The Orwellian Polity in Nineteen Eighty-Four | George Orwell #1
The Political Economy of Totalitarianism, An Observation of How Would An Autocratic Regime Most Successfully Functions
The storyline of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) was conveyed from a third person perspective, revolving around the experience of the protagonist, Winston Smith, from the start of his conscious rebellion against ‘The Big Brother’, a clear-cut representation of Joseph Stalin, to mental and physical surrender towards the IngSoc Party of Oceania after the torture session. And the totalitarian political institutions that Orwell constructed within which the story proceeds is arguably one of the earliest and still the most widely known dystopian regime, especially used extensively in political discourse and the literary arena. Here in this short essay, I intend to briefly sketch the structure and functions of such a Orwellian polity, or the Orwellian Model, as laid out in 1984.
One of the main “dilemma” that confronted and posed by Orwell and “all socialists who believe in the agency of the working-class”, as John Newsinger, a historian from Bath Spa University and a book reviewer for The New Left Review, pointed out, is that: despite the “overwhelming” “moral case for democratic socialism”, or a society in which “the working-class was ‘in the saddle’” after “the establishment of a classless society where the ruling class, whatever its particular make-up, had been overthrown, deprived of its wealth and power forever,” with “the strength to bring [the] system crashing down [so n]othing could stand in their way”, the oppressed working-class “don’t act” (Newsinger, 2018). As Winston, representing Orwell, puts it somewhat ‘Catch-22’ paradoxically:
“… if there was hope, it lay in the proles”, but “[u]ntil they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious” (Orwell, 1949).¹
Orwell’s Dilemma of Class Consciousness, as Winston accounted, was the result of the mechanisms of diversion manufactured by the state directed at the proletariats, the social class of the ‘Low’ that constitute about 85%² of Oceania’s total population (Orwell, 1949). These major obstacles towards the realization of class consciousness can take many different forms: one central theme is insecurity, the other being hedonism, or anything politically trivial that the people are either being compelled or addicted to, so that class issues and critical reflections on society can never arise. “To keep them in control was not difficult”:
“Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds” (Orwell, 1949).
Lottery is one such example. In one scene, “walking through a working-class district,” Winston saw people “having a fierce argument… about the Lottery numbers… [in which] men and women who could barely read and write were ‘capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory’” (Newsinger, 2018). “[M]anaged by the Ministry of Plenty,” “[t]he Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive”, despite that “everyone in the party” was aware that “the prizes were largely imaginary [and] the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons.”
Besides lottery, another form of diversion operates through the media. “[R]ubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs” were manufactured in “a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment” within “the Ministry of Truth”. Among these departments was the one Julia, Winston’s closet partner, worked in — ‘Pornosec’, which “engaged in producing the lowest kind of… cheap pornography for distribution among the proles.”
Orwell’s Dilemma was further formulated in the forbidden fictional book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, a fictional revolutionary and heretical figure in Oceania that’s likely modeled after the socialist dissident and political opponent of Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and/or the anarcha-feminist whose “Disillusionment in Russia” is also publicly known, Emma Goldman. The Orwellian Model, according to The Theory, relied almost solely on perpetual warfare between the three super-states that partitioned the Orwellian World System (OWS) for the sustenance of economic inequality and thereby political inequity. It’s aimed at and indeed succeeded in producing poverty and ignorance among the population, which serve as the roots of the absence of class consciousness among the oppressed. As The Theory articulated,
“[t]he 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 [so that] the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods [become] obviously not urgent”.
The point of warfare and the industrial and propaganda efforts involved is to eliminate “the dangers inherent in the machine”, as it was called from the point of view of the dominant bureaucratic class: the prospects for enabling “hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease [to] be eliminated within a few generations”, leading to the “disappear[ance]” of “the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality,” and “the destruction… of a hierarchical society”. The reason is that political inequity existentially depends upon economic inequality, and the technological progress, if left unregulated, would naturally results in significant diminishment in natural scarcity, which could very well destroys economic inequality.
“It was possible… to imagine a society in which WEALTH… should be evenly distributed, while POWER remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. 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.”
It follows, then, it is in the foremost interest of the political class to maintain general impoverishment for the sustenance of their power. In order to prevent such class consciousness and the active pursuit of justice and equality from realization, the financial security and freedom from effective scarcity (different from absolute scarcity³) that are necessary for such conditions must be demolished.
“[A] hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”
By “expending labour power”, “which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and… too intelligent”, on “anything that can[‘t] be consumed” (in other words, intentionally denying human demands and producing waste), the perpetual mode of warfare, in which “[t]he essential act… is destruction… of the products of human labour” rather than fulfilling people’s needs, solves the “dangers” efficiently, more so than does the “solution to keep the masses in poverty by restricting the output of goods”, as it was the case with production quotas in typical “communist” polities. Therefore, by “eat[ing] up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population”, which “are always underestimated”, “the distinction between one group and another” can be “magnifie[d]” by “a general state of scarcity”, or, inequity.
In addition to the prevention of class consciousness, “the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger” also serves as a disciplinary mechanism for authoritarian legitimation and the suppression of class consciousness, by “mak[ing] the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.” This is directed not primarily at the masses, however, but the Party itself, especially the ‘Outer Party’, which may seem to share the same interests with those of the “Inner Party”. As an official Party slogan, ‘Proles and Animals are free’, revealed, since “the proles were natural inferiors who must be kept in subjection, like animals, by the application of a few simple rules”, “no attempt [should be] made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party” (Orwell, 1949), nor should they be “kept suppressed by the terrorist methods that are used against what we can usefully call the middle or managerial class [and thereby] not worth the attention of the Thought Police, but could instead be left in ignorance and apathy” (Newsinger, 2018).
But the minds and behaviors of the ‘Outer Party’ are of much greater importance to the Party for the regime’s sustenance. Any member of the ‘Outer Party’, the social class of the ‘Middle’ to which Winston belonged and identified with, is:
“… expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but… also… be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.”
Therefore, “a state of war”, regardless of whether it’s “actually happening” or going “well or badly”, is necessary for the Party members to internalize.
On the other hand, with “the technique of DOUBLETHINK”, the ‘Inner Party’, which is the ‘High’ social class that make up approximately less than 2% of the total population¹, can simultaneously be aware and accept, or ignore and reject, the “war news”, which are mostly “spurious and… either not happening or is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones”.
Instrumental in imposing the war mentality, media propaganda is also central to the maintenance of the Model by shaping and controlling the minds and opinions of the Party. From the propaganda poster ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’ and the broadcasts on the ‘telescreen’, the nature of media within the Orwellian State System (OSS) is deliberately propagandist, in which the direct natural result is the distortions of reality, particularly historical reality.
The superficial purpose of media can be stretched into different directions. First, agenda-setting: by instilling certain information, not only would the desired agendas of the Party be unquestionably ratified, the minds of the Party were also trained to be unconditionally, if not enthusiastically, loyal and committed to the Party’s agendas, regardless of whether they’re concrete or fictitious. Second, to dull people’s brains: by repetitively instilling disinformation within a distorted framework of the world, which is usually characterized by optimism, the minds and worldviews of the audience gets to be shaped in any way the Party desires. Third, training emotional jingoism and dogmatism: in political judgements, the Party members are expected to eliminate rationality with the replacement of “frenzies of fear and hatred”, and become capable of unconditional defense of the authority and antagonism towards whatever is against the Party. For example, repetitive false reports on the “overfulfilment” in production as part of the agenda, “Three-Year Plan”, functions to seek legitimization from the ‘Outer Party’ for regime stability. For another instance, in the ‘Two Minutes Hate’, through the collective mindset in which each individual can “not help sharing in the general delirium,” the “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness” towards “unorthodoxy” (e.g. Goldstein) displayed on the screen were being efficiently trained. Generalizing these utilities, the underlying purpose of media propaganda comes down to the violent robbery of each individuals’ human essence.
Being notified by the authority “that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia” while already “kn[owing] that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago”, Winston can’t find any evidence for his preexisting knowledge except “in his own consciousness”. This conscious defiance towards the official ‘truth’, “in any case must soon be annihilated” because the partisan authority required “an unending series of victories over your own memory”, which can be achieved “if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” Such distorted reality, as according to the Party slogan ‘[w]ho controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past’, and through the technique of Doublethink that was required of the Party to be internalized and mastered in, must be accepted as “true from everlasting to everlasting”,⁴ thereby artificially manufacturing, on a gigantic scale, schizophrenia and other psychological disorders resulted from the violations of the natural laws of metaphysics, which, comparable to arithmetic, any normal organism must abides by.
Despite the intense hostility from the perpetual warfare, indicated by the citizens’ “execrat[ion]” towards the seemingly different “prevailing philosophy” in Eurasia and Eastasia, which are Neo-Bolshevism and Death-Worship (or the Obliteration of the Self) respectively, “the conditions of life in all three super-states are very much the same”, and “the three philosophies are barely distinguishable, and the social systems which they support are not distinguishable at all. Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of semi-divine leader, the same economy existing by and for continuous warfare” (Orwell, 1949). As a historian from the University of Kent, Mark Connelly, noted:
“… the [ruling ideologies of the three super-states] may differ, but their purpose is the same, to justify and maintain the unquestioned leadership of a totalitarian elite” (Connelly, 2018).
It follows that, no matter how the ruling class of the OSS “pay lip-service to their ideology” by making “use of such terms as freedom, justice, and fraternity… under the banner of equality,” the real “conscious aim of perpetuating UNfreedom and INequality… [would always be] to arrest progress and freeze history⁵… [and] maintain [the High’s] position permanently.” And in order for this permanent hierarchical structure to be perpetuated, “the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly… [so] the Party owns everything in Oceania”. Here, Orwell brilliantly concluded, that the so-called ‘one-man rule’ isn’t a requisite, but rather undesirable for any fascist, or authoritarian, or totalitarian regime. In fact, those polities with extensive centralization of power in one person or one family often tends to be more unstable and short-lived than those dominated primarily by a single political party (e.g. “Communist” parties) or class (e.g. Capitalists) that’s composed of a bigger portion of the population.
Under this ‘Oligarchical Collectivism’, the ends of everything revolve around the sustenance of oligarchical power. “Power is not a means, it is an end”, O’Brien explained to Winston during the torture sessions,
“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.”
With this as the guiding principle, “[s]cience, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist… technological progress… [and] the empirical approach is still encouraged, or at least tolerated…” only if the “subject matter” is “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.”
: Though no evidence of Karl Marx’s influence exist, we can explicitly see the distinction that Orwell was trying to make between the ‘class-in-itself’ and ‘class-for-itself’ here, a Marxist realization that Orwell arrived at from another ground.
: See Appendix A.
: A convenient categorization, “effective scarcity” is different in the sense that people can generally pursue their self-interest without much restrains from things such as lack of food, water, and shelter. Much as the prospects for completely and absolutely abolishing scarcity and thereby reaching absolute equality are impossible, as neoclassical economists generally like to stress by invoking the theory of “opportunity cost”, short-term financial stress such as the lack of or insufficiency in access to income and leisure can be eliminated to the extent that much of the population can live in sustainable growth and political harmony without much worry for the amount of money in their pockets, as demonstrated over and over and over again throughout history. It is surely impossible for any person to learn to shred guitar in one second, eat billions of burritos, make sophisticated financial calculations, buy tons of clothes, and fly to Mars, and, above all, do them all at the same time. And nobody sane would come close to be seriously taking this prospect of “absolute scarcity” into their rational consideration, as Lionel Robbins and Milton Friedman can also prove. Therefore, the concept of “opportunity cost” is incapable of disproving the possibility for eliminating the kind of scarcity that’s socially significant (that people worry about), and that for creating the prospect for one “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” (guess where this quote is from). The reason is simple: humans are born to strive to become humans, not the monarch of the universe.
: Against this principle, was the Pragmatism of John Dewey, an honorable preacher of democracy who was highly skeptical of industrial capitalism.
: What some prestigious and influential intellectuals would refer to as “The End of History”. Best examples nowadays are “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” of the Chinese Communist Party (so it was called), and the “Capitalist Democracy” (so it was called) of the West (as it was so commonly believed that it’s the best economic system that human civilization can have, often accompanied by sneers of the “failures” of the “Socialism” and “Communism” of the East).
Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Newsinger, J. (2018). Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left. London: Pluto Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt21kk1wk
Connelly, M. (2018). George Orwell: A Literary Companion. McFarland & Company, Inc.