[personal profile] wingedbeast
Winston Smith jumped around, so, once again, I feel free to do the same. We're still in Chapter 9. Julia returns and Winston reads the book to her.

Here we have Orwell massively oversimplifying human civilization and history.

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or another.

That's a sweeping generalization, but it's hard to argue the point... if only because it goes out of its way to be as general as possible. In fact, this can be applied to the vast majority of societies that have populations over, say, twenty.

Orwell was wise to suppose that the Neolithic Age as a cut-off point. Evidence would suggest that your hunter-gatherer societies had little enough time for that kind of BS. Individual groupings were small for that kind of society, and class distinctions were unlikely. Refusing a woman on the hunt or from battle was deliberately making yourself less capable of catching meat or defending yourself.

With the advent of farming and the new result of having surplus food, class systems formed. That's about as narrowly as I can maintain Orwell's full accuracy, here.

The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim-for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives-is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.

I... don't agree with any of those. For the most part, the people in each of those groups mostly want to survive and do so with a basic amount of satisfaction. Some people dream of revolution. Others dream of protecting their way of life. Primarily, few want to abolish or maintain class structure just for its own sake.

Truly, in terms of the Low, there's a reasonable push to make that number smaller. Few, if any, in that effort want to eliminate any concept of class... so long as it's not legally enforced. The push for a stronger minimum wage isn't an attempt to eliminate the wealthy just an attempt to reduce poverty and reinforce the middle class.

That's not to say that the perception of those goals don't play a heavy role. We have people who fight any attempt to address income inequality as "class warfare", based in a fear that other people are coming for our wealth and status... whether or not we really have wealth and status to speak of. It drives, in my view, an effort to hoard wealth even when one could, in hard numbers, be more wealthy with a better-payed consumer base.

So, Orwell/Goldstein isn't off to the best start. But, you can see where this view is coming from.

Thus throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves of their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins again.

This is both cynical and naive. Orwell/Goldstein gets away with a lot by keeping this so incredibly vague that you could take any social change throughout history and find a way to squeeze it into this framework. The recent couple of decades in which "geek" has been transformed into something more socially acceptable, for instance, could take that in terms of popularity.

But, it also ignores that a great many people are less concerned with where they are on a social scale than whether or not they're in a society that will readily let them starve to death or die of easily treatable conditions or shoot them on fear of... The point being that it isn't the class that's at issue so much as the results thereof. A Low would be far more ready to accept being Low if being Low A. didn't impose shorter life and lower quality of life and B. was alterable through hard work.

Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims.

If you see the complete abolition of class distinctions of any kind to be the only possible goal, that would be true. If, on the other hand, you see increasing wages as a goal, temporary success via minimum wage laws and Trade Unions. If, on the other hand, you see an increase in rights that allow for class mobility, you have continuing (though not complete) success through Civil Rights. But, those were more about accessibility of the Middle Class than elimination of Class altogether.

The Book applies the same to Communist revolutions. It applies the same to the French and American Revolutions. Basically, the claim is that every revolution inevitably leads to authoritarian leaders. Another way of putting all of this is that Orwell is describing the Evil Universe.

You know the Evil Universe. It's in most science fiction and fantasy. Good guys have their evil counter-parts for reasons of... they're evil. And, Orwell has described that world quite well. Use that foundation and you have a good evil universe without having to resort to Evil doing the obviously-ill-advised because evil.

In the real world, it's a bit more complicated than that. It's not automatically good, not by any means. The Authoritarian mindset is still about us. It's a large part of how we got Trump as President. But, we also have a system that limits his power precisely because the people who first created that system deliberately limited their own power.

This is a short installment, in part due to timing. In majority, it's due to Orwell's overly simplistic mindset regarding people and history.

I don't want to argue that 1984 isn't a valid warning to all societies. It is still my contention that what is on display in this book is a listing of the sins common to all cultures. Self-awareness would be the only way to guard against them.

On the other hand, I don't want to leave the notion open that all societies inevitably fall into totalitarianism. If we lived in a world of such simplicity and such large goals, perhaps. But, we don't. We live in a world of people, where people are each different, some being very ambitious, but mostly wanting to have a good life... however that works out for them.

1984 is deliberately grim. We should take care to read and learn, but not to be convinced that this dark view is fully informed.

Comparison to Animal Farm?

Date: 2017-07-11 11:13 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Do you get the impression that Orwell's major motive for 1984 was speaking through Goldstein? He uses this section of the book to restate points that he made more successfully in Animal Farm. From that book to this one, he went from showing to telling.

One reason his worldview is overly simplistic is that it doesn't allow for social hierarchies based on something other than wealth. Henry Louis Gates has money and reputation yet law enforcement treats him like a criminal because of his skin color. Well-off gay couples still lack many legal rights and protections.


Date: 2017-08-13 09:31 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Orwell grew up in an England that had a much more rigid class system than the US. Even as late as 1948 this was how people thought, though it was less so because of the influences of WW2 (e.g. the "Bevan Boys" - middle class men being sent to work down in coal mines).

Even trains had three classes of accommodation, based on the three classes of society (not, as it is nowadays, based on the ability/desire to pay more for a better seat). I once read a book written in around 1890 by the general manager of a major English railway company where he talks about there being three natural classes of people and it was their duty to support that by having three classes of carriage.

So the High/Middle/Low split will have seen much more natural to him that it seems to you.

Clive Feather



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