The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 5
By Bryan Caplan
All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber which in colder climates it is necessary to synthesize by comparatively expensive methods. But above all they contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labour. Whichever power controls equatorial Africa, or the countries of the Middle East, or Southern India, or the Indonesian Archipelago, disposes also of the bodies of scores or hundreds of millions of ill-paid and hard-working coolies.
Ill-paid and hard-working, but with little human or physical capital.
Moreover, the labour of the exploited peoples round the Equator is not really necessary to the world’s economy. They add nothing to the wealth of the world, since whatever they produce is used for purposes of war, and the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. By their labour the slave populations allow the tempo of continuous warfare to be speeded up. But if they did not exist, the structure of world society, and the process by which it maintains itself, would not be essentially different.
A thoughtful concession, though even the “tempo” claim is debatable. Counting transportation costs, do these desperate workers even produce more than they cost to manage?
The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognized and not recognized by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. 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.
Orwell seems unaware of the textbook answer. What is to be done with surplus consumption goods? Cut their prices until people buy all you create! What if you can’t make a profit at these reduced prices? Then cut input costs or produce something in greater demand. What if even that doesn’t work? Then print more money.
In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient — a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete — was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen…
This is a good time to take a break from being depressed by Orwell’s dystopia and acknowledge that in the real world, this “vision of a future society” is our present. Or at least it was back in 2019.
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.
Hardly. The case for economic inequality in the machine age remains as strong as ever. We need incentives for work, skill acquisition, and innovation. And incentives aside, the repression required to greatly reduce such inequality is terrifying. See “Harrison Bergeron” or the Khmer Rouge.
If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. And in fact, without being used for any such purpose, but by a sort of automatic process — by producing wealth which it was sometimes impossible not to distribute — the machine did raise the living standards of the average human being very greatly over a period of about fifty years at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
A shocking concession for a socialist like Orwell. And note that the “automatic process” to which he refers practically has to be the free-market mechanism, which “distributes wealth” by driving down the prices of abundant products. Walmart is only the latest incarnation.
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.
Orwell seems oblivious to the “rat race.” Once everyone has enough to eat, having enough to eat confers no distinction. But what you eat still does. We can’t show off by eating big bags of rice, but we can show off by eating in fancy restaurants. Distinctions have ye always.
It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste.
It is also possible to imagine a society in which the necessities of life are evenly distributed, but luxuries are not. Nowadays, that’s basically every rich country.
But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.
Silly. The mere possession of ample luxuries rarely leads anyone to “think for themselves.” Humans don’t need poverty to “stupefy” them, because apathy and superficiality are deeply rooted in human nature. And if humans thought for themselves competently, they would realize that the “privileged minority” serves the vital functions of (a) providing skilled labor and (b) innovating.
Nor was it a satisfactory solution to keep the masses in poverty by restricting the output of goods… The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.
The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.
This ridiculous story brings a much more plausible one into focus. Namely: War serves the function of maintaining fanatical social cohesion. Stalin really did keep the Soviet people in constant fear of foreign invasion. And his motive was clear: Paranoid fear of outsiders rationalizes domestic oppression. “No one wants this suffering, least of all Comrade Stalin. Sadly, our foreign enemies have forced these drastic measures upon us. And anyone who questions these measures is an obvious lackey of our enemies.”
It is deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. By the standards of the early twentieth century, even a member of the Inner Party lives an austere, laborious kind of life. Nevertheless, the few luxuries that he does enjoy his large, well-appointed flat, the better texture of his clothes, the better quality of his food and drink and tobacco, his two or three servants, his private motor-car or helicopter — set him in a different world from a member of the Outer Party, and the members of the Outer Party have a similar advantage in comparison with the submerged masses whom we call ‘the proles’. The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty.
If even the elite lives poorly, what’s the motive behind all the cruelty? Power-hunger, power-hunger, and more power-hunger.
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.
Quite sensible. There’s no need to appeal to silly stories about personal comfort somehow leading to critical thought.
War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way… What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war.
Quite right. Notice, moreover, that this mechanism can easily function without a diabolical mastermind at the helm. Just say: Power-hungry leaders naturally tend to make enemies with other power-hungry leaders. And once conflict erupts, power-hungry leaders don’t have to be geniuses to realize that conflict helps reinforce their power by promoting fanatical social cohesion.
It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.
In the twentieth year of the War on Terror, this sounds strangely familiar. When you’re in the business of amassing power, numeracy is very bad for business.