Big Brother Is Watching You: Is America Becoming Orwell’s Nightmare?

By Stephen RohdeJanuary 31, 2017

Big Brother Is Watching You: Is America Becoming Orwell’s Nightmare?

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

EDITOR'S NOTE:  So many people were shocked, disturbed or just plain baffled that after barely a week in power the Trump administration was spreading outright lies and embracing dangerous ideas such as "alternative facts" that it's no wonder the dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four shot to #1 on Amazon's bestseller list.  After all, George Orwell's cautionary tale described a society in which "whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth" and "the Ministry of Truth" promotes "doublethink" and "newspeak."  We thought it timely to repost Stephen Rohde's (cautionary) review.

WITH A THEATRICAL PRODUCTION of Nineteen Eighty-Four, imported from London, opening in Los Angeles in January 2016 at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, renewed attention is being paid to one of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. Of course, George Orwell’s classic has been frequently reviewed and assessed. It has become commonplace to identify how far the Orwellian vision of the “surveillance state,” with its “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrimes,” has become embedded in our society not just in authoritarian regimes all over the world, but in the United States, England, and Europe.

In No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (2014), journalist Glenn Greenwald compares his present day subject to Nineteen Eighty-Four. “[B]oth rely on the existence of a technological system with the capacity to monitor every citizen’s actions and words,” in which because “the state had the capability to watch them at any time,” it was “the uncertainty and possibility of ubiquitous surveillance that served to keep everyone in line.”

Far less frequently do commentators reflect on why the “surveillance state” is able to take hold and envelop people’s lives, even in countries that consider themselves democracies. Orwell was clear about this: the creation of a state of perpetual war and all pervasive fear induces people to willingly surrender their rights and liberties and enables the imposition of the surveillance state, making a fresh examination of Orwell’s cautionary tale seem especially worthwhile.

Orwell marshals an array of literary techniques in service of his unconcealed political views. While the political messages at times jump off the page, in other sections of the novel, often overlooked, are long sensual passages devoted to the torrid but short-lived romance between 39-year-old Winston Smith and 26-year-old Julia. His sexual yearnings, suffocated in a failed marriage, are contrasted with her sense of sexual freedom. Their encounters, first in a remote forest and then in their love nest above Mr. Charrington’s shop, breath with the intimacy and delight that is so painfully absent from the rest of their dreary and regimented lives, and by extension the lives of everyone else in Oceania. Orwell shares their joyful relationship in their secret haven to remind readers what has been lost in the rest of this suffocating conformist society. He vividly brings to life the essential thing that the Party and Big Brother have systematically eliminated: privacy. This representation of blissful privacy is the baseline against which readers measure the pervasive control and sweeping surveillance imposed by the Party.

Early in the novel, Orwell writes: “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war.” War “had been literally continuous though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.” At present, in 1984, Oceania is at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia, but Winston possesses the “furtive knowledge” (because his “memory was not satisfactorily under control”) that only four years earlier Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”

Winston is frightened when Julia, typically indifferent to such things, considers it unimportant whether Oceania is at war with Eastasia or Eurasia. “‘Who cares?’ she said impatiently. ‘It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.’”

Later in the story, Winston (and everyone else) is required to participate in Hate Week, complete with “processions, meetings, military parades, lectures, waxwork displays, film shows, telescreen programs.” Julia’s works at the Fiction Department, where her unit has been taken off the production of novels to rush out a series of “atrocity pamphlets.” The streets are lined with posters everywhere showing the monstrous figure of a Eurasian soldier with an expressionless Mongolian face. But, without notice, on the sixth day of Hate Week, it is abruptly announced that Oceania is not at war with Eurasia, it is at war with Eastasia and Eurasia is an ally.

Orwell is clear: regardless of shifting enemies, the Party perpetuates a permanent state of war in order to maintain complete control over society. Winston surreptitiously obtains a copy of “the book” entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, written by Emmanuel Goldstein, originally the architect of Ingsoc, the prevailing philosophy of Oceania, but now declared an enemy of the state. Winston devours the book in a desperate attempt to understand what is happening, and readers will see chilling parallels to our present circumstances. Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, the world’s “three superstates” are “permanently at war,” Goldstein writes in the book within the book, and they have been for the past 25 years: “war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries.” Acts such as the slaughter of children and reprisals against prisoners are looked upon as normal, “and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.” War now involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, causes comparatively few casualties, and takes place on vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average person can only guess at.

The first essential ingredient in permanent war is that “it is impossible for it to be decisive.” And that is intentional, using up the products of “the machine” without “raising the general standard of living.” If the machine was used not for war, but to eliminate human inequality, then “hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.” But an all-around increase in wealth would threaten “the hierarchical society.” “If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction.”

For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.

Continuous war keeps the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. War destroys “material which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

At the same time, “consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.” Even the humblest Party member should be “a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.” He acquires “the mentality appropriate to a state of war.”

Perpetual war demands the endless search for “new and unanswerable weapons,” and all three powers produce atomic bombs, storing them up against the decisive opportunity that they all believe will come sooner or later. Meanwhile, new tactical weapons are deployed, including “self-propelled projectiles.”

All of this is in service of the two aims of the Party: “to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought.” The average citizen of Oceania is kept ignorant of the citizens of Eurasia and Eastasia. “If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies.” War “helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs” and “is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects,” not to make or prevent conquests of territory, “but to keep the structure of society intact.”

The Goldstein book observes that beginning in about 1930,

practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years — imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations — not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.

In comparison to what the Party had achieved, “all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient,” the “ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas,” and “no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.” Print, followed by film, radio, and television, made it easier to manipulate public opinion. When “technological advances” made it possible “to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.”

Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communications closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.

The only danger to the Party was the splitting off “of a new group of able, underemployed, power-hungry people, and the growth of liberalism and skepticism in their own ranks.” There needed to be “continuous molding” of the people’s consciousness. At the apex of society was Big Brother, infallible and all-powerful. Every success, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue issued directly from his leadership and inspiration. People live from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. One is expected to have no private emotions but to live “in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.” The first and simplest stage in the discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called (in the language of Newspeak), crimestop, the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. In short, “protective stupidity.”

It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.

In a permanent state of war, with pervasive scarcity and thought control, the vast majority of people in Oceania, know as proles, “can be prodded into frenzies of fear and hatred, but when left to themselves they are capable of forgetting for long periods that the war is happening.”


Long before Orwell, James Madison warned that of “all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” He pointed out that in war “the discretionary power of the Executive is extended,” including “all the means of seducing the minds” of the people. “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

No one aware of post-9/11 society in the United States, England, Europe, and elsewhere can fail to see how chillingly Orwell (and Madison) imagined the consequences of permanent war in instilling fear, inflaming patriotism, creating an obedient citizenry, and establishing a pervasive surveillance state.

On September 14, 2001, Congress adopted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) granting the President unfettered authority to wage permanent war with no time limits or geographic boundaries against:

those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The Senate passed the AUMF by a vote of 98-0 (with two senators not voting) and the House of Representatives voted 420 in favor (with 10 not voting). Only Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) voting against the AUMF. She cautioned that it was “a blank check to the president.” She warned that in “granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibilities to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.”

Barbara Lee was as prescient as George Orwell.

In the last 14 years, without any Declaration of War as required by the Constitution, two American presidents have waged endless war and used deadly military force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Cameroon, and Syria, and have indefinitely imprisoned detainees in Cuba, Poland, Thailand, North Africa, and Romania, creating a state of permanent war which continues to this very day. Representing more than 53 percent of its discretionary budget, the United States spends over $600 billion a year on the military.

In January 2013, Rep. Lee introduced a bill to repeal the AUMF. At a hearing on May 16, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) asked “How will we know when the current conflict is over?” A military panel that included two generals testified that the “war against radical Islam, or terror, whatever description you like” will last another 10 to 20 years and the president has the “authority to put boots on the ground in Yemen” or in the Congo, or anywhere in the world, because “when it comes to international terrorism, we’re talking about a worldwide struggle.”

A member of the committee, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) recently complained that the AUMF “is now being interpreted as a blank check to allow war without geographical limitations, without temporal limitation. Fifteen years of war under an open-ended authorization should have taught us something.” But what it has actually taught us is that in a state of permanent war, the American people, like the people of Oceania, will accept the ever-increasing use of raw power by the government. Just as the endless wars in Oceania prompted the use of torture, the War on Terror launched the use of torture in direct violation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States ratified in 1994. A December 2014 report issued by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence documented that several detainees were subjected to waterboarding, one 82 times and another 183 times; interrogations lasted for days on end, detainees were forced to stand on broken legs or go 180 hours in a row without sleep; were subjected to “rectal feeding,” and one prison was so cold that a suspect froze to death. Despite these shocking revelations, no high-level CIA officials or military officers have been prosecuted or held accountable. And the American people go about their business, just like the citizens of Oceania.

Orwell’s prediction that countries would endlessly search for “new and unanswerable weapons” beyond the atomic bomb, as well as new tactical weapons including “self-propelled projectiles,” has come true with terrifying consequences. In 1996, in response to the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded that “it is difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law.” But in 2015, almost 20 years later, on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ICRC was still urging that the “use of nuclear weapons must be prohibited and the weapons eliminated altogether.” Yet the world is moving in the opposite direction. The Economist in March noted:

Twenty-five years after the Soviet collapse, the world is entering a new nuclear age. Nuclear strategy has become a cockpit of rogue regimes and regional foes jostling with the five original nuclear-weapons powers (America, Britain, France, China and Russia), whose own dealings are infected by suspicion and rivalry.

Although the world continues to comfort itself with the thought that mutually assured destruction is unlikely, the risk that somebody somewhere will use a nuclear weapon is growing apace. Every nuclear power is spending lavishly to upgrade its atomic arsenal. Russia’s defense budget has grown by over 50 percent since 2007, a third of which is devoted to nuclear weapons. China is adding to its stocks and investing heavily in submarines and mobile missile batteries. And President Obama has asked Congress for almost $350 billion to undertake a decade-long program of modernization of America’s arsenal.

Pakistan is amassing dozens of battlefield nuclear weapons and North Korea is thought to be capable of adding a warhead a year to its stock of around 10, while developing missiles that can strike the west coast of the United States. Meanwhile, weapons proliferate in the Middle East, as Iran (subject to the new agreement limiting its nuclear development) and then Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt join Israel in the ranks of nuclear powers.

In a January 2014 report, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) concluded that:

nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials (highly enriched uranium, separated plutonium, and the plutonium content in mixed oxide fuel) are stored at hundreds of sites around the world; some of those materials are poorly secured and are vulnerable to theft or sale on the black market.

The report pointed out that enough highly enriched uranium to fill a five-pound bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit would be enough to build a nuclear weapon. The result of a nuclear blast “would be catastrophic — with dire consequences that would stretch across the globe for economies, commerce, militaries, public health, the environment, civil liberties, and the stability of governments.”

The Party in charge of Oceania would feel right at home. Those “self-propelled projectiles” Orwell invented, we call drones. Nothing exemplifies the impact of permanent war more than the pervasive use of killer drones to assassinate suspected terrorists, without arrest, charges, or trial. Drone attacks have dramatically increased under President Obama. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), in Pakistan between 2004 and 2015 there have been 421 CIA drone strikes (370 under President Obama) which have killed between 2,476 and 3,989 people, including between 423 and 965 civilians, of which 172 to 207 were children, and injured between 1,158 and 1,738.

During comparable time periods in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, the BIJ estimates there have been between 390 and 430 CIA drone strikes, which have killed between 1,670 and 2,480 people, including between 127 and 264 civilians, of which between 17 and 41 were children, and injured between 297 and 375.

Did you know that US killer drones reportedly killed and injured as many as 8,582 people, including as many as 1,232 civilians, of which as many as 248 were children? Most do not. The citizens of Oceania didn’t know the number of casualties in their endless wars either.

And of course since 2001, the US government, with the assistance of major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in massive, illegal dragnet surveillance of the domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans. News reports in December 2005 first revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been intercepting Americans’ phone calls and internet communications. The NSA is also receiving wholesale copies of Americans’ telephone and other communications records. All of these surveillance activities are in violation of the privacy safeguards established by Congress and the US Constitution. In early 2006, it was revealed that AT&T installed a fiber optic splitter at its facility in San Francisco and provided copies of all emails, web browsing, and other internet traffic to and from AT&T customers to the NSA.

In June 2013, a modern day Winston Smith, Edward Snowden, leaked secret government documents which showed — and the government later admitted — that the government collected phone metadata of all US customers under the guise of the Patriot Act. Moreover, the government is collecting and analyzing the content of communications of foreigners talking to persons inside the United States, as well as collecting much more, without a probable cause warrant. Snowden revealed that under the PRISM program, the NSA and FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enabled analysts to track foreign targets. In just one 30-day period in March 2013, one NSA unit named Boundless Informant, collected data on an astounding 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world.

For bringing this pervasive US spying program to the attention of the public, Snowden has been charged with violating the Espionage Act. It remains to be seen whether he will suffer the fate of Winston Smith or be recognized as a courageous whistle-blower.

Except for a handful of privacy advocates, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and civil liberties organizations, such as the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, this massive program of NSA domestic spying has generated little if any protest from the vast majority of Americans, and in Congress it has largely been met by passive acceptance or patriotic praise. The recent USA Freedom Act was a welcome but very limited congressional effort to restrict government spying.

Americans have become numb to a loss of personal privacy on an unprecedented scale. Everyone’s comings and goings on streets and in public places are routinely videotaped. Orwell’s invention of two-way “telescreens,” which not only broadcast programs into one’s home but also record what is happening there, has largely come true with “cookies” embedded in our computers relaying our private choices of books, movies, consumer goods, and much more.

Cookies store sensitive personal information including forms, third-party ad tracking, and user profiling/website preference tracking. Many websites use large-scale third-party ad serving networks that cover many sites. This ubiquitous tracking and ad-specificity impacts user privacy since no express consent is given. Also, unlike browser-based cookies, flash-based cookies are not stored on your computer, so they are harder to find and delete. Banks and online finance sites use flash-based cookies precisely for this reason. In addition, consumer privacy protection activists are deeply concerned about the huge evolution of websites like Facebook, which pose extensive security concerns. Not even Orwell dreamed that technology would develop such sophisticated techniques to access and store such massive amounts of private information.


Across the country, the weapons and surveillance techniques of permanent war are being shared with local law enforcement. Since 2003, through the federal Urban Area Security Initiative and the Department of Defense 1033 program, over $7 billion of funding and military grade equipment, including military aircraft, grenade launchers, and heavily armored tactical vehicles, have been disbursed to militarize police departments. In May 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department acquired 2 Draganflyer X6 Drones which place tools for unprecedented invasions of privacy of people’s homes and neighborhoods in the hands of the same department of police officers who have been found to sabotage voice recording and video equipment inside patrol cars designed to monitor police conduct.

The pervasive surveillance has become the new normal in America. Over 600 state, local, and federal agencies, including the US military and the CIA, conduct intelligence operations through Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) and Fusion Centers. In 2004, under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU discovered an FBI JTTF spying on political advocacy groups, and a follow-up investigation by the Inspector General found that the FBI lied to hide these improper activities from Congress and the American public. A 2012 Senate report found the intelligence gathering at Fusion Centers was flawed, irrelevant, unrelated to terrorism, and posed a serious threat to privacy.

Meanwhile, since 2008 the LAPD has been creating secret Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) based on ordinary, lawful, and constitutionally protected activities such as using cameras in public, shooting videos, using binoculars, drawing diagrams, taking notes, and inquiring about hours of operation. The SARs are stored and shared with thousands of law enforcement and public agencies, and private contractors have access through Fusion Centers. A January 2015 audit by the LAPD Inspector General revealed that while Los Angeles’s black population is less than 10 percent of the total, over 30 percent of SARs involved black residents.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved new guidelines for intelligence gathering on political groups and others engaged in social justice work, which allows the LAPD to insert informants at organizations for 180 days at a time and for LAPD officers to create fictitious personas for online investigations involving Facebook and other social media tools.

This is the very kind of world Winston lived in and so eagerly, and unsuccessfully, tried to escape.


As Nineteen Eighty-Four moves inexorably to its terrifying conclusion, Winston and Julia enjoy what unbeknownst to them will be their last intimate time together. Orwell describes the thoughts that flood Winston’s mind, as if to remind the reader that there is an alternative to the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing world described in Goldstein’s book:

It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everyone, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.

He remembers the thrush that sang at the edge of the wood during their first night together:

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan — everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.

Winston’s faith — Orwell’s faith — in the dignity of the common man is breathtaking. Few passages in the literature of liberation speak with greater hope for the universality of humankind.

In his 1961 afterword to a special edition of Ninety Eighty-Four, Erich Fromm, author of Escape from Freedom (1941), suggested that one can react to Orwell’s dystopia in two ways:

either by becoming more hopeless and resigned, or by feeling there is still time, and by responding with greater clarity and greater courage. […] The hope can be realized only by recognizing, so 1984 teaches us, […] the danger of a society of automatons who have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet who will not be aware of it because of “doublethink.”

If we heed Orwell’s dire warnings; if we eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation; if we dismantle the permanent war machine; if we insist that our leaders actively negotiate diplomatic solutions to world conflicts; if we devote the trillions of dollars spent on war to combat economic inequality, disease, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, and joblessness around the world; if we end warrantless government surveillance; if we restore personal privacy and lost liberties; if we organize and speak out and do all this, then America will not become Oceania. But time is running out.


Stephen Rohde is a constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Rohde is a writer, lecturer, and political activist. For almost 50 years, he practiced civil rights, civil liberties, and intellectual property law. He is a past chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and past National Chair of Bend the Arc, a Jewish Partnership for Justice. He is a founder and current chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, member of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, and a member of the Black Jewish Justice Alliance. Rohde is the author of American Words of Freedom and Freedom of Assembly (part of the American Rights series), and numerous articles and book reviews on civil liberties and constitutional history for Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican ProspectLos Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Lawyer, Truth Out, LA Progressive, Variety, and other publications. He is also co-author of Foundations of Freedom, published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Rohde received Bend the Arc’s “Pursuit of Justice” Award, and his work has been recognized by the ACLU and American Bar Association. Rohde received his BA degree in political science from Northwestern University and his JD degree from Columbia Law School. 


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