‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’
The Iraq War is of course not unique by any measure. George W. Bush’s announcement of ‘pre-emptive war’ is precisely what is at stake here: the term itself is paradoxical because it already assumes the Orwellian War is Peace. Pre-emption entails starting a war for the purpose of preventing – a paradoxical statement which has been, unfortunately all-too-easily, accepted by our collective mind in 2003.
Contemporary application – Freedom is Slavery
Similarly, the contemporary application of Freedom of Slavery is the less perverse version of the slogan above the doors to Auschwitz: Arbeit macht Frei. I want emphasise once again, in no sense do I imply that our conditions are even close to those of totalitarian states. My claim is that they are the more benign variations of the same symptom. So in what sense does Freedom is Slavery apply to our conditions? Precisely in the sense that contemporary capitalist logic only functions for as along as there is wage labour. It is through work – hard work! – that we may become free: enjoy our holidays in the sun, buy products that simplify our life, etc. But of course also in the more mundane sense that in order to live as such – to be able to sleep under a roof or eat a loaf of bread, and so on – we have to offer our labour in return for freedom.
Consider especially that the conditions of our freedom, limited as that freedom may be, relies fully on the labour of others. There is no need to recount once again the often-cited conditions of Chinese workers at Foxconn, and of course countless similar examples globally, including the USA. As Slavoj Zizek noted in a recent article:
Tim Cook can easily forget about hundreds of thousands of Foxconn workers in China assembling Apple products in slave conditions; he made his big gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, demanding the abolition of gender segregation… As is often the case, big business stands proudly united with politically correct theory.
One only needs to add what is implied: ‘while wholly ignoring the effects of global capitalism’ – that is, these slave conditions of the Chinese worker create that freedom for us to demand the abolition of gender segregation.
Contemporary application – Ignorance is Strength
The last slogan may not be as paradoxical as the previous two. There is a certain level of ignorance that we even admire – e.g. in such sayings as ‘the fool and his smile’, or the current trend of emphasising how hard it is to live as a smart person (sidenote: this is of course a true statement of being an idiot). For Orwell, the last slogan encouraged the acceptance of the Party line as factual without asking for reasons or purposes, and especially without questioning INGSOC as such. Are we not confronted with similar attitude almost on a daily basis?
“Let me do my job and you do yours” ; “It is in your interest that we do X” ; “Brussels technocrats/experts have come to a conclusion that …” ; “Studies show” or “A growing body of evidence …” and similar ‘weasel words’ ; “Our financial experts / legal team / etc. have concluded that …” ; etc.
The idea is simple: do not question, accept! It is better to be a fool than to resist. Perhaps the best example of this is in Robert Zemeckis’s very popular Forrest Gump (1994). In Zizek’s analysis, Forrest Gump is
this perfect ‘vanishing mediator’, the very opposite of the Master (the one who symbolically registers an event by nominating it, by inscribing it into the big Other): Gump is presented as the innocent bystander who, by just doing what he does, unknowingly sets in motion a shift of historical proportions. When he visits Berlin to play football, and inadvertently throws the ball across the wall, he thereby starts the process which brings down the wall; when he visits Washington and is given a room in the Watergate complex, he notices some strange things going on in the rooms across the yard in the middle of the night, calls the guard, and sets in motion the events which culminated in Nixon’s downfall (Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 338).
To put this differently, is not the idiot Forrest Gump not only the symbol of success (he becomes rich, he gets the girl, etc.), but also what is expected from a true actor1 under current conditions: do not question the current status quo, just accept and let things unveil themselves! Contrast this with his life-long love Jenny, who is immersed in the protest movements, who aims educate herself, to acquire an understanding of what is social justice, etc. – isn’t she, for her efforts to go beyond ‘ignorance’, punished by repeated violence? She is beaten by her father (with a strong implication of being molested), then by bullies who pick on Forrest before he ‘learns’ to run, she gets into abusive relationships, etc. Until, of course, the director who functions as the representative of the liberal ideological hegemony decides to close the circle of violence by killing her with AIDS.2 That is to say, Jenny’s will to resist our third slogan – Ignorance is Strength – is punished by a lethal virus.
So to briefly conclude on where we started; the three slogans in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are meant to encompass the individual in a collective mind that is the totalitarian state. But the statements themselves overreach the specificity of Orwell’s fictional Oceania and apply to contemporary Western societies.
- That is, a true political actor that the current condition supports/allows.
- And of course I mean precisely the director, Jenny does not die in the book.