Subverting Subversion

If I encounter the enemies of my enemy, should I consider them my friends? If a statement is not not false, does that make it true? Propositional logic gives an affirmative answer to the second question. Other systems of logic are less decisive, and may be more helpful when contemplating real-life decisions. After all, the brigands who murdered my enemy may treat me no better. So if superversion opposes subversion, where does that leave the subversion of subversion?

Tom Simon described the relationship between subversion and superversion in an essay that begins with this extract from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’


‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’

‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’

‘And do you consider yourself a man?’


‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’

‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’

O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.

Simon’s analysis of Winston Smith concludes that his rebellion was…

…doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done.

Subverting subversion is presented as futile. This prompts Simon to offer a different kind of response to subversion.

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

There is much to admire in Simon’s essay. However, I wonder if Simon draws the right lessons about the methods used by Winston Smith, and the forces that destroy him. A boot upon a human face is a vivid metaphor, but even that image is not wholly nihilistic. It requires that somebody has manufactured a boot.

Winston Smith does not live in a Hobbesian anarchy, where all are at war with all. His society is at war, but the threat posed by foreign powers is used to unite the population. Much has been built by Ingsoc, the party which rules. In particular, they have constructed a very large government, which has a permanent character even though it impoverishes the population. They have also developed a ubiquitous surveillance network, and they are in the process of rolling out a new language. These are not modest accomplishments. They require a rigid adherence to a single strategy, which is why loyalty is so important to Ingsoc.

Ingsoc prevails over Winston Smith not by killing him, but by co-opting him. The soul of Winston Smith is decimated, but his body lives on. What made him Winston Smith has been annihilated, in order to secure the loyalty of his shadow. This is how the novel ends.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Even if the goals of Ingsoc are nihilistic, it is not nihilism without limit. Their goal is a mirror reflection of that espoused by classical liberals. If the paradox of freedom is that there must be some limits on freedom to maintain a steady maximum of liberty, then there must also be some limits on nihilism to maintain a steady maximum of oppression. Orwell’s indictment of socialism is compelling because it shows how the free thinking pursuit of socialist principles can lead to doublethink, and ultimately to the prohibition of any alternative thought.

[Ingsoc] rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a powerful story because we all take the side of Winston Smith. Even socialists sympathize with Winston. Winston’s struggles may have been futile, but I am loathe to discount his methods. In Winston’s society, subversion was the right response. He could not be expected to simply ‘build over’ Ingsoc, putting in place rival institutions. In order to build something new, he would first need to clear the land of existing obstacles. More importantly, he would need to work with others to do that. But how do you find others to work with you, when everyone suffers the oppression of Big Brother? How should we do it, in the world we live in? Subversives can do more than destroy. They may use subversion to send a signal to others, in order to construct coalitions. Subversive methods may be key to getting people’s attention, and encouraging them to join the fight.

A winning strategy requires more than the pursuit of victory; an enemy is also defeated by their own failings. Perhaps Ingsoc could not be defeated, but Winston was still right to fight in the only way he could. When Winston was defeated, it was because of his human frailty. To maintain the hope of eventual victory, we must first refuse to be defeated. As Sun Tzu observed:

In antiquity those that excelled in warfare first made themselves unconquerable in order to await [the moment when] the enemy could be conquered. Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.

Simon was right that an endless revolt loses all purpose. He is right to rail against the perpetual subversives who, like Don Quixote, have grown obsessed with old battles and outdated stories. They try to relive imagined glories by fighting villains and monsters that do not exist. As a consequence, they may fill fantasy worlds with caricatures of what they claim to find in the real world.

Because Simon is right to criticize the ‘subversive’ critics, we cannot allow a contradiction to emerge, where our enemies are permitted to use the weapons of criticism, but the rest of us forego them. Criticism is less heroic than constructing something new, but heroes fight to win, and they should exploit the weaknesses of their enemies. Just as importantly, subversion often makes for a good story. To build and operate the Death Star would have been a tremendous feat of engineering and logistics. But Luke Skywalker is a hero because he blows it up!

Whilst we try to maintain a positive outlook, we should remember the enemies of superversion are not weak. On the contrary, they have a passionate commitment to building bigger, bolder, more ruthless governments, that would be empowered to increasingly police what ordinary people say and think. We do need alternative institutions, but we also need to subvert any institution that obstructs our right to offer alternatives. This leads me to conclude that the method of subversion is not contrary to superversion, but necessary for it. What distinguishes the proponent of superversion is they do not allow subversion to become a goal in itself.