Nineteen Eighty-Four is by far my favourite book. I have several copies and I’ve read it at least once per year since I first read it. Something about the imagery and the concepts which Orwell created is so compelling and invites analysis in a way no other writer has achieved in my opinion. One of these ideas is the memory hole.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, a memory hole is a small chute into which anything subversive is placed, never to be seen again. Near the beginning of the book, we see the protagonist, Winston Smith, working at his desk doctoring old news reports to remove any mention of certain undesirables, as well as documentary evidence of government deceit. Once the changes are made, Winston throws the old copies into the memory hole. There is no evidence that these things ever happened, nor could there be, and therefore perception of the past is altered in such a way as to make it indistinguishable from a true account. In this sense, the memory hole is the physical manifestation of the party’s slogan ‘who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past’. The act of removing physical evidence from the present changes the past and allows the future to be shaped. There is an element of modern life which exhibits remarkably similar features; state finance and economics.
Neoliberalism, the dominant economic thinking of our time, is built upon the idea that markets are perfect self regulating mechanisms and that the state’s only job is to remove itself from the affairs of the market. Some take this to greater extremes than others, but the principle is always there. The laissez-faire approach can take the form of deregulation and tax cuts, but the main element in recent times has been government spending cuts. The idea being that governments are bad at providing public services and the market could do things better, so the government should stop spending money and allow the private sector to do everything.
The idea that governments cannot do things efficiently enough is debatable in itself, but that is not my purpose here. The main issue is with the spending cuts involved. Simply put, if government does not spend, there is no market, there is no money, there is no economy. State spending is unavoidable and neoliberals know this perfectly well. So what does one do when ideology says spending cuts are essential, but reality makes spending inevitable? The answer is to post money into a financial memory hole.
Financial memory holes function the way they do in Orwell. The money is spent, but its effects don’t exist, they never existed. Not only that, but the money itself never existed, or rather, it was never available. Money dropped into a memory hole in one sector was never available to be used in another. The sums required can be thrown at the economy to keep it functioning, but without doing anything so vulgar as improving people’s lives. Britain’s most obvious financial memory hole is PFI. Using this mechanism, government spending can be pumped into health and education with vast sums simply disappearing into debt repayments.
This serves a second function in that the government can turn to anyone who is rightly angry at the stripping back of public services and say that the budget has, if anything, been increased. Everyone knows that services are suffering, everyone knows that there is a problem with public spending, but nobody can say anything in the face of ‘ring fenced funding’.
The eventual goal of all of this is to give the state a strong basis for the following argument:
‘We tried. We even increased funding for these services, but they are simply too inefficient for us to continue this way. We have to completely remove these services altogether and you will have to rely on the private sector.’
Astute readers will notice that once this is done, the state will have lost a sector which contained the memory holes required to keep things going and that this means they will have to find other ways to spend. This is true and the solution is the same now as it has always been; military spending.
The military provides an endless source of financial memory holes into which as much money as a country wishes to spend can be poured. Nuclear weapons, R&D, PFI, and when all that proves insufficient, an endless series of foreign campaigns ever increasing in intensity and cost. Anything to keep the waste going, in fact, except improving the lives of soldiers, veterans and their families. Nowhere is this process more clear than in the case of the most neoliberal society on earth, the United States. Public services across the Atlantic are woefully inadequate after years of funding cuts, and yet military expenditures are astronomical.
As the funding slips away from worthy projects like welfare, the past takes on a different colour. If the money is not there now, it must not have been there then. The government of the day must have been imprudent which explains the current mess. The money isn’t there, the money never was there. There is no way to prove that any act of forgery has taken place and in a sense, none has, as perception of the past has been altered so completely as to render it indistinguishable from a ‘true’ account. The destruction and removal of money in the present renders the past changed and necessitates a new future.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH