Ronald Larson is Professor of Social Science at Wytheville Community College in Virginia.
Halfway through Orwell’s 1984, we learn that Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania—the three superstates—are nearly identical in ideology and social structure. All three are brutally totalitarian; all three have economies based on continuous warfare with the others in ever-shifting alliances; and all three are characterized by a rigid social structure held together by terrorism exercised in the name of love for a never-seen godlike figure, who—in reality—doesn’t exist.
We learn all of this from a secret manual which Winston Smith, Orwell’s protagonist, is surreptitiously reading in his hideout.
Why and how did these states come into existence? And why do they have similar social arrangements? We cannot answer these questions with any assurance, but I’d like to offer a surmise.
Presumably, the manuscript does provide answers. We are led to believe that that is the case. But Smith’s reading is interrupted by the Thought Police, and consequently our reading over his shoulder is arrested when he is. Nevertheless, Orwell leaves us with enough clues so that—with the use of imagination and existential social theory—we can offer some plausible answers. But first we must answer another question. What is there about the human animal that would allow such self-inflicted horror?
If Orwell requires us to use some imagination in answering questions about the origin and similarities of the three states, he provides us a relatively clear view of human nature, as follows: Man’s nature is best understood in terms of a contradiction; he is infinity encased within finity; his symbol- using mind is not in phase with his material body. Many philosophers have pointed out that man is the only animal who knows he is going to die. It is his knowledge of this terrible fact which is lodged at the core of man’s psyche—a fact which man desperately wants to avoid or deny. One expedient man employs to deny death is to endow his society or nation with sacredness. Unable, in this secular age, to ascend to heaven, man brings “heaven” to earth.
Nationalism and/or socialism today is a religion just as surely as is Christianity. Both religions provide meaning and offer survival by associating the individual with something far greater than self. When sacredness is imputed to society, its members form a priesthood of sorts and serve as its votaries. The index of sacredness: How much does one contribute to the welfare of the system? The greater the contribution, the greater the degree of sacredness we accord the individual.
In Oceania, Big Brother is God; the Inner-Party is the upper church hierarchy; and the Outer- Party, the lower one. This church of the poison mind is omnipotent, omniscient, and infallible. Everything and every-body in Oceania are controlled by Big Brother and his church; even time is controlled. Oppose them, and you cease to exist. Correct that: you never existed. Join them and you will never cease to exist. All of this is done to deny death, by denying the self. And the process is at work in all three states. For example, in Eastasia the official ideology is termed the Obliteration of the Self.
Tocqueville’s Warning of “Democracy in America”
Now we are ready to answer our questions about the origin of 1984. I’m guessing it all started with democracy. More than 150 years ago a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States, and his account of the visit, Democracy in America, has become a classic in sociological literature, for good reason. Tocqueville detected the fatal flaw in our social system. Democracy, he said, is synonymous with social equality, and social equality engenders self- centeredness. This is so because in a society where class distinctions are weak, “status anxieties” arise, and in the competition to get ahead, people are only too willing to climb over their country men. Tocqueville saw envy and egoism as two especially pernicious attitudes. And he was appalled at the sight of people using government to advance their various self-interests.
Tocqueville’s worst fears were realized in the late 20th Century. Americans made a fetish out of their “individualism,” and profound social unrest occurred. Ironically, politicians thought the cure for democracy was more democracy. A few years before the Second American Revolution, an American president chastised the people for their “loss of purpose” and their “self- centeredness”—never realizing that his equalitarian social policies were pouring fuel on the flames of unrest.
This “equality” explanation for the origin of the world-wide totalitarianism of 1984 is in accord with Orwell’s analysis of how the three states maintain their existence; they are maintained by preserving the hierarchical structure of society. Equality is averted at all costs, and war, by directing resources toward guns instead of butter, is the primary instrument by which this is accomplished. In short, scarcity is a necessary condition to maintain the hierarchical structure of the states. Why? Orwell writes that “It is the deliberate policy to keep even the favorite groups somewhat near the brink of hardship because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.” Also, the party could blame the scarcity on the enemy. Thus, scarcity maintains the sacredness of Oceania, making for war abroad, but peace at home. Thus, in Oceania, War is Peace, truly.