On an unseasonably warm September afternoon, a few years before the Revolution, Winston sat in his cubicle on the fifth floor of the Department trying to connect the dots. Connecting dots was not his job. That was the job of the Prime Leader’s Office. And now the PLO had just sent around a directive stating that all communications concerning the current debt crisis in the US and Europe must refer to the hard work this government had done on the economic front. The memo had not actually said “the US and Europe”. It said, “the North Atlantic countries”, a term the PLO liked because it included Iceland and Greenland. The office wag had quickly dubbed it “Oceania”.
Winston’s problem was his own memo sent a short hour ago to O’Brien, his section head. It acknowledged the role the previous government had played a decade ago in reducing the country’s debt and eliminating its deficit. Obviously it couldn’t be the achievement of both this government and the previous one.
He guessed without being told what had happened to his memo. O’Brien had strolled past his cubicle not ten minutes ago and asked him, in passing of course, if he had seen the PLO directive. As soon as he had brought it up on his computer, he knew. His memo had gone down the memory hole.
There was no actual memory hole; no opening down which obsolete or unwanted facts and arguments were thrown to be turned into a puff of smoke. What people in the office meant when they joked about the memory hole was the bureaucratic limbo where unpopular memos and draft reports went to languish and, eventually, to be deleted from the corporate memory.
The same thing had happened on a much bigger scale to Winston’s arts file. One of the Department’s jobs had been to promote the nation’s arts industry in other countries and they had done so with an enthusiasm surpassed only by their blandishments for tech companies, especially the one that made the Blackberry. Then the word came down that the arts would no longer be a priority for international trade. Overnight the file disappeared down the memory hole. There was no declaration of the change in policy; no announcement of cuts to art export programs. But all the Department’s literature had to be re-written, re-printed and re-distributed; and, of course its website carefully purged.
The final forgetting had happened at night. He came into work one morning and discovered the painting in the building’s lobby by that French artist – Winston could not now remember his name or if he, or she, was even French – had been replaced by a portrait of the Queen. He stood looking up at the Queen, her picture frame surrounded by a lighter shade of wall where the painting had been. O’Brien stopped beside him and looked up too.
“What was there before?” Winston asked.
O’Brien shrugged. “Totem poles and fishermen’s wharves,” he said, then headed for the elevators. The memory hole worked best if you didn’t pay attention.
Winston forced himself back to his computer screen. O’Brien would be asking him for his briefing on the London riots soon. The Minister wanted to visit London to work up a common message with other Oceaniac governments on the unrest in Europe. Winston will need to have something on his director’s desk by end of day that contrasted the current government’s quiet and effective management of the country’s financial sector with the rampages seen on the streets of Athens and now London.
But the images of London burning kept asserting themselves. He googled “London riots” – for research of course – and stared at the photos and videos of cars burning and masked youths rampaging through the streets.
It reminded him of Toronto in June 2010 during the G20. He had been in the city as part of the Canadian delegation and was caught up in the mayhem. On Yonge Street he saw black hooded thugs throw newspaper boxes through the window of a Royal Bank. The mask on one of the vandals slipped and he looked into the face of a girl no older than his own daughter. She grinned and gave him the finger.
The people he saw on the streets of London were as young as the vandal on Yonge Street. Scotland Yard and the PM were calling them thugs and hoodlums too, just as the police and politicians had done here. Was it true – were thousands of Oceania’s young citizens really closet criminals and were only now, for some unknown reason, suddenly demonstrating their criminality?
The Guardian had another label for the rioters, neets: not in education, employment or training. The tabloid pack had yet another one—“chavs”, a nasty little slur right down there with “pikies” that meant either “scallywag” or “council housed and violent”. Were the proletariat rising up at last against capitalist excess? Certainly, the neets were at the bottom of the pile and it seemed as though the toffs at the top were content to keep them there.
If the neets were pissed off by that, they weren’t telling anyone. They had no banners, no slogans, no leaders. Maybe they were angry and didn’t know it. Or maybe they knew it but didn’t know why. For all Winston knew, most of them couldn’t read or write properly; and if they couldn’t, how could they know what they felt, let alone why? Heavy physical work, if they could find it, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, the telly, football, beer and now, rioting and looting, filled up the horizon of their minds.*
They might not have education on their side, but they sure knew how to use their Blackberries to organize a mob. Winston felt a quick flush of pride for his own, albeit minor, role in promoting the little cell phone. Then a chill of fear when he realized that a mob was the only power the neets knew or ever had. Then he relaxed again when he figured out that until they became conscious they would never rebel, but until they had rebelled, they would never become conscious.*
Winston wondered if Queen Elizabeth II, whose portrait now hung in the foyer of his building, could smell the smoke from Tottenham at Buckingham. If she could, did she fear she might end her reign with the demise of what her namesake began?
Things hadn’t got to the point of riots in America yet, but the tinder was set, and sparks were being thrown. The last recession was brought on by bankers betting on whether poor people could afford their own homes. And in the summer of 2011, a dirty little civil war had broken out between Tea Party Republicans and the President over whether to tax or cut their way out of debt. They won, with a little help from Wall Street. America will cut and not tax.
Winston predicted a pyrrhic victory. There would now be no more money to stimulate their flagging economy. More middle income Americans would fall into America’s own underclass. Troops would be brought home, abandoning the oil and the battle grounds of Oceania’s decades-long war with the Islamic world, or, as the wag called it, Urasia.
“After Ur?” she said when no one got her joke, “You know, the ancient city in Mesopotamia? Now called Iraq? Jesus, no one remembers anything anymore.”
Meanwhile Eastasia (her word for everything east of Pakistan) was challenging Oceania. Not only was its middle class growing, but China owned well over $1 trillion of American debt and was starting to scold Oceania on its profligate ways.
But these dots went way beyond Winston’s job description and connecting them was far above his pay grade. He took his connections and flushed them down his own, personal memory hole – he needed to write that report. He switched from London burning to the PLO’s directive. He stared at that until day’s end. Then he switched off the monitor and reached the elevator just as O’Brien came out of his office and walked toward his cubicle.
* Nicked from George Orwell’s 1984, Part 1, Chapter 6.
© David McLaren
Facts & Arguments:
32 million Americans were functionally illiterate
US Poverty Rate at 15%, highest since 1993: NYT
46.2 million Americans live in poverty: US Census Bureau
Income gap in Canada increasing faster than in US: Conference Board
middle class hollowed out
the richest ten percent made nine times that of the poorest ten percent
CEOs make 600 times what their employees do
“until they became conscious …”
“Heavy physical work …”
Pellan painting at Foreign Affairs replaced by Queen
The Guardian’s research shows a correlation between the UK riots and poverty