The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 2

The TPOC Book Club continues its march through Chapter 1, “Ignorance Is Strength.” Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

After the revolutionary period of the fifties and sixties, society regrouped itself, as always, into High, Middle, and Low. But the new High group, unlike all its forerunners, did not act upon instinct but knew what was needed to safeguard its position. It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly.

Coming from a socialist like Orwell, this is a major concession.  Why, you may ask, does collective ownership defuse complaints about wealth and privilege?  Social Desirability Bias, of course.  “This is mine” sounds bad; “This is ours” sounds good.  But aren’t corporations also joint property?  Indeed.  To cash in on the psychological appeal of collective ownership, you desperately need a clear-cut “non-profit” label.  Government, organized religion, and charity all get a pass, but rich people pooling their resources definitely does not.

The so-called ‘abolition of private property’ which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before: but with this difference, that the new owners were a group instead of a mass of individuals. Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything in Oceania, because it controls everything, and disposes of the products as it thinks fit.

Great!  I wish that economists who do international comparisons of inequality had the same insight.

In the years following the Revolution it was able to step into this commanding position almost unopposed, because the whole process was represented as an act of collectivization. It had always been assumed that if the capitalist class were expropriated, Socialism must follow: and unquestionably the capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport — everything had been taken away from them: and since these things were no longer private property, it followed that they must be public property. Ingsoc, which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist programme; with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.

If you read 1984 closely, it’s clear that measured economic inequality would be quite low.  What’s distinctive about Orwell’s dystopia is the immense inequality of power.

But the problems of perpetuating a hierarchical society go deeper than this. There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern. These causes do not operate singly, and as a rule all four of them are present in some degree. A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently. Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.

Indeed.  I’ve long maintained that the Soviet Union would still be around today if Gorbachev had been a self-confident Stalinist instead of a weak-kneed reformer.

After the middle of the present century, the first danger had in reality disappeared. Each of the three powers which now divide the world is in fact unconquerable, and could only become conquerable through slow demographic changes which a government with wide powers can easily avert.

All-out nuclear war could probably do the trick.  Orwell elsewhere posits that a major nuclear war leads to a common realization of the necessity of avoiding further use of nuclear weapons.  But once countries start mutually nuking each other, it’s easy to see how things could spiral out of control.

The second danger, also, is only a theoretical one. The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.

The recurrent economic crises of past times were totally unnecessary and are not now permitted to happen, but other and equally large dislocations can and do happen without having political results, because there is no way in which discontent can become articulate.

Well-said.  Remember: The Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s when conditions were, by Soviet standards, excellent.  During the 30s, millions of Soviet citizens starved, but the regime was never in danger of internal revolt.

As for the problem of overproduction, which has been latent in our society since the development of machine technique, it is solved by the device of continuous warfare (see Chapter III), which is also useful in keying up public morale to the necessary pitch.

Actually, this problem of “overproduction” was never anything more than a problem of sticky wages and bad monetary policy.  If you can’t profitably employ all of the resources that exist, you simply need to cut input prices.  If that’s off the table, you can just print more money.  This isn’t idle theory.  Since Orwell’s time, many First World countries have had low unemployment even though production continues to rise.  And some of them – like Japan – have virtually no military to speak of.  And look what happened to the U.S. when the Cold War ended.  Military spending as a share of GDP crashed – and the economy boomed.

From the point of view of our present rulers, therefore, the only genuine dangers are the splitting-off of a new group of able, under-employed, power-hungry people, and the growth of liberalism and scepticism in their own ranks. The problem, that is to say, is educational. It is a problem of continuously moulding the consciousness both of the directing group and of the larger executive group that lies immediately below it. The consciousness of the masses needs only to be influenced in a negative way.


Given this background, one could infer, if one did not know it already, the general structure of Oceanic society. At the apex of the pyramid comes Big Brother. Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful… His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organization.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Politics is the religion of modernity.

Below Big Brother comes the Inner Party, its numbers limited to six millions, or something less than 2 per cent of the population of Oceania. Below the Inner Party comes the Outer Party, which, if the Inner Party is described as the brain of the State, may be justly likened to the hands. Below that come the dumb masses whom we habitually refer to as ‘the proles’, numbering perhaps 85 per cent of the population.

Orwell neglects the possibility of a power struggle within the Inner Party.  If Oceania existed, this alone would create the instability necessary for regime change.

In principle, membership of these three groups is not hereditary. The child of Inner Party parents is in theory not born into the Inner Party. Admission to either branch of the Party is by examination, taken at the age of sixteen. Nor is there any racial discrimination, or any marked domination of one province by another. Jews, Negroes, South Americans of pure Indian blood are to be found in the highest ranks of the Party, and the administrators of any area are always drawn from the inhabitants of that area.

This is one of the least plausible features of Orwell’s dystopia.  There is always demographic imbalance of power, and these imbalances are easy for power-hungry politicians to demagogue.  The kind of cultural homogeneity Orwell pictures would take centuries for even the most totalitarian regime to engineer.  Witness the breakup of the Soviet Union after seen decades of “We’re all Soviet citizens” propaganda.

 It is true that our society is stratified, and very rigidly stratified, on what at first sight appear to be hereditary lines. There is far less to-and-fro movement between the different groups than happened under capitalism or even in the pre-industrial age. Between the two branches of the Party there is a certain amount of interchange, but only so much as will ensure that weaklings are excluded from the Inner Party and that ambitious members of the Outer Party are made harmless by allowing them to rise.

Very consistent with Clark’s The Son Also Rises.  Though strikingly, Orwell suggests no role for politically-powerful families to grow rich by corruption.  For Orwell, kin relations are strangely fragile; the government’s effort to turn children against their parents is almost totally successful.  In contrast, the Party continuously persecutes romance because it recognizes the power of the pair-bonding instinct.  In the real world, however, kin relations seem much more resilient than romantic bonds – and a much firmer basis for organized graft.

Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. The most gifted among them, who might possibly become nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated. But this state of affairs is not necessarily permanent, nor is it a matter of principle.

A strange situation.  You’d expect the Party to constantly recruit from the proles, and eliminate only the talented proles who resist recruitment.

In the crucial years, the fact that the Party was not a hereditary body did a great deal to neutralize opposition. The older kind of Socialist, who had been trained to fight against something called ‘class privilege’ assumed that what is not hereditary cannot be permanent. He did not see that the continuity of an oligarchy need not be physical, nor did he pause to reflect that hereditary aristocracies have always been shortlived, whereas adoptive organizations such as the Catholic Church have sometimes lasted for hundreds or thousands of years.

Again, brilliant.

All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived. Physical rebellion, or any preliminary move towards rebellion, is at present not possible. From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is.

This bleak picture is close to literally true.  Consider: Haiti appears to be the sole durably successful slave revolt in history.  Contra Orwell, slaves often feel the desire to rebel.  But that impulse rarely leads to a blueprint for social reform.  And even if it did, the coordination problem is crushing.

They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly; but, since military and commercial rivalry are no longer important, the level of popular education is actually declining.

Orwell seems to assume absurdly high Transfer of Learning.  Once a prole learns how to program a computer, he’ll soon figure out how to reform society.  In practice, however, learning is highly compartmentalized.  So Orwell’s dystopia is even more stable than it looks.  Even if the proles were trained for high-tech jobs, few would spontaneously grasp that the social order “could be other than it is.”

What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect. In a Party member, on the other hand, not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated.

If you’re getting a sense of deja vu, ask yourself: “How afraid are minimum wage workers of being ‘cancelled’ for their social media posts?”

A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected. Nothing that he does is indifferent… A Party member is required to have not only the right opinions, but the right instincts.

Many of the beliefs and attitudes demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be stated without laying bare the contradictions inherent in Ingsoc. If he is a person naturally orthodox (in Newspeak a goodthinker), he will in all circumstances know, without taking thought, what is the true belief or the desirable emotion.


But in any case an elaborate mental training, undergone in childhood and grouping itself round the Newspeak words crimestopblackwhite, and doublethink, makes him unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatever.

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate, and the speculations which might possibly induce a sceptical or rebellious attitude are killed in advance by his early acquired inner discipline. The first and simplest stage in the discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called, in Newspeak, crimestopCrimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts… This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.

These words seem more relevant than ever, as I’ve been saying lately.  The big difference, of course, is that contemporary Western Thought Police are soft and disorganized.  A few crazies aside, what I call the “uniformity and exclusion movement” advocates no punishment harsher than blacklist from high-skilled employment and ostracism from high-status society.  Scary, but a far cry from jail, slave labor, or death.  And most of their wrath focuses on emotionally-charged incidents.  There’s no master plan, just a kaleidoscope of rage.