Some governments are terrified of their people: The military government that is running Burma (the junta calls the country Myanmar: Many of those who oppose the brutality of the regime refer to the nation by its former name of Burma) murders Buddhist monks who protest its policies.
The longer one thinks about this fact, the more clearly one summons up the image of the slaughter of young holy men, the clearer it will be that this is a government that will do anything that will increase its power, its control over the population, and the longevity of their regime. When one reads Orwell and thinks about Burma, one thinks that Orwell was a jolly optimist about human nature and the role of government.
And Orwell's vision of government is indeed grim one, and it gets grimmer over the course of the novel as Winston -- the protagonist who is nothing at all like Winston Churchill -- works for the Ministry of Truth, which is (inevitably) the ministry of propaganda. Winston's job is constantly to review all historical records and change them to accommodate whatever the government wishes to be the truth that day. He is one of the mechanisms through which the government controls its citizens. For this is one of the most important truths in the novel: People serve their government by oppressing themselves every day and often in terrible ways.
Again, we can turn from Orwell's world in which the government exerts nearly all of its energy (and we can assume its intelligence, for evil can be just as intelligent as goodness) in controlling every aspect of its citizenry, including the way in which they think to our own world. Christine Todd Whitman, for example, helped suppress key scientific information about a wide range of subjects, including the vital one of climate change, when she headed the Environmental Protection Agency. She helped the government (of which she was a part, of course) to control the way in which the American people would think about incredibly important topics.
The fact that Whitman was not as successful as Big Brother should be heartening as well as alarming: The state of America under the George W. Bush regime was not as effective as controlling the ways in which people think was due perhaps to a difference in philosophy, but perhaps more due to the fact that the Framers of the Constitution put in such powerful protections for our freedoms that they have not yet been entirely corrupted or corroded.
The Goal of Power is Power
Orwell has presented us a view of the world in which "the goal of power is power." The government "seeks power entirely for its own sake." Not power for "the good of others," not power to obtain "wealth or luxury or long life or happiness." His government is "different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing." Other oligarchies, other terrible regimes, were "cowards and hypocrites." And here is the most important part of this quote: "The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives."
All dictators want power, Orwell tells us, because power is itself good. Those who govern who are honest know the following: "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power." And the corollary of these last statements is that the object of control is control. So the initial statement of this paper should be elaborated: Governments try to control their populations by limiting the ways in which people are both moved by and act on their emotions because they fear what people may do when people are given more freedom. But they also try to control their people because they want to retain power. Thus the greatest fear that governments have is that people will seize power back from their government.
If this thesis of Orwell's sounds familiar, then there should not be a surprise: It is the dialect in which militia and Tea Party members speak. The flag-draped rallies resound with constant cries of "We want our country back" and variations on this theme. The leaders of this movement are speaking as if the current administration were acting in precisely the way that Big Brother did. They seem to feel that Obama, like Big Brother is "not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission." The only surrender that a truly totalitarian government will accept is one that a person does with free will. "We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us," Orwell's Big Brother tells us, "so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him."
This is what happens to Winston, at the end of 1984. After he has made a desperate attempt to escape his government and a world in which his love and longing and hopes and mind are being stolen from him, reprocessed and then returned, he comes to believe that the government was right all along. He submits to his own oppression, he becomes the instrument of his own limitation. The government that is most secure in its dictatorial power is the one that has created citizens who will police themselves, who will not think or -- especially feel -- anything without the government's position.
One of the most compelling images in the book is Orwell's description of the Two Minutes Hate that everyone is required to participate in. Acknowledging that it is impossible to wipe away all emotion from human interaction -- and from human nature -- Orwell's government allows a brief break in the control of human emotion so that every person can scream out against a probably imagery traitor. The only emotion allowed is the one that the government selects and it can be expressed only when and as long as the government allows.
Irrational Exuberance, and Its Cousins
Akerlof and Shiller's Animal spirits: How human psychology drives the economy, and why it matters for global capitalism takes us down a very different path than those that Orwell and Huxley drag us down. The novels both present a world in which governments are terrible and revel in their ability to do great and lasting damage to each person, because their power is inversely related to the power that each person has. People in these novels are never heroic. They fight back in very small ways, and at times we as readers find this admirable. We say that any resistance is valid and admirable. We each do what we can and that must be enough.
But this is precisely one of Orwell's and Huxley's points: Governments may be terrible because they want to control people. But people are terrible because they allow themselves to be controlled. The authors have the most horrible ideas about governments because they have such low opinions about people. Both the people who make up governments and the people who make up the citizenry. They fail each other because while one is willing to strip away the humanity of its people, the other is willing to be dehumanized.
Akerlof and Shiller are economists rather than artists. They are also rather more sanguine than either Orwell or Huxley about the human condition, which is a little odd on the face of it given that artists are generally those designated by a society to celebrate the heights to which humans can rise. Economics are designated by their societies to be rational and to defend rationality. Human beings, according to mainstream economic theory, are fundamentally rational. They consider situations and take the option that will benefit them the most. Sometimes these benefits will be long-term rather than short-term, or calculated in terms other than simply monetary. But economists believe in a world in which people make well-informed, rational decisions.
In important ways, this hyper-rationalist world of economists is one that would be supported by the governments in both of the novels. A world bound by rationality and based in facts is -- although it might seem to be the opposite -- a world that can be relatively easily manipulated because (as Orwell shows us) facts can be erased and new ones placed into the record. We have a recent example in our own history: How much of what was know five or six years ago (or even today) about the truth of what propelled the United States into Iraq? If the government presents its people with what look like facts, people are all too often likely to believe them guilelessly.
Emotions can be of course be manipulated as well: Watch any charismatic leader address any crowd and you will see this happen. But there are levels of emotion that cannot be manipulated or falsified. People know whom they love, for example. A mother may believe what the president and his…