Orwell’s Egalitarian Problem

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book whose influence exceeds its readership. It resembles a Rorschach test; moulding itself to the political prejudices of whoever reads it. It also has a depth which often goes unnoticed by those fond of quoting it.

The problem isn’t that people cite Orwell, but that people cite Orwell in a facile and cliched manner. The society of Oceania which Orwell creates isn’t exemplified in any contemporary state, save perhaps wretched dictatorships like North Korea or Uzbekistan. It’s thus not my intent to draw on Nineteen Eighty-Four to indict my own society as being “Orwellian” in the sense of being a police state, a procurer of terror, or engaged in centralised fabrication of history. A world of complete totalitarianism of the Hitlerian or Stalinist kind hasn’t arrived (not yet at least), but Nineteen Eighty-Four still has insights applicable to our day.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist, Winston, is suffocated by the miserable tyranny he lives in. The English Socialist Party (INGSOC) controls all aspects of Britain, now called Airstrip One, a province of the state of Oceania. It does so in the name of their personified yet never seen dictator, Big Brother. When Winston is almost at breaking point, he meets fellow party member, O’Brien. O’Brien, Winston thinks, is secretly a member of the resistance, a group opposing Big Brother. O’Brien hands Winston a book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. This book is supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, arch-nemesis of Big Brother, and details the secret history and workings of Oceanian society, something unknown to all its citizens.

Oligarchic collectivism is the book’s term for the ideology of the Party in response to a repeating historical situation. Previous societies were characterised by constant strife between three social classes: the top, the middle, and the bottom. The pattern of revolution across history was always the middle enlisting the bottom by pandering to their base grievances. The middle would use the bottom to overthrow the top, install itself as the new top, and push the bottom back down to their previous place. A new middle would form over time, and the process would repeat.

INGSOC overthrew the top through a revolution, in the name of equality. What it actually achieved was collectivised ownership at the top, and so it created a communism of the few, not unlike classical Sparta. The rest of the population, derogatorily called “proles”, live in squalid poverty and are despised as animals. They’re kept from rebelling by being maintained in ignorance and given cheap hedonistic entertainment at the Party’s expense. INGSOC nominally rules on their behalf, but in reality is built upon their continual oppression. As Goldstein’s book puts it:

“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. They fell, that is to say, either through consciousness or through unconsciousness.”

In other words, the top falls either by failing to notice reality and being overthrown once reality crashes against it, or by noticing reality, trying to create a compromise solution, and being overthrown by the middle once they reveal their weakness. INGSOC, however, lasts indefinitely because it has discovered something previous oligarchies didn’t know:

“It is the achievement of the Party to have produced a system of thought in which both conditions can exist simultaneously. And upon no other intellectual basis could the dominion of the Party be made permanent. If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the Power to learn from past mistakes.”

INGSOC can simultaneously view itself as perfect, and effectively critique itself to respond to changing circumstances. It can do this, we are immediately told, through the principle of doublethink: holding two contradictory thoughts at once and believing them both:

“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.”

It’s through this mechanism that the Party remains indefinitely in power. It has frozen history because it can notice gaps between its own ideology and reality, yet simultaneously deny to itself that these gaps exist. It can thus move to plug holes while retaining absolute confidence in itself.

At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party member O’Brien tortures Winston, and reveals to him the Party’s true vision of itself:

“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. Now do you begin to understand me?”

It’s here where I part ways with Orwell. For a moment, O’Brien has revealed to Winston one-half of what Inner Party members think. Doublethink is the simultaneous belief in the Party’s ideology, English Socialism, and in the reality of power for its own sake. INGSOC is simultaneously socialist and despises socialism. Returning to Goldstein’s book:

“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. It preaches a contempt for the working class unexampled for centuries past, and it dresses its members in a uniform which was at one time peculiar to manual workers and was adopted for that reason.” 

Orwell creates this situation because, as a democratic socialist, he’s committed to the idea of modern progress. The ideal of equality of outcome isn’t bad, but only the betrayal of this ideal. Orwell critiques the totalitarian direction that the socialist Soviet Union took, but he doesn’t connect this to egalitarian principles themselves (the wish to entirely level society). He therefore doesn’t realise that egalitarianism, when it reaches power, is itself a form of doublethink.

To see how this can be we must introduce an idea alien to Orwell and to egalitarianism but standard in pre-modern political philosophy: whichever way you shake society, a group will always end up at the top of the pile. Nature produces humans each with different skills and varying degrees of intelligence. In each field, be it farming, trade or politics, some individuals will rise, and others won’t.

The French traditionalist-conservative philosopher Joseph de Maistre sums up the thought nicely in his work Etude sur La Souveraineté: “No human association can exist without domination of some kind”. Furthermore, “In all times and all places the aristocracy commands. Whatever form one gives to governments, birth and riches always place themselves in first rank”.

For de Maistre the hard truth is, “pure democracy does not exist”. Indeed, it’s under egalitarian conditions that an elite can exercise its power the most ruthlessly. For where a constitution makes all citizens equal, there won’t be any provision for controlling the ruling group (since its existence isn’t admitted). Thus, Rome’s patricians were at their most predatory against the common people during the Republic, while the later patricians were restrained by the emperors, such that their oppression had a more limited, localised effect.  

If we assume this, then the elite of any society that believes in equality of outcome must become delusional. They must think, despite their greater wealth, intelligence and authority, that they’re no different to any other citizen. Any evidence that humans are still pooling in the same hierarchical groups as before must be denied or rationalised away.

This leads us back to the situation sketched in Goldstein’s book. What prevents the Party from being overthrown is doublethink. The fact it can remain utterly confident in its own power, and still be self-critical enough to adapt to circumstances. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the former is exemplified in the vague utopian ideology of INGSOC, while the latter is the cynical belief in power for its own sake and willingness to do anything to retain it. But against this, no cynical Machiavellianism is necessary to form one-half of doublethink. A utopian egalitarian with privilege is doublethink by default. At once, he believes in the infallibility of his ideology (he must if he’s to remain in it), and is aware of his own status, continually acting as one must when in a privileged position.

How does this connect to that most Orwellian scenario, the permanent hardening in place of an oligarchic caste that can’t be removed? As Orwell says through Goldstein, ruling classes fall either by ossifying to the point they fail to react to change, or by becoming self-critical, trying to reform themselves, and exposing themselves to their enemies. Preventing both requires doublethink: knowing full well that one’s ideology is flawed enough to adapt practically to circumstances and believing in its infallibility. The egalitarian elite with a utopian vision has both covered. If you truly, genuinely, believe that you’re like everyone else (which you must if you think your egalitarian project has succeeded), you won’t question the perks and privileges you have, since you think everybody has them. That takes care of trying to reform things: you don’t.

Yet, as an elite, you still behave like an elite and take the necessary precautions. You avoid going through rough areas, you pick only the best schools for your offspring, and you buy only the best houses. As an elite, you also strive to pass on your ideology and way of life to the next generation, thus replicating your group indefinitely. Thus, you simultaneously defend your position and believe in your own infallibility.

Could an Oceanian-style oligarchy emerge from this process? Absolutely, provided we qualify our meaning. The society of Nineteen Eighty-Four lacks any laws or representational politics. It has no universal standards of education or healthcare. It functions as what Aristotle in Politics calls a lawless oligarchy, with the addition of total surveillance. But this is an extreme. What I propose is that egalitarianism, once in power, necessarily causes a detachment between ideology and reality that, if left to itself, can degenerate into extreme oligarchy. The severe doublethink needed to sustain both belief in the success of the project and safeguard one’s position at the top can accumulate over time into true class apartheid. This is, after all, exactly what happened to the Soviet Union. As the Soviet dissident and critic Milovan Dilas, in his book The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, put it:

“Every private capitalist or feudal lord was conscious of the fact that he belonged to a special discernible social category.  (…) A Communist member of the new class also believes that, without his part, society would regress and founder. But he is not conscious of the fact that he belongs to a new ownership class, for he does not consider himself an owner and does not take into account the special privileges he enjoys. He thinks that he belongs to a group with prescribed ideas, aims, attitudes and roles. That is all he sees.”

To get an Oceanian scenario, you don’t need egalitarianism plus a Machiavellian will to power, forming two halves of doublethink. You just need egalitarianism. 

Photo Credit.

Book Review: Return of the Strong Gods by R R Reno

One of the rare consolations of the Empire of Lies we’ve found ourselves in is occasionally encountering a sphere of truth. Such an event reassures us we’re not alone and that kindred spirits are still out there, patiently pushing back against the insanities of the age. One such spirit is the American Catholic author and editor of First Things magazine R.R Reno and his 2019 work Return of the Strong Gods.

Like contemporary efforts by Patrick Deneen and the Polish philosopher Ryzsard Legutko, Reno’s is a book which illuminates the errors of the age. It’s a work which neither succumbs to the easy evasions of the left nor to the vulgarity found on farther reaches of the right. Ultimately, it’s a book that rejects the notion that the post-war era has been the best of all Panglossian worlds.

Divided into five sections and written in simple yet succinct prose, the overarching theme is that the West has lost its way in an abyss of openness: that sine qua non of the present day. Opening at the Second World War and surveying the post-war era, Reno traces our failings back to Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the promise that ‘never again’ would we bear witness to such horrors.     

In light of such an overwhelming imperative, a rhetorical and practical pursuit of openness was initiated in what Reno dubs the “postwar consensus”. A stance which involved the marginalisation at best – and outright illegality at worst – of the noxious -isms that led us to 1914-1945. Nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism were what caused our horrors, they were thus to be expunged from the public square.

Put simply, such ‘strong gods’ were too dangerous: they had to be banished from the realm. Yet precisely who these deities are, and what they mean in practice, is rendered by Reno deliberately vague. In essence, they’re the deeper – and often darker – parts of the soul such as pride, envy and a ‘love of one’s own’.

Yet Reno does provide us with a rough definition. As he states, the strong gods “are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unites societies” – ”Truth is a strong god” as are “King and country.” Not all strong gods are malignant, however: they can just as well “be beneficent.” Still, the chief lesson of the twentieth century was that the strong gods of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism” overwhelmingly “brought ruin.”

To this end, the Western post-war consensus, led by the United States, was to prioritise cultural weakening in the form of a near-unlimited openness. Out were truth, certainty and exclusivity; in were relativism, doubt and diversity. If these trends were ever queried, one only needed reminding of 1945 and was soon brought to heel. The post-war consensus – and its Manichean framing: either ‘openness or Auschwitz’ – was thus brought into being.

A stance that Reno then proceeds to illuminate, beginning with ‘the open society’. A notion coined by the author of the movement’s most emblematic and eponymous work, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and his two-volume Open Society and Its Enemies. A book which was written in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War and in which Popper attacks Plato, Hegel and other giants of the tradition before coming down on the side of openness.

As Reno remarks, for Popper ‘our civilisation faces a choice.’ We “can live in a tribal or ‘closed society’or we can break free from this ‘collectivist’ impulse and build an ‘open society’”, one that ‘sets free the critical powers of man.’ And as Popper argued at the time, our future depended on choosing the latter: something we’ve dutifully done and which has set in train the decline that’s since followed.

The rest of the book is then an exploration of this one key theme; with Popper’s socio-cultural openness soon echoed on the economic plane by compatriot Friedrich Hayek: he of Road to Serfdom fame. Thus in a strange symmetry, the West ends up with two Austrian emigres erecting the twin pillars of its post-war world: the Popperian commitment to cultural openness and the Hayekian imperative of free markets.

As Reno remarks, these two men were “united by a commitment to individual freedom and a desire to prevent the return of authoritarianism.” A notion that encapsulates the last eighty-odd years as well as any other and that’s been reinforced through organisations like the Mont Pelerin Society, which Popper and Hayek were founding members, and through Popper’s most famous student, and current bete noir of the right, George Soros: he of his own Open Society fame.

Once established, then, the open-society framework of free markets, multiculturalism and the neutering of metaphysics – “The open society must be anti-metaphysical” – comes to characterise the West. A stance Reno then explores in an impressive overview of the major philosophical figures of the era. After Popper and Hayek, come the Americans Milton Friedman and William F Buckley; followed by a return to the German-speaking giants of earlier in the century, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber; before ending with the Francophone philosophers of the latter part of our era, namely: Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. 

Yet it’s Weber and his notion of the disenchantment of the world – i.e. the scientific erasure of the supernatural – that helps further explain our malaise. As Reno observes, Popper, following Weber, wants to rid us of the metaphysical. For as Reno adds, it’s been imperative to eliminate “the vestiges of sacred authority that blinker men’s reason”. A stance that many of us have come to believe is benign, yet it’s a trend which Reno intimates is ultimately suicidal as it “drains away the substance of Western Civilization’s beliefs in robust metaphysical truths.” That is, it erodes the religious substrate that has enabled us to flourish.

A posture that has been implemented practically by what Reno dubs our ‘therapies of disenchantment’. As although erasing the sacred is ultimately futile quest, our need for metaphysics can be tamped down by the political order. Something that has been done by “relativizing” such notions, by “putting them in their historical contexts” and “critiquing their xenophobic, patriarchal, cisgender, and racist legacies”.

From this, the cultural imperatives then follow: we must “celebrate diversity”, “cultivate transgression” and “problematize” our traditional ties. A stance accomplished by our elite as they “drive old loyalties to the margins of respectability, and otherwise advance the cause of an open society and open minds.”

This metaphysical poverty, allied with the imperative of openness and the eviscerating force of the free-market, have led us to the current impasse. One witnessed in the apparently inchoate actions of voters in their support for non-establishment actors like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. That is, in their clamouring for figures brave enough to enunciate the failures of the liberal order and able to address them.  

Something evident in what Reno calls the Homeless Society. One which is a natural reaction to the “embattled postwar consensus” and a “rebellion against the dogmas of openness”. As in opposition to the issues of 1945, we no longer face the same problems. Indeed, what ails us now is the direct opposite of that time.

Our issues revolve around an all-pervasive anomie. We are a culture that’s “imperilled by a spiritual vacuum and the apathy it brings”. A society that’s “politically inert, winnowed down to technocratic management of private utilities and personal freedoms”. Our main danger is thus one of “a dissolving society; not a closed one; the therapeutic society, not the authoritarian one.

A stance Reno expands upon as he notes the economic, cultural and demographic disasters that have arisen under the aegis of openness. A failure that has been overseen by what can only be described as an utterly inept and unpatriotic elite – or as Reno puts it, our Leaders without Loyalty. Indeed, the book can be read as one of the best indictments of our elites yet seen.

Simply put, our elites are hypocrites. They insist on ‘openness for thee, but not for me’ as they insulate themselves from the baleful effects of their dogma. As Reno notes: “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect [themselves and] their children”. They…choose homes in neighborhoods with goods schools” and condemn “traditional norms as authoritarian, but… keep their [own] marriages together.” Ultimately, “they shelter themselves and those whom they love” from the destructive effects of openness as they praise its putative virtues publicly.    

Given this hypocrisy, and the other failings of the liberal order, the post-war consensus is straining under the weight of its contradictions. It’s a case of ‘what can’t go on, won’t go on’ – and the current settings can’t go on much longer. Indeed, the anti-naturalness of the post-war project was inherent from the outset, but only now are the fissures impossible to ignore.

As such, we move back to the beginning: to the ‘return of the strong gods’. A notion that is not only the book’s title, but which was also an inevitable result of the liberal order. As despite the well-intentioned commitment to openness and the promise of ‘never again’, the post-war concord was always doomed to fail.

This is so as it doesn’t accord with underlying nature. For as many have come to realise, the liberal order is one big affect. Although largely peaceful and prosperous, the post-war consensus fails to fulfil a multitude of human needs. Socially, it’s a regime that doesn’t recognise the darker elements of the soul, like parochialism and ‘a love of one’s own’; not does it address the practicalities of life in a political community: such as a sense of belonging, a common culture and the stability we innately seek. While economically, the Hayekian imperative of unencumbered markets has left us as financially precarious as we are socially: afflicted by the dilemmas of the ‘double-dose’ liberalism to which many now allude, and that writers like Christopher Lasch and John Gray explicitly warned.

Which is why Reno finishes the book seeking an end to the ‘long twentieth century’ and a return to the politics of ‘shared love’. Our order failed as it rendered us homeless: lost in a sea of apathy with no place to call our own. As in spite of the left-liberals who treat our crisis “as an illusion” – with Trump and Farage mere manifestations of an aberrant electorate – Reno treats their rise as the logical result of the errors innate to the liberal order.

The mere fact of ‘populism’, then, is not an epiphenomenon of short-term economic or social angst; but of deeper and entirely legitimate “questions about national identity, immigration and foreign policy, all of which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the established leadership class in the West.”

As in advancing openness, our elite has eroded the solidarity we seek. As under our technocratic ethos, vast swathes of the human experience is marked verboten and placed outside the frame of debate. As Reno remarks, our elite “is so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus” it neglects “the actual problems we face – atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.”

We thus need to return to the strong gods: of love, solidarity and genuine community. It requires our leaders “to ask question they have been trained to supress”. It needs them to realise that, as the philosopher Leo Strauss observed – in direct opposition to Popper – that ‘the society by nature is the closed society’. A notion to which Reno alludes when he references that well-known saw about human nature: that “blood is thicker than water.”

Which in essence is all that is wrong with the post-war order and why it’s now falling apart. As although the initial desire to prevent future holocausts, gulags and atomic explosions was clearly laudable, these events did not to change human nature. That is, a nature which still seeks solidarity and a sense of the sacred; one that sees our “private interest as part of a larger whole”; one with a “love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and heroes”. Simply put, we need a renewed patriotism: we need ‘to renew the “we”’.

There is thus very little to critique in Reno’s work. Being an avowed Catholic, his remedies tend towards the Christian, which may rankle the less religious, yet he wears his religion lightly and the book is never in danger of dogmatism. There is an argument to be made, however, that by anchoring the book to the motif of socio-cultural openness, other factors, like the importance of economics – and the centrality of economic growth to the post-war era- are not given the import they deserve. There is also an incongruous attempt to smuggle in some American-style civic nationalism that is understandable even though it’s completely contradictory to the spirit of the work.Nevertheless, this is a highly commendable work. Like Deenen’s and Legutko’s, it’s one of few recent books that drives to the heart of our malaise and that honestly elucidates the errors of our age.

Photo Credit.

Scroll to top