thoughtcrime at the beginning of the book when he purchases a diary and in it writes, “Down with Big Brother,” (19). He then reflects on the inevitable consequences of his action: “Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference.
The Thought Police would get him just the same,” (19). The Party has the power to realize any committed thoughtcrime and to punish the criminal. Their ability to do so is even seen in the language; the English language is developed to satisfy the ideological needs of the society, creating Newspeak. One man says, ” ‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it,” (46). Without fail, the Party maintains their control over all of the society.
In order to follow the society conceived in 1984, a method of thinking is absolutely essential; the action of doublethink. Doublethink is a method of reality control; the Party’s ultimate goal in all their actions. As Orwell describes it, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” (176). It is the principle on which Ingsoc (the society of 1984) is founded. Ingsoc’s basic tenets are as follows: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. It is possible to deliberately speak a lie while firmly believing in what one says- through doublethink.
One’s memory can be rearranged and memory altered- through doublethink. Though to our unenlightened minds these terms may seem to be contradictory, the process of doublethink eliminates all confusion. Clearly, these statements are far from oxymorons; rather, they are absolute truth. Doublethink allows for all of the society’s actions that would otherwise seem to be ridiculous; once again, the Party’s ultimate power is revealed.
The Party’s absolute control is maintained through various methods, one such being the infliction of threats and pain. Every member of the society knows that once a thoughtcrime is committed, that criminal is taken by the Thought Police. When Winston is arrested, he is able to experience firsthand the punishment constructed by the Party. He is taken to the Ministry of Love- an instance of Newspeak’s use, the meaning of love is utterly reversed- where he is to be made sane. The Party fully believes in the importance and rightness of their actions, and O’Brien explains how their society is different: ” ‘We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will…Everyone is washed clean,’ ” (210). Winston must fully surrender to O’Brien. It does not matter what he says, but rather what he believes, for in the mind lies the ultimate power. Describing the process enacted in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien says, ” ‘There are three stages in your reintegration…There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance,” (215). In order to attain the state desired by the Party, one deemed mentally deranged must undergo all three of these stages, as Winston eventually does.
However, Winston initially is unable to truly believe everything said by the Party. He is able to say that he believes, and perhaps wants to believe, but doubt still remains. As the final push to belief, Winston is taken to the infamous Room 101. O’Brien tells Winston, ” ‘The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world…[it]varies from individual to individual,’ ” (233). The greatest possible torture is individualized, and with this torture, comes anything. In Room 101, one is forced to face his greatest fear. Out of his absolute terror, Winston betrays the one he vowed never to betray- Julia, the girl with whom he had a love affair. He finally realizes that love of a fellow common person like himself is futile; only the love of Big Brother is important. At the end of the book, Orwell writes, “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother,” (245). Ultimately, the absolute power of the Party allows Winston to believe in everything that society does.
Realizing the importance of the human mind, the Party not only threatens the society, but also channels the people’s potential into actions to benefit the Party. At all times, Oceania is at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. It is not certain whether war actually exists, but the actual fact is not important, for reality exists only in the mind, and the Party tells us that a war is occurring. In doing so, the Party assures themselves of ultimate faithfulness from the society, for anyone to go against a society in wartime must surely be denounced as unpatriotic.
Furthermore, the Party institutes the Hate Period: for two minutes every day, a film of Emmanuel Goldstein, the pronounced Enemy of the People, is shown, and the viewers driven to a frenzy. As Winston declares, “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in,” (12). By utilizing the power of the human mind, the Party is able to further their control over their society.
The society created in Orwell’s 1984 was undoubtedly an effective society, but the qualities held by that society go against all principles which we now hold to be essential to life.
We assume that we have the right to freedom of speech, and that our language cannot be corrupted, yet Orwell says, “Political language- and with variations this is ture of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” (“Politics and the English Language”). We assume that we have the right to challenge anything, yet Orwell tells us, “Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.
A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.” Today, Orwell’s terms- Big Brother, doublethink, newspeak, and others- are heard when discussing our own government. Though 1984 is a fictious story written over 50 years ago, its message is still relevant today. We all must realize Orwell’s warning that he sought to make clear over half a century ago- at any time, we all face a common danger; that of conforming; that of losing our individuality, our thoughts, and all qualities valued in humanity.