George Orwell’s “1984” is the closest thing to fortune-telling that the people of the early 20th century would ever see. Although the society that Orwell suggested is dramatically different in many ways from the society that we live in today, some of the predictions he made are astoundingly accurate. The most worrying of these is the similarities between the practices of “Ingsoc” and those of modern multi-national corporations, specifically the striving for power purely for the sake of power and the general lack of morality that they share.
O’Brien, the text’s main antagonist, states that “The party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power [….] Power is not a means, it is an end”. In the third part of the text, O’Brien is a representation of the thirst for power over others, and the sadism and amorality that pure power creates. He lives for the feeling of breaking other human beings down to nothing and stripping them of all dignity. In the words of the late 19th and early 20th century historian, Lord Acton, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. George Orwell, who grew up during the time that his idea was explored by historians, used O’Brien as the embodiment of this idea. Although O’Brien isn’t technically all-powerful, as Big Brother (who may or may not exist) is, his lack of accountability for his actions means that he is able to do whatever he pleases. This is Orwell’s key warning that he wished to deliver through O’Brien as a representative of the party and a totalitarian system: When man holds power, as well as no accountability for his own actions, he tends towards cruelty and immoral behaviour, putting his own battle for yet more power and victory over others as the utmost priority.
Orwell’s warning has proved just; Many O’Brien-esque characters are currently controlling the masses. The difference is that these people do not reside within governments but within the multi-national corporations on which westerners rely for our every-day survival and entertainment. In modern society, public outrage about Billionaire CEOs who commit horrific acts of sexual abuse or use of unethical labour are the norm, however these acts seem to always be able to be smoothed over. The power of an expensive lawyer and complete denial of one’s actions, with the backing of enormous amounts of wealth and leverage means that these men – and yes, they are almost always men – are untouchable. A perfect example of this power, and the willingness to use it just for the sake of it, is billionaire PayPal and Facebook investor Peter Thiel. In 2016, Thiel was “attacked” by the news outlet, Gawker; They released an article about his possible homosexuality. In retaliation to this article, Thiel funded a $10million lawsuit to bankrupt the news company, purchasing the remains and basically making it disappear. This bears a striking resemblance to the tactics of the party in “1984”, where anyone who is slightly threatening, or even simply annoying to those in power can be wiped from existence. It is a scary thought that this is a daily occurrence in the real world. The reason that this power is held by CEO’s nowadays rather than governments is that, in a democratic system, those who are technically in charge are accountable for their actions and can be stripped of their power by the masses. The heads of multi-national corporations, on the other hand, are dangerous because of these systems they have set up in order to be above the law.
Obrien’s words “We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power” can be paralleled to the motivation of multi-national corporates, with money and power being almost synonymous. These immense companies such as Apple are built on a framework where the only focus is profit. If the cheapest possible labour can be used, even child labour, it will be. If the effect of the company on the environment is detrimental, but it is expensive to lessen these affects, then the effects are ignored. This is the way of the corporate world, and it’s likeness to the single-mindedness of totalitarian leadership is worrying, to say the least. In “1984”, the disputed territories of the war are made up of slave populations – one fifth of the world’s population – who support the three super-states. “Above all, the disputed territories hold a bottomless reserve of cheap labor”. These slaves are used to create and endless stream of supplies to fund the war, which in itself is endless. How different is this to the treatment of the asian workforce on which western corporations rely for almost all products? Because the use of cheap labour maximises profit, it is used by almost all global manufacturers. The iPhone, every westerner’s favourite gadget, is assembled by the 450000 workers of the Longhua factory, a vast and highly fortified factory complex in Shenzhen, China. These workers are tasked with the highly repetitive process of assembling a device whose pieces are too minuscule and too complicated to be assembled by machines. They work 12 hour shifts, are housed 12 to a room, and are indentured to a 3 month minimum time working at the factory. Management is “both aggressive and duplicitous, publicly scolding workers for being too slow and making them promises they don’t keep” stated Xu, a young factory worker who was interviewed by the Guardian in 2016. Although they are not slaves, the makers of the world’s most profitable product are being driven mad by the intensity and relentlessness of their work and the cruel culture of their workplace. An average of 18 successful suicide attempts occur every year in Longhua alone. “It wouldn’t be Longhua without people dying,” Xu says. “Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing.” Just like in “1984”, suicide is a way out for those who see no other escape from their fate at the hands of their superiors.
In Longhua, Workers are completely powerless, at the mercy of the tyrannical disciples of one of the most powerful executives in the world… is this sounding familiar? In the words of O’Brien: “How does one man assert power over another? […] By making him suffer”. Longhua’s are of course just one of countless scary sets of statistics about the atrocities committed by multi-national corporations, just one story of the suffering of many at the hand of the very few who couldn’t care less about a few suicides, so long as profit, and therefore their increasing power, isn’t affected.
These parallels presented show us how similar the hierarchal system that we live in is to that in “1984”. As white middle class citizens, we are in a similar position to the inner party members in the text. We support the corporations that control the global economy by buying their products, and in doing so encourage the existence of the “bottom class” factory workers who are treated abysmally. Just like in the text, power and privilege in the modern world can only exist when extreme poverty and cheap labour do too. Both O’Brien and modern CEOs present us with the idea that true power, where one holds no accountability for one’s actions, results in the deterioration of human kindness and basic morality.