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Monday, May 08, 2006


Party Like It's Nineteen Eighty-Four!

I just read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four last week. If you haven't read it before, I strongly recommend it (there's a free online version here). Orwell's cautionary tale of a dystopian future still resonates today as it did in 1948. I now fully understand what it means to call something "Orwellian" and how his ideas have influenced us today (However, I still have no idea how the Apple MacIntosh was supposed to save us from Orwell's future in that Super Bowl commercial).

When I got to the end of the story, it struck me how utterly deranged the members of The Party (the political organization that controlled the government of the fictional superstate of Oceania) were. The only goal of The Party was to attain and keep power over everyone else. All of their actions were focused on this goal, regardless even of the effects on the members of The Party themselves. Orwell's insight was that absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, the pursuit of that power drives you insane. Here are couple of passages from near the end of the book. Winston, the main character, is a low-level member of the Party and has secretly developed a hatred of the Party's oppression. He's been caught by The Party as a traitor, and O'Brien, a higher-up Party member, is torturing him. Here is O'Brien's explanation for The Party's motives:
"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. 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?"
And here is one of the more famous passages in which O'Brien describes the future of humanity under the dominion of The Party:
[O'Brien asks Winston] "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. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but MORE merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy - everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always - do not forget this, Winston - always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."
Pretty scary stuff, huh? After reading the book, I felt like Scrooge when he was pleading with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol:
"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?"

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

"Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
Scrooge learned the True Meaning of Christmas and changed his life. Have we learned from Orwell's warning? I hope so. Even today I see disturbing trends in our political and economic systems. The insanity of The Party and its dedication to power also ties into David Brin's ideas about satiability (see this series on his blog: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). Satiability, he argues, is the difference between those who gain wealth and power and can use them wisely, and those who become slaves to the power they covet. It's an interresting parallel to Orwell's narrative.

As I said above, if you haven't read 1984, read it. And see if you can see some of the tactics of The Party being applied, albeit in much weaker forms, by modern-day politicians and media pundits. Scary stuff, indeed.

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I'm not overly fond of Brin... I find that he tends to overdramatize and underanalyze, he's a decent author but not a great thinker. And in this case he is dead wrong.

Because in fact, tyranny is not the historical human condition, it is a relatively recent (10,000 years or so) invention. Don't mention on his blog that you think this, though, because he will get petulant and abusive and call you names.

But in fact, in a stone age society, there aren't very good mechanisms for tyranny. Because of the strong dependencies of individuals on other individuals, everybody tends to get a share of the take.

What tyranny there is in tribal societies--and this is almost always true in all human societies--is not political but religious. Tyranny needs a god, be it God, Big Brother, or Mao. And gods are just lies, so they don't last well.

What Brin consistently fails to grasp is that our society is inevitable, that we are inheriting a tradition of rational thought that predates history and goes through the greeks and romans. He wants his diamond society to be right here, right now, and fragile, but in fact, it is deeply rooted and robust. One way you can spot this is by noticing that freedom keeps coming up, no matter how hard anyone works to keep it down.
I take your point, but I don't see a big contradiciton between what you say and Brin's thesis. The point he made was that tyranny was the result every time a society got both agriculture and metallurgy.

It's not that tribal societies aren't more egalitarian - they are - it's that agriculture and metallurgy ends the necessity for a tribal society. Everyone doesn't have to do an equal share of food gathering/child rearing. People can specialize, and some people don't have to work to support the group. Once agriculture and metallurgy are available, it only takes one person to realize that they can exploit the fact that excess resources are available and upset the tribal structure.

With these two technologies, an opportunistic few can use weapons (from metallurgy) to control all of the society's excess resources (from agriculture) and enforce a hierarchical structure (the pyramid).

Going back to your recent posts about reciprocal altruism and how it's evident that this is our natural state (as demonstrated by our primate cousins) I think there are multiple forces at work. Reciprocal altruism works best when there is also reciprocal accountability. If there is no accountability on one side, there is no incentive for that side not to cheat. With the rise of agriculture, the tyrants could control all the resources and had little or no accountability to the peasants, while the hierarchy enforced accountability on the peasants to the tyrant. Of course, there's always a tipping point where the tyrant gets too greedy, and gets a big fat dose of accountability in the form of a revolution.

As civilization and technology progressed, more niches opened up in societies, enabling people to spend more time thinking. And thankfully, some really smart people had time to think long and hard about the best ways to get health, happiness and liberty to every human being. Thus, the Enlightenment brings the principals of reciprocal altruism and reciprocal accountability that were lost from our tribal past into a modern context.

But tyrants are still with us. They've been living off the backs of the rest of humanity for 10,000 years, and they don't want to go back to contributing their share. They've become used to being in control, and even believe that they have the *right* to be in control because they're superior to everyone else (or they're chosen by God, or whatever).

Therefore, I stop short of your claim that our society is inevitable. The same drives (to increase the reproductive success of ourselves and members of our own family group, however large that is defined) that make reciprocal accountability part of our nature also make us more than willing to cheat our neighbors when we're sure we can get away with it. I think we discussed this back on Brin's blog in relation to a primate study on this topic a while back.

...I found the relevant post from back in August 2005. Look back in the comments I made there. I think I expressed the same points I'm making now.
What's a week between friends.

"With these two technologies, an opportunistic few can use weapons (from metallurgy) to control all of the society's excess resources (from agriculture) and enforce a hierarchical structure (the pyramid)."

One point of disagreement is right there: Aztecs & Inca had no mettalurgy. They did have organized religion, and they were able to use stone age technology to control the resources because of the religion. It isn't a side issue, it is THE issue. And thats why I think the opposite stance, that of science, has very deep and strong roots.
Your counterexample doesn't contradict my point. I said agriculture and metallurgy enable tyranny, not that tyranny is impossible without both. I accept your point that religion can enable tyranny as well.

But it's not religion, in and of itself, that's the problem. It's any ideology that has a rigid dogma that stresses obedience to an ultimate authority figure above all else. Such an ideology can be religious, political, or a combination of both. This is hinted by your comment:

"Tyranny needs a god, be it God, Big Brother, or Mao."

Of course, since most religions have worship and obedience to an omnipotent power as one of their core beliefs, it's not surprising that religion has been a major enabler for tyranny. All it takes is for a tyrant to get people to believe that he embodies the will of the ultimate authority. However, the 20th century has produced notable counterexamples of authoritarian ideologies without religion as a core component.

It seems to me that the rational thought and skepticism a human being can employ is more easily directed at ideas he or she doesn't agree with. It's much harder to be just as skeptical and objective towards one's own preconceptions, most cherished beliefs, or favored authority figures. See the recent study on how "Political bias affects brain activity" for a possible explanation of this.

The willingness to challenge one's own beliefs by testing them against reality, and to accept the results when you're wrong, is what seems to me to be the long-lasting contribution of science. And I see this as a more recent development.

Human beings may have always had rationality, observation, and experimentation as tools for learning about the world, but we've also had imagination and creativity. Prehistoric people didn't just rationally conclude that they didn't completely understand the world around them when they couldn't make sense out of their observations. They came up with what they thought were plausible explanations for natural phenomina. The sun is a powerful god that travels across the sky everyday. Rain is the gods crying, or whatever.

So, let me modify my previous statement. I'm confident that our collective drives towards reciprocal altruism can overcome our collective impulses for greed and cheating. I'm confident that the human condition tends to naturally push us in an egalitarian direction. But I disagree that this trend is "inevitable." My point about the cautionary tale in 1984 was that it describes a scenario where human freedom can be thwarted indefinitely. In this scenario, as in the real world, the apathy of the masses enables tyranny as well.

I don't see the diamond society as quite so fragile as Brin's writing implies. But I also don't see it as being as robust and impervious as calling it inevitable would imply.
"However, the 20th century has produced notable counterexamples of authoritarian ideologies without religion as a core component."

Maybe... but I'm not aware of one. Stalin was definitely setting up a religion, big pictures of Stalin everywhere, huge statues... compare this to the behavior of any emporer god and its clear that this is a religion of Stalin. Ditto Mao. "Religious" is a slippery term, though, so we might be using it differently. The way I mean it, Soviet Russia qualifies as a religious oligarchy, at least at first. Once Stalin died, the USSR degraded until it collapsed.

I admit, when I say inevitable, I mean over the next 5 thousand years or so. It would be nice if we didn't slip, and it isn't inevitable that we won't. I just think reality is on our side in the long run.

Anyway, you make good points about 1984, I think, as a novel and as a cautionary tale. I think that there are natural laws that doom totalitarianism... but perhaps sufficient technology (and I define religion as a technology) could overcome those barriers, as Orwell proposed.
"Religious" is a slippery term, though, so we might be using it differently. The way I mean it, Soviet Russia qualifies as a religious oligarchy, at least at first. Once Stalin died, the USSR degraded until it collapsed.

I think we are. I would make a distinction between coopting religious symbols/icons to exploit the populous' existing beliefs and trying to engender religious worship of a dictator. But maybe this distinction is minimal. I guess claiming the Divine Right of Kings isn't that different from claiming you're the Savior of China.

But I would distinguish between people's personal religious beliefs and how they practice them, and how religion is used by some as a tool for exploitation. When used as a "technology," as you put it, the underlying beliefs are largely irrelevant. The goal is to transfer devotion to a deity to devotion to a dictator, political entity, or ideology.

The question is why the human psyche appears to be so vulnerable to this tactic. It seems to me that religion and religious devotion are manifestations of an underlying human trait. A trait that is at odds with other traits that push us towards rationality.

Maybe I'll get around to writing up a separate blog post on the topic.
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