So how was Big Brother overthrown?

In the relentlessly pessimistic novel 1984, much is made of Ingsoc being the final perfect indefeatable political system, proof against any threat internal or external. The only shred of hope isn’t within the body of the story at all; it’s an appendix explaining the principles of Newspeak, written in English and phrased in the past tense. So presuming that the rule of Big Brother and Ingsoc ended at some point, how do you suppose it happened? (Anyone who says, “the Proles rose up and revolted”, please leave the room). I can only think of four plausible ways:

  1. The Inner Party was more susceptable to corruption and decadence than it liked to claim (Julia hinted at this in the story), and after a century or two of the top people living in luxury, too many people got resentful.

  2. Turmoil in the top eschelons of the Inner Party eventually broke out. We’re never told exactly how Oceana is really ruled (Big Brother is either fictional, deceased or a figurehead), but somewhere there had to be a Supreme Committee, with a Chairman. Either a schism, or an attempt by some leader to replace Big Brother with their own personality cult, a coup or two by the military against the politicals, or some other crack in the facade of Inner Party solidarity.

  3. An asteroid strike was mistaken for a surprise nuclear attack, and all three superpowers immolated each other.

  4. I’m indebted to the novel Orwell’s Revenge for this idea: hackers and crackers learned how to phreak the telescreens, so that the Thought Police would only see a tape loop, and the network they ran on could be used for clandestine communication.

Disclaimer - I Am Not George Orwell

But if I were, I would draw my conclusions from looking at how modern totalitarian states fell apart around the time I was writing.

A cult of personality that can’t be sustained after Big Brother dies. I’m not saying it would have happened overnight. It might have taken 20 years as Ingsoc selects successive leaders who are more bureaucratic and less charismatic (and less effective) than BB.

But that only works if you assume Big Brother is an actual person, and not a sort of fascist marketing ploy. If there is no actual big brother, there’s no charismatic leader to die and be replaced by a less charismatic leader who can’t keep people in line.

Anyway, maybe this just comes from having read the book for the first time in the early nineties, what with the unexpected dissolution of the USSR and all, but I got the distinct impression from the book that the state was already collapsing, although this wasn’t yet obvious to people trapped in the system. Basic entropy. Things start falling apart, and there are fewer and fewer people left to put them together. There’s no real incentive to be anything other than a prole, so nobody bothers to do things like learn to be a technician. There aren’t enough people to keep everything running, including lines of communication and transportation systems for food etc, the parts of the state become isolated and are firced into new governance paradigms. Essentially, a new dark age like the one that followed the fall of Rome, with society splintering and factionalizing all over again.

But, assuming that the state was infinitly stable, there’s always a natural catastophe right around the corner. A new Black Plague, an unfortunate confluence of our orbit and that of a random comet, maybe a krakatoa-level volcano that alters global weather patterns and brings on a famine. There are some things that no government can plan for sufficiently, and no matter how tight their social controls, when society utterly collapses, those control are no longer going to be effective.

There never was an Ingsoc or Big Brother.

Totalitarianism is grossly inefficient for the day-to-day management of a society. Innovation, and flexible coping strategies are out the window. Bureaucracies quickly clog up with the kind of people who wouldn’t wipe their ass without permission, making it ever more difficult to determine whether anyone can find it with both hands. The authoritarians who will not share out power aren’t capable of bringing sufficient wisdom, knowledge, and experience to every problem, even if they care about solving them. And since they aren’t accountable (except directly uphill) there’s a lot of leeway for them to not care about a good portion of the problems that they have the authority to address.

We see them rise because totalitarianism is effective for rapid attainment of simple short-term goals. Including military conquest and imposing a degree of obedient social order on an unhappy populace.

But they’re fragile and tend to implode because of their long-term inefficiency.

I’d guess that what will eventually doom Oceania is that they’ll be unable to stave off the inevitable decay. By 1984, London is already starting to fall apart and there’s no indication anyone cares enough to fix things. Witness this description of Victory flats (Winston’s apartment building) from Chapter Two:

Eventually the infrastructure necessary to run the telescreens will start to fail and the Party won’t be able to force an illiterate, intellectually-stunted population to fix them. Technical manuals and whatnot will have been long sent to the memory hole (some Party official will conclude that because he can’t understand them, they must be thoughtcrime. Eventually there will be mass starvation and the military will run short of spare parts. It’ll no longer be possible to build Floating Fortresses. On the assumption that all three superpowers are undergoing the same process, the ultimate winner will be the one that can stave off decay long enough to send a ragtag army to capture crumbling enemy towns with citizens that stare at them blankly, no longer able to understand what, if any, difference the invasion makes.

They probably learned that trick from clandestinely watching “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” on illegal Simpsons bootlegs.

Seriously, though, the economy would collapse in a generation or two - who makes stuff? Who sells stuff? Who buys it? Where does the money to sustain this vast bureaucratic apparatus of state surveillance and control, as well as the constant military expenditure actually come from?

Oceania presumably has some imports and exports, if only to get Victory Chocolate, but if they’re not actually producing goods or services that anyone wants - and there’s certainly no incentive to do so, and presumably a great number of reasons not to - there’s no money coming in, going out or being generated internally, and thus a worthless currency. Hence there’s no way to feed the army, let alone the population in general, with resultant mass starvation and increasing economic entropy.

There’s no chance of foreign aid, so unless they’re dealing in drugs or selling WMD’s to “rogue states” {which don’t seem to exist outside the main power blocs}, Oceania is fucked economically. Note to North Korea: 1984 is not a “how to” manual.

Orwell tells us in the close passage from Animal Farm:


I’m reminded of Niven’s analysis of water empires from A World Out of Time.

Interestingly, Hungarian author Gyorgy Dalos’ 1985 (not to be confused with Anthony Burgess’ slightly-less-unknown novel of the same name) portrays a fall of the 1984 power structure that strongly prefigured some of the events in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc… IIRC (I read it 20 years ago!) it involved The Party declaring Big Brother dead (apparently due to becoming unable to sustain the Big Brother fiction), leading to an attempt to “reform” Ingsoc but resulting up with the 3-way-permanent-war actually heading for clear winners and losers, and having the system crack and needing to rebuild from that – and it hints at the emergence of a single-Hegemon world order. ([Keanu]Whoa[/Keanu])

This discussion has, of course, come to the attention of the Thought Police. Room 101 awaits you all. Please stand by…

“Don’t fight it, son! Confess! If you hold out too long you’ll jeopordize your credit rating!”


It was exhausted by its inefficiency & its dependence of maintaining misery, to be replaced by an society emphasizing stability, identity and community. Everybody’s happy now, thank Ford! makes Sign of the T

I don’t think you were supposed to take the appendix as part of the text. It was merely a way of showing the principle of Newspeak, so it would be comprehensible without a translation in each passage of the book in which it’s used.

I don’t think Orwell believed Ingsoc would fall. He believed, like a lot of people of his time, that history tended towards totalitarianism, and that only external forces are capable of eliminating them.