George Orwell is one of the most widely read English-language authors, and has certainly been one of the most quoted ones for more than a half-century. There is no need to mention the many concepts associated with him: “Newspeak,” “thought police,” “Orwellian” and so on. At the same time, the man who strove, as he himself said, to turn political writing into an art and who declared that everything he wrote after 1936 (subsequent to his participation in the Spanish Civil War, against fascist forces) was written against totalitarianism and in favor of democratic socialism, continues to be perceived, ultimately, as a storyteller.
In contrast to the approach of the vast body of writing that exists about Orwell, and about his novel “1984” in particular, I will argue here, in brief, that his output needs to be seen as belonging to the realm of of political theory. In other words, Orwell is (also) a political theoretician (in the conventional sense of the term: a person who espouses a theory about the social reality). Moreover, and especially in his 1949 dystopic novel, he contributed significantly to the understanding of the dynamics of modern politics and in particular of the phenomenon the Roman historian Tacitus called the “secrets of governing” (arcana imperii). “Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation,” Orwell wrote.
Any consideration of Orwell’s writing cannot ignore the fact that he chose the literary genre as the most congenial for giving expression to his views. Writing was for him a tool for changing social reality, and the literature he wrote was political. In fact, it often seems as though the narrative interferes with his attempt to set forth his views about modern capitalism (and about democracy, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other). Indeed, when he encountered difficulties in plot construction, he was known to deal with them by devious literary means, so as to retain his political point.
A vivid example of this is his insertion of a completely theoretical text running to dozens of pages in “1984,” by means of a literary stratagem of introducing a fictitious book-within-a-book. The text, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” is manifestly a sociopolitical analysis of trends in modern industrial society and a historic description of the phenomenon called “government.” Some people advised him to remove the “book” from the book. Happily for us, he ignored them.
‘It depends on you’
Orwell did not in any systematic way read the classic works of political thought and theory (as opposed to contemporaneous political writing, about which he was extremely knowledgeable), and that may help us understand why he chose the literary genre rather than focusing on philosophy or political science. In his works he gave expression to, and provided an explanation (theoretical) for, developments in modern society. Shortly before his death, in 1950, he made it unequivocally clear that the appalling picture of the future starkly depicted in “1984” was not some imaginative exercise for him. “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,” he asserted toward the end of his life. In his view, the dystopia had already begun to materialize.
What is the “it” he warned against? He is referring to the fact that in the struggle to impose limits on political power, society is at a disadvantage. Orwell went a few steps further, developing the analysis of José Ortega y Gasset, who in his book “The Revolt of the Masses” (1932), wrote, “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention; the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the state… The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine.” In “1984,” Orwell showed how that scenario could be realized in everyday life.
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His writing from the 1930s onward displays a persistent effort to identify the socioeconomic forces that were pushing toward the emergence of a society whose features resemble those he would portray in “1984” and to warn against them. For this reason, Orwell’s final book was a very frightening one. He was out to scare his readers, because he wanted to make them think about the direction in which modern society was being led. “Power is not a means, it is an end,” he wrote at the end of “1984.”
Then, as now, the public had trouble conceiving of the fact that there are sociopolitical elements whose goal is to preserve a class society. In other words, precisely in an era in which technology is creating great abundance, unparalleled in human history, it is scarcity that rules. (“In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life,” Orwell wrote.)
In his view, this state of affairs was not the result of a mistake, a “hidden hand” or a government of fools; it was a deliberate policy advanced by an exploitative elite. And it isn’t by accident that the masses don’t grasp what is happening: “In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.” In other words, there are forces whose vested interest is to preserve “high” and “low.” The rationale for this was explained as early as the 17th century by the French statesman Cardinal Richelieu in his “Political Testament”: “All students of politics agree that when the common people are too well off, it is impossible to keep them peaceable… It would not be sound to relieve them of all taxation and similar charges, since in such a case they would lose the mark of their subjection and consequently the awareness of their station.”
Orwell died young, aged 46 – younger than the age at which many thinkers in the realms of humanities and social sciences have written their magnum opus. From this point of view, it’s hard to imagine how our world would look if Niccolo Machiavelli (who died at 58), Karl Marx (at 64), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (66), Immanuel Kant (79) or Thomas Hobbes (91) had died when they were still in their forties. By the same token, it’s tempting to imagine how our world of ideas would look if Orwell had lived another 40 years.
A survey of his development as a thinker, beginning from his period of service in the Imperial Police in Burma (when he was in his 20s), shows one thing clearly: The issues that troubled Orwell beginning in the 1930s won a richer and more complete theoretical expression in “1984.” Indeed, when we consider the stage his intellectual progress had reached in the autumn of his years, we find new directions, not yet fully matured, in his analysis of modern politics.
Mechanism of power
What I’ve written so far is meant to justify my reading of “1984” as political theory, and not just as a novel. The general plotline is well known and needs no elaboration. I will only mention that the book covers a short period in the life of Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania (a region congruent with much of today’s Western world), which is under tight totalitarian rule as part of a one-party system and where life plays out under the watchful eye of “Big Brother.”
Orwell maintained that the new technologies made it possible to control the individual’s thought. ‘In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’
Over the years, what has drawn the most attention in the book – and is also considered Orwell’s legacy – is the description of the totalistic means of supervision and control that exist in Oceania, and in particular the “telescreen” that monitors people nonstop and identifies “deviations” from the government’s sadistic path. And, of course, the notion of the media as serving political interests. (“Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie,” Orwell wrote). In the wake of the technological and political developments of recent decades, references to him are only increasing, but often those references miss the crux of the book: not the mechanism of power, but the motif that generates it.
Two great questions arise from the book: How did it happen and why did it happen? That is, how did humanity reach a situation in which a small elite possesses spiritual and physical power over the entire population? Or, in Orwell’s famous formulation in “1984”: “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.”
“How” refers to the technique: the tools that the development of modern industrial society has placed at the disposal of the rulers. Orwell offers a horrific account of the means by which the rules control the masses and bring about a totally regimented society: atomic bombs, perpetual war, Thought Police, social inequality, creation of a “besieged city” atmosphere, “two minutes of hate” fomented by the authorities against specific groups, and more. These and other means, Orwell makes clear, generate a disciplined community of fear. “And even technological progress only happens when its products can in some way be used for the diminution of human liberty,” he wrote, explaining the logic of technological and industrial development in Oceania.
He was adept at describing the “how” in the daily life of the country’s citizens: Technological developments have placed in the hands of an exploitative minority more efficient means to control the masses. And if in the past, the mechanisms of rule required the presence of physical violence, abuse, torture, executions and the like, the new techniques had to a certain degree made superfluous the Nazi Gestapo and the Stalinist NKVD, which unleashed terror in the streets. Authority in “1984” is reflectled in a total inner capitulation to the Moloch of government.
Orwell’s comments in this context are almost prophetic: “Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.”
Now, Orwell maintained in “1984,” the new technologies made it possible to control the individual’s thought. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Tweeters would do well to make this their motto (it also helps one stay below character limits). Absurdly, a theoretical possibility that frightened many when the book was published is today legitimized by a public which considers itself enlightened, liberal and democratic.
In this sense, Oceania is so frightening because the totalitarianism of rule has resulted in the emergence of a totally static society, where no social change is possible. History indeed ended with the emergence of Oceania, which is also why the novel’s original title was “The Last Man in Europe” – Winston is the last person who still thinks. “‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors,’” says O’Brien, who is out to mend Winston’s sick (and skeptical) mind.
One of the most illuminating aspects of “1984” is Orwell’s perceptive description of the relationship between domestic policy and foreign policy. The world of “1984” is divided into three powers – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia – which wage unceasing wars on each other. The parallel to the blocs of the Cold War is perfectly clear. The wars, however, have limited goals and the adversaries are not capable of or interested in truly destroying one another. “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.” This principle is surely fraught with great meaning for people living in Israel, and we would be doing justice to Orwell’s memory to consider it more closely.
Occasionally, in Oceania – as in Israel – a missile falls and creates panic. This is the meaning of continuous war today, and it achieves its goal: constant deprivation, perpetuation of distress and the heightening of the fear level.
In the world depicted in “1984” (and by this Orwell meant everywhere) foreign policy is an instrument of domestic policy. As such, in his view, foreign policy is a continuation or projection of internal policy. Why? Because the former is implemented by the same elite that rules the country, and it has the same goals in foreign policy as it does in domestic policy. This is one of the splendid theoretical contributions of “1984.” In contrast to the realistic description that is common in political science faculties (dealing with confirmation and preservation of the existing order), according to which foreign policy is activity by state A (as subject) directed at state B (as object) for the benefit of citizens of the former – Orwell shows that the division between domestic and foreign policy is formal (illusory) and is only presented to the public as the form in which decisions are made by the political echelon. In fact, he maintains, the whole purpose of foreign policy is internal. Meaning, the implementation of power by the rulers is in fact aimed toward the population within a given country, and not toward populations in other countries, which are not the object of that specific government.
War is the direct expression of foreign policy, Orwell explains, but it is entirely aimed at influencing the domestic situation at home: “War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair… The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.” The citizen doesn’t know much about the wars the state is fighting, even though his whole being is mobilized for that end, Orwell avers. The antennas broadcast to the masses what the elite wishes them to hear: “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.” The ruling groups know that, “it is necessary that the war should continue everlastingly and without victory.” This state of affairs creates the ultimate man of the masses for the rulers – imbecilic masses whose psychological makeup is appropriate for the perpetuation of a hierarchical society. Fear, which is largely invented, is the means of control by which the society is organized.
“But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous,” Orwell writes. In practice, because war is ceaseless, “there is no such thing as military necessity.” War is life (itself). It’s worth noting that Orwell coined the term “Cold War” (in a brilliant October 1945 article, “You and the Atom Bomb”). A reading of “1984” shows exactly what he meant: The aim of war is not a conquest of one kind or another, but the preservation of a hierarchical society of “high” and “low.” In fact, Orwell contended, we should talk about “continuous warfare” (and not about “war” that takes place in a given time) that serves the balance of forces in every country and allows the continuation of social inequality. This means, he notes, “is also useful in keying up public morale to the necessary pitch.”
War needs to be managed – not resolved, Orwell explains (and one is compelled to mention here the grotesque concept that is dominant in these parts, that of “conflict management”). In practice, “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 this connection, a prime principle in Orwell’s politological analysis is the difference between formal posturing/speech (aimed at the masses in order to mobilize public opinion) and realistic posturing/speech. War is “waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones.” This, in Orwell’s view, is one of the “secret(s) of rulership.”
Indeed, in Oceania – as in Israel – there is no threat of destruction, even though it’s hammered into the public’s head relentlessly that the Sword of Damocles is hovering over everyone. Occasionally, in Oceania – as in Israel – a missile falls and creates panic. This is the meaning of continuous war today, and it achieves its goal: constant deprivation, perpetuation of distress and the heightening of the fear level. Orwell explains the politics underlying the missile: “because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.” This is what rulers want, he argues.
However, the big question Orwell tries to answer is the “why”: Why did a society come into being in which “God is power” and in which political power is concentrated in the hands of a “small privileged caste”? This question perturbed Orwell for the last 15 years of his life, and in “1984” he addresses that complex issue: “But there is one question which until this moment we have almost ignored. It is; WHY should human equality be averted?... what is the motive for this huge, accurately planned effort to freeze history at a particular moment of time?”
A reading of “1984” shows that Orwell did not think, as is usually thought today, that the difference between the rulers and the ruled lies only in only a division of labor (as if the ruler punches a card in the elected institutions). In his view, society’s division into a working class (tasked with the industrial production that is the foundation of modern society) and a ruling class (whose role is to rule and to swallow up the profits the workers create) is a historical phenomenon that demands explanation. He is critical of the establishment scholars “who interpreted history as a cyclical process and claimed to show that inequality was the unalterable law of human life.”
Answering the ‘why’
Already in the opening of the book-within-a-book, “Oligarchical Collectivism,” Orwell explains that rule, enslavement and exploitation are a phenomenon that has characterized human society “probably since the end of the Neolithic Age.” In other words, in the period of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, the social structures were created that institutionalized exploitation of the community by a ruling elite. In terms of Homo Sapiens, this is a new phenomenon.
Herein lies the heart of the matter of “1984” and of the “why” – the reason for the continued existence of a hierarchical society, of an exploitative minority and an exploited majority. Orwell noted that the growth in social wealth (which already was a fact at the time the book was written, and remains so today) and the way that wealth is distributed is destined to wreak destruction on the class society. Why? “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. 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.”
This is why continuous war is needed, why rule by fear is essential. And this is where Orwell’s greatness resides: in his horrifying account of the everyday existence of a person living in a society where fear rules and war never ends. “‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever,’” O’Brien tells Winston near the end of the book.
I am obliged here to recall Jack London’s hair-raising passage in his masterful novel “The Iron Heel” (1907), which Orwell read and very much esteemed: “We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words – Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.”
The author of Ecclesiastes seems to have had thoughts along the same line when he wrote (8:4), “Inasmuch as a king’s command is authoritative, and none can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” Indeed, who can say?