Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell -- UpSide Down, InSide Out, Round and Round

Nineteen Eighty Four is a dystopian allegory that clearly illustrates Orwell's distaste for totalitarianism. It's a cartoon, in many ways. Thus, it is ever popular.

It helps the continuing popularity of the work that at least some of what Orwell thought might be in store for the future of Britain in a post apocalyptic dystopian wasteland actually has come to pass, particularly the constant intrusive state apparatus to spy on the populace. While civil liberties extremists in the United States decry the intrusiveness of post 9/11 "security" measures, the United States government is a piker compared to that of Britain.

The protagonist of Nineteen Eighty Four is Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party and a functionary in the Ministry of Truth. The Inner Party is where decisions are made -- for the Good of All, of course -- whereas, outside the party structure altogether, indeed seemingly outside the very conception of humanity itself, are the mass of Proles whose simple, stupid lives don't matter a bit and hardly enter into the consciousness of the Party membership.

Periodic and seemingly random rocket bombs are exploded in the Prole sectors to suppress the constant Rebellion, and to thin the herd of inconsequentials.

All is well, all is as it should be. Big Brother is watching you.

Winston Smith takes a stroll in the Prole sector outside the Ministry of Truth and he makes discoveries. The Proles have lives, simple though they may be, and they live with emotions, with love, with rivalries, and even with laughter, all punishable offenses for Party members, Inside or Out.

The Prole world is a world turned upside down where nothing is as it is supposed to be. And yet something much deeper than the vapid technocracy of the Party endures among the Proles, a connection with real humanity which the Party has lost.

Outer Party members can aspire to become Inner Party members, but that is about it. Otherwise, their lives are constricted and narrowed to mere rote and repetition of nonsense and deception and chastity. For the Good of All, of course.

Glenn has made much of his insight that the real political division in this country is not between left and right but between inside and outside. So far as I know, he hasn't really developed that idea very much, but it is a fairly common understanding in the upper reaches of the A-List Lefty Blogosphere. The adepts have figured out that the left/right political dichotomy is phony, and they want everyone to know. Of course, at the same time, the left/right dichotomy is useful. So it is maintained. But it is phony.

Nevertheless in the insider/outsider world view, the Insiders make the decisions, the Outsiders try to penetrate the seals around the Insiders by finding out about and revealing their secrets. Exactly what this is supposed to accomplish, we never quite hear. But from appearances, the goal of tossing these grenades of "secrets revealed" from the Outside is to get inside the gate -- as Markos had it long ago -- and from Inside... do what?

Become a Player. Become and Inner Party member and thus participate in the decision making of the Inner Party and direct the actions of those Outside.

The act of Real Revolution is that which unmasks the Truth of the Inner Party.

Thus, someone like Julian Assange is hailed the hero for acquiring and distributing various "secrets" of the Inner Party, and the Inner Party in turn makes Julian into a cartoon character like Emmanuel Goldstein. In other words, it is a mutually rewarding enterprise. Julian gets the attention -- and apparently money -- he craves, and the State and/or the Party gets an Enemy to hound and denounce. No real secrets are ever revealed, or at least none that would seriously damage the Party and its apparat, and yet the semblance of Revolution is maintained.

But there is no Revolution. It's all a show.

Why would one believe that Unmasking the Truth of the Inner Party would result in anything beyond a momentary shrug among the masses? Knowing the Secrets of the Nomenklatura is to be privy to gossip, and what's the point of that?

Knowing the Secrets led to the impeachments of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, but did those acts result in a freer, fairer and more open government today? Hardly.

To what object do members of the Ruling Classes ever contend among themselves? And make no mistake, Inner and Outer Party are both part of the Ruling Class. They don't struggle on the Proles' behalf.

No, it is a struggle for Power, Influence, and Status, within the Ruling Class, on behalf of no one outside it.

And when those outside the Ruling Class recognize the System itself is the problem, the question of who is operating the levers of Power at any given time is of marginal interest at best. If the System is the problem and the System is to endure no matter who is in charge of it -- the situation we face today quite clearly -- then the only real interest in it we might have is to ensure that the least insane operators are at the controls, if we have any choice in the matter at all.

Orwell seemed to understand this state of affairs thoroughly.

Change, if it is to come at all, has to come from Outside, not from one faction on the Inside contending with another.


  1. Very good column.

    But a minor quibble. I don't think the left/right split thing is phony. At least not if we're talking about people who are seriously committed to their ideology and its implications. If you're talking instead about Sunday Politics, or the politics of the casual, or the confused, or the hybrid, yeah, it can be "phony." But, to me, not if one is seriously, genuinely into philosophies of the left and right.

    Boiled down, and admittedly oversimplified, the range from left to right is egalitarian to anti-egalitarian, as you know. Right off the bat, that makes a huge difference. If true outsiders ever get into power, I think it's safe to say that we'd all be better off if people truly committed to the struggle for a more egalitarian society win. And that also plays right into what you're saying about vying for power within the dominant structure. If the new boss is anti-egalitarian, we're not going to be better off. It's same as the old boss, etc. If the folks who sweep out the old power structure are truly egalitarian, or at least committed to working toward that, then we won't even have "bosses" per se. I know that's supremely pie in the sky, unicornish and overly idealistic, but at worst, we'd have a far more elastic sense of the concentration of power.

    Haven't gotten into the bio of Mario Savio beyond a few pages. Am finishing up another book at present, Rebecca Goldstein's wonderful 36 Arguments for the Existence of God right now. Into the appendix with its list of the arguments and rebuttals. But the few pages I did read indicate that Savio strove to be an egalitarian. And that may have hurt him in some ways in ultra competitive America. He didn't want power. He didn't want to be the boss of any movement. Apparently, a lot of his buds in the Free Speech Movement thought he needed to aggressively seize power and pull the movement with him. That went against the core of who he was. Which also makes me think: One of the major advantages the right has over the left is that it's actually far more efficient in many cases to have strict chains of command and serious discipline. Folks to the left of center generally have more trouble with dictates and "shut up and clap louder" stuff, which can often make getting things done harder. It takes far more effort to come to consensus about things than just to take orders. It's mentally, emotionally and physically draining, to debate endlessly, compromise and hash things out, as you know from direct experience. In fact, from what you've said in the past, you have a great deal of hands-on experience in that process, far moreso than my own.

    Orwell did too. And I think he was like Savio in that he did not want power, either. I think personal power frightened the hell out of him. At the same time, I don't think he liked the endless hashing out of things. It drove him crazy when he went through that in Spain.

    A very complex man, with complex ideas, and one worth studying again and again. Have read just one bio of him, Michael Sheldon's from 2006. If you know of any others you'd recommend, please let me know.

    Hope all is well . . .

  2. Cu-hool,

    On the phoniness of the "left/right" dichotomy, I didn't make myself clear -- as is frequently the case.

    I mooshed together a number of different elements, and shifted from Orwell's vision to the insight of Glenn and some others in the blogosphere without much of a transition.

    Given the way the Euro-American led G20 just behaved in Toronto, we have what amounts to a global ruling class/culture that is essentially a singularity, united in a set of standards and beliefs that amounts to a very narrow ideology. Like the political parties in the United States, it will cycle between Neo-Con and Neo-Liberal aspects, but there is nothing beyond, and compared to the ideologies and simple human values held dear in the past, both the Neo-Con and Neo-Liberal aspect is severely rightist. As we often say, "there is no real Left" in American (and apparently global) political and ruling culture. It's completely absent.

    While the ruling ideology is all rightist, it is not totalitarian, at least not so far. There are aspects of totalitarianism in ordinary society to be sure, but there have always been some of those elements of hyper-patriotism and "security" to contend with. Often in the past they have been far more apparent and oppressive than they are now. We're almost as far from the totalitarian vision Orwell proposed for 1984 as we have ever been, at least in some ways.

    Glenn and others are right to suggest there is no real "left/right" dichotomy -- at least none that matters -- within the Ruling Class itself. Nevertheless, the public is constantly fed a diet of struggle and controversy between "left" and "right" through the media (particularly FOX News, but not exclusively so) but that is not what the real struggle is about at all.

    Glenn and others hypothesize the real struggle is between insider and outsider -- which in some ways mirrors Orwell's Inner and Outer Party in 1984.

    Yet Inner Party and Outer Party are both Ruling Class, aren't they; one makes the decisions, the other puts them into practice. True Outsiders -- the Proles of Orwell's vision -- are really Outside and have nothing to do with the Ruling Class -- except as objects to be manipulated. Any struggle between one faction and another that rules over them is all but irrelevant.

    The results are the same for the Proles -- they are still going to be objects to be manipulated.

    Which is a long way of getting back to your point about Mario; he saw what was going on in his own time and spoke out against it eloquently. He could see it in part because his origins and background were truly outside the elites that he was supposed to be socialized to become part of while at Berkeley. Here he was being handed entré on a silver platter by the ruling elites of his time, and he dared to throw it right back in their faces, ungrateful and unworthy wretch that he was.

    That's not what's going on now, though. Our Rulers have made sure it cannot happen.

    But for what it's worth, there is "something happening here" -- as the old song goes.

    I think I've got a couple more posts to go On Appeals to Orwell, then I expect a shift of focus, perhaps to encompass some of the real Outer Party naiveté as revealed by Markos's Polling Thing. It's really just sad what happened, but it was almost inevitable given his almost child-like belief in polls and the "secrets" they reveal.

  3. Oh, on Orwell research material, one of the sources I'm using is an article published in the Spring 1970 issue of Horizon magazine. It's by Lawrence Malkin, titled "Half-way to 1984," and it is a very thorough analysis of Orwell's perspectives and vision.

    The focus of this issue of Horizon is the Counterculture that was solidifying at the time, together with some exploration of historical (and dystopian) counterculture examples.

    One of the advantages of hardly ever throwing anything away is that one has this sort of ephemera available; that's also one of the problems! It's "available" but just try to find it! I lucked out this time; it was the first volume of Horizon I pulled off the shelf in my little study in New Mexico this trip.

  4. I think I understand what you mean now by phoniness. As in, since the real dialogue is between various shadings of the right -- from neocon to neolib -- there is no left/right battle.

    I definitely agree with that. No real left is allowed into the debate at all -- except in Latin America. They haven't been for decades. I should have gotten that from your earlier writings at least.

    And as we both know, there is no debate between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians. And no debate between anti-capitalists and pro-capitalists. It's assumed that business rules and it's assumed that they should rule and it's assumed that they should be pretty much free to do as they please.

    The debate is moving closer and closer to a battle between those who want a few, token checks on them and those who want none. The tea party crowd has mainstreamed the latter to a degree that really surprises me, to be honest. With Rand Paul and Sharron Angle on the verge of becoming senators, the old "third rails" may be gone.

    Social Security and Medicare, for instance, now look like they're going to be on the chopping block. I didn't see that coming just a few years ago. To be honest, I think much of the social safety net is in danger, and the Dems aren't exactly fighting for it tooth and nail.

    Orwell would be aghast at the dismantling going on in Britain today, and he would have been shocked at the coming austerity measures across the globe. Again, just from the vantage point of a few years ago, I would have been shocked as well.

    The combination of neolib and neocon means that everything is on the table except for Defense and the Security state.

    Orwell might ask, "I went to Spain for this? I risked my life there for this? For people to completely forget about how we struggled to bring about at least modest reforms which led to a reduction in inequality? And it worked!! It worked pretty well for 30 years or so!"

  5. Cu-hool,

    Our elections have turned farcical, much as those of Ancient Rome did, meant more for entertainment and show than for democratic representation.

    If Angle and Paul get into the Senate, and they might, their main function will be to show off and to preen. The August Body is made for such types -- which is one of the reasons why I advocate its abolition -- and it's already full of popinjays and jackanapes. What's two more?

    Their effect on policy will be in any case minimal. That is being handled by a shadowy entity in the background -- yet in full view: a handful of extremely powerful individuals and "stakeholders" in the System, unelected for the most part, who are simply directing government to fulfill their ends. We saw it on full display in the Health Care Reform "debate." The People by and large had nothing to do with it. It was all Stakeholders acting out their demands. And for the most part, getting them met.

    We see it in the BP mess where the Government is ostensibly "directing" BP to do thus and so, but BP is doing what it damn well pleases in full defiance of Government when so inclined, and with a level of contempt and incompetence into the bargain that is breathtaking. Government on its own can do nothing.

    And we're seeing it in the Peterson controlled Deficit Commission goon show. To the extent possible, "public interest" is simply being hijacked or ignored. It's really quite something to witness. There hasn't been anything this bold and overt since the Robber Baron era.

    But at least then, the People would take action, get up in arms -- literally sometimes -- and pull the pants off the plutocrats. The Tea Partiers hardly rank among the bolder anti-establishmentarians this country has ever harbored.

    Now, despite the millions upon millions who are being forced into poverty and destitution year in and year out, the Ministry of Plenty insists that we're in Recovery, and the masses are quiet -- or cry out for further hardships. Amazing.

    Where's the outrage?

    It's all among the seething rightist mobs.

    How can this be, and how can it be changed? I'm afraid that it's not going to change in my lifetime. It's going to be another generation at least, and it may well be centuries... And it will take a catalyzing event. I hate to think what.