The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 5
By Bryan Caplan
We continue our discussion of Orwell’s “War Is Peace.”
I don’t think that Orwell did believe the Soviet system could last for a long time. In fact, I’ve always suspected that the last third of 1984 was more tongue-in-cheek than people believe; Orwell was in fact poking fun at people in his time who believed that such a society could be perpetuate itself. My reason for believing this is this essay where he reviews James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution”:
Here is a quote from that essay:
“It is too early to say in just what way the Russian régime will destroy itself. If I had to make a prophecy, I should say that a continuation of the Russian policies of the last fifteen years – and internal and external policy, of course, are merely two facets of the same thing – can only lead to a war conducted with atomic bombs, which will make Hitler’s invasion look like a tea-party. But at any rate, the Russian régime will either democratize itself, or it will perish. The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society.”
A fascinating essay; I’d never read it until now. I still have trouble believing that any part of 1984 is “tongue-in-cheek,” but this is the strongest evidence I’ve seen in favor of this reading.
Ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods has been latent in industrial society.
Your comment is excellent. I also wonder, though, whether he had the idea of satiation: once we have so many consumer goods, we won’t want more.
Maybe, but I doubt it. Orwell gets the idea that the common man aspires to the standard of living of the middle classes, who in turn aspire to the standard of living of the upper classes. Both sets of aspirations leave ample room for expanding consumption. Orwell’s in the older socialist tradition of thinking that capitalism creates artificial scarcity, not the later view that capitalism creates artificial wants.
From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared.
You commented correctly that we need inequality in order to have incentives. But there’s more to say. We are getting rid of human drudgery in the first world. Jobs at pretty much every level are much easier now. That’s distinct from inequality.
If I were young, I think I’d prefer physical labor with a team of friends to teleworking in isolation. But point well-taken.
Also, while you emphasize the role of incentives, it’s important to note that no one “decides” that there’s inequality. It’s the natural result of a market process in which people become various degrees of good at what they do. No one decided that Jeff Bezos should be the wealthiest man in the world. Instead, billions of voluntary transactions led to that result.
Yes, but we can still talk about how much inequality the government decides to allow.
Imagine if we could revive Orwell and bring him into modern times. Let him see how those officially classified as “poor” in America or Britain have blown far past the threshold he describes, and in fact possess luxuries far beyond anything the wealthiest people in his day had available to them. Show him how even the poorest Americans have supercomputers in their pockets that can instantly connect to a wealth of easily accessible and freely available information in platforms like Wikipedia and Khan Academy. And after he’s taken all that in, let him browse Twitter and and listen to talk radio and attend some political rallies, and ask him if he still thinks it’s material poverty that keeps people stupefied.
Brilliant. If only we could actually revive Orwell for this fine experiment! My guess is that he would switch to blaming the media for stupefying people, though the role of prolefeed in Oceania makes that an awkward move. Prolefeed is the segment of Oceania’s media that actually gives customers the thrills they’re looking for!
And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.
Orwell is right by highlighting that this doesn’t depend on actually being in a state of war. It only requires a “consciousness of being at war” – you need only make people feel like the social issue de jour is akin to a state of war. Think of the War on Drugs, or the War on Poverty – the rhetoric of both was designed to try to create a “consciousness of being at war” as justification for the “handing-over of all power to a small caste.” And interestingly, Orwell held no illusions that the socialism he advocated wouldn’t entail the same thing.
Again, an excellent point.
“But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction.”
Perhaps Orwell was on to a grain of truth. One hundred years ago, a town might only have a few college graduates. If old novels are to be believed, their status conferred a certain amount of respect. Today, how much deference does the average skilled laborer have for someone with a college degree and no other significant achievements? In my observation, very little.
I’d say that the average skilled laborer respects the material dominance of college graduates, but not their rhetorical dominance. He wants his kids to go to college. He wants them to marry other college grads. He wants his grandkids to go to college. But he doesn’t want to defer to the political and social opinions of college graduates.
Was this greatly different in the past? I really doubt it. Perhaps the masses had more deference for religious elites in the 19th-century than they have for intellectual elites today. Even there, however, the surviving evidence seems thin. Prior to the rise of public opinion research, who really knows what the masses thought and felt?
I doubt it would be possible to establish a hierarchy in America that those on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy would take very seriously. If the Constitutional Convention happened today, for example, would most people be inclined to support a document written by a small group of the most educated Americans? It seems very unlikely. In short, Orwell might have been on to something.
There was great deference for elites for a few years after 9/11 – a classic “rally round the flag” effect. The Constitutional Convention fits the same mold.
One issue with Orwell’s take on war as a means of perpetually maintaining social cohesion is that people tend to get war fatigue after a while, and I think the example of the Iraq War is an example of this. The original enthusiasm had mostly dissipated after a few years and opposition was a big factor in the 2008 election. Both Russia and Germany faced increasing domestic dissidence as WW1 dragged on and this partly motivated their governments to seek peace. War seems an effective way to encourage social cohesion for a few years, but not indefinitely. I think eventually the war would become a domestic burden to the party rather than an asset.
An excellent point, very consistent with the work of Scott Althaus. On reflection, the power-maximizing strategy is probably to go through cycles of suspicion and hysteria: “You never know when the enemy will pounce” seasoned with an occasional “The enemy is pouncing!” Classic Stalinism.
Except for the first few years after 9/11, I don’t think that one can make a very strong case that war, or even threats to “national security”, is used as an effective way to amass much power nowadays. Although we have deployed troops in the Middle East for 20 years, the War on Terror just doesn’t garner much mindshare anymore, and hasn’t for quite some time.
I agree that the War on Terror no longer generates much social cohesion. But during the 90s, military spending as a share of GDP did plummet (see graph below), and the War on Terror managed to reverse that trend for about a decade. Now we’re still a little higher than 20 years ago, but imagine how low military spending would have been without 9/11. So I’d still say that war remains helpful for amassing and retaining power.
In 2020, the obvious pretense for “handing-over of all power to a small caste” is the War on Covid. Prior, and after, some desperately wanted, and will want, the War on Climate Change to fill that role, although thus far their efforts have been largely ineffective. Instead, the War on Systemic Racism and Sexism has been, and post-Covid is on track to continue to be, the all-consuming War that justifies everything…
Agreed. As KevinDC says above, our metaphorical wars often serve the same function as the literal wars of Oceania, though the intensity is plainly far less.