The interpretation of Orwell’s 1984 that I have is that the mere possibility that people may be being watched by a powerful, corrupt state changes behavior in a way that has significant implications across society. It’s been found in research that people change their behavior when they know they are being watched.
There’s no poking holes in the Party’s control, no loose thread for any opposition to pull. If there is a Resistance, it vanishes halfway through. The book is designed to make The Party and its machinery of oppression look entirely infallible. You accept, like the protagonist Winston Smith, that it can never be overthrown. This isn’t The Hunger Games. There is no cartoonish YA villain like President Snow for a defiant Katniss Everdeen to topple. Even Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid’s Tale, destroyed Gilead in a far-future postscript.
But 1984? So far as we know, it’s boots on human faces all the way down.
How come? The Party doesn’t get its power from spying on its citizens, or turning them into snitches, or punishing sex crimes. All were presented as mere tools of the state. How did it come to wield that control in the first place?
Orwell, aka Eric Blair, a socialist freedom fighter and a repentant former colonial officer who had a lifelong fascination with language and politics, knew that no control could be total until you colonized people’s heads too. A state like his could only exist with loud, constant, and obvious lies.
To be a totalitarian, he knew from his contemporary totalitarians, you had to seize control of truth itself. You had to redefine truth as “whatever we say it is.” You had to falsify memories and photos and rewrite documents. Your people could be aware that all this was going on, so long as they kept that awareness to themselves and carried on (which is what doublethink is all about).
The upshot is, Winston Smith is gaslit to hell and back. He spends the entire novel wondering exactly what the truth is. Is it even 1984? He isn’t sure. Does Big Brother actually physically exist somewhere in Oceania, or is he just a symbol? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Winston is what passes for well-educated in his world; he still remembers the name “Shakespeare.” He’s smart enough not to believe the obvious propaganda accepted by the vast majority, but it doesn’t matter. The novel is about him being worn down, metaphorically and physically, until he’s just too tired and jaded to hold back the tide of screaming nonsense.
Don’t call him Winston Smith. Call him Mr. 2019. Because it’s looking increasingly like we live in Oceania. That fictional state was basically the British Isles, North America, and South America. Now the leaders of the largest countries in each of those regions — Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro — are men who have learned to flood the zone with obvious lies, because their opponents simply don’t have the time or energy to deal them all.
As we enter 2020, all three of them look increasingly, sickeningly, like they’re going to get away with it. They are protected by Party members who will endure any humiliation to trumpet loyalty to the Great Leader (big shout-out once again to Sen. Lindsay Graham) and by a media environment that actively enables political lies (thanks, Facebook).
All the Winston Smiths of our world can see what the score really is. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. But hey, at least we’re all finally aware of the most important line in 1984, which is now also its most quote-tweeted: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
In the decades following its 1949 publication, the message of 1984 became corrupted. Popular culture reduced it to a single slogan — Big Brother is Watching You — and those with only a vague memory of studying the book in school thought the surveillance state was the main thing Orwell was warning against.
That was certainly where we were at in 2013, when Edward Snowden released his treasure trove of documents that proved the vast scale of NSA spying programs. “George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information,” Snowden told UK TV viewers in his “alternate Christmas message” that year. “The types of collection in  — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today.”
Which was true, but also beside the point. Orwell doesn’t actually claim the surveillance system in Oceania is all that strong. It would have strained credulity to have a Party that watched all of its members all of the time. It sounded like a bad science fiction plot. (In China, where the growing state systems of facial recognition and social media post ranking make NSA programs look like amateur hour, it no longer does).
In 1984, the only time we definitively know a telescreen is watching Winston is when he’s doing morning exercise and a female instructor calls him out for not pushing hard enough. Here in the real future, people pay Peloton $2200 plus $40 a month for the same basic setup.
It isn’t that Big Brother is watching — that too is another Party lie. It’s that he may be watching, just as knowing there may be a speed camera around the next bend keeps your mph in line. Against that possibility, citizens can still rebel. For much of the book, Winston and Julia are able to escape all cameras, out in the post-atomic countryside. Avoiding surveillance doesn’t matter. What causes their capture is the fact that they fell for a lie (the “Brotherhood,” a fake Resistance operation run by the Inner Party member O’Brien).
We are invited to consider whether we too are falling for The Party’s lies. The book-within-a-book that explains the shape of Winston’s world turns out to be written by O’Brien, the master liar. The rocket bombs dropping on London are dropped by the Party. All the in-universe truth the reader has to go on is Winston’s word, and by the end — as he is tortured into genuinely seeing O’Brien hold up three fingers instead of two, then thinks he hears news of a final victory in the endless war — even that isn’t reliable.
By the end of this decade, even words like “Orwell” and “Orwellian” had become ambivalent. I realized this in 2017 when my wife, knowing my love of the book, had bought me a cap that said “Make Orwell Fiction Again.” I loved it until I found it had been made in a state that voted for Trump, by a company with a line of libertarian merch. We saw the cap as a riposte to the MAGA mentality, but it was also possible to see it as a reinforcement: Make Orwell fiction again by helping Trump fight Deep State surveillance, man!
If there is hope for Oceania in the coming decade, it may come from uniting people under the banner of all that 1984 warns against — starting with the bare-faced lies that Orwell was most concerned about. The lies that social media gatekeepers have taken way too long to notice, if they notice them at all.
If we can’t agree on basic facts of science and history, we’re lost. But if we the people can do that, there’s no surveillance system or endless war or sexcrime we can’t dismantle. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four,” Winston wrote in his diary. “If that is granted, all else follows.”
By remaining skeptical about all we read, but still reading widely and clawing our way back to a world of truths that are as simple and as objective as math, we can prove that we finally learned Orwell’s lesson. And we can make 1984 merely a masterpiece of fictional worldbuilding again.