The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 2
By Bryan Caplan
Here are my thoughts on the latest batch 0f Book Club comments. Your words are in blockquotes; mine aren’t.
If your ideology of unfreedom is open, uninfected by any vestige of tolerance, then you can’t pay lip service to some other ideology.
If hierarchy is what you consciously aim at, then you can’t also delude yourself that you’re not a slave-driver.
If equality is no longer an ideal to be striven after, then you openly call yourself the factory boss, and your nation a fortress. You abandon all pretence of Utopianism for hierarchy and regimentation.
If the socialist dystopias hadn’t actually happened, I’d be inclined to agree with you. Yet when we actually look at these regimes, especially their Marxist-Leninist version, Orwell’s story checks out. Even today, the government of North Korea is officially ruled by the Workers’ Party of Korea, and energetically combines extreme hierarchy and regimentation with extreme utopianism. Indeed, one of the strongest forms of regimentation is the demand that North Koreans loudly affirm utopianism in their dystopia.
This is the implausible psychology of Orwell’s book, except that Orwell himself can’t maintain it from one sentence to the next. Straight away he slips back into the more believable and recognizable idea that these are “people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.” Not openly hierarchical.
Glenn Greenwald: “No authoritarians believe they are authoritarians. No matter how repressive are the measures they support–censorship, monopoly power, no-fly lists for American citizens without due process–they tell themselves that those they are silencing and attacking are so evil, are terrorists, that anything done against them is noble and benevolent, not despotic and repressive.”
Greenwald overstates. Yes, many authoritarians mask their true aims. Plenty of others, however, have been self-conscious and self-confessed. Consider defenders of absolute monarchy like Sir Robert Filmer or the Catholic ultramontanists. Franco called his regime “totalitarian” even though few historians agree: “A totalitarian state will harmonize in Spain the operation of all the capabilities and energy in the country, that inside the National Unity, the work esteemed as the most unavoidable must be the only exponent of the people’s will.” And of course Lenin called for “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry.”
I recently read The Road to Wigan Pier, a book that was commissioned by a leftist book club. He was to travel to northern industrial England (mid 1930s) and report on the condition of the unemployed. The first part of the book is travelogue, a really gripping account of the people he encountered, employed and not. The second part contains his thoughts on the socialist project. Again, he says he is a socialist but has nothing but criticism for actual socialists and for their approach. It was so pronounced that the publishers inserted a Prologue in which they dispute the very book they commissioned.
Quite right; I’ll be talking about Orwell’s strange socialist silence in a later post.
Was Gorbachev (the individual) a necessary cause of the end of the Soviet Union? If, say, Gorbachev had died in a car accident before he rose through the ranks, would “weak-kneed reform” have occurred anyway?
Eventually, but it could have taken decades. My understanding is that Gorbachev had already been passed over in favor of his short-lived predecessors. If they survived a few years longer, Gorbachev could easily have been replaced by a youngish hard-liner (not Putin, presumably, but a Putin-esque figure).
My non-expert understanding is that “standards of comparison” gradually became available to Soviet citizens — if only to “the Middle” — in the 70s and 80s, through more access to international travel, media, contraband. If this was the case, then the increase in exposure to western standards of comparison probably eroded Stalinist self-confidence and perhaps indirectly even made many of “The Low” aware that they were oppressed.
As far as self-confidence goes, I’d say growing knowledge of the West was a minor factor compared to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and readmission of large numbers of former Gulag inmates back into the Party. If you want to hold power, you keep the disillusioned as far from the levers of power as possible.
(Moreover, cracks in the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe — for example, Solidarnosc in Poland — cast a shadow over long-term stability of the Soviet Union itself; perhaps especially in the Baltic republics.)
There was little sign of resistance in the Baltics until Gorbachev let the Eastern European satellites go. And ponder how Stalin would have handled Solidarity.
It always struck me that, if we accept the world’s conclusions about the fragility of kin ties and the effectiveness of propaganda as true, then the only thing that could end it would be a cataclysmic natural disaster – an asteroid impact, or a redux of the deccan traps.
Thank heavens he wasn’t right about the pliancy of man’s minds.
Even if this were right, I’d say that Orwell grossly underrated intra-Party factional conflict. I’d expect that to destabilize most totalitarian regimes long before a civilization-disrupting asteroid strike.
If I’ve inherited control of a traumatized dictatorship, and I want to turn it into a capitalist liberal democracy, how should I go about reforming things without causing things to fall apart like they did in the Soviet Union or Iraq?
Amorally speaking, here’s my best guess. Consider it a recipe, not an endorsement.
Step 1: Purge known hard-liners en masse, without warning, Godfather style.
Step 2: Swiftly liberalize the economy and civil society from this position of strength, while unequivocally affirming your monopoly on political power.
Step 3: During the same period, open up your society to foreign business, tourism, media, NGOs, etc.
Step 4: Once you’ve had 4-6 years of strong economic growth and rising international prestige, slowly relax your monopoly on power. Always make it clear that you are acting out of the goodness of your own heart, not under pressure from the opposition.
Step 5: After 15-20 years, you’re ready for your first competitive national election. Put strong post-reform protection for your supporters into the constitution so they aren’t tempted to derail your plan.
I wonder how much of this [crimestop] is not about fear of thinking the wrong thing but just the failure of transfer learning which you write about elsewhere. Even in free societies, people are bad at grasping thoughts like, “If I believe X about A, I must also believe X about B to be consistent.” It would be interesting if our brains evolved to be bad at transfer to protect us from having heretical antisocial ideas in ancient hunter gatherer tribes.
Very plausible. In fact, I’d say failure of transfer is the main mechanism of thought control. You only need crimestop to suppress the rare instances of socially disapproved transfer. Thus, until the sixties most Americans felt no need to use crimestop to suppress their knowledge of the contradiction between segregation and the Declaration of Independence, because few spontaneously noticed the contradiction. You do need crimestop, though, to describe your society as a paradise of the workers and peasants while the peasants starve in plain sight, as they did under Stalin and Mao.
Are Crimestop and cancellation simply distinct, local, emergent species of social desirability bias?
I’d say they’re both outgrowths of Social Desirability Bias rather than “species” thereof. Crimestop is a technique humans use to internally suppress their own socially undesirable thoughts. Cancellation is a strategy activists use to punish other humans who express socially undesirable thoughts.
If conformity is a relentless censorship mechanism, in the forum and even in the market, then can open societies endure?
“Openness” is a matter of degree. By world and historic standards, the West is still extremely open. Indeed, I’d say openness is higher and conformity weaker than when I grew up. While political correctness was much milder in the eighties, religious and patriotic correctness were both stronger.
What are effective countervailing mechanisms or institutions?
Apathy and ADHD. Most people barely care what other people think and say, and even the people who do care rarely care for long.
How much bite does the institution of private property have as a bulwark against the dynamics of social desirability bias and social censorship?
Enormous bite. How many controversial websites could ever hope to receive government funding? Private property is what allows diverse opinions to endure, using “diversity” in the non-Orwellian sense.