2004: One Year Closer to Nineteen Eighty-four
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By: Nima Shirali
As history is being written in our current trends, George Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism is further nearing realization. Indeed, many, as do I, believe that his forethought has already been actualized. A close scrutiny of the current state of the world would reveal that today is indeed a disdainful day for humanity. Today is a time of indoctrination, propaganda, suppression of free will, marginalizing the masses. It is a time for the further concentration of power, a time for silencing the many. I am of the opinion that the majority of the world’s population is perpetually experiencing what seem to be endless oppression, deceit, and a shared sense of hopelessness, which all lead to their contempt for life. However, it is imperative to shed light on the causes responsible for the current state of things. Knowing the causes will allow us, the masses, to organize and aim to change things effectively in order to create popular institutions, public participation in the decision-making process, and a true, genuine sense of freedom.
Firstly, it is important to point out that the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the few is a cause culpable for our oppression. The “concentration of power” means that the elites are progressively accumulating more and more authority and control over the majority of the human race. Elites exist in both the private and public spheres and they share the common interest of violently preserving their position of dominance by suppressing any threat which may jeopardize their power. In the private sphere, transnational corporations have formed formidable alliances which have unprecedented influence over policy making that affects us all. Needless to say, the decisions that are being made on our behalf do not represent our interests. In fact, they are against our interests and for the interests of those who hold power.
For example, Tony Blair’s decision to partake in the occupation of Iraq was clearly notwithstanding popular British opinion about the war. Similarly, the pressure that the military-industrial corporations such as McDonnel Douglas and Boeing have had on the Bush administration led to a war which serves not the interests of the American public, but those of the American elites. In fact, the war has clearly worked against the interests of the American public because the United States is now increasingly more vulnerable to terrorist attack as a response to the resentment caused by the war. I think we can all vividly recollect the Madrid train bombings, which were undoubtedly in response to Spanish participation in the war. This memory allows us to see that the decision of the Spanish government to go to war worked against the interests of the public and against the interests of the country as a whole.
It is necessary to point out that any government represents a hierarchical system of control in which power is heavily concentrated in the hands of the few. In addition, a brief look at history would reveal the reality that any system of power, whether private or governmental, has the preservation of that power system as its first priority. The interests of you and I are secondary. History reveals that there can be no such thing as a “democratic government”. In fact, the juxtaposition of these two words creates an inherent contradiction because there can never be a democratic government. Governments can only claim to be democratic and create the mere illusion of popular control over the political process.
However, the actualization of a democratic society is possible through the exercise of free will, along with free cooperation and association. As Noam Chomsky points out, the people are the first enemy of any hierarchical power system and in order for that system to stay intact, the people must be marginalized to the point of impotence . The people’s realization that a hierarchical system of subjugation exists is the first step to challenging the concentration of power and forming popular institutions which serve our interests, not the interests of elites who find it necessary to oppress us. Because popular institutions do not exist after having been violently suppressed in Spain, Algeria, Yugoslavia, Russia, and other places , I cannot provide an existing example. However, I can give an imaginary example.
How about democracy as a popular institution? What I refer to here is an institution which serves the popular interest, not the interests of wealthy men wanting to become wealthier at the expense of our safety, freedom, and happiness. This institution would allow for real public participation in decision-making and would empower the many. If such a system were to exist in the United States, the “champion” for democracy and human rights, its population would choose to have universal health care and education instead of irrational annual war budgets .
The money from the war budgets has been transferred to the bank accounts of corporations which produce weapons of mass destruction at the expense of the well-being and safety of the American people. The question which needs to be asked is, would the war budget be this high if the American public had a choice between building a space warfare program [such as the Strategic Defense Initiative] and having universal health care? There is a simple answer to this question. Health care benefits every ordinary American. Having missiles in space exploits every American by using tax revenues for paying companies like Lockheed-Martin to put technology in space in order to counter a “threat to national security”, whether this threat is posed by the Russians or by Al-Qaeda .
Right-wing think tanks in the United States (which are heavily funded by the government and influential corporations, and can thus “freely” say what they think) are now advocating putting missiles in space in order to effectively counter another terror attack against the homeland. It is estimated that such a project would cost over a trillion dollars over the years. Furthermore, it seems like an expensive and unviable answer to a few hijackers carrying box cutters. The point here is that these decisions do not represent the will of the people.
They reflect the will of elites and their followers such as the puppet think tanks.
The institutional role of these think tanks is to justify and legitimize the decisions of the elites by attaching academic authority to such decisions as killing Iraqis for oil. (Instead, the verb “to kill” is replaced by “to liberate” and the noun “oil” is replaced by “freedom”—this is done of course because as the German linguist Wilhelm Humboldt has said, humans perceive the world through the medium of language). If the think tanks take an alternative approach, they may seize to operate because they are heavily dependant on corporate and government funding. This constitutes at least one example illustrating the making of decisions and justifying them in a totalitarian manner whereby the public has no say in the direction it is being led.
Another question which needs to be raised is how the elites perpetuate their grip on power. One strategy is by thought control through the media. Indeed, the media are the most adept tool for telling what Joseph Goebbels called the “great lie”. (Dr. Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda mastermind; this is where the name “Dr. Evil” originates). According to Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, the media in “democratic” societies like the United States operate based on the “propaganda model” . The full explanation of this model requires a lengthy discussion. However, the model essentially asserts that the owners of media control and influence the version of reality they choose to show the public. They do this by having implemented a system of “filters”, which basically separate the appropriate stories from the inappropriate ones.
The causes for this selection process are quite clear. For one, many media channels are subsidiaries of much larger corporations and reflect the interests of the larger corporation. Keeping this in mind, if the larger corporation is a manufacturer of war products, would it be feasible to imagine that the subsidiary [the media channel] would say that the war against Iraq was unjust? For example, NBC, an American television channel, is a subsidiary of General Electric, a major US manufacturer of military aircraft engines, many of which have been used to bomb Iraq’s civilian population. In this context, it is difficult to imagine that a corporation such as General Electric would oppose something which is profitable using a media channel that it controls.
To understand this point it is imperative to realize that the corporation is an institution of the elites. Its operation and the direction it takes reflect and realize the interests of the elite that owns that corporation. Having said that, it is possible to realize that the corporation as an institution, like any other institution, is not designed to self-destruct. On the contrary, the corporation is designed to preserve itself and the formidable power of its owners. This allows one to realize the workings of power. In essence, capitalist elites have two principal objectives: attain power and safeguard it. Having realized that thought control is more effective than death squads, capitalist elites have manipulatively used media as the great weapon of mass distraction.
Producing senseless and idiotic programming such as the so-called “reality shows” or talk shows showing people confronting their spouse’s secret lover serve as a replacement for discussing genuinely important issues. In other words, owners of capital exploit their grip on the media to distract the masses and turn their attention away from issues that matter. Rather than being used for the purpose of informing the public and being a “watchdog” to check the exercise of power, the media are being used as a tool to keep the masses passive, ignorant, and blind to the truth. History has taught elites and those after power that passivity and ignorance are necessary conditions if subjects are not to challenge being ruled and coerced into control.
In addition, in order to achieve passivity and ignorance, two elements are required. The first is an ideology and the second is a medium to indoctrinate others to become followers of that ideology. One can witness the two elements at work with a brief look at the rise of different ideologies such as the world’s monotheistic religions. In all the monotheistic faiths, an individual, named to be either the prophet or representative of God, has used the claim of divine inspiration to justify indoctrinating others with a set of static beliefs based neither on evidence nor on rationality. After the preachings had paid off and created an organized religion with a clergy, a hierarchy, and lots of subjugated followers, passivity and ignorance had been achieved.
Indeed, the effects of the indoctrination caused by religion can still be witnessed today. For instance, the number of converts to Islam is rising on an annual basis. What is important to point to is that the very first sentence of the Quran [holy book for Muslims] is “This is a book wherein there is no doubt” . This sentence is unequivocally clear and lays out the first expectation from all followers of the faith: total and blind obedience. In sum, the history of mass conversion to the world’s monotheistic religions shows the two basic elements needed to achieve passivity and ignorance. In the case of religion, mindlessly following the commands of the person claiming to be a prophet and organizing these commands into a book forms the ideology. This book, which is then given divine status, later becomes the medium by which to spread the ideology and preserve it from any free and intelligent thinking. Similar to any other oppressive system of power, religion uses the divine book to reward blind obedience with “handsome rewards” and punish free, rational thought with brutal retribution .
The reference to the formation of religious ideology is to show that one can see repetition in history. The basic way of preserving an ideology and enslaving people while doing it has not changed because of the two basic elements outlined above. In the context of the contemporary power system, corporations, capitalism, illusions about a “free market”, and a façade of democracy form the ideology of modern industrial nation-states. This ideology is protected and preserved from free thought by using the media as a means to communicate the rewards of obedience [i.e. through showing images of wealth], and the punishing of free thought by simply ignoring it. In a world where media are the most effectual tool of mass communication, ignoring something is parallel to suppressing it. If a tree falls and no one hears the fall, no one can perceive that a tree has fallen because perception relies on our senses, whether it is sight or hearing. Similarly, blocking our eyes and ears from something allows the media to block us from perceiving that thing, especially if that thing jeopardizes ideological stability.
These mechanisms, designed to preserve existing power arrangements, also serve to misrepresent any prospects for change. For example, through the use of imagery, the media misrepresent the alternative to the current system as communism, which is admittedly as oppressive as the existing set of structures. Images of starvation in North Korea and destruction in Cuba are attributed to communism and it is asserted that that is the alternative to modern day capitalism. Moreover, images of Saddam Hussein’s library, which was incidentally stacked with the works of Marx and biographies of Stalin, have been shown to correlate Marxism with a brutal dictator. These correlations, achieved through skilful manipulation of imagery, have proved to be effective. The continuance of the current order without any significant popular protest or organization is evidence of their effectiveness.
If it has not reflected it already, this year has proven to be another year closer to Orwell’s vision of the future as captured in Nineteen Eighty-four. Orwell’s novels typically depict a perceptive and emotionally isolated individual in an oppressive social environment. A look at the world in 2004 would reveal that the masses, which are aggregates of alienated and isolated individuals, live in highly oppressive societies and are convinced that they are powerless. Feeling powerless, combined with having made to be passive and submissive to power, the world’s population is indeed living in Nineteen Eighty-four.
With the United States as the leading state in committing international terrorism with unprecedented aggression and disregard for international law, dictatorships in the developing world have indeed been strengthened. The reason for this is that the world understandably sees the US as the biggest threat to international peace. For this reason, Third World populations find the need to unite behind a “strong” leader such as Kim Chong Il in order to ameliorate their fear. This in turn means that Third World populations feel persuaded to support brutal dictators and thus perpetuate their own oppression.
The longest military occupation in modern history, namely that of the Palestinian Occupied Territories by Israel further helps to discern Orwell’s vision. Israel’s implementation of martial law, arbitrary arrests of Palestinian youth, destruction of Palestinian homes, ruthless torture of prisoners, and suppression of hope point to the English writer’s fear of absolutism. It seems as if these fears have been realized. Never in modern history has humanity succumbed to authoritarianism and military aggression. Why did we fight Hitler, capitalism, racism, sexism, but now allow for everything we achieved to be given away because of the greed of a few men? Why did we resist Hitler’s aggression but are now passive about George Bush’s aggression? Are they not both murderers of defenseless children? There are only two differences between Bush and Hitler.
Firstly, the German fascist leader was honest about what he set out to achieve whereas Bush has proven to be the most accomplished liar in the history of the United States. Secondly, Hitler was elected and Bush was not, which means the war in Iraq has not even been carried out in the name of the American people. In every other way, the two leaders resemble one another. Contempt for working people, labor unions, peace, and democracy exemplify this similarity. Hitler murdered innocent people with the use of the gun and gas chambers. Bush has murdered people with the use of the gun and economic leverage. The only difference is that killing people by way of economic policies has a perpetual effect and the casualties are not counted. Such policies kill people on a daily basis not with the use of the gun, but with the use of hunger and desperation. The embargos against Cuba and Iran (and formerly Iraq) are examples of this new and improved method of killing the weak.
Has Nineteen Eight-four arrived? Orwell would say it has, or at least, that we have taken another step towards it. It seems more logical to count the years down at the end of each year. This is so because humanity seems to be in a regressive stage. We should count the years down because every year seems closer to Orwell’s vision. We should also count the years down because if we allow today’s moral regression to continue, humanity would end at year Zero, if not sooner. Nineteen Eighty-four is only a passing point between now and the end.
As those who care for humanity, morality and peace, we have a responsibility to count the years forward once more. We have a responsibility to defend the weak, challenge the powerful, be fearless of aggressors, and not allow wealthy men to make decisions on our behalf and to our detriment. As humans, we are responsible for safeguarding the moral progressions of humanity. Hence we must challenge and change the current order and replace its unjust structures with a society in which greed, thought control, and aggression are not the hallmarks of human existence. We are responsible for creating a just, equitable human way of life where compassion prevails over hate and altruism prevails over greed. Humanity has proven it can fight and defeat injustice in the past. If it wills it, it can again.
Nima Shirali is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Reconciliation Journal (MERJ), www.merecforum.org. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1.Peter R. Mitchell & John Schoeffel (2002) (edited), Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, pp.195-204, 222-23
2.In these places, there is evidence that self-managing workers’ councils and local committees operated without any government intervention or coercion. For example, when the Russian Tsar was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1917,factory councils and elected local governing bodies (called “soviets”) were formed. However, when the Bolsheviks eliminated the Constituent Assembly [democratically-elected parliament] in January 1918, these popular entities were destroyed in order to centralize power. Source: Ibid, p.141
3.The US war budget has been steadily increasing since the end of WWII. Official federal government reports estimate the budget to be over $410 million in 2005. Source: “Budget of the US Government, Fiscal Year 2004”, Executive Office of the President of the United States.
4.Ibid, pp.70-73, 258-60
5.Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), pp.1-37
6.This term is borrowed from Matthew Fraser (2003)
7.The Quran, II.2
8.Ibid, IV.74. The entire verse reads: “Whoever fights on God’s path, whether he is killed or triumphs, We will give him a handsome reward.”
9.This can be illustrated with a look at Galileo’s experience with the Church. After writing "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" (1632), he was tried before the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy. He was then forced to recant his findings or face violent retribution.
Nima Shirali is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Reconciliation Journal (MERJ), www.merecforum.org