British journalist and writer George Orwell (Eric Blair) is best known for his dystopian novel 1984.
It’s about a future where a tyrannical leader and his anti-truth, power-hungry ideology rules over a brainwashed population.
Orwell also wrote a number of other fiction works such as Animal Farm and non-fiction works including the Road to Wigan Pier and accounts of his time fighting during the Spanish Civil War.
There is a lot that Orwell got right about the times we live in and a few things he got wrong.
Let’s dive in…
1) Government propaganda
Orwell was absolutely correct about the future prevalence of government propaganda in the future.
From China and Russia to the United States and the European Union, large governments routinely influence the news media with egregious lies and propaganda.
From foreign conflict and economics to healthcare and corporate corruption, governments spew out and inject misinformation and misleading narratives in order to mislead and control people.
Not everyone believes it (not by a long shot) but there’s no denying the influence of competing narratives all around us…
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
2) Manipulation of public based on passivity
Another thing that Orwell was right about in his fiction and non-fiction work is how much of the public can be best manipulated by just being distracted.
I can’t count how many friends and people I meet say the issues of the world or even their own country just don’t interest them much.
They’re tired of worrying about it. Somebody else can pay attention to all that noise, right?
“They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.”
3) Designated bad guys
Orwell has been completely prescient on how large states and superstates like the US and EU continually switch between designated bad guys.
These evildoers are then subjected to all manner of accusations and people are encouraged to hate them.
Whether it’s the Russians, the communists, the white people, the black people or even the lower class or upper class, it’s clear that large cores of a population are able to be herded into hating the “right people” by the powers-that-be in different eras.
“A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group…”
4) Surveillance technology
In 1984, telescreens broadcast content and track citizens, a two way mirror.
We’re well past that now, and algorithms and tracking keep track of almost everywhere we go and what we search for on the internet or our phone.
Facial recognition technology also easily identifies us in the photos of others even if we don’t post online, and biometric technology is advancing by the day.
Surveillance technology keeping track of people more fully is something Orwell was completely correct about.
Plus it goes even further than that, with even those who remain fully offline and away from screens being surveilled by various agencies.
“So long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.”
5) Changing the past to fit a narrative
In 1984 the protagonist works at the Ministry of Truth where his job is to make sure the past and future are in alignment in terms of news.
In other words he is supposed to ensure that anything or anyone who doesn’t fit the current Party narrative is erased or changed.
We absolutely live in this reality and it’s only intensifying:
The enemy of yesterday is today’s ally, and vice versa. The crazy people of yesterday are today’s sane majority.
The leftists of yesterday are today’s right. And so on…
Whoever controls the present narrative and people’s attention on it has the greatest power imaginable.
“Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
However, on the subject of controlling the narrative is where we get into some:
Areas where Orwell was off base…
1) Isolation of truth-tellers
Truth-tellers aren’t quite as marginalized as Orwell predicted.
In fact the paradox is that even as technology has increased state and corporate power over private individuals, it’s also given people more access than ever to new ideas and like-minded folks.
The powerful are less immune to criticism than almost any time in history.
Online discourse and people’s increasing connection to more sources of information has made fully controlling the narrative harder than ever.
If anything, society has gone much further to the other direction of information chaos with everyone believing slightly different, tailored versions of reality.
“He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear.”
If you feel like there must be a more proactive and empowering way to free yourself from confusion in the search for truth, you’re right.
This free masterclass by the shaman Rudá Iandê changed my whole perspective.
It shows how many ideas and spiritual teachers around us are misleading.
Rudá shows another path that’s much better and puts us in the driver’s seat of life.
2) People’s compliance
While it’s true that many people would rather not pay attention to the dramatic and upsetting issues around them, many others do pay attention.
The idea in Orwell’s works including Animal Farm and 1984 that people are fairly gullible is not always correct.
In fact many people are quite dissatisfied and not afraid to stand up for what they believe even when others don’t understand them.
The idea everyone or even a majority would bow down to cynicism or misinformation has, as of yet, proven incorrect.
“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed.”
3) Fear and coercion as the greatest tools of control
Orwell was correct that the greatest power is to shape and control the human mind.
But he’s wrong that fear and manipulation are the best way to do that as in his system in 1984.
In fact, many have noted that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World hits closer to the mark in depicting a future in which people are controlled by their own appetite for entertainment and amusing themselves to death.
The best way to control people is to get them to waste their time and energy on frivolous pursuits.
Those who do decide to question power and the “official story” are rarely silenced by fear as in Orwell’s system, but are more likely to change course based on being bought off or gently persuaded.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
4) “Freedom is slavery”
The famous phrase from 1984 that “freedom is slavery” is somewhat off the mark.
In fact “freedom” is widely promoted as very positive by almost every despotic regime on the right and the left.
Giving people freedom in their social and personal lives while strangling their freedom at the more literal level has proven to be the desired authoritarian formula.
It’s true that there have been many crackdowns on free speech and use of force to get people in line, but freedom as an idea is still widely glorified by many powerful states.
The various conceptions and misuses of this one word have done enormous damage to millions, including on the individual level of people equating doing whatever they want with being “free” and destroying themselves in the process.
“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
5) His books could be a wake-up call to society
Orwell wrote his books in intense circumstances:
Around poor folks struggling to survive in a cruel world, in the tensions of colonial India, in military campaigns in Spain, and 1984 on his deathbed.
He hoped that they’d at least satirize and shock people enough to realize how dangerous centralized state power is and how much it can harm us.
The problem is that 1984 has been used by many of the exact same forces and ideological narratives Orwell was trying to warn against believing in…
“Since the book was published, almost every political persuasion has used it to serve their ends.”
Rather than being a real wake-up call, 1984 has become folded into being another tool of the exact kind of power structures it’s aimed at dismantling.
Perhaps this irony proves just how right it was, but it also shows how cynically and self-righteously great works can be appropriated by hucksters and power-hungry shills.
“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.”