The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 3
By Bryan Caplan
The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons, one of which is subsidiary and, so to speak, precautionary. 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. But by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party.
When you first read 1984, the mutability of the past sounds like sci-fi. Real humans would never believe such nonsense, would they? If you pay a little attention to evolving political dogmas, however, you will soon notice that all of your political opponents keep rewriting the past. The final frontier is attaining sufficient detachment to see that all politically influential sides keep rewriting the past, too. As Tetlock documents, noted political experts are among the grossest offenders; when they make demonstrably false predictions, their first line of defense is to misremember their own predictions!
It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.
Another popular variant: Confess the “error” of overestimating your opponents’ intelligence, morality, etc. “My enemies are even worse than I imagined. I was so wrong” is no confession of weakness.
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty…
Some philosophers will claim that Orwellian doublethink is somehow logically impossible. And many armchair psychologists will pronounce is psychologically impossible. But in all honesty, I see no other way to explain the social world. Most notably: Unless doublethink existed, why would so many people express absurd beliefs with so much sincerity – yet stubbornly refuse to bet on them? Yes, perhaps they’re Oscar-worthy actors. The better story, though, is doublethink. For rhetorical purposes, political activists confidently believe nonsense; for behavioral purposes, however, they modestly defer to common sense.
All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft. Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown; or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again were overthrown.
When Orwell was writing, the “became liberal and cowardly” mechanism might have seemed overblown. The subsequent collapse of colonialism, the Soviet Empire, the Shah, and so on confirm the depth of his insight.
It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.
At least in the real world, this is overstated. We can tone this down, however, to: “The most extreme political fanatics tend to be very well-informed according to objective tests of political knowledge.”
The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no practical reason for them. Thus, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism.
Hyperbole. Most obviously: As Orwell elsewhere explains, Oceania really did expropriate the capitalist class and establish a state-run economy, fulfilling two great socialist dreams in the process.
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.
Here we reach the central secret. As we have seen. the mystique of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, depends upon doublethink. But deeper than this lies the original motive, the never-questioned instinct that first led to the seizure of power and brought doublethink, the Thought Police, continuous warfare, and all the other necessary paraphernalia into existence afterwards. This motive really consists…
Winston Smith gets arrested before we can read another word of Chapter 1. Toward the end of the book, however, O’Brien maniacally completes the ellipses:
Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power… The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
I struggle to pick my favorite Orwell passage, but this is definitely a top contender. I understand why people rarely admit to power-hunger; all Social Desirability Bias goes against it. “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power,” is the kind of thing people only say off the record. Nevertheless, I have to wonder: How can anyone overlook the immense role that power-hunger plays in the social world? I see it. Orwell saw it. How can anyone deny it?