This article was originally published by Peter Foster at The Mises Institute.
George Orwell pointed out that one of the first casualties of socialism is language. The damage is not collateral, it is deliberate—designed to numb minds and render critical thought difficult or impossible.
The instrument of this dumbing down in Nineteen Eighty-Four was Newspeak, the official language of the English Socialist Party (Ingsoc). Newspeak was a sort of totalitarian Esperanto that sought gradually to diminish the range of what was thinkable by eliminating, contracting, and manufacturing words. New words had a “political implication” and “were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.” The meaning of words was often reversed, as was most starkly emphasized in the key slogans of Ingsoc:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in 1949. Its nightmarish fictional world is now thirty-six years in the past, so one might reasonably conclude that Orwell was far too pessimistic, but his great book was less a prediction than a warning and above all an analysis of the totalitarian mentality. Meanwhile, there is another significant date in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book’s appendix on the principles of Newspeak stressed that the corruption of language was a multigenerational project whose fruition would not come until well into the present century. Ingsoc’s objective was to render independent thought impossible by “about 2050.”
Intriguingly, that is the same year that the world allegedly has to become “carbon neutral,” or “net-zero,” to avoid climate Armaggedon.
Twenty fifty has become a key date for the UN’s “global governance” agenda, which seeks nothing less than to oversee and regulate every aspect of life on the basis of a suite of alarmist projections. The main existential threat is claimed to be catastrophic manmade climate change. “Climate governance” has thus emerged as the “fourth pillar,” of the UN’s mandate, joining peace and security, development, and human rights. So far—as with the other three pillars—the UN’s climate efforts have been spectacularly unsuccessful. It has held enormous “Conferences of the Parties,” or COPs, which have promoted a morass of uncoordinated national policies that have had zero impact on the climate. COP 21 in Paris in 2015, for instance, was meant to hatch a successor to the failed Kyoto Agreement. But all it produced was a raft of hypocritical, voluntary, fingers-crossed “Nationally Determined Contributions.” The failure of Paris, and of temperatures to rise in line with flawed models, led to a doubling down of “ambitions.” One new commitment that seeped out of Paris was for the countries of the world to hold temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above levels before the Industrial Revolution (the Original Climate Sin). Staying below that level, UN policy wonks rapidly calculated, would require the world to become carbon neutral, or net zero, by 2050.
In fact, there is no climate “crisis” or “emergency.” However, as Orwell noted, the language of fear and panic is one of the main instruments of political control.
Today, just as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the classical liberal concepts of liberty and equality (of opportunity) are under relentless attack, as are the values of reason and objectivity. Liberty and equality were classified in Newspeak as “Crimethink.” Objectivity and rationalism were “Oldthink.” A doomed Newspeak lexicographer named Syme tells the book’s equally doomed hero, Winston Smith, that even the party slogans will eventually become incomprehensible: “How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished?”
Orwell was hardly the first observer to point to the political dangers of linguistic manipulation, which go back to discussions of sophistry in Plato. The great economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek pointed in particular to the Left’s use of “social.” He dubbed it a “weasel word” that not merely sucked meaning from words to which it was attached but often reversed meaning. Thus, by classical liberal standards, social democracy is undemocratic, social justice is unjust, and a social market economy is antimarket. We have a prime current example in the phrase “social license to operate,” which in fact means a potential veto on corporate activities by radical non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the stormtroopers of the global governance agenda. Private corporations were once socialism’s enemies; now they have been co-opted as its partners, agents of “global salvationism.” Nobel economist Milton Freidman pointed to the subversive, open-ended nature of “corporate social responsibility,” where “responsibility” represents another weasel word. CSR’s purpose is to force corporate executives to abandon their responsibility to their shareholders in favor of an endless list of “stakeholder” demands.
Perhaps the most significant new weasel word to have emerged from the UN’s equivalent of the Ministry of Truth is “sustainable.” Commitment to sustainability is now mouthed by every politician, bureaucrat, marketing executive, and media hack on earth. It sounds so benign, so reasonable, but what it actually means is “bureaucratically controlled and NGO-enforced within a UN-based socialist agenda.”
Like “social,” “sustainable” tends to vitiate or reverse the meaning of words to which it is attached. Thus sustainable development is development retarded by top-down control and whose effectiveness is further compromised by the insertion of a long list of cart-before-the-horse social policy objectives, from gender equity to “responsible consumption.”
Recently, “sustainable finance” has also bubbled up from the UN verbal swamp. What it means, not surprisingly, is stopping the financing of fossil fuels by browbeating banks and investors and rigging the regulatory process.
There are no dictionaries of sustainable Newspeak. Its mavens rely less on new words than on perverting or reversing the meaning of old ones. One recent clarion call heard echoing around the corridors of power is that recovery from the covid crisis must be “resilient.” Insofar as that means forcing the use of more expensive, less reliable, and less flexible energy sources such as wind and solar, it will inevitably make economies less resilient. Thus it promotes the first energy “transition” in history that involves moving backward. Typically, such backward movement is a key part of a “progressive” agenda.
The indoctrination of young people was a key strategy of Ingsoc. Likewise, Agenda 21, the doorstop socialist wish list that emerged from the UN’s Earth Summit at Rio in 1992, declared: “Students should be taught about the environment and sustainable development throughout their schooling.” They should learn that “The world is confronted with worsening poverty, hunger, ill-health, illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of ecosystems on which we depend for our wellbeing.” In other words, a catalog of alarmism that has—or should have been—utterly discredited by the evidence of the intervening decades. However, we tend to see what we have been taught to believe. Walls may have ears but more important is that ears have walls. Building such walls was the specific purpose of Ingsoc’s Crimestop, or “protective stupidity.” The capture of academic institutions has virtually installed Crimestop as a compulsory course.
Meanwhile, not only did Agenda 21 demand that children be indoctrinated, it demanded that the most indoctrinated among them be allowed into political fora to lecture their elders. This program came to stunning fruition last fall at the UN, when Greta Thunberg, a bright, anxious, and thoroughly indoctrinated Swedish teenager, was elevated to the podium to paraphrase Agenda 21: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
One is reminded of the Newspeak appendix: “A Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets.”
Meanwhile, the political establishment’s current watchwords of inclusivity, diversity, and equity are all aimed at perverting truth and concealing real meanings. Inclusivity and diversity involve excluding white men and conservatives of either sex (although it is a “thoughtcrime” to suggest that there are fundamentally two sexes, as J.K. Rowling discovered). Equity falsely equates the inevitable inequality of outcomes in a free society with moral inequity.
Through all of this, the concept of doublethink, that is, effortlessly holding incompatible beliefs, spreads apace. Orwell wrote that “Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty.”
Keep that in mind the next time a public figure cites the climate emergency, intones the existential necessity of sustainable development and sustainable finance, and trumpets the job-creating benefits of a resilient recovery and a transformative green transition to a net-zero future.