‘They were beneath suspicion’: Big Brother and the underclass

Big Brother is watching you (flickr timrich26)

Photo by timrich26 on Flickr

This week an American middle school teacher was suspended because he had written a book which depicted the ‘largest school massacre’ in history that killed 947 people. The police searched the school for bombs and weapons. The book is fictional. The massacre takes places on 18 March in the year 2902.

On Twitter people responded with Orwellian terms such as ‘thought police’ and ‘thought crime’. References to George Orwell’s novel 1984 are never far away in debates on crime policy.

This summer I re-read 1984. I had read the book years ago, but all I could remember was ‘Big Brother is watching you’ (probably because the phrase pops up every time you read about camera surveillance). Who, why and how exactly I had forgotten.

One of the things that I had failed to remember was the role of inequality in Orwell’s fictional society. Because why was this monstrous system of surveillance and control designed? To protect the power hierarchy.

During the industrial revolution machines were invented that could replace human labour. These machines could end hunger, overwork, filth, illiteracy and illness in just a few decades. This would lead to a problem for the people in power:

But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction – indeed, in some sense was the destruction – of a hierarchical society. […] If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. (page 179)

If wealth would be equally divided, it would become difficult for the people in power to maintain power:

For if leisure and security were enjoyed by an alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves. […] sooner or later […] they would sweep [the privileged minority] away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. (page 179-180)

You would expect Big Brother to focus his pressing eyes on the regular folks, the underclass. But that is not the case. The underclass, who make up about 85 per cent of the population and who are called ‘proles’, are hardly watched:

Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and, above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them […] but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. […] The great majority of proles did not even have telescreens in their home. (page 71)

* telescreens: TV’s through which Big Brother watches people in their living rooms

The proles are mostly just kept poor and stupid, for example by not educating them. And they are distracted, for example by ensuring that popular products like chocolate and razor blades are hard to come by, and by war. ‘They were beneath suspicion. As the Party slogan put it: “Proles and animals are free” ’ (page 72).

The always watching Big Brother is only really interested in the Outer Party – the civil cervants, so to speak, who execute the ideologies of the Inner Party. Winston, the protagonist, works for the Ministry of Truth, where he re-writes news items to match the current ‘reality’. The Outer Party is made up of people who are intelligent, otherwise they could not do their job, but that makes them dangerous as well because they are more susceptible to deviant thoughts. So it is the Party member who is under permanent surveillance, also at home via the telescreens. It is the civil servant who is subjected to indoctrination the most, not the underclass.

So yes, in our reality the scope of camera surveillance, the gathering of data and the far-reaching interference of the government in our lives surely has Orwellian features, but the ‘underclass’ is all but left alone. If anything, the positions are reversed. In 2014, those who execute the dominant ideology don’t seem to question it as they educate, discipline and, well, indoctrinate the ‘underclass’: work hard, be self-reliant, take responsibility, buy a house and make money so you can buy more stuff (and live a normal and happy life after all).

The most obvious difference compared to 1984 is of course that in our reality there is no conspiracy, no master plan, no master brain. There is no Big Brother, no Inner Party. It’s all us. I don’t know what’s more frightening.


(Update 6 September) In the context of terrorist threats, the Dutch government is debating whether glorification of terrorism should be criminalized – this plan is referred to with the term ‘thought police(gedachtenpolitie). Zihni Ozdil today wrote in a column (for NRC Handelsblad) about the class bias of the thought police: citizens are prosecuted, while politicians have freedom of speech.

2 thoughts on “‘They were beneath suspicion’: Big Brother and the underclass

  1. Reblogged this on A Kind of 'trouble'… and commented:
    A really interesting post by Gwen van Eijk on the differences between the 1984 envisaged by George Orwell and the 2014 we currently live in. Well worth a read especially for the questions about which individuals/groups are deemed to be worth watching and who aren’t, and why….

    • Thanks Steve. So one interpretation is that the ‘underclass’ are more worthy in our society than they were in 1984, because now they are worth watching? Following Orwell they are watched and controlled because they might become a danger to the system. Gives another meaning to ‘dangerous classes’…

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