How the control society has developed, advanced, and formulated more intricate mechanisms of subjugation. And how it may be fought.
The life of Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty Four” was horrible. Writing lies about things he knew to be untrue, living in abject poverty, and drinking Victory Gin with his “comrades”. A sexless and empty life. All under the watchful gaze of Big Brother, the ever present but potentially non-existent dictator of Oceania.
It’s no wonder old mate Winston Smith eventually flipped his lid and rebelled. His life was textbook psychological torture. But it’s not a tale that is that far removed from lives many human beings lead and have led, led on by promises of false utopias and an earthly Valhalla.
Life lived to serve a dream or a promise, life lived to serve an abstract idea, is not life. It is life’s cruel imitation.
George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, and Michel Foucault all wrote upon that fact.
To live in a society where you are not free, and where you are not equal to others, is a fate worse than death.
Societies can limit human freedoms and human will in multiple ways. Through playing on our fears, manipulating us through our lusts and desires, confusing us through the control of language and imagery, and attempting to monopolize what is “good” and “right”; human beings throughout history have been able to capture the free will of other humans. This is far from an abstracted concept, existent solely within the realms of fiction. To some degree, each and every human society and sub-society that has ever existed have elements that could be considered totalitarian and Orwellian.
If ever you are afraid of saying things you feel, then the society you exist within is totalitarian and Orwellian to some degree. If ever you are ever afraid of the consequences of your non-violent thoughts and actions, you are living in a society that is somewhat Orwellian. If ever you are led to believe or people want you to believe that you have some defined and fixed place or position in life, you are living in “Nineteen Eighty Four”.
Totalitarianism and Orwellian power structures exist to some degree in every human society. But, as human societies have become more sophisticated, these power structures and control mechanisms have become harder and harder to identify. Big Brother, as human society has evolved, has also evolved. Welcome to 2016; the place where The Party is everywhere but nowhere.
The control society. What is it and where did it begin?
As the French philosopher Michel Foucalt (1926-1984) (pictured below) asserted, the psychological control society of the cultural West has its origins in the development of scientific and rational thought in the 16th century CE. As Western society became more “rational” and more “reasoned”, societies sought to marginalize those who were outside the newly formed boundaries of socially defined rationality and socially defined reason. Thus began the era when a centralized society officially defined and categorized “Insanity”.
In “Madness and Civilization” (1960), Michel Foucalt argued that as Western society evolved into modern nation states, a centralized idea of Sanity and Insanity began to form within the cultural West. This was catalyzed by the need of the newly created national cultures to categorize things. Western European society was no longer a complex system of competing dukes, kings, guilds, cities, and bishops, but was instead forming around centralized political institutions known as “nations”.
Nations are centralized societies, and centralized societies have a need to compartmentalize things. And it all needed to be done with a maximum level of potential efficiency.
So what to do with those who could not serve a functional purpose within new national cultures? They were declared “Insane”, for they had no place within the new nations. A man who had hallucinations of what he considered The Divine may have had a purpose in Catholic Europe, as a mystic or a storyteller. But he served no purpose in the new Europe of the nation state and the free trade economy.
And those without a purpose are surely Insane.
Those listed as Insane were shipped off to newly constructed institutions across Europe, and used as reduced cost labor for Western European governments. This is a process that has survived within culturally Western nations until this day.
Definitions of “Insanity” shift and differ within every culture. Because every national culture has different needs and priorities. And, by extension, divergent dissidents and enemies. Hence, anti-Communists and Christians were declared “Insane” in 20th century Russian society, while Communists and other opponents of Capitalism were often declared “Insane” in 20th century American society. The opponents of national societies have frequently been declared “Insane” in multiple human societies and throughout history. Not because they are Insane, but because they represent a threat to the social status quo.
As a theme, Insanity as a construct of society has been a central topic of some of Western culture’s greatest writers. George Orwell and William S. Burroughs both wrote extensively upon the idea that Insanity is chiefly a social construct, used to marginalize and de-legitimize those who disagree with the fundamental assumptions of a society.
“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever“-O’Brien (Part III, Chapter II, “Nineteen Eighty Four”).
If Insanity is socially defined, then those Insane in one society are merely those who cannot fit the aims and purposes of that society. They are those who cannot, or will not, have a role within the society they exist within.
George Orwell, through the character Winston Smith and his psychological treatment at The Ministry of Love, explores this theme extensively in “Nineteen Eighty Four” (1949).
Winston Smith, in every sense, is a completely Sane man through the perspective of liberal-Western traditions of thought. He values seeking his own truth, the freedom of his own conscience, and he pursues and desires the love of women.
However, by the standards of the society of Oceania, Winston is Insane. Winston does not love The Party, and Winston does not love Big Brother. Winston does not wish to have a part in the society he exists within. Consequently, Winston needs to be “cured” of his Insanity.
Winston is taken to The Ministry of Love, a mental hospital where the psychological dissidents within Airstrip One (Great Britain) are physically and psychologically tortured. There he is beaten and broken, physically and mentally. Winston, a man Sane by the standards of Western readers, is cured of his Insanity.
By the end of the novel, Winston is a good Party member, and once more a good member of society. Winston tearfully realizes, through a haze of Victory Gin, that he loves Big Brother. Winston loves the very thing, the very force, that suppresses and crushes him. And so, finally, Winston is once again normal.
The Burroughs Perspective;
Winston Smith did not defeat Big Brother.
But maybe Big Brother can be defeated. Maybe the people societies marginalize and declare Insane can have some kind of victory. The American writer William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) thought as much.
William S. Burroughs believed that each and every human society had its powerful, and its powerless. But the powerless can subvert and avoid domination by the powerful by realizing the sources and mechanisms of their power.
However, as Burroughs believed, avoiding the domination of the powerful becomes an increasingly more difficult task as human societies evolve and progress. A basic human society will use forces such as physical violence to ensure domination. A more advanced society will utilize material enticement e.g. money and a greater share of resources. And the most advanced and complex human societies will use attachment to abstract ideas (religion, spirituality, higher purpose), and everything associated with those abstract ideas to assert dominance and control.
Consequently, as human society evolves, the means and mechanisms for human control over other humans have evolved too. Sources of domination, and mechanisms of domination, are much more likely to be implicit than explicit. Domination, in 2016, can consequently come from any source. A song, an artwork, or even clothing can be used as a means of control and dominance. Sound and imagery has become the new electro-shock therapy in the world of 2016.
As the science fiction writer Frank Herbert (1920-1986) once asserted, barbaric societies are symmetrical and straightforward. Barbarians and savages aren’t that difficult to combat because their weapons and armor are obvious. Complex societies and complex civilizations are harder to fight because they conceal their forms of dominance with layers, dead ends, labyrinths, twists, and turns.
Who is Big Brother in 2016 and how can he be defeated?
Big Brother is alive and well today. Whether you are at the rugby club, the press club, or the night club, there are those groups and individuals you are not meant to offend or upset. There are those shit things, that you are not meant to call shit.
And the Emperor will bring Hell, Fire, and Fury upon you when you say he has no clothes. 2016’s manifestation of Big Brother comes with a new, and often veiled face. Big Brother may smile and have long hair these days. However, Big Brother is still everywhere.
But, through realizing and staying constantly vigilant of his existence and his mechanisms, you can still fight Big Brother. And, potentially, you can kill Big Brother too.
William S. Burroughs’ “The Naked Lunch” (1959) reaches such a conclusion. At the end of “The Naked Lunch”, the main character and narrator Lee kills a police officer known as O’Brien who tries to arrest him.
O’Brien is, as anyone knows, is also the name of the main antagonist of “Nineteen Eighty Four”. Coincidence?! Maybe or maybe not.
Lee darts to a pay telephone to contact O’Brien, the man who he has just shot, and contacts an Officer Gonzalez. And Gonzalez tells Lee something. There is no record of an Officer O’Brien. Officer O’Brien, it is suggested, was only ever a figment of Lee’s imagination. Lee hangs up the telephone, and goes on the run again.
Lee has to flee. Who knows, there may be another O’Brien out there? But probably not. Either in Lee’s mind or Lee’s physical reality, O’Brien is dead.
William S. Burroughs’ “The Mayan Caper”, written two years later, further explores the idea of psychically killing the control society. Lee, this time, has traveled from the fictional nation of Annexia (the USA) to central America. While studying a central American native society, Lee is drugged for a solid week with a substance so strong it makes him simultaneously orgasm and vomit. He is then inducted into a slave society run by Mayan priests/technocrats, who use him and others as slave labor.
But Lee figures out the trick. The Mayan technocrat priests operate a machine by which they control others. But they have no idea how the machine works, nor how to fix it if it is broken. Lee bides his time, and lets the priests think he is an idiot. Until the opportunity comes for Lee to smash the machine, kill the technocratic priests, and escape.
Big Brother can be killed psychically, if you remember that Big Brother only lives in your head. At least most of the time.
“Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill! — ”