• J.S. Mullen

George Orwell and Libertarian Realism:

War makes the state and the state makes war

While much contemporary use of Orwell’s work revolves around applying his ideas of Doublethink and Newspeak – the first essentially a practiced cognitive dissonance, whereby one simultaneously believes what they know to be false; the second, a language so reduced in scope it makes any undesirable thought literally unthinkable – the broader context of the novel in which they appear, 1984 (1949), presents Orwell’s insights into what today is the Libertarian Realist school of IR. While far from entirely original, Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket (1935) had already been widely circulated, Orwell’s totalized conception of a society rationally organized around the principles of permanent war yield insights applicable to the present day.

Apart from Orwell’s vivid and intense description of such a possible dystopian future, Orwell helpfully explicates his ideas on the subject at length and in a systematic way. He does this through the mysterious book within the book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Purportedly written by a disgruntled ex-inner-party member, it presents in plain language the logic of permanent war.

It begins with a few basic axioms, summarized here, and more or less assumed by all Libertarian Realists:

1.) Existing by and for continuous warfare, the three superstates not only cannot conquer one another, but would gain no advantage by doing so. On the contrary, so long as they remain in conflict, they prop one another up, like three sheaves of corn (197).

2.) That there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about, that the scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death (187).

3.) Because of its centrality to industrial employment, the search for new weapons continues unceasingly, this despite the fact that all three powers already possess, in the atomic bomb, a weapon far more powerful than any that their present researchers are likely to discover (194).

4.) That there is no actual danger of conquest of any one by any of the others makes possible the denial of reality – thus, efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed, only production and consumption (198).

Having described the self-perpetuating mechanism of the state, making war, Orwell then goes on to describe the characteristics of a society that would suffer to live this way, and on the characters of those who would willingly inflict it on them. Human and social psychology being more or less immutable, at least so far as our time horizons are concerned, his insights stand out poignantly:

1.) War comes to involve very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties – among members of the home state that is (186).

2.) For when it does happen, any fighting largely takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at,” (186) – for the record, he predicted the Middle East, Africa, and the North and South poles.

3.) The consciousness of being at war, or the feeling of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival, (192) – as the creators of our new national security state apparatus in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 well-know.

4.) As to those members of the bureaucracy and political-military establishment and their affiliated industries and bureaucracies, Orwell writes that they should be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that they should be credulous and ignorant fanatics whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words, it is necessary that they should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist (192).

If that doesn’t sound like the War on Terror and a description of Bush’s Defense Department, I don’t know what does.

One key modification must be made to Orwell’s picture of future states perpetually mobilized for industrial war. It comes, it so happens, from a fellow Englishman. In his contemporary portrayal of a future dystopian society, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) presented a somewhat different form of social control from Orwell’s torture chambers, propaganda, surveillance, and perpetual fear – among other things, that producer/consumers were best kept in a chemically induced state of near bliss. Stimulated by entertainment modules, they do not even question their assigned places as cogs in the machine of state power. This lack of engagement with the authentic, perpetual distraction by material comfort, shallow entertainment, and state of chemical dependency is clearly closer to the experience of those western nations which escaped Soviet domination during the first Cold War Era.

Relatedly, Orwell’s most fundamental flaw in this area is found in his underlying theory of production: that the purpose of the state managed economy will be “to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living,” (188). Here, I think, is where Orwell’s imagination perhaps understandably failed him. From the depths of multiple world wars and depression, how could he possibly imagine that by the real 1984, barely thirty years after his death, the U.S. economy and world credit markets would be so large and developed as to be able to sustain a massively more powerful military at a mere fraction of its now much larger annual GDP?

Frankly, even this minor failure on Orwell’s part does little to change his insights so far as Libertarian Realists are concerned. It is clear that the foreign policies of Orwell’s Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, are a reflection of its internal politics: specifically, it follows directly from the efforts of those privileged elite, those members of the inner party, to remain in their positions of power, keeping the biggest chunk of the producer surplus for themselves after divvying up what was left to keep the proles and lesser party members materially sated, complacent, and intellectually disciplined.

Oh well, down the memory hole it goes.

*All page numbers are taken from the Signet Classics edition of 1984.

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