The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 3
By Bryan Caplan
You’ve got reactions to Orwell; I’ve got reactions to your reactions. Here goes:
How close are your 5 steps to what Pinochet did in Chile?
I think he at least followed steps 1 and 2.
I was offering for steps for reforming a socialist dictatorship from within. While Pinochet did step down and allow a return to democracy, the dictatorship he built was mild enough (and non-socialist enough) that he didn’t need a master plan to unravel it.
I can’t help but to notice that the adherents of anti-racist ideology never seem to notice that structural racism, ongoing Jim Crow, etc. are taking place at the exact same time as an influx of immigrants who belong to the supposedly persecuted minority groups. Is this a matter of not spontaneously noticing the contradiction or an example of Crimestop? I’m thinking it’s the former.
The obvious reply would be, “However bad things are in the U.S., they’re much worse at home,” or maybe, “There’s more racism in America than Mexico, but most Mexicans are happy to endure a little more racism if they can triple their material standard of living in the bargain.” Though I’d also point out that non-white immigration to the U.S. is much more Hispanic and Asian than African, and that latter-day anti-racists have relatively little to say about racism against the former two groups.
The counterpoint to both Marx and Orwell is Aldous Huxley: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
Brave New World was first published in 1932. So I’d say that Huxley was clearly wrong for the last four generations or so. And the only notable sign that he was on to anything is the psychiatric drugging of school children, which governments use to sedate difficult children – not instill support for themselves. I see no sign that governments are doing much to make people “love their servitude,” though there has been a notable increase in nagging alongside old-fashioned coercion. Even there, incarceration massively outweighs flogging and kicking.
Contingency cuts both ways, though. Had Beria, who briefly took power after the death of Stalin, managed to stay in charge—and he was certainly ruthless and experienced enough that he might well have—the Cold War and/or Soviet Union might have ended within a few years of 1953.
I’d say it was amazing that Khrushchev managed to liberalize as much as he did. I know Beria was allegedly open to a few compromises with the West, but I think he would have been much closer to Stalin than Khrushchev.
Distinguish two scenarios:
(a) Lucid insiders (The Party) deceive outsiders (the rest of society). I think Orwell underestimates this scenario.
Orwell focusses on the psychology of the sender in propaganda. He narrowly — and, I think, mistakenly — asserts: “firmness of purpose […] goes with complete honesty.” Sometimes honesty and resoluteness are conjoined, but often not. Liars can be hellbent. Honest persons often keep their heads down.
Plausible, but for your story to be right, the apparently self-righteously dogmatic ideologues I’ve encountered so many times would have to be Oscar-worthy actors. That just doesn’t add up. They’re not feigning self-righteous dogmatism; they’re the real McCoy.
We should consider also the psychology of the addressee in propaganda. If addressees lack competence in lie-detection, then The Party doesn’t need doublethink. If, instead, addressees ‘know a lie when they see it,’ then Party members first must deceive themselves. This brings us to the doublethink scenario.
(b) Party members doublethink.
Orwell defines doublethink as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Compare the standard psychological theory of cognitive dissonance. When a belief (cognition) strongly conflicts with a desire (motivation), unconscious adaptation often occurs, like a person who turns in sleep and finds a comfortable position. This mechanism explains psychological adaptation to Party ‘rewrites’ more plausibly than doublethink does.
The whole idea of cognitive dissonance is that people are strongly uncomfortable with holding contradictory beliefs. I’d say that for most political activists, the discomfort is mild at most.
Orwell notwithstanding, it’s difficult consciously to believe X and not-X (contradictory cognitions) at the same time. It’s much easier for the unconscious to adapt a belief to a desire (or vice versa).
Perhaps, but most politically active people have little trouble adapting incompatible beliefs with each other.
Wishful thinking (to believe X because one hopes X is true), counter-wishful thinking (to believe Y because one fears Y is true), and sour grapes (to believe Z is bad because Z is out of reach) are commonplace mechanisms in political psychology.
You could classify doublethink as a species of wishful thinking – “I believe these seemingly contradictory beliefs are compatible because I hope they are compatible.” But I think this rushes over a rich mental process that Orwell patiently explores.
The subsidiary reason is that the Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising.
I think Orwell overstates the importance of this. People seem to put very little stock in how well off they are compared to the past, or to people of other nations. Libertarians love writing essays pointing out how even very low income people in America today have access to things far beyond the imagination of even the wealthiest from a few decades back, and have standards of living in many key areas which are significantly better than a much higher income person in Europe. Yet, nobody who is low income ever reads these essays and comes away feeling reassured. They care far more about how well off they are relative to their peers. It simply doesn’t matter to them that Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan would have envied their access to GPS devices and air conditioning and Novocain or that they have more living space than an upper income person in Belgium, when almost everyone around them has those things too.
Brilliant words, Kevin. This is my favorite reaction in the entire Book Club.
An alternate strategy of the Party would be to simply ensure that everyone is equally immiserated. Since people seem to care far more about their relative well being compared to their neighbors, rather than their absolute well being, or relative well being compared to the past or people in distant countries, the proles might have been kept relatively content in their condition. Since the whole society is kept poor, there would be none of the envy and resentment we are so often told is destabilizing for a society.
Given the massive size of Oceania, I fully agree. If Luxembourg were vastly poorer than its neighbors, the stability of Luxembourg’s government would be endangered. But when your country is so large that you rarely remember the existence of other countries, your rulers can rest easy.
Reminder: Next week, we start with “War Is Peace”!