(and so are the other Western “Democracies”)
In George Orwell’s book 1984 the mainstream media language of “Newspeak” was replacing English one word at a time. Complexities were abolished and replaced with simplistic notions where a word with a defined meaning like “democracy” was unnecessary and was replaced with “double-plus good”. This is interchangeable with other “double-plus good” things like “freedom”, “opportunity”, “our troops”, “human rights” and so forth. The point is that when one discusses “double-plus good” one does not have to get bogged down in details such as whether it is used accurately or not, nor what it actually means.
“Terrorism” means “double-plus bad”. When people use the term “terrorism” it almost never comes from a critical judgement that characterises certain acts as terroristic because they employ terror. It is just as telling when the word “terrorism” is not allowable. US military violence is almost never called “terrorism”. This is not because people have weighed the characteristics of that violence and ruled our terror as an intended outcome – it is because terrorism is “double-plus bad”, and the US military can never be “double-plus bad”.
What Orwell did not envisage was the growth of another category of words. These represent concepts with two “meanings” in Newspeak – concepts which are “double-plus bad” to 50% of the population, but “double-plus good” to the other 50%. In the US a polarisation of issues that began with the artificial “culture war” created a double-Orwellian political discourse over issues like reproductive rights, guns, gender and sexuality, religion and tradition. In no issue has reason prevailed, instead fatuous unreason and tribal smugness are taking over those who formerly stood for progress. We are left with a bunch of chest-thumping troglodytes on two different sides yelling at each other while their brains shrink with each passing second. The issues they yell about may be important, but they only ever deepen the divisions and strengthen the status quo.
While the two sides compete in drooling primeval aggression, they have no time or energy to question the increasingly threadbare excuses given for the greatest crimes: mass killing; mass destruction (including environmental destruction); and the wholesale appropriation of the wealth of humanity and the resources of the planet.
When split in this way the sort of monolithic orthodoxy alluded to by Orwell is actually strengthened because it is subjected to much less critical scrutiny. It means that left-wing progressives who might be inclined to work for radical change can be distracted by greenwashing or pinkwashing. Equally, reactionaries are actually bolstered by the reforms they loathe but which fuel their apocalyptic rhetoric and fill their ranks with the discontented.
Kakistocracy, Mediocracy, Idiocracy, Ponerocracy, Pathocracy, and other words my spellcheck doesn’t like.
George Orwell’s 1984 was the Idiocracy of its time. Both works are satires about contemporary idiocy which use a science fiction gloss and a futuristic setting in order to mock, but also analyse, the stupidity of the authors’ peers. If each seems to be somewhat prophetic it is not because they were real attempts to predict the future, but rather because they were extremely accurate when exaggerating the trends of their own times.
1984 was more focussed on political stupidity and elite fools, but ultimately Idiocracy is the same – its depiction of mass popular stupidity becomes less important to the narrative than the fact that the people who make the decisions are the pre-eminent morons.
Both works use a disposable and transparent science fiction conceit in the same manner that Jonathan Swift used a fantasy genre in Gulliver’s Travels as a vehicle for criticising the politics and immorality of his own time and place. In Idiocracy there is a plainly whimsical and silly notion of increasing stupidity caused by a form of sexual selection that happens because stupid people choose to have more children. This is nothing more than a pretext for exploring the way marketing-driven ideology makes people into mindless drones. The reason that Idiocracy had predictive power is that the marketing model of deliberately dumbed-down consumers has diffused throughout more and more of society. This is the process which the film was critiquing.
In 1984 the science fiction conceit is more bitter than whimsical. Orwell is satirising the notion of totalitarianism (a notion which he helped into existence) by parodying his own Animal Farm and his former mentor Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His setting of near omnipresent surveillance cameras and (just as importantly) near omnipresent televisions and loudspeakers is the vehicle for showing that internalised orthodox ideology is a panoptical disciplinary mechanism stronger than any feasible secret police and surveillance regime. He was anticipating the slogan of 1968: “There is a policeman inside all our heads”, suggesting that we internalise the orthodox ideology of the state and it monitors us from within, making us do our exercises and punishing our disloyal thoughts. He was also well ahead of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman because the allegory implies that greater thought control exists in those regimes with less physical repression.
I know what some of you are thinking – how can I be writing of Orwell’s Oceania having “less physical repression” when the protagonist is thrown in a dungeon and tortured in a real physical manner? That is the whole point, though. All of that is meant to be an allegory of the treatment meted out to those who don’t toe the line within any circles of intellectual, artistic or political communications in late-1940s Britain. When Winston Smith finds a little corner in which he thinks (mistakenly) that he is beyond the view of surveillance cameras and can write freely, it is a clear reference to Orwell’s own comment after a few months working at the BBC: “I consider I have kept our little corner of it fairly clean.” He quit the BBC about a year later in even greater disillusionment. He made reference to the BBC by calling the nebulous leader figure of Oceania “Big Brother”, and by painting journalism as “The Ministry of Truth”. He made an even clearer reference by naming the ultimate torture chamber “Room 101” after a conference room in Broadcasting House in which he attended editorial meetings.
Orwell’s critique of the BBC and other mainstream media is not at all subtle. The fact that there is a sort of conspiracy of silence over the obvious allegorical meaning completely vindicates his accusations of brainwashed obtuseness among the intelligentsia. Historically people have been very insistent that Orwell was critiquing totalitarianism and warning us about how horrible life will be if we let it happen here. That is what people are primed to expect and that is what they find, especially because they are not necessarily familiar with the subjects of satirical references. For those who have only read 1984 under the impression that it is a warning about the potential for future nastiness, I would suggest re-reading the entire work with this different understanding. Apart from anything else it is surprisingly funny in parts (although the humour does tend to leave the bitter after-taste that you get when things are a little too true).
Twice the Bang for your Buck
1984 tackled many mind-destroying facets of orthodox ideology, but I am going to stick simply to the one I mentioned above – the simplistic aspect to Newspeak which replaced complex realities with sterile predetermined moralistic judgements. This is a way of ensuring that people react in a kneejerk fashion and are not subject to the undesirably democractic results of thought, critical engagement and reasoned discourse. (It also parallels the type of stupidity derived from advertising that is seen in Idiocracy. In that film people water their crops with sports drink in the belief that electrolytes will help the plants because electrolytes are a selling point in ads. In other words, electrolytes are double-plus good.)
As I mentioned, though, things are structured a little differently and there are now two exclusive dialects of Newspeak. Imagine if most of the “two minutes hate” that people in Oceania devoted to screaming and yelling spittle-flecked abuse at a screen was redirected so that people on each side of the theatre aisle were pouring forth that very bile and loathing across at each other. If that is hard to imagine, you only need to look around online a little and eventually you will find a comment thread that fits the description.
In our stupid world irony is piled on irony. Ironically, people always misrepresent 1984 because they are being Orwellian in their obtuseness. In short, every time someone mindlessly misses the point entirely by going on about mass surveillance (usually mentioning prefab hero Edward McSnowden, the world’s first 100% synthetic whistle-blowing sheepdog), they are confirming that they are just as cowardly and moronic as the “Outer Party” dweebs of Orwell’s satire.
Idiocracy was also about the spread of stupidity created by the reproduction of ideology. It uses a genetic analogy to create an absurdly exaggerated illustration. There is, in fact, a well-known concept in which ideology is transferred through as an analogue of a gene. This analogue of a gene is a single encapsulated discrete unit of cultural production which can be replicated. The name given to this was “meme”.
The irony in this instance becomes apparent when we examine the history of the meme of the concept of the meme itself. To live, memes must be retained transmitted and propagated, just like genes. The term was created in 1976. It abided and slowly grew. By the 1990s it was becoming important in cultural activism and people started to enter self-consciously into a “meme war”. The hope was that the truth would give memes a greater attraction for retention and transmission. This would even out the unlevel playing field where elite cultural production dominates and propagandises. Hopes rose as the internet made it possible for any smartarse dissident to reach across the world and with a few well-chosen words and maybe a picture that would burst the bubble of stale orthodoxies and self-serving elite ideology. It looked as if the elite ideological hegemony that enslaves the minds of its victims might finally be overthrown.
In reality, of course, the internet actually provided a space of information overload – an environment where the fittest memes were the most facile, simplistic and self-satisfied snippets. Faced with a barrage of things and stuff, people are attracted to sensationalism and that which makes them feel good about themselves. Thus, in a dramatic twist, the very concept of the meme itself has been vastly overshadowed by its mutant offspring, the meme that a “meme” is a picture with a slogan added (the ironic iconic image being that of Gene [sic] Wilder radiating smug condescension). 99% of people who use the term “meme” use it exclusively in this latter sense, happily oblivious to the complex concept they are stomping all over.
These picture “memes” are emblematic of a social media driven paradigm of communication that is also seen in tweets and status updates. These are communications of speed and brevity. They lack complexity and the lack of critical foresight applied to communicating actually makes them deeply conservative. Everyone is a self-promoter and a crowd-pleaser, rigidly self-censoring so as to never challenge the orthodoxies of their own little reference group of followers.
By this mechanism many “progressives” and pseudo-dissidents have been transformed into the mirror image of the hegemonic class and their right-wing brownshirt thugs. They are sucked in to the “left wing” of a meta-orthodoxy embodied most clearly in institutions such as the Guardian or Huffington Post. These are left-wing enough to attract and retain left-wing readers but act almost purely to create boundaries to legitimate discourse and even to move their readers into a conservative outlook.
My Piety is Bigger than Your Piety
Regardless of any media affiliation, the online world tends to bring everyone down to the level of a spoiled bourgeois 18-year old Trotskyist, full of puerile arrogance and derision for those who don’t “get it”. In that sense, although people are getting ever more orthodox and rigid and unthinking, they are also taking on more to the outside appearance of fervent radicals.
The results are threefold. One result is that extremism and tribalism deepen. The second is that those who were once taking a stance based on knowledge and critical engagement are being crowded out by those who hollow out such causes to create mindless pieties. The third is that those same people are easily manipulated into becoming bulwarks of orthdoxy, cheerleaders of elite privilege, humanitarian warmongers, and liberal lovers of imperialist tyranny.
Everyone reading this is likely to recognise a key symptom of the malaise – lazy lies spread on social media and alternative media in support of left-wing causes. Not a day goes by when I do not find something that uses stupidity, ignorance or lies in a supposedly good cause. One that annoyed me recently was an article saying that “abortion is as old as pregnancy” and “abortion has always existed”. The article was making a worthy point, but doing so with idiocy. Because of that it can only ever preach to the choir and it encourages supporters of reproductive rights to become slack and stupid in their argumentation. It leaves them vulnerable to making idiots of themselves. Another example was a “meme” saying that 100 million “Native Americans” were killed by the “US Government”. The intent was arguably good, but the claim made is actually the result of racist chauvinistic parochialism. This is not the antithesis of mindless right-wing patriotic idiocy, it is its complement. Dissent is co-opted into the greater myth of US omnipotence and centrality. Yet everyone clicks “like” because if you don’t use your brain it seems worthy.
A big part of the support given to imperialist Western regimes like the US, and individual leaders like Obama or Sanders, is the use of this tribalism to create an unthinking loyalty. For example, virulent, if not unhinged, right-wing attacks on Bernie Sanders make people rush into his camp and react with fury against any real criticism. As with Obama, they become conditioned to think that criticism of the leader is itself a transgressive act of violence. At the same time they lose any shame about evincing proud support for mass murderers. They become zombie zealots who look normal at first but act exactly like Trump supporters when you criticise their chosen leader.
Similarly, the emotive and uncritical human rights discourse which most “progressives” are immersed in becomes a way to get them into supporting imperialist wars. The demonisation of Third World baddies like Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad or Muammer Gaddafi allows these “liberals” to get in direct touch with their inner patriot, their inner warmonger, and their inner racist. They are then indistinguishable from the right-wing “hawks” except in being somewhat more insane in their eye-rolling enthusiasm for mass death.
Fans of 1984 might wonder why I haven’t acknowledged that Orwell already suggested a fundamental equivalence between opponents and supporters of Big Brother, symbolised by the fact that the canonical revolutionary text was hidden between the pages of the Newspeak dictionary. The reason is that I think that Orwell indicates a moral equivalence, but I am suggesting that more and more people who might think that they are dissidents are actually loyal party members in a new bifurcated Inner Party divided into two antagonistic wings under the same monolithic and unquestionable orthodoxy.
“Liberal” and “conservative” do not have definitions any more. They both mean double-plus good to some people and double-plus bad to others. Similarly certain issues are no longer really debated on their merits: taxes, guns, abortions, government, civil rights and many other topics are to greater or lesser extents no longer actual issues. They are key indicators of tribal affiliation that are either double-plus good or double-plus bad. It is like a binary code, and most people’s politics can be summarised in just 1 bit. People reading this article are likely to have a more nuanced view than that, but let us face it, if you read things like this you are in a very small minority.
Our job, in this tiny minority, is to crack the system. If you cannot drag someone away from supporting Bernie Sanders or the “humanitarian” bombing of ISIS, then alienate them from yourself and your cause. If you don’t do that, then every single individual issue will continue to be co-opted and subverted. If real activists stop tolerating Party loyalists then more will leave the Party and the short-term losses suffered by activist causes will be more than compensating by not having the cause taken out of the hands of real dissidents, subverted, and then used as a tool of oppression.
Moreover, if you don’t want to be sucked in to the Party, do not give into the temptation to be stupid just because it is easy and gratifying and gives you respite from the unrelenting “pessimism of the intellect”. For example, I have already mentioned Edward Snowden in disparaging terms, which will probably anger some of you. Snowden has done and said some good things, but he has also stated that letting the public know what their government is doing is a danger to democracy. Deep down you must all know on some level that he is an elite concoction, even if his elite faction is a dissenting one. Watch the trailer to Citizen 4 and tell me that his words are not made for Hollywood. You should not trust him – he is a former CIA officer. You should not like him – he is a US patriot who joined the Army after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And you definitely should not idolise and lionise him as a being hero and the moral equivalent of Chelsea Manning. It is an insult to Manning’s sacrifice and suffering to even mention Snowden in the same breath.
We all want the easy way out and the easy answer. We must have hope, but do not hope for a saviour. Do not hope for the perfect revolution or the perfect movement. Hope for the strength to continue the struggle. Hope to keep hope alive.
Orwell ended 1984 with a vision of history as a boot stomping on a face for all eternity. We need to embrace that in the same way that Buddhists embrace the universality of suffering, and yet may nonetheless devote themselves to fighting suffering. The boot will always be with us and pretending otherwise is the road to delusion, or to despair and surrender. On the other hand, the boot isn’t going to spare you if you stop struggling so you might as well fight. Nor will the boot let you be on its side if you stomp on other people’s faces. It doesn’t have a side. It is a pure avatar of oppression.
Yet the boot is not uniform in the pain it dishes out. In simple terms, our choice is either to protect ourselves from the boot at the expense of others or protect others from the boot at our own expense. If we protect others instead of ourselves we reduce suffering more than if we protect ourselves. If everybody devoted themselves to that then the boot would be like a feather. But that is the trick isn’t it? The most important struggle is to get others to stand in solidarity when they are so prone to division, to fear, and to selfishness.
On the other side of the ledger, part of putting yourself first is also getting others to do the same. Selfishness loves company, resents and loathes altruism, and seeks to sabotage or subvert principled activism. In that sense it is like a conflict of us and them, but we don’t win be scoring points and being superior.
In conclusion: everyone should stop being so wilfully stupid, then things will get much better.