Orwell wrote “Who controls the present controls the past” and in light of the current state of politics in America, Orwell proclaimed truth. I’m referring of course to George Orwell, English writer of the dystopian “1984”, his eerily prescient vision of the contemporary world. In its “book within a book,” the supposedly “underground” text exposing the truth of society and how it is controlled, we discover a detailed description of power entirely relevant today.
While space limits a full discussion of his remarkable work, one element demands examination, namely the ways in which those seeking and holding present power so successfully reinvent the past that they themselves come to believe their own invention. In “1984” this is the implementation of “doublethink,” retraining the mind to consciously replace facts of the past with new facts tailored to the needs of the present, and to do so thoroughly, completely and without any lingering doubt.
It is within this context, for example, that the present crowd of Republican presidential aspirants elevate Ronald Reagan to the exalted pantheon of “tax cuts, small government and balanced budgets” despite Reagan’s factual history to the contrary. Repeated incessantly, dependent upon the intentionally cultivated ignorance and intellectual laziness of ordinary citizens and driven by the imperatives of gaining and retaining power, this reconstruction of the past into a narrative that better suits the present could not have been more successfully created by Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Thus we witness statements delivered with pure conviction, unblemished confidence and absolute belief despite the speaker’s simultaneous knowledge that everything they are saying is false. To quote Orwell: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.”
In this spirit, declarations about the failure of banking regulation, the natural virtue of free markets, how massive military spending produces peace, that poverty is created by government, global warming is a hoax, consumer protection costs jobs, and that the 1% are responsible for the success of our economy are all supported by newly minted facts about the past, despite decades of documented history that indicate otherwise. Again, Orwell maps out the prerogatives of power: “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary….If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality.”
That such techniques would support a totalitarian society lacks surprise; that they work effectively in our so-called democracy seems remarkable, but is not. I say “so-called democracy” because though elections take place, America effectively displays all the political characteristics of oligarchy, a system in which power and wealth accrues to a tiny fraction of people and institutions (the 1%) and remains tightly within their grasp despite the trappings of time, political parties, elections, economic upheavals, armed conflict, unending war preparation and natural disasters. This requires that the 99% remain confused, misled, fearful, at heightened states of anxiety and economically vulnerable.
It may be 2012, but it feels like 1984 to me.