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The complete failure of ‘1984’

The complete failure of ‘1984’

George Orwell’s novel serves the role of containment, fencing in thought about how a population might be controlled.

Progressive media outlets are celebrating the release of “Julia,” a new feminist retelling of “1984” authorized by George Orwell’s estate. One glowing review from the Los Angeles Times declared that the new novel outclassed Orwell’s dystopian classic and suggested that it should take the original’s place in high school English curricula.

The irony is almost too much to bear. Perhaps the 20th century’s most famous novel about propaganda, in which the main character’s job is to update the historical record to conform to the current government narrative, has been updated to conform with modern propaganda. The media, which in theory serve as the safeguard against exactly this form of centralized information manipulation, are instead its most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Though we live in a society whose conception of authoritarianism has been shaped almost entirely by “1984,” Orwell’s novel has failed to slow our rush headlong toward centralized state control.

Humans are narrative creatures who do not interact with facts in a vacuum. Stories are critical because they create a shared context and vocabulary in which we can place the facts that we encounter. Even going back to Plato, most civilizations have understood that the stories they collectively tell themselves shape the very conceptual landscape on which people approach issues.

Orwell’s book has served as the shared narrative context in which America and many other Western nations discuss the possibility of tyrannical state authority. Modern advances in mass transit, mass communication, and mass production during the early 20th century allowed for the rapid centralization of state power and gave rise to nightmarish regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orwell’s most famous work perfectly captures the nature of those regimes in its depiction of a brutal authoritarian government backed by plenty of direct oppression and the threat of force.

The dystopian novel became the universal reference point for tyranny thanks to its ubiquitous assignment as required reading in American public schools. Although the deterioration of public education has meant fewer modern students still read the book, for many decades “1984” was likely the only novel most Americans had read that provided such a conceptual framework. And yet, while most people treat “1984” as the critical warning on what an authoritarian government looks like, they never seem to consider why it was included in compulsory public education in the first place.

The truth is, while “1984” serves as a good warning against the dangers of a Nazi Germany or a Soviet Union, it fails to equip students with the tools necessary to oppose the total state that is currently consuming America.

Given the nature of our soft-managerial regime, “1984” poses little threat to our leaders. And because it is the only text in which most Americans encounter the idea of a dystopian government, the novel limits their ability to conceive of an oppressive government that does not resemble the one Orwell described. As a result, “1984” is only a threat to the dead managerial regimes of the past, the ones thar our current rulers defeated. It serves the role of containment, setting a narrative frame that fences in thought about how a population might be controlled.

I am not suggesting that there is some vast conspiracy to distribute “1984” to control the masses, but its organic selection was likely due to its compatibility with our regime’s mode of power. Think of the “rebellious and edgy” television show that warns about the dangers of evangelical Christianity, thereby enforcing all the real narratives of power. Some of the predictions of “1984” did come to pass, like the novel’s own propagandistic update and replacement. But our totalitarians look and feel so different that Orwell’s warnings failed to halt their advance.

By casting themselves in the guise of kind, tolerant, and educated administrators applying therapeutic remedies, our current regime’s rulers can enact many of the social terrors depicted in “1984” without triggering the narrative alarms.

Several alternative dystopian novels do accurately warn against aspects of our soft managerial total state, but they have failed to gain the formative-narrative status achieved by “1984.”

Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is probably the most famous of these stories. Though flawed, it does a much better job of laying out the tools deployed by our regime today. While Orwell focused on force, hate, and blunt propaganda, Huxley predicted the more benign and therapeutic tone that social engineering would take. The population in “Brave New World” is not held in check by fear; instead they are controlled by the manipulation of their pleasures. People are genetically engineered to be happy with their station in life and provided with constant chemical assistance to help them deal with any feelings of despair or unhappiness.

Why resist the regime when you can take a drug that will make all your problems fade away? If there is one thing we learned from pandemic lockdowns, it is that Netflix can be just as effective as Soma at pacifying the masses.

“Brave New World” was also more aware of the impact the sexual revolution would have on the total state. Humans are genetically engineered, not naturally conceived, and so sex has become entirely detached from its organic context. Everyone in Huxley’s novel is sterile, refusing to have sex with someone is considered selfish, orgies are common, and exclusive attachments are the ultimate taboo. There are no husbands or wives, mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers. The family forms a fundamental loyalty that competes with the total state, and so it must be broken, not by force, but through the destruction of the sacred and the proliferation of pleasure that has been unmoored from its natural foundation. The citizens of Huxley’s dystopia do not fear the jackboot but simply cannot imagine an existence where every moment is not managed by a vast array of highly qualified experts.

The main problem with “Brave New World” is that Huxley was still a modern progressive who saw managerialism as the way forward. The novel is more of a cautionary tale of progress gone awry than a warning against this form of progress itself.

That Hideous Strength” by C.S Lewis is a lesser-known work, but it also provides critical insights into our regime that “1984” never captured. Unlike Orwell or Huxley, Lewis understood that the modern obsession with disenchanting the world and controlling human nature was evil in and of itself. Lewis also managed to predict the rise of anarcho-tyranny.

In “That Hideous Strength,” a cabal of self-righteous college professors who have been tricked into serving evil use streets thugs to manufacture riots and then manipulate the media into justifying a crackdown on average citizens in response. The novel’s characters are forced constantly to state obvious lies to themselves and others to maintain their social status as intellectuals. These shapers of public opinion slowly recognize that they have sworn allegiance to a grotesque evil, but they have bound so much of their own identity and status to the new regime that they must continue their pyramid scheme of lies.

While there is certainly great merit to Orwell’s warning against the forces of authoritarianism, it is simply not the novel for our time. It was written to ward off vanquished foes and does not address the spirit of the regime that now rules over us. The soft managerial regime is one that strips away the sacred, denies human nature, and seeks to manufacture the ideal subject. The destruction of the family, the sterilization of the vital, and the weaponization of sex are all keys tools in the arsenal of our ruling class.

The battle being waged in our time is a fundamentally spiritual one. It’s a battle for hearts, minds, and ultimately souls. This is a war of belief, and we must fight to return to what is sacred if we wish to escape the smothering advance of managed technocratic dehumanization.

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