I recently came across an article from 2019 in The Atlantic magazine, about Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four linking it with what was happening at the time in Donald Trump’s America. Staff writer George Packer, used it to explain how ‘doublethink’ has become a pervasive feature on both the left and right in modern US politics.
The 1949 novel, described by Packer as a work of original genius and lasting greatness, went into the US Amazon best seller list in the week of Trump’s inauguration, sales rising 95-fold after the president’s adviser Kellyanne Conway justified his false crowd estimate using the Orwellian phrase ‘alternative facts’.
Packer relies for many of his insights on the music critic Dorian Lynskey, author of The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (Pan Macmillan 2019). Lynskey himself says Nineteen Eight-Four is:
“The book we turn to when truth is mutilated, when language is distorted, when power is abused, when we want to know how bad things can get. It is still, in the words of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, ‘an apocalyptical codex of our worst fears’”.
What is doublethink?
To be clear, we are not talking here about common or garden lies; any two-bob politician can manage that. And it isn’t cognitive dissonance. No, doublethink is something quite different.
Orwell himself described it as “reality control” through which The Party managed its members by creating an alternative reality, presumably using alternative ‘facts’, where people consciously suppress information that challenged the ‘new reality’ even when it contradicts their own everyday experience. This is Orwell:
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic…”
He also said that, “Even to understand the word – doublethink – involved the use of doublethink”.
It is far more dangerous than cognitive dissonance, because it is in fact quite the reverse of it. In doublethink there is no dissonance to be resolved, no contradictions to be reconciled, everything makes perfect sense.
Packer puts this blocking out of reality even better:
“Self-censorship turns into self-deception, until the recognition itself disappears – a lie you accept becomes a lie you forget. In this way, intelligent people do the work of eliminating their own unorthodoxy without the Thought Police.”
The best lies, the ones that have most influence on your own behaviour and which you can be most convincing about to others, are of course always the ones you believe yourself. All of which brings us to Brexit.
Brexit and doublethink
Brexit always contained a lot of doublethink. One might go as far as saying Brexit was such an irrational act it could not have been imagined without doublethink and a few ‘alternative facts’.
Johnson himself has made a political career out of doublethink. His legacy will be the turning of it from an oblique warning of a dystopian future into an explicit instrument of government policy.
If you ponder why many of the clearly contradictory objectives of Brexit remain stubbornly entrenched in the public mind as quite rational, you might also be interested in this, again from Dorian Lynskey:
“Nor did [Orwell] foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.”
Remember this when next speaking to a Brexit enthusiast. As to the why, perhaps Packer has the answer.
Ministry of Truth
Orwell thought we needed a Ministry of Truth, as a propaganda arm of the state to spread misinformation. But Packer says he didn’t reckon with mobile phones and social media. The web has become a sort of global ministry of truth controlled by the Russians.
The mass surveillance telescreens of 1984, are our own smart phones that we buy at the Apple store and carry everywhere. A few clicks, and a lie can be sent cascading around the world in milliseconds. There is no need for coercion, we happily create and amplify our own propaganda.
The Ministry of Truth is Facebook, Twitter and the rest says Packer. Big brother is ourselves.
Examples of Conservative party doublethink
For examples of double think, you could do worse than read Chris Grey’s book Brexit unfolded: How no one got what they wanted [and why they were never going to] (Biteback Publishing £14.99), which ruthlessly exposes many of the contradictions of Brexit. The word that keeps popping into your head when reading it is ‘doublethink’.
- Taking back control apparently meant handing power to unelected men like Cummings and Frost to do as they wished, virtually without limit.
- A second democratic referendum (which many Brexiters argued for in 2016) would be “undemocratic” (Michael Gove May 2019) and would somehow “frustrate the British people’s decision” What? Think about it.
- Britain could somehow escape from the obligations of the single market yet still be part of the “free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey to the Russian border” (Michael Gove June 2016).
- Erecting significant non-tariff barriers to trade with our largest market“ should allow companies to do even more business with our European friends” (Boris Johnson December 2020).
- Leaving the EU in order to cut excessive regulation has resulted in an explosion of red tape for our exporters.
- EU rules and the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU28 was intolerable for a sovereign nation but joining and abiding by the rules of the 160-member World Trade Organization with almost no democratic process or effective legal redress is perfectly fine. Likewise, Article 5 of the NATO treaty which obliges the UK to commit military forces or even declare war.
- The UK must place sovereignty above economics to justify leaving the European Union, but Scotland would be foolish to leave the United Kingdom because they might be economically disadvantaged.
- The UK can adopt different customs tariffs and different food and product standards without a hard border with the EU either on land or sea; the so-called Irish trilemma.
- Signing a free trade agreement with Australia which is forecast to increase our GDP by 0.02 percent over 15 years is hailed as a great victory while at the same time, exiting the EU single market, a higher form of frictionless trade, and decreasing our GDP by 4 percent (200 times more), is also a victory.
The most recent example was George Freeman MP, on BBC’s Newsnight claiming “The UK is acting very fairly and continuing with free trade, it’s Europe that is being very aggressive and immediately imposed all these extra checks, not us” (18 seconds in).
That’s right, Freeman sincerely seems to think the EU has unreasonably imposed single market checks (known as official controls) on a wholly innocent UK which chose itself, urged on by Mr Freeman, to exit the single market. The doublethink is strong in that one.
Parallels with the Soviet Union
Orwell wasn’t making forecasts when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rather, he was warning about the dangers of totalitarian regimes, particularly the Soviet Union, which perfected the art of doublethink – bookended by two revolutions. None of this, by the way, is to suggest we are living under a totalitarian regime, but we are certainly in danger of adopting its methods.
The Russian Politburo demonstrated how long a police state can keep an illusion going when the party controls the press, with titles like Pravda (truth), the official party newspaper pumping out a daily slurry of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies.
The same sort of thing applies in the UK except here it is the press controlling the organs of the state, Johnson himself admitting that his ‘real boss’ is the Daily Telegraph, according to Dominic Cummings.
But even in a police state, the delusion of ‘prosperity’ amid widespread shortages and rows of shops that all seem to specialise in the sale of various kinds of shelving and little else, cannot survive forever.
What happens when the doubts begin to creep in?
The problem with creating new or alternative realities is that they can only ever be illusions. The old ones cannot be killed off. Basic truths of human psychology, economics and global trade inevitably persist and sooner or later come hammering on the door, as they are now with Brexit. Complaints about excessive red tape and loss of freedom of movement are turning into food shortages and increased prices.
Johnson’s gift was in being able to convince a majority that Britain alone, fuelled by boundless optimism, could defy all the old realities. Fortunately, as his hero Winston Churchill said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
But the government, like the Soviet Politburo, will never concede that its entire political credo is a terrible mistake. In these circumstances, as doubts set in, an external threat (real or imagined) becomes a political necessity to deflect rising public anger.
In 1984, Britain was turned into Airstrip One, part of Oceania and was apparently engaged in a perpetual war either with Eurasia or Eastasia. The population can’t be sure if this is true or not, since The Party controls the news media, a useful tool to help it justify the repression, widespread deprivation and the poor quality of food available to the proles.
There is of course, zero prospect of a conventional war, hot or cold, breaking out in Europe, but a trade, cultural and diplomatic one will do just as well for Johnson and his Vote Leave government. It provides a convenient enemy into which public ire can be channelled when it comes, as it most certainly will.
The Northern Ireland protocol seems to have been drafted intentionally to provide a ready-made source of conflict with the EU for decades to come, and Lord Frost can be relied on to keep the vitriol flowing. The issue, bound up with identity politics and the risk of a return to violence, gives the government the ability to dial the acrimony up or down according to circumstances.
You have been warned. The clocks are starting to strike 13.