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

Today, the Book Club finishes with Chapter 1, “Ignorance Is Strength.” Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments and I’ll do an omnibus reply later this week.

The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons, one of which is subsidiary and, so to speak, precautionary. The subsidiary reason is that the Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising. But by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party.

When you first read 1984, the mutability of the past sounds like sci-fi.  Real humans would never believe such nonsense, would they?  If you pay a little attention to evolving political dogmas, however, you will soon notice that all of your political opponents keep rewriting the past.  The final frontier is attaining sufficient detachment to see that all politically influential sides keep rewriting the past, too.  As Tetlock documents, noted political experts are among the grossest offenders; when they make demonstrably false predictions, their first line of defense is to misremember their own predictions!

It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.

Another popular variant: Confess the “error” of overestimating your opponents’ intelligence, morality, etc.  “My enemies are even worse than I imagined.  I was so wrong” is no confession of weakness.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty…

Some philosophers will claim that Orwellian doublethink is somehow logically impossible.  And many armchair psychologists will pronounce is psychologically impossible.  But in all honesty, I see no other way to explain the social world.  Most notably: Unless doublethink existed, why would so many people express absurd beliefs with so much sincerity – yet stubbornly refuse to bet on them? Yes, perhaps they’re Oscar-worthy actors.  The better story, though, is doublethink.  For rhetorical purposes, political activists confidently believe nonsense; for behavioral purposes, however, they modestly defer to common sense.

All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft. Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown; or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again were overthrown.

When Orwell was writing, the “became liberal and cowardly” mechanism might have seemed overblown.  The subsequent collapse of colonialism, the Soviet Empire, the Shah, and so on confirm the depth of his insight.

It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.

At least in the real world, this is overstated.  We can tone this down, however, to: “The most extreme political fanatics tend to be very well-informed according to objective tests of political knowledge.”

The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no practical reason for them. Thus, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism.

Hyperbole.  Most obviously: As Orwell elsewhere explains, Oceania really did expropriate the capitalist class and establish a state-run economy, fulfilling two great socialist dreams in the process.

The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.


Here we reach the central secret. As we have seen. the mystique of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, depends upon doublethink. But deeper than this lies the original motive, the never-questioned instinct that first led to the seizure of power and brought doublethink, the Thought Police, continuous warfare, and all the other necessary paraphernalia into existence afterwards. This motive really consists…

Winston Smith gets arrested before we can read another word of Chapter 1.  Toward the end of the book, however, O’Brien maniacally completes the ellipses:

Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power… The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

I struggle to pick my favorite Orwell passage, but this is definitely a top contender.  I understand why people rarely admit to power-hunger; all Social Desirability Bias goes against it.  “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power,” is the kind of thing people only say off the record.  Nevertheless, I have to wonder: How can anyone overlook the immense role that power-hunger plays in the social world?  I see it.  Orwell saw it.  How can anyone deny it?


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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.


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Loyalty Oaths Compared: An Orwellian Exercise

A key tenet of American’s civic religion is that the McCarthy-era persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers was both paranoid and immoral.  Academics are especially strident in their commitment to this tenet.  And since they are academics, they’re especially dismayed by academia‘s persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers.  The most infamous form of this persecution: the loyalty oaths many universities imposed on their employees.  Sign the oath, or lose your job.

What exactly did these loyalty oaths say?  Here’s UC Berkeley’s Loyalty Oath of 1950.

Constitutional Oath (Constitution of the State of California, Article 20, Section 3)

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my office according to the best of my ability.”

As passed by the Regents, April 12, 1950

“Having taken the constitutional oath of the office required by the State of California, I hereby formally acknowledge my acceptance of the position and salary named, and also state that I am not a member of the Communist Party or any other organization which advocates the overthrow of the Government by force or violence, and that I have no commitments in conflict with my responsibilities with respect to impartial scholarship and free pursuit of truth. I understand that the foregoing statement is a condition of my employment and a consideration of payment of my salary.”

Notice the mild wording of this Loyalty Oath.  A person who personally advocates the violent overthrow of the government could truthfully sign it as long as he belongs to no organization that shares his position.  A philosophical communist in full sympathy with Stalin could truthfully sign it as long as he is personally an “impartial scholar” in “free pursuit of truth.”  Needless to say, every species of democratic socialist could readily sign, as could every kind of anti-anti-Communist.

By way of contrast, let’s compare UC Berkeley’s new Diversity and Inclusion Oath.  Well, it’s actually much more.  An Oath merely requires you to parrot someone else’s words; what Berkeley now mandates is a self-authored Diversity and Inclusion Vow in order to determine eligibility for employment.  The university then scores your Vow for orthodoxy.  Part 1 of its rubric, “Knowledge About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” assigns you a prohibitively low score if your statement contains stuff like:

Little expressed knowledge of, or experience with, dimensions of diversity that result from different identities. Defines diversity only in terms of different areas of study or different nationalities, but doesn’t discuss gender or ethnicity/race. Discusses diversity in vague terms, such as “diversity is important for science.” May state having had little experience with these issues because of lack of exposure, but then not provide any evidence of having informed themselves. Or may discount the importance of diversity.

That’s right, merely “discounting the importance of diversity” virtually bars you from faculty employment.  Imagine if the 1950 Oath required you to, “Affirm the great importance of the fight against Communism.”  Or sanctioned those who merely “discussed anti-Communism in vague terms.”

The rubric continues:

Seems not to be aware of, or understand the personal challenges that underrepresented individuals face in academia, or feel any personal responsibility for helping to eliminate barriers. For example, may state that it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.

This would be akin to a 1950 Oath that mandated support for current anti-Communist tactics.  Something like: “For example, may state that it’s better not to support right-wing dictatorships because it creates the false impression that capitalism and democracy are incompatible.”

What’s afoot?  Orwellian doublethink of the highest order. Sure, the hated 1950 Loyalty Oath seems far less onerous than the new Diversity and Inclusion Vow.  But the people who refused to sign the 1950 Oath were heroes standing up for freedom of conscience.  The people who question today’s orthodoxy, in contrast, are hate-mongers who need to be excluded from high-skilled employment.

Newspeak-to-English translation: Full-blown Stalinism is no big deal, a mere difference of opinion.  Yet even tepid doubts about whether mandatory discrimination against high-performing groups has already gone far enough are anathema, anathema, anathema.


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