The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 6

by nyljaouadi1
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And now it’s time to finish our critical read of TPOC.  Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

In Oceania at the present day, Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist… In all the useful arts the world is either standing still or going backwards. The fields are cultivated with horse-ploughs while books are written by machinery. But in matters of vital importance — meaning, in effect, war and police espionage — the empirical approach is still encouraged, or at least tolerated.

This “compartmentalization” is readily visible in today’s world as well.  Think about all of the brilliant scientists who just repeat popular platitudes when they talk about public policy.  Or the major political parties’ eager use of statistics to plan their electoral strategies, but not to guide their policy platforms.

The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought. There are therefore two great problems which the Party is concerned to solve. One is how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking, and the other is how to kill several hundred million people in a few seconds without giving warning beforehand…

Why would these be the Party’s two aims?  Power-hunger, of course.  If this is such a relatable motive, how come almost no one talks about it?  Social Desirability Bias, of course.

What is more remarkable is that all three powers already possess, in the atomic bomb, a weapon far more powerful than any that their present researches are likely to discover. Although the Party, according to its habit, claims the invention for itself, atomic bombs first appeared as early as the nineteen-forties, and were first used on a large scale about ten years later… The effect was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped.

This is probably the least plausible feature of Orwell’s scenario.  The leaders of the totalitarian superpowers were fanatical and reckless enough to engage in nuclear war, but pragmatic and calculating enough to simultaneously realize that they’re a “few bombs” away from destruction?  During wartime, the first high-ranking leader to suggest de-escalation would probably be denounced as a traitor.  And even if his peers listened patiently, the obvious objection is: “If we sue for a cease-fire now, the other side will think we’re weak and impose highly unfavorable terms.  And even if they agree, they’ll probably double-cross us very soon.”  Yes, you can appeal to doublethink.  But the bottom line is that “Back down once you’re a few bombs away from the end of organized society” simply isn’t a focal point.

Moreover, no fighting ever occurs except in the disputed areas round the Equator and the Pole: no invasion of enemy territory is ever undertaken. This explains the fact that in some places the frontiers between the superstates are arbitrary. Eurasia, for example, could easily conquer the British Isles, which are geographically part of Europe, or on the other hand it would be possible for Oceania to push its frontiers to the Rhine or even to the Vistula. But this would violate the principle, followed on all sides though never formulated, of cultural integrity.  If Oceania were to conquer the areas that used once to be known as France and Germany, it would be necessary either to exterminate the inhabitants, a task of great physical difficulty, or to assimilate a population of about a hundred million people…

In Orwell’s scenario, all of the super-states are extremely multicultural already.  Oceania includes all of the Americas; Eurasia stretches from Portugal to Siberia.  Since none of them are supposed to have notable ethnic or regional tensions, these countries are supernaturally great at culturally assimilating disparate populations.

War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he is forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

These echoes Stalin’s policy of arresting anyone with foreign contacts.  But the better story is not that contact with foreigners would seriously endanger the totalitarian system, but that the leadership is paranoid.

Under this lies a fact never mentioned aloud, but tacitly understood and acted upon: namely, that the conditions of life in all three super-states are very much the same. In Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self. The citizen of Oceania is not allowed to know anything of the tenets of the other two philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense. Actually the three philosophies are barely distinguishable, and the social systems which they support are not distinguishable at all.

This is clearly inspired by the strong family resemblance between Nazism and Stalinism.  To insiders – the Nazis and Stalinists themselves – the minor details are obviously a matter of life and deaths.  But they’re deluded.  It takes an outsider to see the ideological landscape as it really is.  Atheists know (I repeat, know) that Catholics and Protestants fighting during the Wars of Religion were ideological siblings.  And confirmed enemies of totalitarianism know (I repeat, know) that the Nazis and Stalinists were ideological siblings.  Or dare I say, moral approximates.

Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of semi-divine leader, the same economy existing by and for continuous warfare. It follows that the three super-states not only cannot conquer one another, but would gain no advantage by doing so. On the contrary, so long as they remain in conflict they prop one another up, like three sheaves of corn… Here it is necessary to repeat what has been said earlier, that by becoming continuous war has fundamentally changed its character.

Again, we need not and should not accept the silly story that totalitarian regimes preserve their power by keeping their subjects “stupefied by poverty.”  Instead, we should accept the sensible and parsimonious story that totalitarian regimes preserve their power by filling their subjects heads full of fear of vicious external enemies.

In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat… War was a sure safeguard of sanity, and so far as the ruling classes were concerned it was probably the most important of all safeguards. While wars could be won or lost, no ruling class could be completely irresponsible.

But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded…

The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Overstated, but still insightful.  In particular, one of the top laws of modern geopolitics is that no one invades a nuclear power.  No matter how backward North Korea becomes relative to the rest of the world, their nukes allow the Kims to stonewall world opinion about their domestic policies.  Given these incentives, we should be amazed that nuclear proliferation hasn’t gone much further already.

The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.

Yes, but to repeat, the essence of the “special mental atmosphere” is fanatical group cohesion, not “stupefication via poverty.”



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