Imagine you are confronted with a society run by left-wing fascist elitists. They are determined to fix the problems of mankind – which also means fixing you. They routinely monitor the thoughtcrimes of their enemies, and of their comrades. They rewrite history, they invent statistics and they justify persecution through cod psychology, as bolstered by the scientists who work for them. They will even amend language, trying to force everyone to think better thoughts. This is a familiar scenario, and not just because we have watched The Lives of Others, and recognize how East Germans were treated before the fall of the Berlin Wall. George Orwell outlined the defining characteristics of this society in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When confronted by a society like this, how should we respond?
Last week I wrote about superversion and subversion, arguing that subversion should not be an end in itself, but superversives should sometimes employ subversive tactics. In particular, Winston Smith should not be criticized for trying to subvert Ingsoc, the ruling party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Being in no position to offer a positive alternative, the most Winston could accomplish would be subverting Ingsoc where possible, and hoping the results might encourage others to do the same. However, Anthony Marchetta pointed out a serious difficulty for my argument.
How, exactly, would you fight the society of “1984”? The problem as I see it is that Orwell has created an essentially unbeatable dictatorship.
I think Anthony is correct. Orwell did create an unbeatable dictatorship… if the socialists he wrote about are right to believe that everything in the world is malleable, including human behavior. If Ingsoc has acquired the capability to change people, then nothing could defeat them, which is why they are so terrifying. This is how Winston thought about the philosophical problems raised by Ingsoc’s power.
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?
Winston’s fears are later confirmed by O’Brien, the party’s interrogator:
O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. ‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’
The basis of control is further developed in this exchange:
‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’
Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.
‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.
For Ingsoc to be invincible, we need only to agree that suffering can be used to control human minds, and that control of human minds gives control over everything. These ideas are somewhat intuitive, and reflect what governments do in reality. The Khmer Rouge convinced themselves that they would resurrect the glories of the Angkor Empire by reeducating the Cambodian people and purging foreigners. On a smaller scale, every so-called ‘liberal’ rule that censors beliefs or mandates behavior, no matter how well-intentioned the objective, must be backed by the power to inflict suffering. There can be no deterrence if the guilty are not punished. That is the correct context for judging whether awarding USD135,000 damages for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is a genuine reflection of the distress caused to the gay couple, or else motivated by a sincere desire to control the behavior of bakers. To give some perspective, when academics calculate the benefit of clearing land mines in Cambodia, they have often concluded that a Cambodian life is worth only USD2,000.
However, I do not believe that Ingsoc’s view of human nature is correct. Human beings have resisted change throughout history. They have desires that cannot be reasoned with, and which prompt them to break rules and risk punishment. This means resistance to Ingsoc would not be futile. On the contrary, it would be inevitable, even if often invisible.
One relevant example features prominently in Nineteen Eighty-Four: sexual desire. Human beings have devised many systems with the intention of curbing sexual activity, and defining what is acceptable and what is considered deviant. However, none were wholly successful. In a society which uses the force of law to prohibit sex, even a private sexual act can double as undisguised political subversion.
Extreme policing, education or changing language will not stop ‘crime’ if the individual believes they are doing nothing wrong. Perspectives on right and wrong are influenced by desire. Perhaps Ingsoc could change some desires, but I doubt they could control them all. And if the party permits freedom in one domain, it becomes possible to imagine freedom in every other domain. If I choose who I have sex with, might I not choose what substances I put in my body? If I choose what substances I put in my body, might I not choose who I bake cakes for?
If the party polices words and changes language, it may take away the individual’s ability to justify their actions. But human beings are not rationality machines. They can have desires without first seeking rational justification for them. They can want things, even if they lack the words to express what they want.
As much as I admire Nineteen Eighty-Four, I do not believe such a society would behave the way Orwell describes it. There may be a few like Winston, prone to philosophical fretting. But many more would be simply insane, breaking rules without being able to explain why. Their actions may be despicable and ill-focused – a baker might spit in the cake mix although he feels no enmity to any specific customer. Though shapeless and rarely identified, these acts would still be subversive. A free society allows frustrations to be vented, and so permits a greater share of the population to be considered normal but different. Without the tolerance of a free society, and without the words to explain their choices, there would be no way to categorize society’s willful outsiders and refuseniks, except to consider them mentally disturbed.
In Orwell’s society, irrational anger would prompt some to engage in violence and destruction, reflecting the violence of society upon relative innocents. Others would turn their violence inwards. Consider that East German suicide rates were considerably higher than those in West Germany. And it is dangerous to dismiss a large minority as insane, because the larger the number excluded from rationality, the more the individual realizes that rationality is just a choice, and they may choose not to be rational.
Contrary to the writings of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, it is not necessary to have a plan or objective in order to have a revolution. The success of a revolution does not depend on whether anyone presents a coherent alternative to the status quo. All that really matters is that the governing order is disrupted. This can be achieved by the mad and angry without requiring the services of the theorist and philosopher.
In an oppressive society, grievances will fester, only to be inflamed by something trivial. Being unable to compromise, a party like Ingsoc would have no way to prevent grievances from building. Then something trivial will spark a wider conflagration. In the Indian Rebellion of 1857, it was the suspicion that army ammunition had been greased with animal fat. The Tiananmen Square protests followed the death of a former Communist Party General Secretary. The Tunisian Revolution began when a street trader’s stall was confiscated, and his frustration reached a point where he set fire to himself. The Arab Spring followed soon after. George Orwell does not describe events like these in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He can create a fictional dictatorship that is perfect in its stability because he never needs to allow for the genuine unpredictability of human nature.
American readers may now wonder why their country had a revolution. Was it because a three percent duty was levied on tea, and used to pay the salary of unelected bureaucrats? That might seem like a laughable reason to go to war, compared to some impositions now placed on American citizens by their elected government.
Today’s left-leaning fascists still offer explanations for why they will prevail in constructing utopia, just like Ingsoc. They believe their victory is mandated by the irresistible march of progress, though usually with less mention of boots stamping upon faces. Other, better theorists can be called upon to counter these extravagant claims. For example, Nassim Taleb and Mark Blyth wrote an excellent analysis of the Arab Spring, which begins with the observation that governments that try too hard when suppressing the mad, bad and different will only succeed in making their world less predictable.
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
The Liberal philosopher Karl Popper was similarly convinced that social reforms should be conducted on a piecemeal basis only, whilst insisting that utopian social engineering only ever leads to tyranny. As such, he railed against the pseudoscience of Marxism and tended toward a view of reform which resembled Burkean Conservatism.
Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle — the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.
Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.
The former quote is from Popper, the latter from Burke.
So how do we defeat Ingsoc? Not by emulating their strategy of centralizing power, and using it to command and control. People defeat authority by outflanking it. To be superversive, and offer a better alternative, we should look to how free markets deliver superior alternatives. They do it by being varied, and through experimentation. They spread their resources wide, and trust customers to signal which offers are the most appealing. Revolutionaries can do the same. Our notion of revolution is so tied up with Marxism that we struggle to imagine revolutions that involve choice. However, if we learn anything from the confusing mess that followed the Arab Spring, it was that different factions fought to overthrow existing dictators for conflicting reasons. That post-revolutionary imbroglio may sometimes be more harmful than the suffering caused by a tyrant, but at least it unleashes the human dynamism that will often lead to a better settlement in the long run.
To defeat the subversives of Ingsoc, we should subvert all of their methods. If they write a rulebook for language that is as tall as the Tower of Babel, we should encourage diverse communities to develop and speak many languages, ranging from textspeak to new branches of mathematics, Klingon to new forms of poetry. This will render the rulebook irrelevant. If Ingsoc try to reinvent history and science, then we should encourage those with independent minds to conduct their own research, allowing the force of facts to trump revision. Let us counter statism by creating the hothouse conditions where many thought experiments may flourish. And if Ingsoc wish to regulate commerce, stooping so low as to sanction bakers for their religious beliefs, then we should favor freedom of exchange. We know that, in the long run, the power of choice and recommendation will more reliably reward those who give the best service.
Finally, if Ingsoc construct a treasured mountain from literature and art, so only the blessed elite may climb to its very top, then we should scatter our words and pictures across the ground, where anyone may pick them up, and anyone may add to them.
There is only one way to defeat the self-righteous. They cannot be overpowered by rules or force; such tactics only strengthen them. We can only win with tolerance, and compassion, for real people, and their disparate desires. We must be resolute when fighting evil, but quick to forgive sinners. We know that authority flows from the choices made by individuals, who must be granted the utmost freedom to explore and use their human faculties. Ultimately, we must trust in human diversity, which also leads to unpredictability, and makes it hard to govern people. The right response to Ingsoc is to encourage people to be somewhat ungovernable, and often imperfect. That is the one subversion that Ingsoc could never overcome.