In his epic book, 1984, George Orwell lays out in all its gory detail, the entire philosophy behind the Statist machinery that has taken control of our lives and uses us (all people) as pawns in the games Big Brother plays. The most striking (to me) aspect of the book is the concept of “NEWSPEAK” that he introduces. What makes this striking concept scary is that we are living through this process of concept destruction through language destruction, albeit in a slow and gradual process of the same, but are completely oblivious to it. All around us, concepts are being mutilated and destroyed and we, the people who are affected by it, remain mute spectators because we do not understand either what’s happening or its implications for us.
To understand what I mean, let me delve a little into 1984 and NEWSPEAK. What is NEWSPEAK? It is a language developed by the State machinery to regulate the thoughts that people can have. But how can control on language control the thoughts people can have? Here is how.
Language is the most fundamental tool of concept formation. As human beings, we are able to hold an extraordinary volume of concepts interlinked in extremely complex ways. The tool that makes this feat possible is language.
The fundamental building blocks of language are words. Words are labels for concepts that we hold in our mind. Concepts themselves are of different types. The most fundamental concepts of all are concepts of “existents” or distinct things that exist. When we talk of the “table”, “car” or “tree”, we are referring to things that exist. We come to be aware of their existence through our sensory apparatus. This awareness is processed by our cognitive apparatus and converted into concepts stored in our mind.
The second level of concepts is abstractions. Abstractions are not things that “exist” but are identified by us as attributes of existents. For instance, “length”, “weight”, “volume”, “area”, “colour”, “texture” and various other attributes of things do not exist. It is we who, in our effort to form concepts of existents, identify these attributes, associate them with existents and thus form concepts of these attributes. “Length” does not “exist”. An existent possesses a certain length, i.e., the existent exists in a region defined by the end-points A and B where the “distance” between A and B is the length of the “existent”.
The third level of concepts is abstractions from abstractions. For instance, when you say “The rope has a length of 10 m”, the “10 m” or the measurement of the “length” is an attribute of the attribute “length” of the “existent”, the rope.
An important point to note is that abstraction can proceed in two broad directions.
- Differentiating existents and previous level abstractions from each other to form narrower concepts
- Integrating existents and previous level abstractions into broader, encompassing concepts
An even more important point is that higher level abstractions are formed from concepts of existents or lower level abstractions. The first level abstractions are themselves formed by abstracting from concepts of existents. This means that for any abstraction, there exists a train of abstractions that one can work through backwards till we eventually reach the concept of an existent which we may call the “referent” of the abstraction. All abstractions have meaning only in relation to this existent. They have no independent existence beyond the existents themselves.
This multilayered, interlinked complex of concepts is what we call our “knowledge”. We hold all our knowledge in the form of words, each of which refers to a concept and the concept in turn automatically denotes all the attributes we have associated with that concept in the process of forming it or later.
Any set of concepts will be united in some respect. For instance, the concepts “table”, “cars” and “telephone”, while fundamentally standing for existents that are clearly distinguished from each other, are all “existents”. They are all particular units of the broader category “existence” or all that exists. At the same time, every concept is distinct from every other concept in at least 1 respect for otherwise it would be superfluous to even hold a distinct concept in our mind and give it a name. For instance, different shades of a colour, say red, are different from each other. There exist many names such as magenta, red, pink, crimson, etc., all of which refer to different shades of red. Feelings and emotions, for instance, may exist in different degrees. “Anger” and “Rage” are different degrees of a particular emotion.
Thus, we see that our ability to form a wide variety of concepts and hold an extensive body of knowledge in our mind is critically dependent on suitable words to use to identify and refer to these concepts.
How is all this that I have said about language and words relevant to Orwell’s 1984? Very simply, the book is set in a (fictional) period where totalitarian dictatorships have taken over the entire world. Now, these totalitarian regimes are, as per the story, extremely sophisticated tyrannies. They are tyrannies unleashed not by individuals but by a “Party” which subscribes to a certain ideology.
The goal of the Party is to stratify society permanently into 3 classes – the rulers or the Inner Party (themselves, ~5% of the population), the machinery or the Outer Party (~15% of the population) and the mass of people who don’t matter who are called the Proles.
One of the most important goals of the Party is to reduce the population to a state where no individual is capable of even thinking negatively about the Party or Big Brother (the personification of the Party). This goal is sought to be achieved by the Party through the destruction of language. This is the role of Newspeak in 1984.
In NEWSPEAK, the only words allowed are words denoting concepts of existents and those concepts of abstractions that are either neutral or can be used only in praise of the Party. If entire generations grow up learning NEWSPEAK, it is possible to have the entire population incapable of being hostile to the State and in fact loving it wholeheartedly.
How is all this relevant to us today? Simply put, we are slowly but steadily lurching towards the Orwellian nightmare through systematic destruction of concepts. To give you a feel for it, let me take a simple example from my favourite field of study, Economics.
All of us are familiar with the economic concept inflation. Ask any moderately educated person “What is inflation?” and the answer would be “The steady rise in prices”. But how many of us know that the concept “inflation” once stood for something very different?
As recently as the early 1900’s, the term inflation stood for an increase in the money supply or the quantity of money in circulation. Starting with this definition, economic theory then goes on to explain the effect of inflation on prices of economic goods. The effect can be summarized as below.
- If the supply and demand of a good were changing such that the price of the good has a tendency to remain stable, inflation would cause its price to rise
- If the supply and demand of a good were changing such that the price of the good has a tendency to rise, inflation would cause its price to rise even faster
- If the supply and demand of a good were changing such that the price of the good has a tendency to fall, inflation would cause its price to fall less, remain stable or even rise
Summarising the above even more succinctly, one can say that the effect of inflation is to keep prices higher than they would have been in the absence of inflation.
Economic theory also explains that inflation, when carried out through the banking system and its machinery of credit expansion, has far more deleterious effects on the economy as a whole and on the well-being of every citizen. At a basic level, it creates a situation where those closer to the source of the inflation are benefited by impoverishing those further away from the source of inflation.
At a deeper level, however, this inflation, working in conjunction with its equally dangerous twin, credit expansion beyond the available pool of real savings, causes the dreaded economic phenomenon called the Economic Depression. All of us understand that economic depressions cause untold human misery. What many of us fail to realize is that inflation by the banking system is at the heart of the creation of the boom-bust cycle of which the Depression is only the bust phase.
Armed with this understanding, it becomes very easy for anyone at all to answer the question “Who is responsible for the misery caused by rising prices and, more importantly, for all the suffering wrought by the boom-bust cycle?”
The answer is, very simply, “Whoever is responsible for the inflation is responsible for all this human misery”. But then, who IS responsible for inflation? Who or what causes inflation? This answer too, in today’s world, is very simple. There are 3 entities.
- Central Banks
- The entire banking system
Thus, the original definition of inflation combined with economic reasoning permits ordinary people to identify those responsible for their suffering and to direct their anger at them. Interestingly, the list includes the very entities that are today masquerading as the saviours of the people.
On the other hand, if we start with the definition of inflation as “the steady rise in prices”, economic reasoning is utterly incapable of explaining what causes this inflation. The only explanations we get are
- Demand-Pull – A perfect example of question-begging
- Cost-Push – A perfect example of circular reasoning given that the “input costs that are supposed to be responsible for the “inflation” are themselves prices and their rising price is itself part of that very “inflation”
- Structural inflation – A perfect example of abdication of academic responsibility
Incidentally, this nonsense is what is taught at most B-Schools (including the top ones) and prestigious university economics courses.
The important point to note is that with the revised (I should say mutilated) definition of inflation, it becomes impossible for people to point their finger at the real culprits and bay for their blood. In fact, it becomes possible for the culprits themselves to, like the thief in the parable, point fingers at someone else and shout “Thief! Thief!” to avoid getting caught. The best example of this is the standard finger-pointing at “greedy speculators” and “evil hoarders” every time uncontrollable and rapid price rise becomes a serious political issue threatening the survival of the then government.
Who is responsible for this switch in definitions? Could I say “The Inner Party”? All I wish to say to the reader is “Wake up and smell the coffee”.