Nineteen Eighty-Four

Libertarian Themes in Michael Radford’s 1984 Film Adaptation of 1984


I.  Introduction

Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by Michael Radford in 1984, brings George Orwell’s chilling vision of a collectivist, illiberal future to the big screen.  The film, like the book 1984, is a libertarian classic insofar as it stands as a warning to the viewer to always beware of statism and of any ideology that worships power.  The totalitarian state that rules over Oceania, where this tale takes place, aims to regulate every aspect of human behaviour.  Indeed, the state essentially regards its subjects to be its property.  It flagrantly disregards even the concept of individual rights, having as its aim the total accumulation of power in the hands of the ruling Party.

The libertarian hero of the film, Winston Smith, is an average man of average intelligence who, perhaps due to a certain spirit of individualism, engages in a number of subtle acts of rebellion.  For example, he has sex, falls in love, eats foods reserved for a different class of citizens, reads banned literature, and buys a few pieces of private property without the permission of the state.  Nevertheless, his primary act of civil disobedience is to think independently, to use reason and strive for some internal intellectual honesty.  For the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is no crime worse than independent thought—which the state labels “thoughtcrime.”

The book 1984, upon which this movie was based, was written by George Orwell in 1948 and published in 1949.  It was an attack on statism—not simply on state communism, as was the general view in the West during the Cold War, but upon all forms of statism, including state communism, fascism, and McCarthyism.  “Big Brother” was just as much a symbol for actual dictators, such as Josef Stalin, as for nationalistic symbols, such as “Uncle Sam.”  And Ingsoc, the ideology of the Party, was just as much a metaphysical philosophy as it was a political philosophy.  While Orwell did not view himself to be a libertarian per se, his magnum opus is nevertheless regarded as a libertarian classic, earning Orwell a place for himself, according to Jeff Riggenbach, in the libertarian tradition.1

II.  The State Controls Education and the Media

Governments tend to be exceedingly bad at anything they do.  There is one notable and distinguished exception to this rule, however: propaganda.

Governments tend to be really good at propaganda.  And, that makes sense, when one considers that the one thing the state absolutely requires for its own survival is the submission of its subject populations.  As Linda & Morris Tannehill point out in their 1970 classic The Market for Liberty:

Throughout history, people have been talked into submitting to the tyrannies of their governments because, they were told, their government was vitally necessary to protect them from the even more terrible depredations of other governments.  The governments, having put over this bit of propaganda, then proceeded to cajole and coerce their citizens into protecting them [i.e., the state]!  Governments never defend their citizens; they can’t.  What they do is make the citizens defend them, usually after their stupid and imperialistic policies have aggravated or threatened another government to the point of armed conflict.2

If a given state were unable to convince its subjects that they needed it, that they could not survive without it, it is probable that the subjugated society would choose to simply dismantle said state.  Thus, the survival of any state rests primarily on its ability to influence the thoughts and emotions of its subjects.  It should stand as no surprise, therefore, that states have often attempted to control both the education of the youth as well as the general media.  The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four controls both.

The state controls education directly through the institution of government-run schooling, the attendance of which is almost certainly compulsory.  In addition to direct control over education, totalitarian régimes often promoted the use of youth-based organisations.  In Nazi Germany, there was the Hitler Youth—an organisation whose membership was compulsory during World War II—and the League of German Girls; in the Soviet Union there was the Communist Union of Youth (usually known as Komsomol) and the Young Pioneer Organisation.  In Oceania, one finds the Youth League, the Junior Anti-Sex League, and the Junior Spies.  Unfortunately, not much is clear about these youth organisations beyond the basics, since the main characters are all adults, and we only encounter children in a couple scenes.  It is not clear, for example, whether membership in these youth organisations is compulsory, but, even if it is not, lack of desire to join would be seen as rather suspicious.

The bureaucracy of Minitrue

The state also controls the media through what it calls the Ministry of Truth (or “Minitrue” in Newspeak).  Nothing is printed or broadcasted that is in conflict with the ideology of English Socialism (or “Ingsoc”)—the ideology of the Party.  In fact, even past events in discord with current party ideology are censored and altered.  Smith, as it turns out, is a member of the Outer Party, and is assigned a job at the Ministry of Truth to alter historical documents (newspapers, specifically) to bring them into line with current party ideology.  Hence the party slogan “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” can be taken literally.  The Party controls society and all historical records to which individuals have any access.  By virtue of being controllers of the present, they aim to literally alter the past, not only to alter historical record but also all human understanding and belief as to what has occurred previously.  And, it aims to control this in pursuit of retaining power on into the future.

As should be utterly clear, therefore, there is no free speech in Oceania.  The natural, inalienable, individual right to free speech—a right that all humans possess as a product of their nature as human beings, regardless of what any government has to say to the contrary—is ignored and infringed upon by the state.  States have no power to alienate a person from her or his natural, inalienable rights, but they do have the power to infringe upon (i.e., violate) said rights.  The distinction here is important.  If rights were things granted by the government, then they could be revoked, too.  An anti-Semitic state such as Nazi Germany could simply revoke the Jews’ right to life, and thereby avoid acting unjustly, in that event.  But because rights are not issued by the state, because rights are natural and inalienable, any attempt by the state to create a holocaust is an inherently unjust infringement upon the rights of the targeted peoples.  Likewise, the infringements upon free speech made by the totalitarian state ruling over Oceania is also inherently unjust, regardless of what the Party says to the contrary, and regardless of what laws or edicts the state opts to institute and enforce.  While there is obviously no “first amendment” in Oceania, the libertarian will nevertheless continue to decry the lack of free speech depicted.

The libertarian will likewise decry the statist propaganda foisted upon the people of Oceania, propaganda designed to cajole people into “worshipping” (for lack of a better word) their own submission to the state, and into hating whomever the state regards as its enemies.  The omnipresent statism in Oceania leads the film to have an ominous tone, a tone that is, according to Professor Falzon,

set in the opening scene.  In a cinema showing patriotic newsreel, anonymous, black-clad citizens rise from their seats in unison to praise their leader Big Brother.  Later in the film, it is made clear that the government considers each individual to be no more than a ‘cell’ in the great organism of the state.3

The scene described by Falzon is a depiction of the Two Minute Hate.  Every day, the Party has its members come together in order to observe, and respond emotionally to, a two-minute clip of propaganda designed to stir feelings of hatred against Oceania’s war opponents as well as against Emmanuel Goldstein, a man said to have once been a Party leader but who had betrayed the revolution.  After two minutes of pure anger and unabashed hatred, the crowd is calmed and soothed by an image of Big Brother, the supposed leader of both the revolution and the Party.  They chant, “B-B!  …  B-B!  …  B-B!” over and over, drawing a clear connection between statism and cult-like attitudes.

III.  The State Infringes Upon Privacy

Smith hides from the view of his telescreen
while engaging in ownlife

The state that rules over Oceania is, in addition to other things, a surveillance state.  That is to say, the state is constantly monitoring, to the best of its ability, everything its subjects say and do.  Thus, the right to privacy, to be secure in ones effects and to be free from burdensome government snooping, is likewise infringed upon in Oceania.

Most of the surveillance occurs through the telescreens.  Every home and every office has a two-way television screen, called a telescreen.  The telescreen has a dual purpose: (1) to provide the populace with a steady stream of propaganda and (2) to provide the state with a steady stream of footage of its populace.  In addition to the telescreen, the thoughtpolice employ helicopters to spy on individuals.  Moreover, because the state does not respect the right to private property, its agents are permitted to come into and search a person’s apartment without receiving permission from the resident.

The state, of course, values this ability to keep tabs on its subjects.  After all, this helps it to more quickly and easily detect thoughtcriminals, and thus to ensure that no rebellion against the state can even begin to arise.

IV.  The State Infringes Upon Property Rights

While individual possession is tolerated to a limited extent, private ownership in Oceania is illegal.  Moreover, since “ownlife” is naturally part and parcel of it, private ownership is regarded by the state as an evil.  To the limited extent that individual possession is permitted, it is stratified amongst the three state-created socio-economic classes.  Thus, those in the Inner Party (the upper class) have access to more luxury than those in the Outer Party (the middle class), and those in the Outer Party have access to more luxury than the proles (the lower class).

Winston Smith illegally purchases a relic
from the past—a paperweight

A good example of this is shown in the delineation of who has access to what sorts of alcohol.  Those in the Inner Party, for example, have access to wine whereas proles and Outer Party members do not.  Outer Party members can get gin, however, while the proles cannot even get that.  Thus, the pubs in prole quarters likely serve only beer.  Inner Party members have other privileges, also.  They can get real butter, for example, and can maintain personal servants.  Party members are also able to purchase cigarettes and razor blades, and presumably other things of a similar unemotional nature.  But this is the entire extent to which private possession is permitted amongst Party members in Oceania, and even that is subject to state confiscation, which in reality means that no private property truly exists at all in Oceania.

Should a Party member want to purchase even the simplest of knickknacks, such as a paperweight, said Party member would find her- or himself taking a huge risk.  Smith purchases a paperweight from a small shop in one of the prole quarters out of his sentimental attachment to history and knowledge, and since he regarded the paperweight as a simply beautiful object to look upon.  But private ownership, again, is regarded as an evil by the state.  Why should a person allow her- or himself to have any attachment to any material object, when love ought to be reserved to Big Brother, to the Establishment?  The state loathes competition.  Wanting to own this antique, to be able to hold it and call it his own, indicated, if at least symbolically, that Smith was a “crimethinker”—a Newspeak term to denote one who clings to any notion concerning freedom of thought or of action, concerning the natural rights or equal liberty of individuals.

The statists recognise the connection between private property and individualism, and—wishing to eliminate all personal desires among humans, wishing to replace all personal desires with the collective desires of the Party—they punish private ownership as an inherently deviant act.  This, ultimately, is why private ownership is illegal in Oceania, and cannot be tolerated amongst Party members by the state.

V.  The State Infringes Upon Sexual Liberty

The free-love movement of the nineteenth century was one of a variety of libertarian movements closely associated with one another.  Other such libertarian movements included the abolitionist movement (indeed, I have argued that the libertarian movement itself was born out of the abolitionist movement), the woman’s movement (which we would today call the individualist feminist movement), the freethought movement (which included not just atheists, but also agnostics, humanists, deists, pantheists, and even various open-minded Christians), and the individualist anarchist movement.  The free-love movement, in particular, aimed to repeal all statist regulation over nonviolent sexual interactions, birth control, marriage, and adultery.  Free lovers also often battled obscenity laws and defended free speech.  Free lovers believed it was a person’s natural right to choose to be promiscuous, monogamous, or celibate, and to use her or his own body in whatever nonaggressive manner she or he chooses.

A lecturer speaks on the virtues of artsem

Winston and Julie engage in sexcrime

The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, takes a far more authoritarian approach to sexual interaction.  At the point in which the film takes place, the Party essentially regards sexual interaction to be a “necessary evil,” one that shall be overcome with further scientific developments.  We see this particularly clearly in a scene in which a lecturer discusses artificial insemination (or “artsem”).  Says the lecturer:

I just want to finish by saying a few words about the impact of the imminent neurological breakthrough.  When the orgasm has been finally eradicated, the last remaining obstacle to the psychological acceptance of the principles of Ingsoc, as applied to artsem, will be overcome.  In other words, the unorthodox tendencies towards ownlife, which constantly threaten the natural erosion of the family unit, will no longer have the biological support of the organism.  As we all know, the biological and social stimulation of the family leads to private reflection, outside Party needs, and to the establishment of unorthodox loyalties which can only lead to thoughtcrime.  The introduction of artsem, combined with the neutralisation of the orgasm, will effectively render obsolete the family until it becomes impossible to conceptualise.

Ideally, the state would prefer for all of its subjects to be entirely sexless.  All passion, all love, should be for Big Brother; having a spouse and children causes some of that affection and passion to be diverted away from the state, and is thus regarded by the state to be dangerous.  Yet, at the same time, the Party is practical enough to realise that it cannot ban sexual reproduction just yet, nor has it yet abolished the family as a social unit.  So, in the meantime, it works to make sex as unenjoyable and socially repugnant as possible, and to break the bonds that parents usually have with their children.  To like sex, and to ever want to engage in it for any purpose other than the reproductive benefits derived by the state, is regarded as degenerate, and called “sexcrime.”  Worse yet for the state, the orgasm, being as powerful as it is in the human mind, can make even the most doctrinaire Party member forget, for at least a little while, about Ingsoc and the Party.  Thus, it is not enough for the state to simply punish those guilty of sexcrime—it must go further, and attempt to eradicate the orgasm itself.

In a world where any sexual desire is regarded as deviant and criminal, the act of having sex itself (save for the purpose of begetting children) becomes an act of rebellion.  Winston meets up with another Outer Party member, named Julia, to engage in this very form of rebellion.  In order not to get caught, they meet up in the countryside, in a place where they do not expect to encounter any other persons or telescreens.  And, it is here that Smith and Julia have their first true conversation with one another.  It is here that Smith learns that Julia has, allegedly, had sex hundreds of times with various Outer Party members, and that she, in her own words, adores it.  And Smith, a rebel at heart, adores Julia because of this.  (In the book, we find Smith wishing she had been with a thousand of them.)

The dialogue is rather intriguing, and deserves some analysis.  Smith says to Julia, “Look, I hate purity.  I hate goodness.  I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere.  I want everyone corrupt.”  To this, Julia responds, “Well I ought to suit you, then.  I’m corrupt to the core.

These comments might seem shocking, if not for the context.  What Smith and Julia are discussing, of course, is not true virtue, nor true corruption.  Rather, what they are referring to is the perverted conceptions of virtue and corruption promoted by the Party.  In reality, any infringement upon a person’s individual rights is inherently corrupt, inherently lacking in virtue; thus, the state is an inherently corrupt institution, as it necessarily violates the individual rights of its subjects.  If Smith had been expressing a desire to see true corruption, he would need only to look at the rule of the Party.  Rather, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Smith is striving for true virtue, against true corruption.  And, one can be sure that Julia strives for the same.  So why, then, does he employ antivirtuous rhetoric?  Precisely because the state perverts the notions of virtue.  For Smith and Julia, it is better to strive for what is truly right, what is truly just, than to conform oneself to the preconceived and perverted notion of what is “virtuous” according to the political class.

Nonviolent sex—by which I mean any sexual encounter other than rape—is not a morally repugnant act, even if it is sought after for its own sake.  On some level, Julia and Smith both recognise this; otherwise, they wouldn’t do what they do.  And, in a society where nonviolent sex is not falsely regarded as immoral or deviant, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about two or more persons who consent to engage in it with one another.  But in a society such as that depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even in nontotalitarian societies where sex and especially promiscuity are regarded to be immoral, perverse, or degenerate, sex becomes a political act.

Sexual interaction is not the only rebellious thing in which Smith and Julia engage with one another.  Just as importantly, the two fall in love.  They fall in love with one another precisely because they see an individualist in one another, a person who is willing to think independently despite the inevitable repercussions for this victimless “crime.”

VI.  The State Wages War

There is, perhaps, no statist activity, no Big Government programme, that libertarians loathe more than war.  Militarism has been a menace to society throughout all recorded human history, and every society that has allowed its rulers to maintain a standing army has, in some way or another, suffered as a result.  As former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne put it in his 1995 campaign book, Why Government Doesn’t Work,

Oceania has a standing army

Politicians always justify the human tragedies [of war] as being necessary for the greater good.  They speak movingly of giving one’s life for one’s country.  But it’s always someone else’s life they’re talking about.

The politicians’ stirring phrases are meant to keep our eyes averted from the reality of war—to make us imagine heroic young men marching in parades, winning glorious battles, and bringing peace and democracy to the world.

But war is something quite different from that.

It is your children or your grandchildren dying before they’re even fully adults, or being maimed or mentally scarred for life.  It is your brothers and sisters being taught to kill other people—and to hate people who are just like themselves and who don’t want to kill anyone either.  It is your children seeing their buddies’ limbs blown off their bodies.

It is hundreds of thousands of human beings dying years before their time.  It is millions of people separated forever from the ones they love.

It is the destruction of homes for which people worked for decades.  It is the end of careers that meant as much to others as your career means to you.

It is the imposition of heavy taxes on you and on other Americans and on people in other countries—taxes that remain long after the war is over.  It is the suppression of free speech and the jailing of people who criticize the government.

It is the imposition of slavery by forcing young men to serve in the military.

It is goading the public to hate foreign people and races—whether Arabs of Japanese or Cubans or Serbs.  It is numbing our sensibilities to cruelties inflicted on foreigners.

It is cheering at the news of enemy pilots killed in their planes, of young men blown to bits while trapped inside tanks, of sailors drowned at sea.

Other tragedies inevitably trail in the wake of war.  Politicians lie even more than usual.  Secrecy and cover-ups become the rule rather than the exception.  The press becomes even less reliable.

War is genocide, torture, cruelty, propaganda, and slavery.

War is the worst cruelty government can inflict upon its subjects.  It makes every other political crime—corruption, bribery, favoritism, vote-buying, graft, dishonesty—seem petty.4

Or, as Professor Murray Rothbard wrote in his marvellous libertarian manifesto,

[W]ar, in the words of the libertarian Randolph Bourne, “is the health of the State.”  War has always been the occasion of a great—and usually permanent—acceleration and intensification of State power over society.  War is the great excuse for mobilizing all the energies and resources of the nation, in the name of patriotic rhetoric, under the aegis and dictation of the State apparatus.  It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society.  Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest.  Society becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morals—as the libertarian Albert Jay Nock once phrased it—of an “army on the march.”5

A map of the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are three mega-states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.  These three superpowers are engaged in constant war with one another, usually with the two weakest superpowers in an alliance against the third.  Yet, this is a war in which the principal actors all know that the war cannot be won.  According to Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, “The war is not meant to be won.  It is meant to be continuous.”  So, then, what is the real object of this war?

Goldstein’s book answers this question for us:

The essential act of modern warfare is the destruction of the produce of human labour.  A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.  In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation.  The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects.  And its object is not victory over Eurasia or Eastasia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.

While it is reasonable to believe that the centralised planning in Oceania would be enough to keep the masses in poverty even without diverting human energy and production to the wasteful task of warfare, we have every reason to conclude that the war effort aids the state in the task of impoverishing the masses, and in no way aids society itself.  In warfare, states have even greater excuse to ration goods (although, no greater justification), and the general public, not wishing to appear “unpatriotic,” is less inclined to question the machinations of the political class.  This is just as true in democratic régimes as it is in oligarchic or autocratic régimes.  Thus, Rothbard:

The bulk of our scientists and engineers has been diverted from basic research for civilian ends, from increasing productivity and the standard of living of consumers, into wasteful, inefficient, and nonproductive military…boondoggles.  These boondoggles are every bit as wasteful but infinitely more destructive than the vast pyramid building of the Pharaohs.  …  As the scope of government spending—military and civilian alike—has widened, science and industry have been skewed more and more into unproductive goals and highly inefficient processes.6

Not only does militarism lead inevitably toward an unconscionable cost in human lives, but it leads toward this, therefore, without the masses deriving any material benefit therefrom.  It is thus an utter falsehood to claim that war is ever “good” for the economy.  This is not to say that select industries (or, in the case of Ninteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party) do not benefit from war efforts.  Rather, a war effort can be recognised as a sort of protectionism for select industries, who are able to profit through government contracts at the expense of the average consumer.  As Browne put it in 2003,

There is an old fallacy that war is good for the economy, good for the stock market, and so on.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When you’re building tanks instead of cars, and you’re building mortars instead of refrigerators, people’s lives do not get better—they get worse.  The money that would have gone to building a new home, to getting a new car, to one’s children’s education, and so on, is diverted instead to missiles and airplanes and bombs and all these other things.  And, those things do not add to prosperity—maybe you see a lot of activity, but what you do not see is the standard of living of people going up in a war.  It goes down.  During the second World War, you couldn’t get sugar, you couldn’t get tires, you couldn’t buy a new car, you couldn’t get a refrigerator, you couldn’t get any of these things—even meat was rationed so that you could only have so much meat every week for your family.  And, that’s not prosperity.7

As if war isn’t bad enough for its inevitable and irreversible destruction of human lives and the deleterious effects it has in the economy, militarism contains a third evil: it tends to corrupt public sentiments and promote blind nationalism.  It often seems that people suspend reason in order to offer glib justifications for the atrocious acts of one’s own state, atrocities that they would undoubtedly condemn were it the other side committing them.  Orwell recognised this no later than 1945:

The Daily Worker disapproves of dictatorship in Athens, the Catholic Herald disapproves of dictatorship in Belgrade.  There is no one who is able to say—at least, no one who has the chance to say in a newspaper of big circulation—that this whole dirty game of spheres of influence, quislings, purges, deportation, one-party elections and hundred per cent plebiscites is morally the same whether it is done by ourselves, the Russians or the Nazis.  Even in the case of such frank returns to barbarism as the use of hostages, disapproval is only felt when it happens to be the enemy and not ourselves who is doing it.8

An Oceanian reporter calls for the death of
all enemies of the state

Only war, it seems, is perverted enough to lead human beings to accept unyielding insanity as rational.  Consider, therefore, this nationalistic quote from the movie, keeping in mind Orwell’s quote above:

They have attacked an unarmed village with rocket bombs and murdered four-thousand defenceless, innocent, and peaceful citizens of Oceania.  This is no longer war; this is cold-blooded murder.  Until now, the war has been conducted with honour, and bravery—with the ideals of truth and justice, in the best traditions of mankind…until this moment.  Brothers and sisters, the endless catalogue of bestial atrocities, which will inevitably ensue from this appalling act, must, can, and will be terminated.  The forces of darkness—and treasonable maggots who collaborate with them—must, can, and will be wiped from the face of the earth!  We must crush them!  We must smash them!  We must stamp them out!  We, the people of Oceania,—and our traditional allies, the people of Eurasia—will not rest until a final victory has been achieved.  Death to the eternal enemy of Oceania.  Death!  Death!!  Death!!

While self-defence is justified, war is virtually never about self-defence, and even when it is, virtually always fails to remain solely about defence.  Browne, in Why Government Doesn’t Work, points out that politicians “know that war—even just the threat of it—stirs the passions.  So they use it to divert attention from their failures at home, to enhance their own importance, to secure a place in history, or to gratify some group.”9  War is that great enemy of human liberty, that force that destroys lives, economies, growth, and honour.  It is, to reiterate Randolph Bourne, the health of the state.10

VII.  The State Subjugates the Individual

Smith’s journal

Julia and Smith are captured by the Thought Police

Smith is confined in Miniluv as Inner Party member Comrade O’Brien discusses metaphysics with him

Smith is in agony as O’Brien tortures him

O’Brien lords over his victim

Smith is, if we are to believe the Party, one of the last individualists.  He is, as Albert Jay Nock would put it, a member of the Remnant.

In any given society, even if there is no great love of liberty prevailing throughout it, even if the masses are swayed by illiberal or totalitarian ideas, there will still be a number—a Remnant, if you will—of individuals who retain their individualism and recognise the virtue of liberty.11  In Oceania, Smith is a shining example of this.  Smith begins a journal, which is actually more of a letter to the future, “to an age when thought is free.”  Smith recognises that it is futile to write to the masses of his own age, since (1) the masses of his own age effectively worship the state, and are disinclined to even consider a Gospel of Liberty which conflicts with the Party line, and since (2) he would be caught all the quicker by the Thought Police were he to actually try to communicate with the public of his present.

In contrast to the individualism of Smith, we have the coercive hierarchy of the Party, which aims at the complete subjugation of the individual and the eradication of individualism (or, “ownlife”).

Of course, it must be recognised that all true hierarchy is the product of aggression, i.e., the product of the initiation of force (or the threat to initiate force) against the person or the justly-acquired property of others.  When such a hierarchy is established, we call the person or group on top the ruler, the lord, the master, and the person or group on bottom the ruled, the serfdom, the slave.  Rulers are not the same thing as leaders, however.  While one can choose to follow a leader and, the very next day, choose to cease following a leader, the ruler imposes her- or himself upon one or more unwilling subjects.  The relationship between Plato and Socrates, for example, is not hierarchical because Socrates has no means of forcing Plato to remain his follower, while the relationship between Stalin and his followers clearly was hierarchical.  Even the relationship between employer and employee, in a free society and within a free market, would not be hierarchical, no more so than a relationship in which you and I exchange one book for another.  Just as I exchange books with you because I value your book more highly than mine, you likewise engage in the trade because you value mine more than yours.  Thus, we both profit from engaging in the trade.  The same is true of the employer and the employee—or, at least, the same would be true of the employer and the employee if we had a free market.  In a free society, the employer would only exchange the product of her labour for whatever-it-is-the-employer-offers-in-return if she valued whatever-it-is-the-employer-offers-in-return more greatly than she values the product of her labour; likewise, the employer will only make the trade if she values the-product-of-the-employee’s-labour more greatly than what she has to offer in its return.  Thus, they only make this trade with one another because they both stand to profit from the exchange.  If at any point either one—the employer or the employee—decides to terminate the relationship, then the relationship is terminated.  Neither party has the authority, in a truly free market, to compel the other party to remain in relations with the first, and if either party were to gain such a power, the relationship would cease to be egalitarian and become hierarchical instead.

In Oceania, hierarchy is directly established by the state for the benefit of the state.  Thus, as I mentioned above, there are three socio-economic classes in Oceania, the smallest and most powerful being the Inner Party, the next being the Outer Party, and the largest and least powerful being the proletariat (or “proles” for short).  Further, the entire aim of the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four is to retain this social structure eternally.  That, in the final analysis, is what it all amounts to: power.  And, so, the individual is treated as though she or he is nothing, and that the state is everything.

The view of the individual as worthless is, unfortunately, not merely a fictional view created by Orwell or Radford.  In fact, the entire ideology of fascism was founded on this view of the individual.  “The Doctrine of Fascism,” probably written by Giovanni Gentile but published in the Enciclopedia Italiana in 1932 under the name of Benito Mussolini, spells out this fascistic conception of the individual rather clearly.  Gentile (or Mussolini) writes:

Being anti-individualistic, the Fascist system of life stresses the importance of the State and recognizes the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the consciousness and universality of man as an historic entity.  It is opposed to classic Liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the consciousness and the will of the people.  Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.  …  The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values may exist, much less have any value.  Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian and the Fascist State, as a synthesis and a unit which includes all values, interprets, develops and lends additional power to the whole life of a people.12

It is almost shocking just how honestly antilibertarian the fascists were.  One would think that, in order to appeal to the public, authoritarians would want to hide their antilibertarian impulses.  Yet Gentile (or Mussolini) laid it all out in the open.  The individual to him truly was nothing.

Compare, therefore, this fascist creed with what Comrade O’Brien tells Smith during his torture of Smith toward the end of the film:

Power is not a means, it is an end.  In our world, there will only be triumph and self-abasement.  Everything else, we shall destroy.  …  There is no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party.  There is no love, except love of Big Brother.  All competing pleasures, we will destroy.  If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

Winston, You are thinking that my face is old, and tired; that while I talk of power, I’m unable to prevent the decay of my own body.  But the individual is only a cell, Winston.  And the weariness of the cell is the vigour of the organism.

Of course, fascism, Ingsoc, and all other forms of authoritarianism are wrong.  The individual does have self-worth, and all sovereignty ought properly to rest with the individual.  Individual sovereignty, also known as self-ownership, was the bedrock principle upon which the abolitionist movement rested, and the libertarian movement, borne out of the movement to abolish slavery, has retained it ever since.  Thus, while to the state Winston Smith is simply “6079 Smith W.”—a pile of unremarkable flesh and blood to be moulded in the image of the Party—he is, to the viewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a tragic hero, an individual with a mind of his own, a being whose natural rights ought to be recognised, a person.

VIII.  Conclusion

Smith sits in Miniluv, awaiting his fate

Comrade Smith confesses

The horrific human condition in Nineteen Eighty-Four (as in 1984) is the quintessential antilibertarian condition.  While libertarianism recognises that society cannot exist without the individual, and concludes that the natural rights of the individual are paramount, the ruling state in Nineteen Eighty-Four disregards the innate self-worth of the individual entirely.  Thomas Hobbes famously, and incorrectly, described life of man in a stateless world as being “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”13  Yet many radical libertarians have described intricately how a peaceful stateless society could function, and all libertarians agree that greater liberty yields a more prosperous, more harmonious human condition.  By contrast, life in Oceania is undoubtedly more fitting of this Hobbesian description.  While the Party is collectivist and encourages group activity, any individualists within the Party will necessarily find life solitary, since they are not permitted to speak their minds with anyone, which would otherwise allow them to connect with others of like mind.  Anyone outside of the Inner Party is decidedly poor as a result of the centralised planning.  Both the squalor and the war make life more nasty and brutish than it need be, and humans themselves are brainwashed by the patriotic spirit into being particularly nasty and brutish to those regarded enemies of the state.  And, finally, while we do see a number of people in Oceania who live past childhood, we can guess (1) that infant mortality rates are far higher there than they would be in a free society, and (2) that the general poverty enabled (indeed, enforced) by the state generally lowers life expectancy.  Moreover, the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four does not merely make life a misery by accident.  No, it does so intentionally, since power over other humans can only be expressed in causing other humans to suffer.  Thus, Comrade O’Brien tells Winston Smith, while torturing Smith, that a vision of the future would consist of a boot “stamping on a human face—forever.”  In the final analysis, that is what statism is.

In the end, unfortunately, the state succeeds in brainwashing Smith.  Smith is seen on the telescreens publicly confessing to crimes he never committed, and proclaiming that he wishes to be shot while his “mind is still clean.”  Clearly a depressing ending, especially to libertarians.  Yet, it is probably better that the story ends in this fashion.  The point of the story, after all, isn’t to say, “There is always hope,” even if it is true that there is always hope.  The point, rather, is to demonstrate the inherent problem with any power established through aggression, through the initiation of or threat to initiate force.  The movie’s bleak ending demonstrates why we all must, at all times, be sceptical of government, and be weary of allowing it to have power.  For power, in the hands of a state, invariably means the power to oppress.  Even governments established through the noblest of revolutions can become destructive to human liberty because, as Lord Acton put it, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.14  No government is immune, and thus the need exists to remain eternally vigilant against all manifestations of statism.  Not only does the state succeed in obliterating Smith’s individuality, but it also succeeds in destroying the love Smith and Julia had for one another.  “Such are the horrors,” writes Jon Osborne, “of torture and mind control.”15

I end with this quote from Osborne, which summarises the film satisfactorily:

It would be hard to imagine a better dramatization of Orwell’s novel than this film.  It does a good job of communicating the novel’s substance and spirit, and it has some compelling performances.  In particular, the expressive John Hurt is riveting in the lead role.  However, this is such a powerful portrayal that many viewers will find the ultimate defeat of the individuals in the hands of the mega-state depressing, and some scenes of torture are graphic.  It’s not the most uplifting film, but certainly a very important one.16


1 Jeff Riggenbach, “Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903–1950),” The Libertarian Tradition (15 June 2010); see also Jeff Riggenbach, “The Brilliant but Confused Radicalism of George Orwell,” Mises Daily (24 June 2010).

2 Linda & Morris Tannehill, The Market for Liberty (Lansing, Michigan: Morris and Linda Tannehill, 1970), p. 127.

3 Christopher Falzon, Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy (London: Routledge) p. 120.

4 Harry Browne, Why Government Doesn’t Work (New York, N. Y.: St. Martin’s Press: 1995), pp. 140, 144.  See also Harry Browne, “Why I Am Obsessed with War, ” (28 January 2005).

5 Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto 2nd ed. (Auburn, Alabama: The Ludwig von Mises Institute: 2006; orig. 1973, 1978), pp. 347–348.

6 Ibid., p. 350.

7 Harry Browne, “War Is Bad for Business, 2003-02-16,” a clip from Browne’s radio programme (16 February 2003).

8 George Orwell, “As I Please,” Tribune (26 January 1945).

9 Browne, Why Government Doesn’t Work, p. 139.

10 For a description of a method of national defence which would eschew, rather than promote, war, see Linda & Morris Tannehill, The Market for Liberty.

11 Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job,” The Atlantic Monthly 157, no. 6 (June 1936), pp. 641–49.  Also available as Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job,” Mises Daily (21 June 2008),

Nock defines the Remnant thusly:  “The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend [the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life], and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them.”  He also writes that you “do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do.  Two things you do know, and no more:  First, that they exist; second, that they will find you.”

12 This essay can be found in Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton, New Jersey: 1955), pp. 170–175.  On page 170, the following citation is provided:  “Benito Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism, tr. by E. Cope, third edition, Florence: Vallechi publishers, 1938, pp. 10–25, 30–40, 49.”  At the top of page 170, the following description is given of this essay:  “Benito Mussolini himself expressed the political doctrine of fascism in an article in the Enciclopedia Italiana in 1932; it was republished in an official translation in a somewhat changed form.”  According to Wikipedia, the essay was actually written by Giovanni Gentile, despite the byline to the contrary.  Moreover, Wikipedia claims that Mussolini “recalled and destroyed all available copies of ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’ in April 1940 after he had second thoughts about certain phrases in it.”

The memory hole

13 Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Ch. XIII in Leviathan: Or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (United States of America: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2004; orig. London, 1651), p. 92.

14 John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.

15 Jon Osborne, Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film and Video: Movies for the Libertarian Millenium.  Also available at Jon Osborne, “1984 (1984),”

16 Ibid.