Friday, August 22, 2008

1984 in 2008

During the Cold War, George Orwell's novel 1984 was a favorite among people of many different political beliefs. The book was often taken in the spirit of its condemnation of totalitarianism to be specifically a condemnation of communism and of the Soviet Union, and of the Soviet system of government and social organization, which in part it was. However, Orwell's message went well past a simple condemnation of one side of the bipolar conflict, and both during and after the Cold War, many readers have ignored the rest of Orwell's message. This is ironic considering the fact that the philosopher Eric Fromm was invited to write an introduction to the novel that is often included in many issues of the book, and that Fromm specifically outlined Orwell's warning to his readers.

Fromm argued that the book's main warning was not directed against the Soviet system so much as it was directed against the West, as the West was itself headed into its confrontation with the Soviet Union by emulating many aspects of the Soviet system in the effort to fight against communism. One of the aspects of the Orwellian depiction of the near future that most people ignore is the degree to which the West became ever more similar to the East while claiming an increasing ideological divide. The story takes place in Oceania, a geopolitical entity combining among other things the United States and Great Britain, and the leaders of Oceania prosecute eternal warfare against the world's other two superpowers, Eurasia and Eastasia, by claiming a fight for freedom, justice, and morality against the decrepit and horrific systems of its opponents. Yet the three superpowers all employ the same ideology, and the same means of supporting their ideology and of fighting their opponents.

Fromm argued that Orwell's warning was that in fighting the Soviet Union the United States and the leading powers of Europe would become ever more like the very system that they claimed to be fighting against. This warning largely went unheard, as many chose merely to see the Soviet system and not the American one in the construct of Oceania. This has not changed since the Soviet collapse, as many still see the novel as a Cold War story that has now become dated. But Orwell's warning, as unheard and unheeded as it remains, becomes ever more strident.

The proof in the pudding of Orwell's warning lies in the changes in the American political landscape since the collapse of the Soviet system. The conservative revolution of the past quarter of a century has employed so many ideas and language tools employed by Oceania and its totalitarian opponents that one can't help but see Big Brother in every policy that the American conservatives enact, and in every statement of conservative ideals. The very goals of the conservative revolution in fact can be defined quite neatly by J.D. Talmon's concept of totalitarian democracy, in which the people are ruled by a ruthless and authoritarian, but nonetheless popularly elected, republican regime. The conservatives are building an ideal future based on the values of the past, in which a tyrannical father rules the home, a tyrannical company rules at work, a tyrannical government rules in the capitol, and a tyrannical Christian church rules the social and cultural norms. The conservatives have managed to build a frighteningly large consensus and support base of the very people they wish to control and exploit, a base of supporters ready and eager to sign away their last rights and civil liberties in the happy knowledge that they are building a future free of freedoms, in which they are safe from foreign ideas such as the notion that the government shouldn't tell them how to live their lives. The voters are persuaded to bask in the warm and protective embrace of a government uninhibited by inconvenient realities and moralities. Enemies are imagined up and the government strips away the people's civil liberties in order to protect them from imaginary or impotent enemies; and rather than protest, the people vociferously support the government's rights against their own, in proud defiance of everything that America's founding fathers believed in and fought for; and they do this in the very name of everything that America's founding fathers believed in and fought for.

This relates to Orwell's statement that the Party (the ruling organization of Oceania) destroys all freedoms and all notions of equity and social justice; and that it does so in the very name of freedom, equity, and social justice. But this is just the beginning of a comparison between Oceania's Party and our own beloved Republican Party (and the conservatives of which the Republicans are merely the tip of the iceberg). The Party of Oceania had three central slogans: War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, and Ignorance Is Strength. All three slogans are unspoken but nonetheless central strategies employed by the conservatives to further their aims.

WAR IS PEACE. The conservatives (with, it must be admitted, a frightening degree of enthusiastic support from "liberals" and the Democratic Party) have built up a system of eternal warfare and have eroded the distinctions between war and peace to the point where there is no longer any clear distinction. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has continued to pursue its "War is Peace" strategy both at home and abroad. The US has deliberately blown foreign "threats" out of all proportion to their actual level of antagonism and capabilities; and in particular insists on a warlike and military engagement of all opponents and "threats," at the expense of negotiation, compromise, and inclusive methods that led to the end of the Cold War and to the development of democratic government in East Europe. They do this in order to prove that continuing the employment of direct military force to any and all situations of foreign "threats" is the only way to protect America, American ideals, and the American standard of living.

To that end, the conservatives propose continued increases of military spending despite the obvious lack of any enemy capable of taking on America and winning on a conventional military level. They propose to continue funding and fighting a war in Iraq with no end in sight, because it keeps everyone's nerves on edge and keeps everyone cognizant of the "threat" that is out there and which we must sacrifice wealth and civil liberties in order to defeat.

The conservatives know that we can't and won't stay in Iraq forever, and so Iran is now being raised to a "threat" worthy of military response, and one which every attempt made to negotiate with is lambasted by an ever hawkish "liberal media." This despite the fact that every time Iran has stepped in the way of American goals, it was because we had stepped on their toes first. The United States has been interfering in Iran's affairs for over half a century, including the unspeakably ugly period of our direct support for the Shah's secret police and their torture and murder of thousands of Iranian dissidents. Iran has never shown any indication that they would remain antagonistic to an America that didn't continuously impose its will upon them; but the United States has never given Iran the chance. Nor will we, because it only helps build a conservative and authoritarian American system of totalitarian democracy if we have a credible threat out there trying to build atomic weapons and remaining seemingly antagonistic.

And so, in the prosecution of actual war, and the preparation for a combination of both real and hypothetical future wars, the US remains ever at war. Yet at the same time the US is ever at peace as well. This is because we are fighting, or preparing to fight, against threats not even remotely capable of withstanding US military force. There is therefore no real possibility of reinstating the draft; and so the civilian population remains safely at home working to support the troops defending their rapidly eroding freedoms.

The continual state of warfare and/or the preparation for it (with a deliberate policy of fanning and provoking such threats, and of warning the American public against them) offers several advantages to the conservative construction of totalitarian democracy, which were discussed by Orwell in 1984.

First of all, the perpetuation of an endangered state keeps the population insecure and suspicious of outside influences, and not uncommonly of each other at home. A population at war is often willing to allow, and sometimes actually desirous of, restrictions of freedoms and of civil liberties, and are easily convinced of the dangers inherent in newly arrived immigrant peoples with different languages and cultures. A constant state of war enables a state to impose and maintain authoritarian conditions.

Second, perpetual warfare requires the perpetual expenditure of resources on military equipment and supplies. This is actually considered a positive feature as it not only provides the government with a ready economic activity which must be maintained at all times, but it inhibits the government from spending money on social programs that would interfere with the conservative construction of totalitarianism. The conservatives desire a society regimented and structured along traditional authoritarian and class-based lines. They desire a society in which the rich and powerful remain in charge, the middle class manages affairs for them at a lower level of comfort that requires them to remain subordinate, and the poor remain a subordinate and cheap labor force. The conservatives fear social programs that offer social mobility, that enable workers to leave their jobs for other jobs, that provide the poor with support which interferes with the corporations' control over labor and working conditions, and that support the kind of education that enables people to improve their lives and working conditions. It is easy to sacrifice these programs when there is a credible threat out there which we have to prepare to fight, and which taxes our resources enough to put social spending on the back burner.

The War on Drugs, The War on Terror, the "threat" of Iran, and other conflicts are created and perpetuated in order to develop this totalitarian form of society in America. The imposition of military force enables the state to support corporate controls at home and abroad, both by keeping the workers hungry and ready to accept whatever working conditions the authorities wish to maintain, and by imposing the American state's will upon foreign territories that may then be exploited as corporate colonies. Thus, the conservatives make ready use of the WAR IS PEACE strategy to impose authoritarian conditions and to eliminate social spending that would negate the conditions needed to build totalitarian democracy.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. The conservatives consider the constitutional separation of church and state to be a significant barrier to the development of totalitarian democracy, and they fight for "religious rights" in an effort to protect the freedom of Americans by taking their freedoms away. They consider "justice" (greater police powers, fewer civil liberties, harsher sentences) to be a value of freedom and so they separate the citizens from any and all legal protections in order to "protect" them. But which is more dangerous: a thug with a gun (lovingly guaranteed to the thug by the NRA), or a government with a million guns, and no rules protecting the citizen from that government or its guns?

The equation of freedom with slavery gets even more reinforcement in a corporate society, where the government's guns are used to protect the corporations, and where few of the constitutional rights can be applied to the workers in their relationship with their employers. Citizens have political rights that are meaningless in their most fundamental and day-to-day relationship with their work environment. Conservatives fight to maintain and reinforce that basic reality of a democratic-capitalist structure. They fight to protect the corporations' rights (in the name of "the economy"), to prevent the government from intervening on the workers' behalf, and to invoke government intervention in support of the corporations. This is all done in the name of "free trade," as is the establishment of trade barriers, protective subsidies, and pro-corporate tax structures.

Another aspect of this strategy is the "blackwhite" tendency of conservatives to paint leftist struggles for freedom as threats to those very same freedoms which the conservatives fight to erode and destroy. The conservatives equate giving rights to people with enforcing specific choices from people not willing to make those choices. When the Left fights for the people's rights to pick their own books, movies, and music, the Right paints a public picture of goose-stepping feminazis forcing people to read Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian," and to watch movies filled with gay sex and violence, and to listen to gangster rap. When the Left supports the rights of a gay person to live their life their way, the Right equates this with people being somehow forced to live gay; gay marriage is somehow envisioned as taking something away from heterosexual marriage. The conservatives insist that a freedom granted is really a freedom taken away: the freedom to enslave, the freedom to enforce, the freedom to intimidate the different, the freedom to dominate and control other people. What the conservatives call "Freedom" is in fact Slavery; what they call "Slavery" is in fact Freedom; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The conservatives are pursuing a state of war against education, to bolster "home schooling" as a form of fundamentalist Christian propagandizing to a captive audience without being influenced by science and rational thought. The conservatives are deliberately trying to reduce college education in the knowledge that the educated are far less likely to be conservative than the uneducated. They also desire a less educated society in order to increase social divisions and reinforce the class structure; they want the best education for the rich, a sustainable technical education as needed for the middle class, and the bare minimum level of education for the poor and working classes. A reduced level of national education increases hierarchical and patriarchal social organization, preserves the elite status of the rich and the subordinate status of the workers, and keeps the middle classes right where they are.

The "Strength" inherent in the conservative battle for Ignorance is threefold. First, it enables the conservative to maintain and reinforce their power base by keeping the people away from the education, facts, and rational thought that would encourage more liberal political tendencies and more liberal politics. The conservatives also fight to include "intelligent design" as a "creationist science" to sap away the strength of programs attempting to teach real science, empirical methods, and rational thought, in order to reinforce their base among those "forced" to attend real schools. The conservatives fight vigorously to protect their people from education and knowledge, and from dangerous, "foreign" ideas and cultures.

Second, the "Ignorance is Strength" strategy is employed to maintain and reinforce both social and political authoritarianism by increasing the powers of hierarchical and patriarchal structures such as the family, the workplace, the church, and the state. The conservatives therefore support home schooling where children can be "protected" within their "religious rights" from scientific principles and taught traditional Biblical laws instead, reinforcing the stratification of society, the suspicion of the different, and the powers of both church and state over the individual.

Third, the "Ignorance is Strength" strategy is used to protect the corporate structure by hiding the damage done to the planet by excessive corporatism. The conservatives fight to hide the corporate exploitation of resources, the corporate (and even private) pollution and damage to the ecology and biosphere, and the corporate exploitation of foreign labor and resources to the detriment of human rights abroad and at home. Thus, the conservatives employ their IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH strategy in order to improve their domestic political position, but also for the direct construction of a totalitarian society and government.

Besides these three central strategies, the conservatives also employ other language tools from Orwell's novel in order to fulfill their revolution for Big Brother. The conservatives are especially fond of "doublethink," and "blackwhite." DOUBLETHINK is the simultaneous holding of two contradictory ideas in one's mind, and the simultaneous knowing and not knowing that one is doing so. BLACKWHITE is a very closely related concept, the labeling of something as its opposite.

The conservatives use these tactics in order to control the language of politics and win a false image of moral supremacy while engaging in the most immoral actions and for the most immoral goals. For example, they label the media "liberal", despite the controls imposed on the media by the conservative corporations which own them; and despite the fact that the majority of pundits and talk-show hosts making specific observations and opinions on TV and radio are right-of-center to far-right in their opinions and statements. The media are far more pro-regime than the conservatives are willing to admit, far more than foreign media and the real (and largely marginalized) leftist press. Between the conservative ownership, the vast numbers of actual right-of-center to extreme right-wing pundits, and the editorial controls put on those in the media that actually are liberal, the "liberal media" as a voice of opposition to the conservative revolution is a total (but very unfunny) joke. The media support the regime by attempting to be hesitantly and marginally critical of minor tactics and "mistakes" while supporting eagerly the strategic goals of the conservative revolution. Recently these tactics have been applied in the right-wing media to Democratic candidate and affirmed centrist Barack Obama; despite standing solidly in the middle (despite the urging of party liberals to move closer to the left), Obama is now being accused of "radical leftism." This imaginary shift to the left would be like calling the KKK "moderately conservative."

By creating a fiction of "liberalism" that is really centrist at best and in many ways actually right-of-center, by making moderates and centrists look like extremists, the conservatives shift the country's political meter much farther to the right. The only way to avoid looking like an extremist is to support the regime whole hog; and those solidly on the right end up looking moderate or even "liberal." John McCain, a "maverick" Republican with no interest in social spending, with his "Hundred Year War" concept of Iraq, with no real education policy to speak of, becomes an acceptable way of building the totalitarian democracy through WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. He appears "moderate" to liberals, he becomes a "Republican we can live with." This is the result of conservative DOUBLETHINK and BLACKWHITE.

The conservatives employ so many tools out of Orwell's fictional Party playbook that one can't help but see Big Brother throughout the conservative revolution, and throughout the America that they have created and are continuing to build at the expense of our rights and freedoms and everything the founding fathers risked their lives for. Americans no longer take Orwell's book as seriously as they did during the Cold War, mostly because Americans only took the book to be a depiction of conditions abroad and not at home. But Orwell's warning was not intended for the people of East Europe that he assumed wouldn't be able to read the book; the warning was directed at Americans and Britons and the people of West Europe that he saw inching ever closer to the conditions of Oceania in their fight against Eurasia. Oceania is now a reality, and the conservatives are now reinforcing that reality for the future perpetuation of their revolution, a revolution of power for the state at the expense of the people, a revolution of hatred and fear and perpetual war, a revolution of a boot forever stamping on the face of the weak. We must fight against this revolution, for it is our own faces that the conservative boots are stamping upon.

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