Postscript: Orwell for Socialism

[Scroll to the end for a couple final reactions to comments .]

In a reflective moment, George Orwell wrote, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”  Yet if you actually read his oeuvre, you’ll find a striking disparity: Orwell’s anti-totalitarian writing is massive, but his pro-socialist writing is wafer thin.  As far as I know, the closest thing Orwell produces to an argument for democratic socialism appears in his review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

[Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.


Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

In Orwell’s day, many readers would have responded, “Orwell wrote little, but the few pro-socialist words he wrote suffice.”  Even today, many would sympathize.  Yet despite my love for Orwell, he he’s thoroughly mistaken.  Point-by-point:

[Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.

Hardly.  As of 1940, quality of life for “the great mass of people” was near its all-time global high in the world’s most capitalist countries: the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland.  These countries were the richest and the freest – and not “just for the rich.”  Seriously, where on Earth would you rather be living in 1940?  You could say that the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland were even better for the great mass of people immediately prior to the Great Depression.  But that’s praising with faint damnation.

The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

This is misleading even for athletics.  Yes, someone wins the game.  To continue winning, however, even the best teams have to keep practicing and improving.  Every day is another chance for losing teams to turn things around.

The same goes for business.  On any given day, some firms are doing great.  That doesn’t mean, however, that they’ve permanently “won.”  Even if all of their direct competitors go out of business, successful firms have to worry about future competitors.  Amazon is by far the best store in history, but they tirelessly strive to improve because they want to stay number one.

Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led…

“Monopoly”?!  What is Orwell even talking about?  I suppose he could be focusing on a few industries with large economies of scale, but even in his time that would have been a modest share of total output.  Or he might be thinking about industries like agriculture with state-sponsored cartels, but you can hardly blame “free capitalism” for that.

and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.

Mass unemployment is a grave evil, and the evil was probably never graver than during the Great Depression.  But even in Orwell’s day, economists had a compelling diagnosis and effective cures.

The diagnosis: Unemployment is caused by excessive wages.  The effective cures: Either (a) let wages fall, or (b) print more money to reduce wages surreptitiously.  Despite its popularity, “state regimentation” is a red herring that fails to address the actual problem.

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.

The dole was indeed a popular response to high unemployment.  But once you grasp the wage-unemployment connection, you start to worry that the dole prolongs unemployment by reducing the pressure to bring wages down to the full employment level.

The “scramble for markets” story is Leninist dogma.  As the gravity model predicts, rich countries mostly trade with nearby rich countries, not their nation’s colonies.  The post-war loss of colonies was a big blow to nationalist pride, but economically trivial because the colonies were never economically important in the first place.

And war?  Blame nationalism and totalitarianism, not “capitalism.”  If capitalist greed ran Europe in 1914, all of the major powers would have realized that preserving good economic relations with European neighbors was vastly more profitable than grabbing some remote, impoverished colonies.

Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.

Yes, yes, and yes.

There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

On the contrary, the “way out” is to combine freedom of the intellect with a free market economy.  Fortunately, that’s easy because these two freedoms are not only compatible, but mutually supportive.  And if we restore the concept of right and wrong to politics, combining these two freedoms is precisely what we’ll do, because there is a strong moral presumption in favor of freedom.

Final Reactions

A few final reactions:

Miguel Madeira:

“Strictly hereditary dictatorship, per Pascal, has the lowest selection pressure for bloodthirsty power-hunger. ”

Unless we follow the KevinDC model – if we assume that bloodthirsty power-hunger dictators will purge all other potential bloodthirsty power-hunger dictators (meaning that his successor will probably be a risk-averse yes-man)…

I’d say that a truly risk-averse yes-man would steer clear of politics.  The most bloodthirsty dictators might select for underlings who are risk-averse by the standards of ruthless politics, but their absolute level of risk-aversion would still be low.


Thoroughly enjoyed this book club. I’ve been curious throughout whether you would ever touch on the meta-theory that Oceania is actually a lie and the totalitarian state is actually limited to a small autarkical geography. That the reasons that some of the balance of power arguments between the major powers seem shaky are attributable to the power of the government itself being a lie. The reference above to believing absurdities plays nicely into this, and reminds me somewhat of my travels in Cambodia and some of the reflections on the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

I never heard this story, but it doesn’t seem plausible.  Winston Smith clearly lives in England.  They still have a train system, airplanes, and rockets.  And he remembers nuclear war.  So it doesn’t sound like he’s living in a small isolated country.


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club: Final Thoughts

In “Why I Write,” Orwell declares “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”  A curious claim.  I’ve read 1984 at least ten times and Animal Farm at least five times, plus much of his other work.   Orwell’s attack on totalitarianism is blatant, trenchant, and thorough.  His defense of democratic socialism, in contrast, is practically invisible.  So despite his self-image, Orwell ends up being history’s greatest critic of totalitarianism – and not much else.

And he was the best at what he did.  Orwell didn’t merely expose totalitarianism as a system based on brutality, lies, and dehumanization.  He dug deep, and exposed its root: irrationality.  1984 is a grand illustration of Voltaire’s aphorism that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  Yes, totalitarians often claim the mantle of “reason” – and their traditionalist and religious critics are happy it hand to to them.   But the heart of totalitarianism is fanatical belief in a mountain of absurdities.  Their distinctive empirical claims are plainly false, and their distinctive arguments are either riddled with errors or so meaningless they’re “not even false.”  And the low quality of totalitarian thought is hardly surprising, because they use terror to silence their critics instead of patiently hearing them out.

Though Orwell is the greatest critic of totalitarianism, he made a few major mistakes.  First and foremost, he casually accepted the socialist critique of capitalism.  If he looked at the world, he would have noticed that the world’s most capitalist countries were near the pinnacle of human civilization.  Instead, he placed his faith in empty socialist promises of a brighter future.  Orwell also casually accepted the Leninist theory of imperialism: The idea that countries fight over colonies because they desperately need to off-load the fruits of domestic “overproduction.”  Yet due to the gravity model, the European powers’ best customers were always other European countries.  That’s why they were able to hastily release their colonies after World War II.  Given his keen insight into political psychology, Orwell should have defaulted to the simple story that war is the triumph of nationalistic emotion over capitalist calculation.  A great missed opportunity!

[few more comments on book club]


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 6

Here are my reactions to last week’s Book Club comments, starting with a fine exchange between John Alcorn and KevinDC.


1) In previous posts, you argue that totalitarian regimes can maintain power indefinitely — or at least much longer than they do — if successors would practice ruthless repression like the founders. For example, loss of nerve among rulers after Stalin, culminating in Gorbachev, explains the collapse of communism.

In your post about war, you argue that war is an efficacious means to the end of justifying ruthless domestic repression, and that war also spontaneously occurs among power-hungry dictators.

Why, then, did successors often lose their nerve in 20th-century totalitarian regimes? (We’re back to sideward glances at western prosperity, and tensions between totalitarian empire and national sentiments in smaller, satellite States.)


I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of power struggles in dictatorships. Initially, they are won by the most ruthless and cold blooded people – the ones who will do absolutely anything to get power. But almost by definition, in the process of gaining power they also push aside or eliminate everyone who was almost but not quite as ruthless as they were. And during their reign, they keep a firm eye out for and move swiftly against anyone who might be ruthless enough to challenge them. As a result, when the first dictator passes, there’s nobody left who has that same level of brutality and brutal competence, so their successor is inevitably less brutal and more moderate. This may also explain what’s different in the case of North Korea – being an explicitly familial dynasty, you could select for equally brutal successors in a way that wasn’t true in the Soviet Union.

Alcorn again:

2) Re: North Korea.

Are you sure that dynastic succession (kin lineage) facilitates selection for efficacious brutality? As you point out, trust might allow the founder to inculcate brutality in the son. However, natural endowments, too, matter. Brutality genes might skip a generation! Regression to the mean is probable. Kin lineage greatly reduces the scope of eligible pool of talent in efficacious brutality.

Blaise Pascal argued that kin lineage reduces both competence and strife.

Both John and Kevin make good points.  My reconciliation, to channel Gordon Tullock:

1. Revolutionary dictatorships are the worst of the worst, because revolutions select for bloodthirsty risk-taking true believers.  After a successful revolution, prospects are bleak until the whole founding generation dies off.  When Mao finally died, China was amazingly lucky to get a crusty pragmatist like Deng Xiaoping instead of a second Maoist fanatic.

2. Subsequent generations of dictators are generally a big improvement.  Sure, the upper echelons struggle eagerly for power.  But stable regimes attract slightly squeamish risk-averse opportunists.  After two generations, these opportunists come to vastly outnumber bloodthirsty risk-taking true believers.

3. Strictly hereditary dictatorship, per Pascal, has the lowest selection pressure for bloodthirsty power-hunger.  While plenty of hereditary dictators are still awful tyrants, hereditary dictators are the most likely to peacefully relinquish power, or at least “go with the flow.”  The main worry is just that weak hereditary leaders will be reduced to figurehead status by whoever wins the tournament to “advise” them.

So what happened with Gorbachev?  He mostly fits my profile of a “slightly squeamish risk-averse opportunist.”  You could object that a risk-averse leader would never have embarked on glasnost and perestroika, but I say Gorbachev didn’t realize he was playing with fire until it was too late to retain power without a swift reversion to mass murder.  And too his credit, Gorbachev was too squeamish for that.

David Henderson:

I was expecting, when I saw that you had a link to the statement “It takes an outsider to see the ideological landscape as it really is,” that you would reference Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I’m disappointed that you didn’t. You might argue that, coming from Austria, which was so close to Germany, Hayek was not clearly an outsider. But that makes his accomplishment all the more impressive.

Fair point.  Though I’m not a fan of Hayek, I agree that he deserves credit for popularizing the totalitarian model in The Road to Serfdom.

Henri Hein:

I agree that the Thought Police is efficient in fictional Oceania, but I have often found this to be one of the less plausible constructs in the novel. If government is so inefficient at everything, why should it be able to run an efficient Thought Police? I understand that the Russian equivalent was frightening, and somewhat effective, but given the powers and resources they were given, I don’t see any reason to accept they were efficient.

I agree that Orwell’s depiction of the efficiency of the Thought Police is implausibly high.  Once Winston and Julia get arrested, we learn that the Thought Police was on to them for years; they were sitting on piles of redundant evidence the whole time.  And the only clear “false positive” in 1984‘s system of repression is the character of Parsons, who was plainly a loyal Party member falsely denounced by his own children.  Real totalitarian regimes, in contrast, heavily persecute even their loyal followers.  Still, we should not underestimate the ability of totalitarian regimes to excel in tasks they prioritize.  As I’ve said before:

Communist regimes did provide poor incentives to produce consumer goods for ordinary citizens.  But they provided solid to excellent incentives in the sectors they really cared about: the military, secret police, border guarding, athletics, space programs, and so on.

Performance in these sectors was often (though hardly always) world-class.

I’ll post my final thought on Orwell’s book-within-a-book next week, along with replies to any general comments participants care to offer.




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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 6

And now it’s time to finish our critical read of TPOC.  Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

In Oceania at the present day, Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist… In all the useful arts the world is either standing still or going backwards. The fields are cultivated with horse-ploughs while books are written by machinery. But in matters of vital importance — meaning, in effect, war and police espionage — the empirical approach is still encouraged, or at least tolerated.

This “compartmentalization” is readily visible in today’s world as well.  Think about all of the brilliant scientists who just repeat popular platitudes when they talk about public policy.  Or the major political parties’ eager use of statistics to plan their electoral strategies, but not to guide their policy platforms.

The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought. There are therefore two great problems which the Party is concerned to solve. One is how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking, and the other is how to kill several hundred million people in a few seconds without giving warning beforehand…

Why would these be the Party’s two aims?  Power-hunger, of course.  If this is such a relatable motive, how come almost no one talks about it?  Social Desirability Bias, of course.

What is more remarkable is that all three powers already possess, in the atomic bomb, a weapon far more powerful than any that their present researches are likely to discover. Although the Party, according to its habit, claims the invention for itself, atomic bombs first appeared as early as the nineteen-forties, and were first used on a large scale about ten years later… The effect was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped.

This is probably the least plausible feature of Orwell’s scenario.  The leaders of the totalitarian superpowers were fanatical and reckless enough to engage in nuclear war, but pragmatic and calculating enough to simultaneously realize that they’re a “few bombs” away from destruction?  During wartime, the first high-ranking leader to suggest de-escalation would probably be denounced as a traitor.  And even if his peers listened patiently, the obvious objection is: “If we sue for a cease-fire now, the other side will think we’re weak and impose highly unfavorable terms.  And even if they agree, they’ll probably double-cross us very soon.”  Yes, you can appeal to doublethink.  But the bottom line is that “Back down once you’re a few bombs away from the end of organized society” simply isn’t a focal point.

Moreover, no fighting ever occurs except in the disputed areas round the Equator and the Pole: no invasion of enemy territory is ever undertaken. This explains the fact that in some places the frontiers between the superstates are arbitrary. Eurasia, for example, could easily conquer the British Isles, which are geographically part of Europe, or on the other hand it would be possible for Oceania to push its frontiers to the Rhine or even to the Vistula. But this would violate the principle, followed on all sides though never formulated, of cultural integrity.  If Oceania were to conquer the areas that used once to be known as France and Germany, it would be necessary either to exterminate the inhabitants, a task of great physical difficulty, or to assimilate a population of about a hundred million people…

In Orwell’s scenario, all of the super-states are extremely multicultural already.  Oceania includes all of the Americas; Eurasia stretches from Portugal to Siberia.  Since none of them are supposed to have notable ethnic or regional tensions, these countries are supernaturally great at culturally assimilating disparate populations.

War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he is forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

These echoes Stalin’s policy of arresting anyone with foreign contacts.  But the better story is not that contact with foreigners would seriously endanger the totalitarian system, but that the leadership is paranoid.

Under this lies a fact never mentioned aloud, but tacitly understood and acted upon: namely, that the conditions of life in all three super-states are very much the same. In Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self. The citizen of Oceania is not allowed to know anything of the tenets of the other two philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense. Actually the three philosophies are barely distinguishable, and the social systems which they support are not distinguishable at all.

This is clearly inspired by the strong family resemblance between Nazism and Stalinism.  To insiders – the Nazis and Stalinists themselves – the minor details are obviously a matter of life and deaths.  But they’re deluded.  It takes an outsider to see the ideological landscape as it really is.  Atheists know (I repeat, know) that Catholics and Protestants fighting during the Wars of Religion were ideological siblings.  And confirmed enemies of totalitarianism know (I repeat, know) that the Nazis and Stalinists were ideological siblings.  Or dare I say, moral approximates.

Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of semi-divine leader, the same economy existing by and for continuous warfare. It follows that the three super-states not only cannot conquer one another, but would gain no advantage by doing so. On the contrary, so long as they remain in conflict they prop one another up, like three sheaves of corn… Here it is necessary to repeat what has been said earlier, that by becoming continuous war has fundamentally changed its character.

Again, we need not and should not accept the silly story that totalitarian regimes preserve their power by keeping their subjects “stupefied by poverty.”  Instead, we should accept the sensible and parsimonious story that totalitarian regimes preserve their power by filling their subjects heads full of fear of vicious external enemies.

In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat… War was a sure safeguard of sanity, and so far as the ruling classes were concerned it was probably the most important of all safeguards. While wars could be won or lost, no ruling class could be completely irresponsible.

But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded…

The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Overstated, but still insightful.  In particular, one of the top laws of modern geopolitics is that no one invades a nuclear power.  No matter how backward North Korea becomes relative to the rest of the world, their nukes allow the Kims to stonewall world opinion about their domestic policies.  Given these incentives, we should be amazed that nuclear proliferation hasn’t gone much further already.

The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.

Yes, but to repeat, the essence of the “special mental atmosphere” is fanatical group cohesion, not “stupefication via poverty.”


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 5

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.

David Henderson:

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 aspiration 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 on 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.

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.

Jason Ford:

“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.

Mark Z:

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.



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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 5

Today our Book Club continues with Chapter 3, “War Is Peace.” Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

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.


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 4

We’ve now moved on to “War Is Peace.”  Here are my thoughts on your latest comments.


I know you were speaking to the specific Huxley quote, but on the whole I wouldn’t dismiss “Brave New World” so quickly.  Americans have willingly ceded a great deal of their freedom to the government in recent decades…

I agree that Americans ceded a great deal of freedom to the government over the last century.  I don’t see that there’s been a net loss of freedom in American policy from 1980 or 1990 to the present.

and most people under 30 today seem fairly content to live in a numbed state of consciousness through social media, pornography, calorie-dense foods, video games and recreational drugs.  This is compatible with freedom in the “do what you will in the moment” sense of the word, but I don’t think it bodes well for the future of more essential freedoms to the elevation of human character.

Anti-intellectual apathy is the norm in all human societies.  Perhaps things are marginally worse than normal for under-30s nowadays, but I haven’t seen any compelling evidence of this.  What is a non-question-begging measure?

Freedom of thought, speech, association, and religion all seem to be under grave threat so long as the public endures in a state of numbed stupor occasionally punctuated by reactive frustration and outrage.

“Grave threat” seems like hyperbole.  Marginal threat?  Perhaps, though again it’s not clear that things were ever noticeably better.

Henri Hein:

China in the first few decades after the Socialist take-over fits your bill pretty closely. It is the 4th largest country in the world, with population centers such as Chongqing, Wuhan and Beijing isolated by distance and geography. It was surrounded by other failed socialist experiments, or other dysfunctional countries: Soviet Union, North Korea, Afghanistan, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam. Only India was a somewhat functioning country, but you had to cross the largest mountain range in the world to get there, and would probably be shot at if you made it that far. Hong Kong was close, but it had a tiny border and was closely guarded. The rulers told the populace they were living in a Socialist paradise, and the people wanted to believe them. Yet despite this almost perfect setup for Mao, millions of Chinese found their way to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, North America, Indonesia and the Philippines. Millions and millions.

Do you have any source for these numbers?  Nothing readily googles, and they seem far too high.  In any case, “millions and millions of emigrants” out of hundreds of millions spread over a quarter-century of starvation and tyranny hardly sounds like a serious check on tyranny, does it?

Joe Denver:

This seems a bit strange for Orwell. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding him, but even as a socialist, it seems strange to strongly advocate against tyrannical Stalinism, yet also have so much faith that it works.

Compare this with liberals (libertarians), who, if anything, are far too quick to predict the downfall of authoritarian institutions. Likely because they have no faith that these institutions work.

Orwell thought that the Soviet system “worked” in the sense of maintaining an iron grip on power.  And he had excellent reasons to think so; he saw Stalin hold power under extraordinarily dire conditions, mostly of his own making.  Orwell’s mistake was thinking that the Soviet system would be good at perpetuating itself after the fanatical revolutionary generation died off.


While TPOC-Orwell is certainly prescient and insightful in some ways here, you give him too much credit as a strategist and war planer…

A two-bloc world is more seems more stable here. Why didn’t 1984-Orwell go for it? One foe should be enough now.

Hard to say.  Perhaps given his experience with British colonialism, Orwell was skeptical that two European powers could permanently maintain control over Asia.  Dramatically, of course, he wanted to have three powers so he could ridicule the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact via the famous scene where Oceania switches enemies in the middle of Hate Week.

However, the point is moot, since, second, there are nukes in 1984. An even bigger arms race seems inevitable, and sooner or later one bloc will gain the upper hand (or is feared by the others to do so). Result in that world is the same: All-out war.

Aren’t nukes precisely what makes Orwell’s stalemate plausible?  Nuclear weapons are the standard explanation for why the Cold War stayed cold for the major powers, no?

Brian Kennedy:

I don’t think two bloc worlds are more stable, and I *sorta* think that the International Relations/Historian Academics (I am neither) think so as well.  Rome/Carthage, the Central Powers/Allies, Axis/Allies, etc.   In a two power dynamic, everything is zero sum, so if you have the advantage, press it.  Which makes a war to determine everything inevitable.

“Inevitable” is way too strong.  But it’s believable that two-bloc worlds are more likely to lead to total war than three-bloc worlds.

In a three bloc dynamic, it is not so simple.  Yes, two powers could gang up and totally defeat the third power, but then you are in the two bloc dynamic, do you want to enter that if you are the weaker of the two victories powers?  No. So you switch sides.

Plausible for most of history.  It wouldn’t have made much sense for the British to team up with the Soviets against the Americans after World War II, though.

If the Cuban Missile crises had triggered WW-III, later historians would have said it was just the event that triggered the inevitable war, just as they now say that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered WW-I.   Europe had gone through multiple crises pre WW-I, which eventually triggered a war.

Hindsight bias is mighty, yes.

So too the Cold War, though after the Cuban Missile Crises, those crises tended more towards Kabuki Theatre.  Because nukes, I would posit.


Donald Fagan:

“If you’re still not convinced, noticed how easily the European powers surrendered their entire empires after World War II.  Since they never really “needed” their colonies, they swiftly let them go with minimal domestic side effects when imperial fervor waned.”

I think you’re way off here. The European colonial powers were exhausted financially after the war and no longer had the juice to maintain empire in the new world of the superpowers.

This is a fine explanation for why the Netherlands gave up the Dutch East Indies; they lost control during World War II and lacked the resources to reestablish control in time.  But “financial exhaustion” really doesn’t explain the British or French collapse.  With the possible exception of British India, their mighty economies largely recovered before the independence movements gained the upper hand.  And again, if the colonies were actually profitable for the colonial powers, letting them go would have made their long-run financial outlook worse, not better.

How do you explain attempted British intervention in the Suez in 1957, and the diplomatic (as well as national) humiliation their failed efforts earned them?

I’d call it a last gasp of nationalistic pride.  The loss was humiliating, but not impoverishing.

David Henderson:

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the late Jonathan Kwitny’s book Endless Enemies:

The excuse for intervention [by the U.S. government], of course, is the notion that if we don’t fight, Moscow will win by default. Yet as one travels the globe, from Indochina to Cuba to Angola, one finds that the Third World countries where the Soviets are alleged to have the strongest influence are precisely those countries where we have fought. Meanwhile, in countries that weren’t militarily threatened by the United States, where Soviet influence has had a chance to flunk on its own merits, it has. In Egypt, in Ghana, in Algeria, in Somalia, in Nigeria, in Indonesia—except in occupied countries along the Soviets’ own border, the Russians have been kicked out.

I’m tempted to agree, but it’s complicated.  Maybe the U.S. was more likely to fight in arenas where the Soviets were more determined to win a lasting victory.  The Soviets were “kicked out” of the countries where they were dabbling all along.  Until 1989, what explicit Marxist-Leninist dictatorship ever lost rule of a country after securely gaining it?  The closest example is Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, where one Marxist-Leninist dictatorship lost power to another.

Henri Hein:

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;

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.

Continuing my efforts from previous posts, this time I am just going to list some geniuses that were produced by poor parents:

Michael Faraday
Srinivas Ramanujan
Alfred Nobel
Marshall Mathers
Alexander Hamilton
Abraham Lincoln

You’re getting a little ahead in the reading, but you make a useful point.  I’m going to focus on the fact that riches fail to intellectualize most people, but it’s also worth pointing out that poverty often fails to “stupefy.”


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club, Part 4

Now our ongoing Book Club turns to Chapter 3 of Orwell’s book-within-a-book, famously entitled “War is Peace.”  I continue to refer to Orwell as the author of the book even though he’s playing a role and may not have fully agreed with his own words.

Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

The splitting up of the world into three great super-states was an event which could be and indeed was foreseen before the middle of the twentieth century. With the absorption of Europe by Russia and of the British Empire by the United States, two of the three existing powers, Eurasia and Oceania, were already effectively in being. The third, Eastasia, only emerged as a distinct unit after another decade of confused fighting. The frontiers between the three super-states are in some places arbitrary, and in others they fluctuate according to the fortunes of war, but in general they follow geographical lines. Eurasia comprises the whole of the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait. Oceania comprises the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa. Eastasia, smaller than the others and with a less definite western frontier, comprises China and the countries to the south of it, the Japanese islands and a large but fluctuating portion of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet.

Orwell was writing in 1948, so his geopolitical scenario is rather credible.  If Anglo-American forces had suddenly withdrawn from Western Europe, we can easily imagine a full takeover by the Soviet Union.  The Chinese Communist victory was still a year away, but Orwell seems to foretell its rise as the third great global power – not to mention the Sino-Soviet split.  Still, Orwell’s trilateral scenario is a far cry from the bilateral conflict that actually prevailed throughout the Cold War.

In one combination or another, these three super-states are permanently at war, and have been so for the past twenty-five years. War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference.

On first glance, Orwell correctly predicts the conduct of the Cold War.  In his scenario, however, there’s a major nuclear war first, followed by a three-way Cold War, so don’t give him too much credit.  Furthermore, while the ideological difference between the Soviet Union and Maoist China was indeed minimal despite their angry split, the divide between the West and these Stalinist offshoots remained strong.  Of course, the West’s claims to champion “democracy” or “the free world” were absurd; look at contemporary Taiwan, South Korea, Indochina, Indonesia, Africa, or Latin America.  The main divide was between the Soviet Union, which heavily pushed revolutionary totalitarian rule, and the U.S., which supported the traditional authoritarian regimes that Soviet proxies hoped to supplant.

This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or the prevailing attitude towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous. On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.

After World War II, this was a quite reasonable prediction.  All of the major powers embraced indiscriminate murder of civilians.  And the Korean War seemed to affirm this new disdain for long-standing Just War Theory.  Amazingly, however, Western countries quietly backed away from this moral abyss.  While the U.S. military obviously continues to kill innocents, there has been a marked return to more civilized standards.  In particular, Western leaders rarely advocate the deliberate targeting of civilians.  A low bar, but still a big improvement from the low of World War II.

But in a physical sense war involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at, or round the Floating Fortresses which guard strategic spots on the sea lanes. In the centres of civilization war means no more than a continuous shortage of consumption goods, and the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths. War has in fact changed its character.

Fairly prescient, if you change one detail.  Since World War II, the small number of conflict deaths in Western countries have come via terrorist attacks rather than country-to-country rocket bombs.  And depending on how “state-sponsored” you think these terrorist attacks have been, you might consider this superficial detail.

More exactly, the reasons for which war is waged have changed in their order of importance. Motives which were already present to some small extent in the great wars of the early twentieth century have now become dominant and are consciously recognized and acted upon.

To understand the nature of the present war—for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war—one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive. None of the three super-states could be definitively conquered even by the other two in combination. They are too evenly matched, and their natural defences are too formidable. Eurasia is protected by its vast land spaces. Oceania by the width of the Atlantic and the Pacific, Eastasia by the fecundity and industriousness of its inhabitants.


Secondly, there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about. With the establishment of self-contained economies, in which production and consumption are geared to one another, the scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death.

Orwell remained a self-identified socialist until his death, and his embrace of this Leninist theory of international conflict was probably sincere.  Yet the Leninist theory never made much sense.  Simply by the gravity model, intra-European trade was almost always far greater than trade between imperial powers and their colonies.  And the non-imperial nations of Europe seemed to be at least as prosperous as the imperial nations; it wasn’t like Sweden or Switzerland’s lack of colonies were serious economic handicaps.  While imperial rivalry was indeed an important cause of European conflict, the reason was clearly nationalism, not national economic self-interest.  If you’re still not convinced, noticed how easily the European powers surrendered their entire empires after World War II.  Since they never really “needed” their colonies, they swiftly let them go with minimal domestic side effects when imperial fervor waned.

True, the world’s leading nations did worry about their access to strategic resources.  But by itself, this is a circular theory of conflict.  Why are you fighting?  To secure strategic resources.  Why do you need strategic resources?  Because we’re fighting.  Once again, the ideology of militaristic nationalism comes first.

In any case each of the three super-states is so vast that it can obtain almost all the materials that it needs within its own boundaries. In so far as the war has a direct economic purpose, it is a war for labour power. Between the frontiers of the super- states, and not permanently in the possession of any of them, there lies a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin, and Hong Kong, containing within it about a fifth of the population of the earth.

This quadrilateral remained economic unimportant throughout the Cold War.  How is that possible?  Because despite its high population, the region remained very low-skilled.  While the number of people was high, the total human capital of the region was modest.

It is for the possession of these thickly-populated regions, and of the northern ice-cap, that the three powers are constantly struggling. In practice no one power ever controls the whole of the disputed area. Portions of it are constantly changing hands, and it is the chance of seizing this or that fragment by a sudden stroke of treachery that dictates the endless changes of alignment.

The Cold War was a “constant struggle,” but had a clear direction.  The Soviet bloc enjoyed substantial growth throughout, flipping about twenty five countries from 1945-1989.  So while conflict largely stayed in the world’s economic periphery, the Soviets’ long-run advance was impressive.  Indeed, their only great defeat was the defection of China from the Soviet bloc.  This split the world Communist movement, but the only Communist country China pulled into its own orbit was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  And Vietnam’s subsequent invasion of Cambodia soon reversed that small victory.  Once 1989 came, however, the Soviet bloc shattered beyond repair.  And in historical perspective, current talk of a “new Cold War” with China is mere hyperbole.


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 3

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, his dictatorship he built was mild enough that he didn’t need a master plan to unravel it.

Thomas DeMaio:

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 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.

Max Avar:

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.

John Alcorn:

Re: Doublethink.

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”!


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