This is the first installment of my book club on Orwell’s book-within-a-book, entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by fictional dissident Emmanuel Goldstein. I’m going to treat Orwell as the author of the book, even though he probably didn’t agree with all of the general claims, and almost surely didn’t mean to predict the rise of his precise geopolitical scenario. Today I’ll start with Chapter 1, “Ignorance Is Strength.” Please put all your thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll respond in a big post later this week.
Now let’s get started.
At first glance, Chapter 1 is just rehashed Marxism:
Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or the other.
The aims of these groups are entirely irreconcilable.
On closer look, however, TPOC improves on Marxism by focusing on political power rather than relationship to the means of production. Furthermore, it has the wisdom to recognize that revolutions are fundamentally about replacing one elite with another rather than replacing elite rule with “rule by the people,” whatever that might mean.
Still, TPOC retains the silly Marxist dogma of “irreconcilable conflict.” Whenever two groups fight, both sides burn up resources. At minimum, then, both sides would be better off if they simply foresaw the ultimate outcome, skipped the actual conflict, implemented the ultimate outcome, and saved the resources. If this doesn’t happen, the reason isn’t that the conflict is “irreconcilable,” but that the participants refuse to reconcile. The possible reasons for their refusal are endless: overconfidence, stubbornness, ethical constraints, imperfect information about the other sides’ resources, and so on. Nevertheless, if you want to understand any conflict, you have to energetically sift through these possibilities. Calling a conflict “irreconcilable” ensures that you’ll never understand what’s really going on.
The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High.
Orwell’s basically right about the aim of “the High,” though of course the High often dream of being Higher. But he grossly misunderstands “the Middle.” Their most common ambition by far is to join the High without changing the structure of society.
The most Orwell can rightly say is that in some societies a tiny minority of the Middle dreams of “changing places with the High” – and that once in a long while, they succeed. Even that, however, is misleading, because such malcontents are often already part of the High; they’re just so power-hungry that they’d rather tear down the whole system than share power.
The aim of the Low, when they have an aim — for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives — is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.
Since Orwell wrote, the leisure time of the Low has immensely increased. Yet all public opinion research confirms that the masses remain deeply politically apathetic. So instead of saying that they are “crushed by drudgery,” the accurate description is that pragmatic conformism is most human beings’ natural state.
In any case, when roused from this natural state, the Low are at least as inclined to religious fundamentalism and xenophobia as they are to egalitarianism. While the rhetoric of human equality has broad appeal in some societies, hardly any of the Low take such talk literally. Just try using the rhetoric of the American or French Revolutions to sell open borders to ordinary Americans or Frenchmen and see how far you get.
Thus throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again.
Using these categories, apparently, the American elite in 1775 was actually part of “the Middle” of the British Empire. And so was Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, Islamic fundamentalists in Iran under the Shah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under Mubarrak, and the leadership of Solidarity in 1980s Poland. Unless Orwell turns his story into a tautology, these classifications seem quite odd.
Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims. It would be an exaggeration to say that throughout history there has been no progress of a material kind. Even today, in a period of decline, the average human being is physically better off than he was a few centuries ago. But no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.
Unless, of course, one of the aims of the Low is to simply to enjoy a prosperous and healthy life! Since Orwell never renounced socialism, I suspect that he couldn’t fully accept the obvious fact that most people care far more about personal well-being than societal equality.
Also worth mentioning: The history of decolonization shows that the Low can at least temporarily get excited by “a change in the names of their masters.” Indeed, there is far more evidence that ordinary human beings care about the nationality of their masters than the ideal of “equality.”
By the late nineteenth century the recurrence of this pattern had become obvious to many observers. There then rose schools of thinkers who interpreted history as a cyclical process and claimed to show that inequality was the unalterable law of human life. This doctrine, of course, had always had its adherents, but in the manner in which it was now put forward there was a significant change. In the past the need for a hierarchical form of society had been the doctrine specifically of the High. It had been preached by kings and aristocrats and by the priests, lawyers, and the like who were parasitical upon them, and it had generally been softened by promises of compensation in an imaginary world beyond the grave. The Middle, so long as it was struggling for power, had always made use of such terms as freedom, justice, and fraternity.
What about religious fundamentalism, with the Protestant Reformation being the most obvious historical example?
Now, however, the concept of human brotherhood began to be assailed by people who were not yet in positions of command, but merely hoped to be so before long. In the past the Middle had made revolutions under the banner of equality, and then had established a fresh tyranny as soon as the old one was overthrown. The new Middle groups in effect proclaimed their tyranny beforehand. Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early nineteenth century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected by the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onwards the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned.
Alternate story: Throughout history, dissident movements have usually been authoritarian at best. But beginning in 1700 or so, novel dissident movements promising liberty and equality arose in the Anglosphere, and this classical liberal rhetoric gradually spread to the rest of Europe and the broader world. In practice, this movement had very mixed results; see the French Revolution and the quarter century of carnage it inspired. As the 19th-century progressed, however, classical liberalism began to deliver results consistent with its high-minded rhetoric. During this time, however, rival dissident movements of socialism and nationalism began to take shape, and twisted the rhetoric of liberty and equality to authoritarian ends. “Liberty” became the “liberty of each nationality to be ruled by members of their own nationality” and “equality” became “state ownership and state regulation.” Socialism, like nationalism, was “born bad” – authoritarian from day one, though happy to borrow appealing classical liberal rhetoric.
The new movements which appeared in the middle years of the century, Ingsoc in Oceania, Neo-Bolshevism in Eurasia, Death-Worship, as it is commonly called, in Eastasia, had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality. These new movements, of course, grew out of the old ones and tended to keep their names and pay lip-service to their ideology.
Lip service is one of the great under-used concepts in social science. One wonders, though, what lip service to “Death-Worship” might be!
But the purpose of all of them was to arrest progress and freeze history at a chosen moment. The familiar pendulum swing was to happen once more, and then stop. As usual, the High were to be turned out by the Middle, who would then become the High; but this time, by conscious strategy, the High would be able to maintain their position permanently.
In Orwell’s time, Marxism-Leninism in particular seemed to have mastered the science of “arresting progress and freezing history at a chosen moment.” Once the revolutionary Bolshevik generation passed away, however, their successors were markedly less fanatical and ruthless. After one further generation, the totalitarian system crumbled to dust. This isn’t an iron law, but I do predict that both the Chinese and Iranian leaderships will markedly moderate over the next forty years even if they don’t lose their monopoly on power. The main issue is that selecting for fanaticism and ruthlessness in peacetime is like pulling teeth. Why? Because ambitious pragmatists will eagerly and skillfully feign fanaticism and ruthlessness to get ahead – and in every known human population, ambitious pragmatists outnumber ruthless fanatics by a factor of at least 10:1.
But the principal, underlying cause was that, as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, human equality had become technically possible. It was still true that men were not equal in their native talents and that functions had to be specialized in ways that favoured some individuals against others; but there was no longer any real need for class distinctions or for large differences of wealth. In earlier ages, class distinctions had been not only inevitable but desirable. Inequality was the price of civilization. With the development of machine production, however, the case was altered. Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels.
“No longer necessary”?! How about to provide incentives to work, acquire useful skills, and innovate? And incentives aside, you might want to allow inequality because preventing inequality requires a draconian police state. Come now, Orwell!
Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted. In more primitive ages, when a just and peaceful society was in fact not possible, it had been fairly easy to believe it. The idea of an earthly paradise in which men should live together in a state of brotherhood, without laws and without brute labour, had haunted the human imagination for thousands of years. And this vision had had a certain hold even on the groups who actually profited by each historical change. The heirs of the French, English, and American revolutions had partly believed in their own phrases about the rights of man, freedom of speech, equality before the law, and the like, and have even allowed their conduct to be influenced by them to some extent.
Orwell conspicuously omits the heirs of Russian revolution from his enumeration of the partially sincere. Well-done.
But by the fourth decade of the twentieth century all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. And in the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years — imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations — not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.
Remember: For Orwell writing in 1948, this is history, not futurology.
It was only after a decade of national wars, civil wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions in all parts of the world that Ingsoc and its rivals emerged as fully worked-out political theories. But they had been foreshadowed by the various systems, generally called totalitarian, which had appeared earlier in the century, and the main outlines of the world which would emerge from the prevailing chaos had long been obvious. What kind of people would control this world had been equally obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians.
Verily. And who did the new aristocracy supplant? Nobles and clergy in some countries. But businesspeople and the rich in all countries – the elite that is as masterful at delivering prosperity as it is incompetent at pandering to Social Desirability Bias.
These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.
Yes! Power-hunger is the great neglected motive of social science. And the big power grab of the 20th-century was when professions high in rhetorical dominance got the upper hand over professions high in material dominance.
This last difference was cardinal. By comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient. The ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas, and were content to leave loose ends everywhere, to regard only the overt act and to be uninterested in what their subjects were thinking. Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards.
Again, I remind you: For Orwell writing in 1948, this is history, not futurology.
Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.
At this point, modern readers may feel chills run up their spines. Imagine Stalinism enforced with modern computing power! Modern China is moving in this direction, but for now Xi’s China remains far freer than Mao’s China.
Even so, the potential for totalitarian oppression has probably reached a new height, and continues to grow. Facial recognition plus ubiquitous cameras plus AI approximates constant surveillance. Back in 1994, Peter Huber wrote a book called Orwell’s Revenge arguing that new technology helped liberate the Eastern Bloc. Huber made some good points, but the long-run link between tech and freedom is at best unclear, as I discuss in my essay on “The Totalitarian Threat.”