The Orwellian signal
Can you spot the moment right before full-on, frank totalitarianism? Orwell could…
…the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.
Would-be totalitarians, if they can, will corrupt democracy.
The meaning system will then emit a diagnostic signal.
George Orwell discovered this signal.
If bureaucrats suddenly and crudely begin ordering citizens about at the point of a gun, citizens will know that totalitarianism is being imposed.
Yes, but what if the bosses are stealth totalitarians? What if they strut about like democrats while warming us slowly in the pot until, like the proverbial frog, we find ourselves cooked? That can be more difficult to spot.
It can be, yes. Unless you know that totalitarians—including clever ones stealthily preparing a silent coup at the top of a democracy—must always emit the same, loud, diagnostic signal.
Panning for political gold in the river of language, George Orwell found this diagnostic signal in the meaning system: the semantic inversion. It may be the most important political discovery—ever.
The semantic inversion
To teach us this lesson, Orwell wrote an allegory situated in an English-speaking super-State, totalitarian in the frankest sense (nothing subtle about it): Oceania.
Let us visit.
Looking out from your apartment window in London, “chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania,” your eyes would take in the devastation wrought by centralized control on the impoverished masses:
“vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions.”1
But your eyes would linger only briefly on that squalor, drawn now irresistibly to the center of visual gravity, a giant diamond set in all that scum: “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” Almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower! And massive—dwarfing everything around it. The Ministry of Truth.
One could read, “picked out on its white face in elegant lettering,” the following Party slogans:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
The typeface was so incomprehensibly gigantic it made you think the Party wanted these slogans to be legible from space.
This image appears barely two pages into Orwell’s masterpiece, ‘1984.’ He got to the point quickly. There was no time to lose. In fact, he finished the book “in a terrible, desperate burst of energy” because he “knew that he was dying.”2 He’d seen the darkness and was urgently trying to help us see it too. So he went straight for the main lesson: Look, totalitarians always invert the meanings of politically relevant words.
Voilà: the semantic inversion.
In Oceania, the yelling of such slogans in State-imposed drill sessions was key to “reality control.” It was meant to induce what in the official Newspeak—a bastardized English with a collapsed vocabulary to make thought impossible—was called doublethink:
“to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic.”3
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
Those three Party slogans were of course important, hence their symbolic prominence and ritual centrality. But anything and everything that might be politically relevant in Oceania—anything that might significantly affect relationships between humans—was structured in this manner too.
“The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”4
The Ministry of Love was responsible for torture because it was home to the Thought Police. Love was “the really frightening one,”
“… a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons.”5
Yes, because the Ministry of Love “maintained law and order.”
We know from history that in a totalitarian State law and order are maintained by making every citizen inform on family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers: everyone becomes a government spy. Even the children—no, especially the children.
“The children … were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police.”6
“[H]ardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak—‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.”7
The Ministry of Love bred a society of snitches brimming with suspicion, fear, and hatred.
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Love is Hatred.
The slogan Love is Hatred appears nowhere—as such—in Orwell’s novel. But you can extract it from the social and political structure that Orwell described. This is precisely what Orwell wanted. His story is—by careful design—nakedly transparent: training wheels to help us interpret the more opaque structure of our own real societies.
Orwell’s deepest teaching
What Orwell called controlled insanity is absolutely necessary to the stability of a totalitarian State:
“if the High … are to keep their places permanently … then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity”8
Semantic inversions are therefore functionally obligatory, for it is through them that nihilistic absurdity is imposed, leaving the citizen in a state of learned helplessness where the only choice left is to obey Authority.
This is all obvious to any reader of Orwell. But the more interesting point is in what I believe that Orwell, given his historical and biographical context, was telling us between the lines: that semantic inversions are functionally obligatory also for stealth totalitarians acting within a democracy.
In other words, long before they impose frank totalitarianism, stealth totalitarians holding effective power in a democracy must fog our minds with semantic inversions, teaching us learned helplessness, for unless they crush critical thinking first, they cannot hope to camouflage the system’s silent slide into totalitarian darkness.
It is this, the fact that even stealth totalitarians will find it functionally obligatory to proliferate semantic inversions (‘A Man is a Woman,’ ‘A Bigot is an Antiracist,’ whatever), that makes these inversions—for those trained to spot them—honest and reliable signals.
It follows that if semantic inversions begin proliferating in a democracy, we may legitimately infer that powerful stealth totalitarians are intervening the meaning system, preparing us for the transition from a corrupted democracy (which I call sloppy totalitarianism) to a system that looks a lot more like Oceania (or the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany, or China, or North Korea) and which I call frank (or tight) totalitarianism. Citizens trained to spot this Orwellian signal may react in time to defend their rights and liberties.
This was Orwell’s deepest teaching. He meant to strengthen our democratic immune system by helping us see stealth totalitarians at work in a democratic society.
It is usually explained that Orwell set his story in England, “as he put it, to show that the English were no better than anyone else and that the totalitarian danger existed everywhere.” Oceania was born from “the absorption … of the British Empire by the United States” because Orwell meant to show, they say, that neither were the Americans any better. And he set events in 1984—a mere three and a half decades into the future—so that people would understand that this could happen at any moment.9
The truth, I believe, is far more somber. I believe that stealth totalitarians were already running Orwell’s country in Orwell’s own day. And I believe that Orwell knew it. But he couldn’t quite say it.
Orwell wrote in code
If your brain, like mine, often perversely inverts the order of the last two digits when committing a number to memory, the similarity in the two dates will have jumped at you. It is no coincidence: the title ‘1984’ was chosen as “an inversion of the year 1948 in which it was being completed.”10
Is this the key to a code? Did Orwell mean for us to read the year 1948 into his title ‘1984’? Was he telling us that the Western power elites in Britain and the US—in the year 1948—were already fogging our minds with doublethink-drenched Newspeak?
Yes, of course he was.
But then he had to write in code, else he couldn’t run a circle around the stealth totalitarians already in power in both England and the United States.
One reason to believe Orwell was being careful this way is the experience of Maurice Joly.
One whole century before Orwell, Maurice Joly had tried the strategy of explaining Orwell’s basic insights explicitly, and telling people directly that their present ‘democratic’ government was already doing it. That strategy had not worked very well. Joly had been almost immediately arrested and thrown in jail, followed by the swift confiscation of his book, which was quickly and utterly forgotten. There are good reasons, beyond the similarity in their insights, to believe that George Orwell was aware of Maurice Joly (I will discuss this elsewhere). And that would have been enough to tip the sagacious Orwell into choosing a more subtle strategy.
But even without knowing about Maurice Joly, Orwell’s own experience with “Animal Farm,” his previous warning to the citizens, had already made it clear to him what could and could not be achieved. That experience I will comment on here.
Animal Farm and the structure of the world
Animal Farm “was almost denied publication.” Only one tiny publishing house, Secker & Warburg, condescended to print a few copies for a pitiful advance in 1945.11 But trouble finding a publisher is not what confirms Orwell’s diagnosis of the Western system. No, that confirmation came after Secker & Warburg agreed to publish and some Ukrainian socialists became interested in the book.
I’ll intrude with a bit of context.
It was the aftermath of World War II—a war started by the totalitarian Nazis. Many Ukrainians—the so-called ‘nationalists’—had joined the Nazis as they attacked Russia. But not the Ukrainian socialists. They had fought the Nazis—and paid the price. Now they worried about the Soviets. Animal Farm appealed to these Ukrainian socialists, who managed to get one of the few copies “and immediately understood its profound relevance.” They got Orwell to write an introduction for a Ukrainian edition and he let them reprint it for free.
“This edition was distributed among [Ukrainian] refugees in Germany, but most copies were seized by the American military authorities (this, well after the war on Hitler was over) and handed over to the [Soviet] Red Army to be burned.”12 (emphasis mine)
I recommend that you slowly and deliberately taste and savor this structure.
The armed forces of the United States, Leader of the Free World and Liberator of Europe, were busy crowing to the world that they had defeated Adolf Hilter—you know, the book-burning, genocidal megalomaniac who’d just tried to destroy freedom and democracy and enslave the entire world. At the same time, the armed forces of the United States, Leader of the Free World and Liberator of Europe, seized copies of a text meant to strengthen freedom and democracy and… and… and gave this loot to the Soviets—another totalitarian nightmare—for burning.
Is that what you expect from genuine American democrats? Or is that more consistent with stealth totalitarians?
I intrude again with a bit of context. Two years later, these “American military authorities” began secretly spraying experimental bioweapons on millions (yes, millions) of unwitting US citizens.
Orwell’s marketing strategy
In the context of the informal censorship (or ‘shadowbanning’) imposed on Animal Farm, and knowing that his time was running out, Orwell felt keenly the need to get ‘1984’—which he considered of Earth-shattering importance—to a large audience.
His most terrifying—and only half-hidden—message was that, already in his own day, stealth-totalitarian bosses in the US and Britain were working hard to destroy democracy. But how to communicate this message without offending the innocent, well-meaning administrators of the educational establishment who saw themselves as living in a democracy?
He would write in code.
A science-fiction allegory of the Soviet Union, Orwell guessed, would do the trick, because attacking the Soviet Union was politically correct. After all, even as Orwell finished ‘1984’ in the year 1948, a widespread witch-hunt had already begun in 1947 against presumed Soviet agents with the inauguration of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the US Congress. This would soon be nicknamed McCarthyism, after its most mediagenic and stalwart proponent: Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The presumed Soviet agents were officially presumed to be everywhere in the United States, and all manner of US citizens were dragged before special tribunals, accused with hearsay or less, and literally forced to ‘recant’ their supposed communism and to accuse others. Everybody and his second cousin was very busy hotly denying that they were secret agents of communism.
In this context, Orwell reckoned, everybody would believe that his ‘1984’ novel was just an allegory of the USSR (for the Soviet Union’s propaganda was indeed full of ridiculous semantic inversions). The innocents running the educational systems of the West would thus see ‘1984’ as a warning about a possible Soviet future coming to London, not a veiled conspiracy theory about a dark, totalitarian structure already strangling anglophone political systems with Machiavellian corruption in the year 1948.
It worked. Orwell’s marketing strategy was so successful that ‘1984’ became required reading in almost every Western high school and Orwell himself became an adjective in every Western language. He is, in every sense of the word, a classic. In consequence, we’ve all been equipped with Orwellian metaphors and models that, given the right prodding, can arouse political enlightenment.
This is precisely what Orwell intended, as he knew that his book would be interpreted by readers living in a future generation.
Of course, this happens to any book that survives to be read beyond its time. But Orwell was anticipating this outcome consciously, partly because communicating his insights to his own contemporaries seemed impossible, and partly because he knew that his insights would be timeless.
Orwell thus had Winston Smith, his protagonist, share Orwell’s goal of communicating with readers in a future generation (who would find and read Winston’s diary) because Winston had the same problem: his own contemporaries would not listen to him explain the system. Yet Winston felt that trying to communicate with a future generation would also be futile.
“How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.”13
Orwell’s brilliant marketing solved the problem that his own protagonist could not. The book ‘1984’ is a literary ‘time capsule’ designed to become, in the first stage, a cultural milestone, a science-fiction classic, in hopes that at some point in the (near) future its millions of readers might interpret the book correctly.
And now, here we are…
Millions of Westerners have read ‘1984’ in high school, or in a university course. Can they spot the semantic inversions? Will they understand that their own leaders are trying to fog their minds in order to enslave them? I hope so.
In the coming months, MOR will examine the most significant semantic inversions, such as this one: Bigots are Antiracists. We are awash in semantic inversions of this kind. And we’ve been awash in them for some time now.
But wait! If we have long been awash in semantic inversions, doesn’t this require that stealth totalitarians have long controlled all the meaning-making institutions? It does. I believe strong evidence suggests they have completely controlled the US media and the British media since at least the late 1930s.
Doublethink has been fogging our minds for a long time. And our Western world, unless this generation awakes, will soon be frankly and openly totalitarian.
Orwell, George (2003). Animal Farm And 1984. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (p.90)
Hitchens, Christopher (2003). Introduction to Animal Farm And 1984. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (loc. 30)
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.119
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.292
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.92
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.212
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.109
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.291
Introduction to Animal Farm (op. cit.) loc. 79
Introduction to Animal Farm (op. cit.) loc. 79
Introduction to Animal Farm (op. cit.) loc. 30, 54
Introduction to Animal Farm (op. cit.) loc. 54
Animal Farm And 1984 (op. cit.) p.93