Written by Orwell (1), Nineteen Eighty-Four is a celebrated literary work of the 20th century. The author sets the novel in a 1949 totalitarian world, where an elitist group in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) used politically manipulative techniques to keep their power by silencing “independent minds.” They controlled all aspects of society, including people’s culture and language, through an omniscient leader (Big Brother) (Orwell 1). This paper shows that the novel warns of the dangers of totalitarian leadership in human societies. It uses psychological manipulation, perils of totalitarianism, and party over-regulation, as the main themes highlighting the dangers of absolute power.
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England Your England (by Orwell 1), James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution (by James Burnham), and Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley) are other works that highlight the same issue and support a politically democratic movement. Before explaining how these works highlight the perils of totalitarianism, this paper first explores the movement against totalitarianism, as highlighted by Orwell (1) in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Definition of the Movement
Totalitarianism is a political structure that supports a few powerful people exercising absolute authority over their subjects. Nineteen Eighty-Four is part of a movement against totalitarianism. This movement exists within a larger framework that advocates for increased democracy and the respect of people’s free will in political governance. Proponents of this view advance this argument by highlighting the “excesses” of totalitarian rule (Orwell 1; Rodden 97).
They portray it as an inhuman approach to political governance and an insensible violation of human rights. Nineteen Eighty-Four does so by highlighting the excessive powers of a “rogue” party in the state of Oceania. It shows that these powers interfere with people’s lives by making it unbearable for them to live away from the prying eyes of the party. To explain how such powers infringe on people’s rights, Orwell (155) says,
Always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on a helpless enemy. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever (Orwell 155).
The above statement shows the perils of totalitarian leadership. It highlights the abuse of power by the elite to impose their will on helpless and vulnerable people. Based on the negative outcomes of this leadership style, Nineteen Eighty-Four warns us about the dangers of totalitarian leadership. The views of Orwell (155) indirectly support an alternative leadership model (democratic leadership), as a better model of governance. Many writers have also supported this movement by explaining the dangers of totalitarian leadership. They appear below
Main Writers and Works of the Movement
The 1941 essay, England your England, is like Nineteen Eighty-Four because in both essays, Orwell (1) shows the dangers that totalitarian governments pose to national cultures. For example, in England your England, he showed how Nazi rule threatened England’s prosperity as a unified culture (Rodden 97). Similarly, he also showed the advantages of promoting democracy and equality among communities. Although he uses the “class approach” to advance this view, he acknowledges the need to adopt democratic ideals for the future prosperity of human societies (Rodden 94).
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The ideas of James Burnham also reflect the views of Orwell (1), through his essay, James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution. In this literary work, Burnham says, authoritarian leaders could easily change power structures to maintain political power, at the expense of the middle class and other “helpless” citizens (Thody 106). Using the same approach, he says these oppressive and anarchical powers exist in Europe, America, and Asia (Thody 106). Since they cannot completely fight wars among themselves, they would have to look for dominance elsewhere (by conquering new territories around the world). Structurally, they would be hierarchical states, where a few people wield a lot of power, while poor and helpless people live at the bottom of the pyramid, as semi-slaves (Thody 106).
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel titled, Brave New World, also speaks about the perils of totalitarian leadership. It uses the themes highlighted in Nineteen Eighty-Four (such as psychological manipulation) to explain how governments exercise absolute authority over their subjects. Similarly, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel uses technology to explain how governments subvert the will of their subjects (Reiff 28). Huxley mainly advances his arguments within the context of the industrial revolution and the perils of mass production over individual human identity. Unlike Orwell (1) who feared that limiting information flow to the people would erode their individual identities, Huxley feared that most people would lose their individual identities from too much information flow (passivity and egotism) (Reiff 28).
He also feared that excess information flows would hide the truth from the masses. Instead, people would drown in a sea of irrelevant information and subscribe to a “captive culture” (Reiff 107). Nonetheless, in both novels, both authors feared societal destruction through government and industrial extremes. Comprehensively, these works highlight absolute power as undesirable and dangerous. Instead, they propose an alternative leadership model, which premises on democratic ideals.
Main Themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four
Perils of Absolute Power
Nineteen Eighty-Four highlights many themes surrounding political governance and leadership. However, the main theme in the novel is the perils of totalitarianism. Unlike other writers who explore totalitarianism in the developing world, Orwell (109) highlights its dangers in the developed world. Having experienced this totalitarianism in many parts of Europe (including Spain and Russia), Orwell (1) detests excessive government control over human societies.
For example, he highlights technological advancements as tools for excessive government scrutiny. Similarly, he contemplates the dangers of allowing the government to “monitor” all aspects of their subjects’ existence, including their thoughts. According to him, this situation “enslaves” the people. Based on this realization, he encourages people to challenge the limits of state power by rebelling. Overall, his narrative warns the world about the perils of allowing excessive government scrutiny because it curtails people’s free will to live “independent lives.” Although much of the changes he desired could not happen within the novel’s context, 1984 emerged as a predictor of the future of human societies, if totalitarianism remained unchecked.
Nineteen Eighty-Four shows the extremes that some parties can go to infringe on privacy rights. To show these limits, Orwell (1) shows how the party infringed on the privacy rights of other party members. The party used multiple technological devices to watch and listen to people’s conversations. They did so by surveying the residences and workplaces of unsuspecting people. For example, referring to one character in the novel, Orwell (2) says,
Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by microphones, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision, which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard (Orwell 2).
The party scrutiny stretched to private correspondences because party agents opened and read private communications before they reached the intended audience. The party also used government agents, who easily blended with the local population, to spy on the citizens and report their activities to the authorities. This situation was so extreme that the party used children to spy on their parents and other “suspicious” people. The party also forced some of them to denounce their parents by making them afraid of the actions the party could take against them. Orwell (113) paints a grim picture of party extremes by explaining how people risked arrest by having “unfriendly” facial expressions. Therefore, most Oceania citizens had to abide by government rules. Broadly, these actions highlight the theme of state over-regulation.
Psychological Manipulation by the State
Psychological manipulation is an inherent theme in Nineteen Eighty-Four because the author shows how the party used technology to prevent “independent thoughts” from emerging in the society. It did so by overwhelming the people with propaganda messages that they designed to portray the party in a positive light. In fact, to hide the party’s failures, agents rewrote history by changing the contents of historical texts. Similarly, to manipulate its subjects, the party reminded people the it is watching them. For example, referring to one character in the novel, Orwell (1) says “On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall.
A contrived picture that symbolizes eyes following you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran” (Orwell 1). The party also brainwashed children to believe that their loyalty to the party was more important than their loyalty to their parents. Similarly, the party used psychological manipulation to force people to believe that sexual pleasure is intolerable because it was a procreative means to increase party members. Furthermore, when the people felt frustrated, the party used the same manipulative techniques to make them believe their frustrations came from enemies of the party. These observations show that psychological manipulation is a dominant theme in the novel. The themes highlighted the dangers of totalitarianism.
Nineteen Eighty-Four stands out as a great literary work that is as relevant today as it was relevant when Orwell (1) wrote it. Particularly, it stands out as an effective literary piece that highlights the negative effects of totalitarian leadership. Having seen the effects of totalitarian leadership in different parts of Europe, the author warns societies about the dangers of adopting this leadership model because it “fractures” human societies. The main thesis of this paper shows that Nineteen Eighty-Four suggests an alternative leadership style by conceptualizing the worst human society possible (authoritarian leadership). Mainly, this paper shows that Nineteen Eighty-Four is part of a larger democratic movement, which associates totalitarian leadership with social degradation. Indeed, many nations have realized the dangers of totalitarianism and adopted most of the arguments proposed by Orwell (1).
For example, the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union collapse shows that the author was visionary, as he conceptualized a world where technological innovation could curtail human societal growth. Today, democracy has entrenched itself in many parts of the world.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. Web.
Reiff, Raychel. Aldous Huxley: Brave New World, News York, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Print.
Rodden, John. The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
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Thody, Philip. Europe Since 1945, London, UK: Routledge, 2002. Print.