How does the government in 1984 control society?

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In 1984, the government controls the people through manipulation and fear. For example, the Thought Police monitor and threaten, and children report their parents' crimes to the authorities. Through "reality control," the government shapes reality and history and controls how people perceive it.

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The one-party government of Oceania controls society through fear, repression, and propaganda. This is a society in which no one has any rights, where the government can do whatever it wants whenever it wants. In this nightmare world of darkness and repression, people do whatever the government tells them to do, and if they step out of line, they're liable to wind up dead.

The figure of Big Brother epitomizes the complete control that the government exerts over the people. His stern, glowering face is just about everywhere, on posters, walls, and telescreens, giving the impression that he sees all and knows all. The government wants everyone to think that Big Brother really is watching them. This reinforces the sense that it's impossible for anyone to do anything subversive without being caught.

The government also controls people by constructing a parallel universe, an alternative reality. This is achieved through paradoxical propaganda slogans such as "War is Peace" and "Freedom is Slavery." Reality in Oceania is what the government says it is, even if it's something palpably absurd like "two plus two equals five."

The citizens of Oceania somehow have to adapt themselves to this artificial reality. If they don't, then they're in serious danger of being imprisoned, tortured, or liquidated.

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In 1984, Big Brother controls society by being omnipresent and seeming to be omniscient. Throughout the novel, the narrator emphasizes that Big Brother’s image is constantly seen. It is almost impossible to go anywhere in Oceania and not see an image of Big Brother. The slogan "Big Brother Is Watching You" is also constantly employed to encourage the common people to think not only that they are under surveillance but that they are being judged. One of Winston's greatest crimes, and a disturbing sign of his profound dissatisfaction with society, is writing "Down with Big Brother." The only acceptable emotion for Oceanians is to love Big Brother. At the novel's end, Winston has learned to do this.

While the Oceanian state promotes total fidelity to Big Brother, it remains unclear if he actually exists. Orwell strongly suggests that the high-ranking government authorities are promoting a false image of a benevolent dictator because they understand the importance of such a symbol. Big Brother constantly appears as a representation—such as on photographs, films, and posters—but he does not make live personal appearances.

The paradox of his power and nonexistence is in fact consistent with the doublespeak that the government consistently deploys, especially through the Ministry of Truth. People are encouraged, even required, to believe that something and its opposite are simultaneously true, such as with the phrase "War is Peace." The thought police relentlessly pursue even the smallest hint that anyone may be deviating from complete allegiance to Big Brother. When Winston is detained for his multiple transgressions and then tortured, he questions the leader's existence. O'Brien's answers confirm the Party's emphasis on promoting belief in the impossible. Winston asks,

Does Big Brother exist?

The response is,

"Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party."

"Does he exist in the same way as I exist?"

"You do not exist," said O'Brien.

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The way in which the government in this future dystopia keeps control over its people is through a combination of manipulation and fear. There is of course the ever-present threat of the Thought Police, which Winston makes clear in the opening chapter, who are able to watch everybody all the time and see into their minds. Then there is the way in which the Party turn families against each other, with children reporting their parents to the authorities for the slightest crime. The Party's assault on families does not only seek to separate parents from children, but also wife from husband, as it attacks sex itself, making people think it is merely a functional necessity rather than a physical act of pleasure and love. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is shown through Winston's job in the Ministry of Truth that a vital way in which the government maintains control is through its iron-grip of what happened in the past. Note how this is explored in the following quote:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed--if all records told the same tale--then the lie passed into history and became truth. "Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. "Reality control," they called it: in Newspeak, "doublethink."

This shows how the Party owned or controlled the "truth" of what happened in the past through its constant shifting of historical realities and the various "unending series of victories over your own memory." It is this that allows the Party to shift allegiance in the war without anybody taking note, and suddenly to have always been opposed to one particular side. The name that is given to this process, "Reality Control," shows how through this method the Party is able to literally control reality and people's perception of it, which is the most effective method of maintaining power over its populace.

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The Party controls the population of Oceania by creating a constant state of hysteria, spreading false propaganda, manipulating language, continually spying on the citizens, violently punishing dissidents, and suppressing economic growth.

The government of Oceania engages in constant war with Eurasia or Eastasia and generates hysteria throughout society by depicting images of enemy armies attacking the country. They use Emmanuel Goldstein as a scapegoat and show images of him to the Party members during the Two Minutes Hate period. Rockets and bombs continually go off throughout the city, and Winston even witnesses a home explode in the prole section of town. The citizens' hate is then channeled and directed towards an outside enemy and provides the citizens an opportunity to release their suppressed emotions.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, which is concerned with creating false propaganda. The Party manipulates the population into believing that Big Brother is never wrong and convinces the citizens that they have relatively comfortable lives. Through propaganda, the Party justifies public executions and enforces its agenda. The Party also manipulates language and utilizes the practice of doublethink for intelligent citizens to grasp illogical concepts.

The slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU" illustrates the Party's agenda on constant surveillance. Telescreens are placed in the homes of every Party member and the Thought Police continually spy on citizens at all times. Citizens who are considered unorthodox are arrested and tortured in the Ministry of Love. The threat of violence is another tool the government uses to control citizens. The Party also controls the economy and purposefully creates an economic atmosphere of scarcity to control the population. Overall, the Party goes to extreme measures to create an oppressive, controlling society where citizens live in constant fear and passively accept the government's agenda.

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The Party gains control over people through constant surveillance, propaganda and thought control. 

In Oceania, Party members live with viewscreens that can never be shut off. These screens not only show incessant propaganda about how life is ever improving (it is not), the screens can be used to spy on people. For example, when Winston does not do his exercises properly, the voice of a person watching from behind the screen scolds him. Neighbors are also encouraged to spy on each other, and children are expected to spy on their parents and report any deviances. In fact, Parsons is arrested because his children denounce him. People are clearly afraid to challenge the state in any way because of this constant monitoring.

Second, propaganda is almost ceaseless. The government owns all the airwaves, newspapers and publishing and uses these media to constantly whip up fear about enemies and send out whatever message it wants about the Party or Big Brother. Posters everywhere remind people that Big Brother is watching them. The daily two-minute hates direct people's repressed sexual energy toward whatever target the government wants to attack.

Third, the Party demands not just outward conformity to its rules, but inward conformity. People are not allowed to think thoughts the Party does not allow, and the Party works to reduce the number of words in the language to a bare minimum so that people can't formulate subversive thoughts. This extreme emphasis on inner conformity leads to self-censorship as people fight to avoid arrest by the ever-lurking but mysterious Thought Police.

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The Party takes control of the people in so many different ways.  Here are some of them.

  • It controls them by changing the very language they use to communicate.  By controlling what words exist, they are more or less able to have a large influence on what ideas people have.
  • It controls them by dictating what they know.  The Party controls what information people have.  Because of this, people can only know what the Party tells them.  This will have a huge impact on their thoughts.
  • The Party controls them through force and surveillance.  The screens and microphones are everywhere and there is always the threat of the Thought Police.
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Oh my. It might be better to ask in what way does it not control its subjects (seriously).

The key ones from the book (that Winston encounters) are as follows:
mass rallies shaping emotions
direct observation
rationing goods
destroying the past
rewriting history
lying, and, probably the most subtle…
creating Newspeak, which will make independent thought impossible.

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How does the government in 1984 maintain power?

A bunch of ways.  One is through oppression.  They use the viewscreens and the  Thought Police for that.  Another way is through the wars.  They use the wars to make people feel that there is a reason why their lives are so unpleasant and that makes the people accept what is happening more than they otherwise would.

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