Does 1984 really lack any hope? - On rebellion, or how to access Orwell's hidden door
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Does 1984 really lack any hope? - On rebellion, or how to access Orwell's hidden door

Life is bleak for Winston Smith, and maybe his rebellion never stood a chance. Was Orwell's intended message so cynical? Does his novel, 1984 really lack any hope?
Does 1984 really lack any hope? - On rebellion, or how to access Orwell's hidden door

Life is (and has always been?) bleak for Winston Smith, and maybe his rebellion never stood a chance. Was Orwell's intended message so cynical? Does his novel, 1984 really lack any hope?

Winston didn't stand a chance, but Orwell left hints of hope in the book which readers might take note of. Let's start with the protagonist's rebellion and close with observations about the where uprisings take root (within society and individuals) and what if anything we might take from 1984 to apply to our current situation.

Here are three ways in which Winston's rebellion was naive: 1) he had little practice with nonconformity to begin with; 2) he didn't realize how practiced the inner party's torture apparatus was; and 3) he attempted his rebellion from inside the system. Readers might level more concerns, but for me this already was enough to doom the prospect. Winston acknowledges as much himself when he first writes secretly in the diary. He may not know the extent to which he will try to rebel, but already he senses things will not end well. (A subject for another essay: the belief that things can end well is required, but not sufficient, to achieve a meaningful rebellion.)

In the case of #1, Winston was groomed for the system from an early age, his memories of even his pre-teen years are foggy at best. #2 is notable in that if one can imagine the depths of torture that might be put on you, then you may not even rebel to begin with—but the inner party wants to know who is loyal, and allows people to rebel from the bureaucratic layer of which Winston is a part. #3 is a well recognized feature of many large, complex (or merely complicated) human-led organizations—reform much less rebellion from within is difficult inherently and often impeded further by the designs of those in control.

Winston may stand no chance, but:

If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles.

With the people. The roughly 80% apart from the very top (1%) or in the outer circle (19%)—like Winston—who are overtly surveilled and manipulated, probably from birth.

But, in 1984, there isn't evidence of overt surveillance of all people. And so, there is a potential light in the common people which might invade the darkness. Through Winston's perspective, having come up in the party, there is the sense that this great swath of people who are not overtly monitored still matter little.  It is unclear whether this is Winston's idea or Orwell's.

Soon after, from the party textbook:

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

This seems like a paradox, but there is a way out. I believe this was either missing from the overtly stated conclusions of Orwell's book, or, perhaps they are very central and therefore rightly presented in the opening chapters so that even readers who put down the book will have a chance to notice.

Through Winston we know anything penned by the party is meant to confuse, belittle, or attack an individual's faculties of thought and imagination. What is presented as a paradox may not be. There might be a way to escape the party's reality control. But before I unpack that paradox, to reveal the hidden door, let's first unpack why Winston stood little chance at all of succeeding.

Winston is in the 19% whose life is tolerable, yet subservient to his inner party masters. Any freedoms he enjoys—Victory Coffee, Victory Gin, rare moments of genuine conversation, rarer moments of privacy—only exist because he is nothing short of a slave to the system. The early passages about his memory being muddled, well crafted by Orwell, moving in and out of narration and Winston's consciousness, demonstrate this brilliantly.

This lifelong paper shuffler in the Ministry of Truth, who isn't even sure if the year is 1984 nor whether his memories of his mother are accurate (she having been removed when he was 10 or 11), still yearns for self-expression of thought crimes, which he carefully hides in his facial expressions, participation in 2-minute hate rituals, and even in his own home at Victory Mansions. But finally, in the opening of the book, he overtly commits thought crime by writing in the secret diary.

Attentive readers will have noticed that Winston already KNOWS at this point that he is doomed (which makes our hope that he might succeed as the plot progresses unfounded). Just as he can assess people he meets and make predictions successfully about whether they'll be first detected by Big Brother's pervasive surveillance and then tortured by the Ministry of Love's apparatus, Winston can sense his fate.

If I may pause to bring in the personal: Winston is a relatable character to someone like me. Until age 27 I worked at a corporation which, at least on the surface, was relatively benign, a big box store bringing a variety of products to shelves for simple collection by millions of people. Sure, there were occasional protests in far-off countries over unsavory working conditions and dismal pay that allowed the prices here in America to be what they were, but that was nothing that couldn't be sorted out by legal and foreign relations teams, and if difficulties meant factories abroad were shut down that was hardly a problem because the import and procurement teams could find different factories employing people at low wages in other countries to keep the company's cost of goods and therefore margins similar. Meanwhile, as an inventory and forecast analyst for kitchen products, I needn't worry about those things, even though I'd at age 12 visited a shoe factory in Indonesia and should not have every enjoyed working there—to say the least.

But what if I had worried more? What if I had developed some dose of courage to assess the problem and offer alternatives? Would I really have been able to change the system from my low rung within the system? Would the legal teams have listened to my observation that the company was directly or indirectly exploiting humans abroad, and profiting from that? And shouldn't we share this also with our customers? What was the true  cost of doing business the way it was done? It was easier not to ask too many questions, and instead focus on moving my instock levels from yellow (and sometimes red) toward green levels for hopes of promotion or a slightly better yearly bonus. (I wrote an unpublished novel on related absurdities.)

As it was, at that time the working conditions of strangers abroad wasn't my fight. I walked out the front door, and although when my boss announced my imminent departure one teammate said I was his favorite person at the company—a welcome surprise—and another said good luck, he wished he could do similar, but was further up the ladder and at any rate had a family to support now, I don't imagine the system itself missed me, as I could easily be replaced. But the reactions of the older employee is important: I was young and had options (more on this later).

It was easy to walk out the door, yes, but like Winston, I couldn't easily change the system from within.

Back to our apparent paradox given by the party's manual:

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

It is presented as a paradox.

But, it is not a true paradox. A fire can light itself. A hand may draw itself. How did the universe or matrix or simulation we inhabit come to be otherwise? Where do ideas about truth, justice, forgiveness, and courage come from?

Bringing this back to the rebel, in other words:

In a corrupt system the person who rebels follows an instinct. In doing so he will discover where reality is, how his perceptions of reality were previously controlled. From this new vantage he may even see how society is lacking.

Interestingly, he may not know what to do at this heightened level of consciousness. And there is personal danger in progressing. Thus the horrible cliché that curiosity kills the cat: without a few curious cats the species of cat would ossify, lose its ability to hunt, and go extinct. (The rule of thumb might better be stated: Curiosity alone kills the cat.) The rebel, with heightened consciousness, may see another way to rebel next. If he survives that next act, he learns something yet again. Or he may die by accident or be killed by his opponent. Corruption, and especially corruption as a symptom of evil, does not want to be unmasked.

But even in failure, others notice both the rebel's effort and the manner of failure defeat. But only if they are giving the rebel proper attention. It is yet another cliché to say we must learn from the past, that people don't understand history. Could it be that there is wisdom from the past that is of more significance than where power goes wrong? (It is obvious that those in positions of responsibility have time and again failed to wield power effectively; too often, also, groups of sociopaths and psychopaths conspire to root out the meek leaders that do emerge—meek leaders are those who have weapons and know how to use them but mostly keep them sheathed; the meek leaders are not weak but they often are not organized enough when groups of sociopaths and psychopaths have banded together.)

Could it rather be that what we should learn is that understanding HOW TO REBEL appropriately?—that is, for good, not on behalf of desperate anarchy or nihilism. The bitter pill is that rebelling decisively carries few if any guarantees of anything. For example, prophylactic rebellion without considerable force alerts evil to your presence... if one is sufficiently embedded in a system, like Winston, rebellion only allows him to be destroyed and fully made subservient forever.

I think that practicing rebellion—and even giving children the chance to rebel or be creative or exercise their imagination—is a way of preparing the next generation to interact with the older generations. There are those in older generations who want to cling to what they have instead of participate in the planting of new trees. It only takes a very small number of inner circle party members to hold a corrupt system in place perpetually, and this can be done through sadistic motivations, including but not limited to brainwashing, torture, implication, and blackmail.

But eventually, we all, each of us, has to give everything away. Winston had to give it all away—all the life sucked completely from him—on the party's terms. He started his rebellion too late. In fact he never had much chance as part of the corrupted system. He was likely a slave from birth. But the free people, the proles, still do have a chance, for now.

Regardless of where you are, how can you act as if you are free? These are choices whose seeds of instantiation occur deep within us and may well bring us take the decisive act, like Winston's commission of thought crime, on paper, in his secret diary. Through that act, one's consciousness is heightened, and one sees what new doors offer themselves to be opened.

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