Handfuls of Dust and Splinters of Bone, Part 4
The False Revolution
The False Revolution
Indignant, lonely, or oppressed, we seek, as Winston sought, a Brotherhood, a countervailing power we can join, that has the means to do battle with the Cabal, the Machine, the Matrix, or with whatever we identify as the source of the wrongness. We seek fellowship and we seek solace. We seek some power to set all things to right. We seek a father figure, a God to champion the good and punish the wicked. We seek a Big Brother.
In that search, we do not understand what O'Brien has explained about the nature of the Brotherhood. It is not an organization in the usual sense. The fellowship we seek is not to be found in membership. What we want to participate in is bigger than any organization could be. A person or an organization participates in the Brotherhood to the extent of its devotion to love, truth, and beauty as means not ends. This is the principle of membership of this invisible organization. You recognize each other by your devotion. Any other revolutionary brotherhood is a counterfeit.
The concepts of good and evil originate in social dynamics of belonging and rejection. One way to signal membership in decent society is to profess the prevailing opinions, showing one’s loyalty to the group. The more absurd the opinion, the more effective it is as a badge of loyalty. More generally, one demonstrates virtue by adhering to the taboos and rituals that the group upholds. Totalitarian forces exploit this basic tendency toward group cohesion. To be orthodox is to conform, to conform is to be good. To dissent or rebel is, by the same token, to be evil.
Thus we dissidents find subcultures in which we can, through our professions of opinion, know ourselves once again as good. These communities may help us maintain a heterodox belief system, but their tacit assurance that we are the good guys harbors a sinister shadow. It is the shadow of the Party itself, which wields the same psycho-social forces to marshal the public into submissive conformity. To the extent we seek to source a sense of being good, right, and virtuous from the Brotherhood, we have actually joined a clandestine branch of the Party itself.
A clear sign of this is that dissident subcultures quickly make a new orthodoxy out of the very heterodoxy that unites their members. Violate that orthodox heterodoxy, and you will suffer swift expulsion from the group. Your former comrades will shun you, striving to erase any taint of association. You will become what Orwell called an unperson.
The angry websites describing the horrors of Empire, of ecological and cultural destruction, of war, of the medical system, the educational system, the justice system, and practically every institution of our civilization are for the most part, I believe, factually true—far truer than the narrative the mainstream media presents. I used to read such websites often, to get enraged and enraged again. They generated a sense of belonging. We are the cognoscenti. We are the good guys. We are the Party.
Factually true though they may be, on some deep non-literal level the angry websites are not true. They too are organs of the Party, which is probably why they are tolerated. Anything that raises the level of hate, even rabid critique of the Party’s own organs, is perfectly in line with the goals of the Party. The Party is founded on the division of the world into two opposing forces, good and evil. Any crusader against evil and for good in the abstract, as an end rather than a means, is a crusader for the Party.
Orwell makes it clear that war is essential for the maintenance of the Party’s power. He also makes it clear, by the periodic switching of enemies, that it doesn’t much matter whom the war is against. There must be an enemy, internal and external. Winston’s interrogator O’Brien says:
The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again. Everything that you have undergone since you have been in our hands—all that will continue, and worse. The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease. It will be a world of terror as much as a world of triumph. The more the Party is powerful, the less it will be tolerant: the weaker the opposition, the tighter the despotism. Goldstein and his heresies will live for ever. Every day, at every moment, they will be defeated, discredited, ridiculed, spat upon and yet they will always survive.
Is your change movement any different? Does it require an enemy to know itself? Is it addicted to villains? To the extent that it is, it too is part of the Party.
The Party of the real world, which Orwell distills into the Party of the novel, is deeper and vaster, more pervasive and more subtle, than any organization could be. It is what orchestrates the spiral into ugliness that has reached an extreme in our time, but the orchestrating power is not a mere coterie of human beings; it includes a set of patterns and ideologies that are so basic to the fabric of modern thought as to be nearly invisible. We accept them without knowing them, and, acting from them, contribute to the very phenomena we despise. When a clandestine branch of the Party overthrows the Party, who is still in charge? The Party.
Perhaps it is because of the transhuman nature of the orchestration of evil that we so readily build a narrative framework in which its perpetrators are either non-human entities (evil aliens, the “reptilians”) or human beings with access to superhuman technology, discipline, and information. These myths carry truth.
The Party, in other words, is more than an organization. It infiltrates nearly every organization of society, but it is not itself an organization. That is not its essence. Neither, therefore, is the Brotherhood that seeks to overthrow it. Orwell states that explicitly. It is not an organization in the ordinary sense. Yet it too can infiltrate the exoteric organizations of our world.
How can we discern which holds sway? If an organization asks you to temporarily endure slavery in order to bring the world freedom, if it asks you to tell lies in order to create a world of truth, if it has you wage war to bring peace, if it asks you to hate in the name of love, then you know it isn't of the true Brotherhood. If you steel yourself to do something you don't really want to do, then you are not in the Brotherhood. That is because slavery in the name of freedom, lies in the name of truth, war in the name of peace, hate in the name of love are all defining features of the rule of the Party. Indeed, they form its core slogans. They are no different in essence from all the rationalizations that grease the wheels of the world-devouring machine. There is always a reason, a justification for draining this wetland, cutting down this forest, dropping this bomb. We go against our hearts and violate our integrity to do what we tell ourselves is practical and necessary, and then we use reason to justify it. The Brotherhood's revolution goes deeper. It isn't just another goal toward which to apply the same old methods. It starts with a resounding NO! toward anything that would compromise what Winston plaintively calls "the spirit of Man." O’Brien’s recruitment of Winston and Julia into the fake Brotherhood is thereby revealed to be the sham that it is: a trap, or perhaps a recruitment into an organ of the Party itself:
"You are prepared to commit murder?"
"To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?"
"To betray your country to foreign powers?"
"You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
"If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face -- are you prepared to do that?"
In the political realm today, professional ethicists concoct all kinds of situations to make you agree that, yes, under some circumstances you would approve of torture, or the killing of the innocent. "What if a terrorist had key knowledge about a 'ticking bomb', a nuclear device about to destroy a whole city, and the only way to get it was through torture?" If you concede the point, then you have conceded everything. You have put reason above heart, in a realm for which it is unsuited. Reason has its proper domain; making moral choices is not within it. The people who clearcut forests and exterminate ethnicities are very rational. Their conclusions about what is necessary for the greater good follow logically from their premises. Certainly, we can challenge their premises, asserting for example, “No, racial purity is not the greater good, diversity and equity is.” However, we preserve a deeper premise when we accept goal-oriented reason as license to commit evil in the name of good.
In an alternative novel O'Brien's series of questions might have been a test, for which the proper response would have been "no" to each one. One could interpret 1984 to say that O’Brien actually is an agent of the true Brotherhood, searching for recruits and, when they do not qualify, maintaining his cover by eliminating them in his official capacity as Party inquisitor. Only if someone says, "I will not commit evil in the name of good, no matter what," is he or she confirmed as a member of the real Brotherhood.
In other words, the Brotherhood as Winston conceived it was not the real Brotherhood, but the Party’s mirror, another Party. The same Party.
Today the infosphere is fragmenting into mutually warring camps, each of which deploys the same tactics to vilify the other. They are not literally throwing acid in a child’s face, but figuratively speaking, they are. Look at the depictions of the other side. Look how left media deliberately chooses the most unflattering photos of right-wing politicians, and how right media does the same to left wing politicians. The partisan media, and its amplification in social media, offer a continual invitation to an Orwellian Two Minutes Hate. The true alternative to the Party is not a group that substitutes one target of hate for another.
Paradoxically, the true revolutionary who will not commit murder, will not commit sabotage, will not throw acid in a child’s face, is relatively invisible as a threat to the ruling powers. That is why we have hope of success. We needn’t win a contest of force; we need but “extend the area of sanity, little by little.” The final two sections of this essay will explore sanity in its two aspects: truth and love.
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