I recently came upon a 1949 review of George Orwell’s then-new dystopian novel, 1984 and was struck anew by its insight into human addiction to power. Power is intrinsic to the motivations of oligarchs, dictators and, I dare say, to most politicians but, I submit, Donald Trump is an epitome of the breed. How else to explain his narcissism and obsessive, impulsive behavior? Below, then, is a segment of reviewer Lionel Trilling’s take on the book that became a classic, courtesy of the New Yorker.
See if you agree with me that Orwell’s theme echoes present-day symptoms of income inequality, incessant small-scale war, lying, corruption, public paranoia, advocacy of torture, propaganda, and the quashing of the free press.
In 1984, nationalism as we know it has at last been overcome, and the world is organized into three great political entities. All profess the same philosophy, yet despite their agreement, or because of it, the three Super-States are always at war with each other, two always allied against one, but all seeing to it that the balance of power is kept, by means of sudden, treacherous shifts of alliance. This arrangement is established as if by the understanding of all, for although it is the ultimate aim of each to dominate the world, the immediate aim is the perpetuation of war without victory and without defeat. It has at last been truly understood that war is the health of the State; as an official slogan has it, “War Is Peace.” Perpetual war is the best assurance of perpetual absolute rule. It is also the most efficient method of consuming the production of the factories on which the economy of the State is based. The only alternative method is to distribute the goods among the population. But this has its clear danger. The life of pleasure is inimical to the health of the State. It stimulates the senses and thus encourages the illusion of individuality; it creates personal desires, thus potential personal thought and action.
But the life of pleasure has another, and even more significant, disadvantage in the political future that Orwell projects from his observation of certain developments of political practice in the last two decades. The rulers he envisages are men who, in seizing rule, have grasped the innermost principles of power. All other oligarchs have included some general good in their impulse to rule and have played at being philosopher-kings or priest-kings or scientist-kings, with an announced program of beneficence. The rulers of Orwell’s State know that power in its pure form has for its true end nothing but itself, and they know that the nature of power is defined by the pain it can inflict on others. They know, too, that just as wealth exists only in relation to the poverty of others, so power in its pure aspect exists only in relation to the weakness of others, and that any power of the ruled, even the power to experience happiness, is by that much a diminution of the power of the rulers.
Big Brother lives.