George Orwell Had Their Measure: In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble.
HOW ANGRY “CENTRISTS” GET when they’re referred to in anything less than the most congratulatory terms. As if their appalling ignorance of, and disdain for, politics is something to be proud of. And yet, proud they are – very proud – of their refusal to shoulder even the most basic responsibilities of citizenship. Day after day, these people are fed statements by their political leaders which cannot, in any way, be reconciled with the facts – but which, their obvious falsity notwithstanding, they accept as true.
George Orwell had their measure. In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble. Orwell even invented a name for this condition: doublethink.
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, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
In short: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
The all-pervasive ideological system which required the citizens of “Airstrip One” [Great Britain] to practice doublethink was “Ingsoc” [English Socialism]. Though no centrist would accept for a moment that New Zealand society is in any way comparable to Orwell’s dystopia, it is not at all difficult to see in the all-pervasive influence of neoliberalism a polity more than a little analogous to Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.
It is one of the most frightening features of totalitarian systems that their effectiveness relies less upon naked force than it does upon the ordinary person’s realisation that, in practical terms, going with the flow of the new system makes much more sense than attempting to stand against it. In Nazi Germany, this was called “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer”. Adolf Hitler’s beliefs being well known and understood, it was unnecessary for his ministers to issue precise instructions concerning the implementation of his new government’s policies. Bureaucrats and other authority figures simply acted as they believed the Fuhrer would wish them to act.
Is it not possible to see in the appalling treatment meted out to beneficiaries of all kinds by MSD and WINZ bureaucrats more than a little of this “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer” phenomenon? No detailed memos will have been sent out to MSD employees – indeed, it would’ve been most unwise to put such sentiments down in writing – but everyone in that bureaucracy knows exactly what is expected of them. Government ministers, editorial writers and talkback hosts have made it very clear what the appropriate demeanour towards their beneficiary “clients” should be. They all know how their bosses would wish them to act.
If any centrists are still reading this, their blood pressure will no doubt be rising rapidly. “I’m not like that! This isn’t Nazi Germany! You’re out of you mind!” The great problem, of course, for these outraged folk, is that between 1933 and 1938 Nazi Germany wasn’t like Nazi Germany. For most German citizens, and in the eyes of the rest of the world, Hitler was a hero, and his regime’s achievements – full-employment especially – the envy of all those nations still mired in economic depression.
No, we don’t have concentration camps filled with John Key’s opponents. But that is not, of itself, proof that our democracy survives unscathed. It might just as easily point to the extraordinary success of what is, indisputably, the most successful totalitarian ideology in human history. Neoliberalism is a brilliantly conceived edifice of lies which, in order to have a successful career, it is in the intelligent citizen’s interest to affirm as an unanswerable collection of self-evident truths.
If you can do this without demonstrating the slightest traces of amusement, stress or guilt, then there’s a better than even chance that you call yourself a centrist.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 24 August 2015.