Ideological Imperialism in Three Dystopian Works
Imperialism used to be a lot bloodier than it is in modern times. The phalanxes of the ancient Greek armies used to move in a dreaded square, with men shield by shield, moving forward with spears raised toward their foe. Even when more successful conquerors such as the Babylonians, Persians and Romans went forth to war, they did so in a fashion that was hand-to-hand and brutal, carving their empires one foot at a time, right across the bodies of their opponents. While the CGI and other animation tricks at work in such modern films as 300 make the carnage seem more like a video game than anything else, the truth was that creating an empire meant spilling a lot of blood, both of your own subjects and the enemy. It took the Great War to fundamentally change the nature of both conflict and empire. The farcical display of German tanks against Polish mounted cavalry and the advent of mustard gas, rocket bombs and fighter jets meant that war could be carried out on a more efficient scale, by which one means that it was a lot easier to kill from a distance than it used to be. Once this form of warfare swiftly reached its horrific implication point in the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it became clear to all that the next empires would not be physical as the weaponry available to too many of the world’s powers meant that worldwide conquest was no longer practical even as a concept, even if Napoleon had already proven that it was rather fruitless as a literal aspiration. And so the last frontier for empire became the human mind. If a country could no longer take over the world by physical means, then it might do so by psychological means. The authors of 1984, Brave New World and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? all foresaw this development in their own way, and the outcome of each story depends a great deal on the way the ruling power was able to control the ideological conversation and make society serve their own purposes.
In 1984, the great secret that Winston Smith discovers is Big Brother rules using a form of government known as oligarchical collectivism. The Party, made up of a small minority of the citizens of Oceania, holds power over the “proles,” the commoners who hold the menial jobs and keep the logistical wheels of the country running in a number of ways. The members of the Party have a set of privileges, such as the ability to shop at select locations, that are not available to the proles. However, the inner circle of the Party gets even more privileges, such as the chance to turn off their telescreens and to live in more luxurious dwellings than those who are just common Party members. The irony is that when O’Brien uses this information to lure Winston into thoughtcrime, he tells Winston the exact truth. It is the power of this truth that ends up crushing Winston’s spirit, along with the electrical shock therapy behind the door of Room 101 and the endless periods of isolation. The lesson that Winston must learn is that Big Brother is always right; when O’Brien is “rehabilitating” him in Room 101, they argue over the answer to the question 2 + 2. Winston argues that it is always four. O’Brien responds, “Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane” (Orwell, p. 218). The ideological imperialism at work in Oceania involves convincing oneself that whatever Big Brother says is true.
O’Brien had had his eye on Winston for a while. He whispered to him at one point, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” (Orwell, p. 45). That place ended up being Room 101, and the lack of darkness meant that Winston would learn absolutely everything that Big Brother had in store for him. At the time, Winston views this as a statement of hope, believing that there will be a place where the drudgery of life in the Party can be put aside and one can enjoy life. Instead, O’Brien points Winston to a future in which one can only “imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever” (Orwell, p. 222). Rather than being a physical boot on a physical face in most cases, this instead represents the fear of Big Brother, the fear of denunciation, in which the proles and Party members alike had to live. O’Brien tells Winston, “We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them,” (Orwell, p. 221), and what he means is that the physical destruction of enemies – which had been one method of the early empire builders – is not what Big Brother has in mind. Rather, it is the complete intellectual surrender by those who live in Oceania. It is the surrender of one’s own ideas of truth and knowledge to the fact that Big Brother can change truth – and he will still be correct.
Winston knew from the beginning that the Thought police were after him. He realized that “your worst enemywas your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom” (Orwell, p. 18). Any sort of reaction that Winston evinced showing a distaste for the period of Hate or any other activity in which he was expected to take part could be interpreted as a thoughtcrime, and he certainly didn’t want that to happen.
One similarity between 1984 and Brave New World is the discouragement of all strong feelings of connection. In Orwell’s book, children are cautioned from a young age to be ready to turn in their parents for thoughtcrime, and marriage takes place through an application process (as does child-bearing). In Brave New World, children grow up in hatcheries and are taught not to feel passionately, so that they will not form connections that could lead them to question anything. Rather than the dingy and dirty world of Oceania, though, the World State in Brave New World is pristine, filled with any sort of comfort imaginable. Mustapha Mond, leading a tour of the hatchery, teaches the group of boys that “mother, monogamy, romance” (Huxley, p. 38) is just a series of concepts that would ultimately lead to pain and discomfort. While those three words still ring with significance in our own time, in Huxley’s world, they had all been robbed of meaning, because they signify allegiances that could take away from fealty to the political state. “What with mothers and lovers, what with the prohibitions they were not conditioned to obey, what with the temptations and the lonely remorsesthey were forced to feel strongly” (Huxley, p. 39). This strong emotion leads to discomfort on an internal level, which ultimately leads to dissent in some form. If the state can manage to crush all of that, then it has a happy group of consumers waiting to do whatever it tells them to do.
One way in which the World State establishes ideological control over its members is by playing suggestive messages into children’s ears as they sleep at night. One of the message that Lenina remembers hearing is, “Every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one. Even Epsilons are useful. We couldn’t do without Epsilons” (Huxley, p. 71). Epsilons are the members of the lowest class, as determined by genetic testing. They receive insufficient nutrition from birth so that their growth is stunted, and they can only perform the most menial of tasks. However, this message tells each member of society the importance of the collective. While it is important for the Epsilons to remember their place in society, there is no reason to be unkind toward them, as long as everyone does what everyone is supposed to do. Of course, there is a grand sort of hypocrisy in this sort of “egalitarian” message, because there are groups in the World State that have a much easier life than others.
The “religion” of the World State basically involves “orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, kiss the girls and make them One” (Huxley, p. 73). Group sex, in other words, is the way that the masses have for releasing their energy. The sex is made even more trivial by the childish wording in the liturgy. The theme of anonymous sex is very important in the World State, whose aim is to create people who are impossible to distinguish from one another. The reference to Ford here refers to the notion that people can pour off an assembly line, just like cars can. These sentiments are repeated in the hypnotic messages that the children would hear at night. One sample is “Never put off till to-morrow the fun you can have to-day” (Huxley, p. 88). The notion here is that pleasure is the most important thing. Clearly, the World State has arranged matters so that material cares are no longer a matter of urgency. If pain does manage to make its way through to you, “there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering” (Huxley, p. 288). The soma is a drug that people take in order to get rid of all of their anxieties. It is sold as “Christianity without tears,” which explains the references to the New Testament in the longer quote above. NO one needs to be disciplined in the World State; they just need to follow along and not ask questions.
The ideological imperialism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a bit less active than in the other two novels, but the fact that Deckard’s wife has turned her emotions over to a regulator and the sheer lack of order in the urban landscapes Deckard walks to pursue androids show that the ideological will appears to have been ground out of people. The slogan “Emigrate or Degenerate” (Dick, p. 12) shows the general pessimism that has taken hold in the area that Deckard is searching. One sign of the general entropy that has taken over in this society is kipple, which is basically any trash that you have lying around. “When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itselfif you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more” (Dick, p. 88). The idea that litter can spread so quickly shows the extreme languor that has taken hold in this society. The fact that “empathy..must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet,” according to Deckard (Dick, p. 77), suggests that the forced reliance on synthetic animals, for those who cannot afford the real thing, has actually created an elevated sensitivity toward things that have life, which seems a bit ironic. However, Deckard is the odd man out when it comes to these sorts of feeling, which is why “upon him the contempt of three planets [descends]” (Dick, p. 189). The fact that Deckard’s wife “doesn’t care whether [they own] an ostrich or not [because] nothing penetrates” (Dick, p. 32) shows that while the nature of the ideology in this society may not be clear, it has achieved its goal, which is utter apathy.
At the end of 1984, Winston sits in a café, sipping his Victory Gin and crying out of love for Big Brother. He has lost the love of his life, been broken of all emotion, and basically spends his days listlessly wandering around, continuing to draw salary but not having to work. As long as he is quiet and obedient, he continues to live, toddling around as an example to others. He knows one day the end will come, with a bullet to the back of the neck, but for now he is overcome with love. This brokenness is the essence of ideological imperialism. In the majority of the dystopian novels, the state wins, because the point of the genre is, in part, to show how hopeless life has become. Any system in which people give up their freedom of opinion and belief, whether consciously or out of sheer force of habit, is ultimately oppressive in nature. In a society in which physical control becomes impossible, the mental and emotional become far more significant. When ideological imperialism has taken hold, the only purpose of society is to feed the needs of those in authority, a sad truth which rings throughout virtually every dystopian novel. As the visuals indicate, the societies in these novels keep their citizens from taking refuge in the glory of the past while failing to provide any sort of direction for the future, except that it was important to maintain both political and economic order – at all costs.
Dick, Phillip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine Books, c2008.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, c2006.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, c2004.