Saturday, October 27, 2018

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Note

Some time ago a poll in Britain identified George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as the book that people most often lie about having read.

Naturally the ways in which we hear the book discussed often seem to miss the point. In line with the prejudices fostered by Cold War orthodoxy, they also identify it with socialism--without which the book might not be nearly so widely cited and promoted as it is today.

Alas, the latter conveniently overlooks the fact that Orwell, while an anti-Stalinist, was still a socialist; and what he described in his book was not meant to be thought of as socialism but rather a pseudo-socialism intended to prevent the genuine kind from ever arriving. Put another way, it was intended to preserve the existence of inequality, a power elite, the mechanisms of oppression as ends in themselves. The key tool was the militarization of society--keeping it in a state of perpetual war.

I direct the reader--you know, the one actually reading the book rather than saying they did, to Chapter III of the book-within-a-book that is Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Collective Oligarchism, "War is Peace." There, as Goldstein observes, the rising productivity of machine-equipped industrialized society was making it possible to eliminate "hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease" before very long, and indeed led to a "vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient"--what we call the capital "F" Future of which the flying car is the symbol--"was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person." Those in power saw that this would spell the end of any need or justification for "human inequality," and indeed, "hierarchical society"--distinction conferred by wealth, and "POWER . . . remained in the hands of a small privileged caste," and this "privileged minority," now functionless, swept away by the well-fed, literate, thinking lower orders who no longer had use for them, and knew it.

Indeed, Goldstein declares that "[i]n the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance." Deliberate restriction of economic output to prevent this proved politically unworkable (as the post-World War I stagnation and Great Depression proved), but perpetual war afforded an option for "us[ing] up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living," which indeed was the principal function of the eternal war amongst Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. After all, there is nothing like the cry "We're at war!" to make people stomach austerity, deprivation, repression; to make them think the stifling of dissent justified--with even liberal societies seeing war time and again prove the end of progressive hopes.1

This commitment to inequality and oppression for their own sake, and the extremes to which an elite fearful of its position might go to resist a movement toward a more egalitarian order of things; the recognition of how eternal emergency can be an excuse for such a state--these were arguably Orwell's greatest insights, and warnings we have ignored at our very great peril.2

1. Chris Hedges wrote about this in The Death of the Liberal Class. John K. Galbraith wrote about his own experience of this in his A Journey Through Economic Time: A Firsthand View.
2. In the closing essay of his collection On History, Eric Hobsbawm reflects on the sheer bloodiness and brutality of the twentieth century and suggests that it was as horrible as it was because it was, at bottom, a "century of counterrevolution," and no one can be more vicious than the privileged when they feel that their selfishness is threatened.

Lying About What We Read

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