"You understand well enough how the Party maintains itself in power. Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power?"
[. . .]
He [Winston] knew what O'Brien would say: that the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth [. . . .] That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better. That the Party was the eternal guardian of the weak, a dedicated sect doing evil that good might come, sacrificing its own happiness to that of others." (Signet, p. 216)
Except that that's not what O'Brien says in answer to his own question. We'll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, let's hear what's on the mind of the Grand Inquisitor:
"They [humanity] will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever-sinful and ignoble race of man?" (Bobbs-Merrill, p. 30)
"No, we care for the weak, too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them--so awful it will seem to them to be free." (p. 30)
[. . .]
"And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy." (p. 40)
So maybe George Orwell had read The Brothers Karamazov and kept it in mind as he was writing 1984. More than just decades had passed since the publication of Dostoyevski's novel, however. A clear-eyed witness to history, Orwell understood as much. Weary, benighted, naïve, trapped inside his story, Winston Smith does not. The Grand Inquisitor's motive, cynical as it is, wasn't quite cynical enough for 1948-1949, let alone for our own times, for here is O'Brien's answer to his own question:
"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; only power, pure power. [. . .] We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish a dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" [Emphasis added.] (p. 217)
* * *
There are still those among us who seek power for its own sake, for the opportunity to exercise their will over all. Like the poor, they will always be with us. But maybe the age of the Grand Inquisitor, the Benefactor, Lenin, and O'Brien has passed. Then again, maybe not. It's worth noting here that seventy years separated the initial publication of The Brothers Karamazov from that of 1984--and that seventy-plus-one separate us from the publication of Orwell's novel. In that first seventy-year period, the Grand Inquisitor's motives appear to have been rendered obsolete by O'Brien's naked, cruel, and cynical will to power. At least the Grand Inquisitor imagined that what he was doing was for the good of humanity. O'Brien says: "The object of power is power." Now another seventy-year period has passed. What of O'Brien's ideas now? Have they been rendered obsolete, too?
I'll answer that question in a hurry: I think that the aspiring tyrants in our midst have come to understand that murder, torture, imprisonment, starvation, and all of the other overt and vulgar methods of early- and mid-century socialism aren't nearly as effective as one might have hoped. After all, the Nazis were defeated in 1945, 988 years short of their goal, and Bolshevism failed at the end of its allotted threescore and ten. The lessons of the totalitarian epoch seem obvious: If there is going to be power concentrated in the hands of a few revolutionaries, it will have to be gathered and held in a different way. Tyranny by force is inefficient. More efficient by far is for people to tyrannize themselves and each other, for them to participate willingly, even joyfully, in their own oppression. The locus of power can then be moved away from the State, and oppression by the State becomes unnecessary. The governmental clown show can continue, but the real action will be somewhere else.
Enter cultural Marxism, critical theory, political correctness, identity politics, and the New Left, which, at age sixty or so, is actually pretty long in the tooth by now. Despite the fact that their repast has gone bad and now stinks to high heaven, a lot of Marx, Freud, and Gramsci inspired revolutionaries have gone to the buffet table of leftism/socialism/statism and come away with a big heapin' helpin' of that kind of thing. But how well is that going to work? These revolutionaries might tear each other apart over real or perceived transgressions, but that's their own fight. They're really just sitting at the kid's table--at a highchair actually, because, boy, are they infantile. The real work is being done by a new kind of revolutionary. Like Lenin and O'Brien, these new revolutionaries are serious, driven, ambitious, arrogant. They are confident and ruthless in the extreme. They are also in control of a new technology that puts O'Brien, Ingsoc, Oceania, and all of their trappings to shame. Orwell had inklings of them and it when he wrote:
"Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. [. . .] With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen [. . .] could be kept under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication 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." (p. 170)
Substitute the phrases "digital technology" or "social media" or "the Internet" or "smartphones" or "search engines" or "Internet commerce" or maybe all of them together plus some more--substitute all of these phrases for "television" and you approach our current situation.
* * *
O'Brien says: "But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable." Winston Smith resists that idea, but his resistance is weak, for he is a non-believer, or, more accurately, he doesn't see the truth, which is that human nature is in no way malleable because it has not been made by human beings. Put another way, nothing that is made by God is alterable by human beings, and nothing made by human beings out of relationship with God and our true nature can be made permanent. In his naïveté, O'Brien believes something different. But that was seventy years ago. The new kind of revolutionary of which I speak may have recognized the same kind of shortcomings that the old kind has, namely, that mid-century methods don't work very well--and that they were probably never going to work very well. Like I've said, if you're going to gather power to yourself, you can't do it very easily or efficiently by force, a thing the old revolutionaries have come to understand. You also can't do it by trying to change human nature, just as the new revolutionaries, looking at the past failures of O'Brien and his kind, now seem to understand . . .
And that's why you must change what it is to be human.
Human beings are a pesky problem if you're an aspiring tyrant. How are you supposed to handle them with all of their desires to be free and unruly? To think and speak and act as they please? To be unpredictable, un-programable, un-machinelike? To think about and act on something other than your project? To love and be loyal to somebody--anybody--rather than you? You can't change their nature. You have already figured out that part of the problem. What to do? What to do?
"I've got!" cries your minion, an underpaid guest worker who is living on a shoestring in the interstices of your digital-elitist enclave. "We will make them into something other than human!"
And so you get to work. The great thing is that you have so many options--or so you think. You can genetically reengineer them. You can turn them into cyborgs or zombies drugged up on some kind of digital smack. You can upload their consciences into computer servers or android bodies. You can feed them digital pablum and harvest their data, thereby reducing them to inert generators of information, kind of like in The Matrix. (In We, everyone volunteers or is forced to undergo an operation to get rid of his or her sense of "fancy.") Most promising of all, you can build the greatest AI the universe will ever know and do something with it. You don't know what it will be just yet, but one way or another, you're going to use it to outsmart God, Man, and all of Creation. You will make all of them superfluous, obsolete. Human beings will be gone forever from the universe. At last your problem is solved. At last you can rest, like Thanos on his idyllic planet, happy in the knowledge that the universe is exactly as you wish it to be.
* * *
The overarching goal, I think, is to establish a transhumanist society, a posthuman universe, an attempted eradication of the pesky problem of an unchanging and uncooperative humanity. If only we can succeed in this, we will have, as O'Brien and our new tech masters promise, immortality. Not individual immortality, mind you, but digital-collective immortality. (O'Brien's promise is political-collective or Party-collective immortality.) That's still immortality, right? This is all still doable, right? And not just doable but desirable, right?
Well, wrong, I think. We have tried all of this before. It seems to be a part of human nature--to feel that we are or ought to be gods, that we can make of ourselves something other than what we are, that we can escape from time and achieve immortality, all on our own and under our own power. Transhumanism and posthumanism seem to be just the latest iterations of these age-old desires. If I'm right, they, too, are doomed to failure. In biblical times, reaching for heaven and godhood, we set about building the Tower of Babel. We all know how that turned out. Anyway, if you doubt that the masters of digital information and communications are working on this problem, watch a video called "The Selfish Ledger" on the website The Verge, dated May 17, 2018, and accessible by clicking here (for now). Assuming it's real and not just a spoof or a sophisticated bit of trolling, it is the most perfect horror movie ever made.
As I have said before, we as human beings have never stayed our hands: everything that we have imagined--and many things we have not yet imagined--we will do. And so we will have a new Grand Inquisitor, a new Benefactor, a new Lenin, a new O'Brien for our new age, and once unleashed, perfect horrors will tear across the world like a storm.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley