Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Reading 1984: What You Know Already

I finished reading 1984 about a week ago, but there are just a few scattered items that I'm going to touch on in this and one more essay. They're worth discussing as part of the book's general goals and context, not just as part of a neurodiversity-minded reading of the book.

The section of Goldstein's book reproduced in Part 2 (p. 192) is interesting in that it both grounds this as a critique of Stalinism (which is a pretty basic part of teaching the 101 of this book to high school students), and in that its criticism is not that socialism and/or communism is wrong or bad, but that Ingsoc/Stalinism/authoritarianism has perverted it. A generous portion of the text is given over to describing how production could be used to raise the quality of life of the average citizen immeasurably. What he's actually describing here is the way that Marx's projection of the socialist utopia would unfold, and the indictment the book makes is not an indictment against communism/socialism, but an indictment against authoritarianism.

In fact, if you look closely at the argument that Orwell makes on pages 192 through 226, it's not so much advocating for anything. Like Marx, he breaks down how (in a free system) the effect technology has on production costs drives them to nearly zero, eventually making goods so cheap to produce and so plentiful that the economics of scarcity, which drive markets, cease to work. The idea, both in Marx and in the explanation here, is not that there will be a revolution, but that the industrial revolution will have the side effect of destroying the capitalist system that created it--not through violence, but by making it obsolete.

The hook, the point at which Stalinism/Ingsoc/authoritarianism comes in, is when you consider class as a variable. As is outlined in the essay that sits in the heart of this book, mass production and technological streamlining that reduces labor together lead to a situation whereby the mass of humanity, which is usually occupied by the chores necessary to maintain a society, suddenly finds itself the leisure class. For those currently in the leisure class seeking to protect their status, some kind of artificial lowering of the standard of living becomes necessary.

It's also a problem for the Inner Party. In order to continue driving the engine of the Ingsoc economy, the factories must produce, but in order to perpetuate economy inequality and maintain the power structure that gives the Inner Party its privileged status, it must be production to no end.

At this point in the critique, socialism is just a euphemism for what the authoritarian/totalitarian system does. It's rarely commented upon when we discuss this book with young people, but the book itself blatantly states that the system as Winston Smith experiences it is not socialism (p. 211, 215) but a system which appropriated socialism's communal control of all resources, but put them into the hands of the "High" class (the Inner Party).

This is not socialism, which is why Stalinism was such a brutal failure. This is, instead, oligarchy (or plutocracy, if you will). The concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few who have the ability to dictate the supply to the lower classes regardless of the actual capacity of production or the demand for goods is the problem in the book. It hardly matters whether it is driven by stock purchases or by control of the government--the point is not the system we start with (capitalist or socialist), but the way that concentrating power leads to a single, repressive end result.

Hence the endless war. By creating weapons and literally blowing up wealth, goods can be removed from the economy without benefiting the middle and lower classes. This is not complex--it's basic Keynesianism, and it is well-documented that this phenomenon was responsible for the "war boom" economy at the beginning of World War II (before rationing).

What Orwell indicts in the book is not communism, it is a surveillance state that perpetuates economic inequality in order to concentrate wealth and privilege into a class (about 2% of the population) which controls its own population, guaranteeing that any who are elevated into their ranks will not question their goals. They use perpetual war as an economic sink to control both inflation and the standard of living, and then they drive down that standard of living for the masses because--well, here is where the book becomes romantic.

The whole psychology of control and the message of the "boot stamping on a human face forever" speech is something for another day. I don't believe that any parallels between the book and any real economic structures are based in a conspiracy theory that centers on the joy of inflicting misery or the necessity of being worshipped by the masses.

I do believe, however, that the message of this book is not about the dangers of socialism or communism. To a great extent, it's not even really about the surveillance so much as it is about the feeling of powerlessness that needs to be instilled into a population. Surveillance is one way to do this, but even the book points out that pageantry (such as parades, show trials, and community organizations), linguistic control, and learned helplessness are equally useful tools for these ends.

What the book is really railing against, then, is the concentration of the means of production and social control in the hands of power brokers who can use both to reinforce their control over each other. It is the concentration of money, the means to produce, and manpower in the hands of people who have the ability to use police force to hold on to those resources regardless of their competence or public satisfaction with their work that 1984 warns us about.

It makes you wonder why we're taught just to focus on the surveillance cameras and Winston's right to his own romances when we read this in high school, doesn't it?

Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever Checklist:

  • Control over factories
  • Control over natural resources
  • Control over media of communication
  • A perpetual state of war
  • The removal of that war from the daily lives of citizens
  • An othered group to hate
  • An iconic (if fictional) central authority figure to love
  • Propaganda that drives both hate and love, as needed
  • Lowered standards of living that keep the public too focused on survival to rebel
  • Lowered education standards so that only the skills useful to the state are fostered, not critical thinking
  • Provincial mentalities fostered by immigration control, propaganda, and fear of the othered group.
  • A police force that is used not to enforce laws and try criminals, but as muscle against any potential instability in the system
Any group, whether it is a government, a corporation, or a fascist commingling of the two, that has access to all of these things at the same time will be capable of creating the conditions outlined in this book. It doesn't matter what system you start with--once power is about maintaining power and your workers' living conditions are about keeping them busy enough that they don't question the boss, the issue of whether "markets" or "quotas" are used to discuss production becomes moot.

The beauty of this book is not that it exposed the inhumanity of totalitarianism or that it made predictions about the evolution of the surveillance state. Those items are both obvious and, I think, missing the point. The beauty of this book is that it tells you what you already know, bluntly, and in a way that is awfully hard to dismiss. I've heard people in several political movements declare that we should tell those in power "1984 was not a blueprint". It was, though, and it wasn't a new blueprint--it was already being attempted in several places around the world during the decade in which Orwell wrote it.