Sixty Years After 1984

Does Orwell's dystopian classic still matter?

This week marks the 60th anniversary of perhaps the most famous book of the 20th Century: George Orwell's 1984. It is a book that changed our language, giving us such words and phrases as "thought police," "newspeak," "doublethink," and "Big Brother"—not to mention "Orwellian." But what is the relevancy of Orwell's disturbing novel today? Is it a warning about future horrors that may come if we fail to guard our freedom? Does it talk about things that are already present in our lives?

Orwell, the British journalist and writer, penned his book in 1948 as a commentary on Soviet totalitarianism, a very present danger at the time. His dystopia was in many ways an even darker version of Stalin's Soviet Union, with a godlike leader, a ruling party that enforces the state's ideology, and an omnipresent secret police. Yet Orwell was a socialist, a man of the left whose polemic was directed in large part at the pro-Soviet delusions of his fellow leftists. Since then, both left and right have tried to appropriate Orwell's vision and claim it as their own.

The most recent such appropriation comes from the right. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposes increased regulation, used the anniversary to put out a press release arguing that "the crusade for global governance led by environmental activist groups in the name of combating global warming" represents a 1984-style threat to personal freedom today. The CEI has released a video clip based on the famous 1984-themed Apple Computer ad in which Al Gore appears as Big Brother lecturing a zombie-like captive audience in gray uniforms on the perils of global warming.

Whatever one may think of climate change, such imagery and rhetoric runs the risk of trivializing the evil of true totalitarianism—and discrediting one's own argument, except in the eyes of those who need no convincing. Al Gore is not planning to establish secret dungeons where people will be horribly tortured until they see the error of their ways, any more than George W. Bush—a frequent target of accusations of Orwellian malfeasance—was planning to brainwash the unpatriotic into submission.

Orwell's concern was not with a democratic government's excessive regulatory powers, or excessive national security powers (in the Cold War years, he himself shared a list of communist sympathizers and possible Soviet spies with an intelligence agency in the British Foreign Office). It certainly wasn't with the ability of corporations to track customers' buying habits, which some privacy advocates have likened to Big Brother's watchful eye.

The oppressive machine in 1984 is a tyrannical state that maintains total control over the lives and even thoughts of its subjects and brutally crushes all dissent. It is unchecked power, "a boot stamping on a human face—forever." The closest any political force comes to this nightmare vision today, besides such communist relics as North Korea, is Taliban-style Islamist radicalism.

Yet 1984 does have lessons beyond the totalitarian experience. Take the book's definition of "doublethink," the ideal mental state of the citizen of Orwell's dystopia: it is "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them," the ability "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies."

It is not just governments—democratic or not—that engage in a less extreme version of such mental gymnastics. It's activists of all stripes; talk show hosts and pundits across the political spectrum; and, finally, ordinary people. The same is true of "newspeak," terminology invented to shade the real meaning of certain beliefs or acts and make them more appealing. (Even such popular terms as "pro-choice" for "pro-abortion rights" and "pro-life" for "anti-abortion" have overtones of newspeak.)

Another pervasive feature of the Orwellian state was the practice of constantly whipping up hatred toward the ideological enemy du jour. Looking at much of our political discourse today, from right-wing talk radio to left-wing blogs, it's hard not to think of such rituals as "Two-Minute Hate" and "Hate Week." On too many political websites, every week is Hate Week—whether the object of hate is liberals, Muslims, neocons, or Christian bigots. Partisan propagandists and professional hate-mongers bear a large share of the blame, but so do "regular" people who need little encouragement to demonize political opponents.

The inhuman system that inspired Orwell's masterpiece has crumbled. But doublethink, newspeak, thought-policing and virtuous hatred are eternal temptations of the human soul, even in the freest of societies. We have met Big Brother, and he is us.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

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  • ||

    Without a doubt, Orwell's writings in general and 1984 in particulare are the most important anti-totalitarian writings ever.

    However, in terms of language and its use and misuse, Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," is the best examples of how an intellectual and political elite can use language to shape and manipulate ideas very effectively.

    Orwell was often tough for some people to understand because over time he appeared to be switching sides. For example, he fought with the communists in Spain against the Facsits, yet wrote Animal Farm a polemic on the evils of communism and collectivization.

    For Orwell, this was never a problem because he was simply and consistently anti-totalitarian. Thus, whether the totalitarian nature came from the left or right he did not care, he would simply oppose it.

    Regards

    Joe Dokes

  • ¢||

    On the other boot...

  • Orange Line Special||

    Cathy Young is as dim as ever. First, regarding "the ability of corporations to track customers' buying habits", does Reason get money from any companies that want that in some way? Second, regarding what AlGore et al are doing, it certainly doesn't involve rats or things like that. However, it is in some ways similar to what's in the book, specifically relating to the media.

    And, of course, libertarians like those to be found at this site would be more than willing to help out, just as long as certain people are able to make money off the deal or at least DC cocktail party invites are forthcoming.

    P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs delivered through sockpuppets, thereby conceding my points and showing the cowardly, childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians.

  • ..||

    the most important anti-totalitarian writings ever

    "Ever", Joe Dokes? "Ever" is a long time.

  • nobody||

    Dear LoneWacko,

    Shut the fuck up.

    Yours,
    nobody

  • ||

    Wow, it's 2044 already?

  • JW Gacy||

    First, regarding "the ability of corporations to track customers' buying habits", does Reason get money from any companies that want that in some way?

    This isn't a "point," so there's nothing to refute. It's a question. I assume that you're hinting at something, but I don't care to sit around guessing what sorts of thoughts may have been going through your mind as you wrote that. If you have a point, please don't keep us in suspense.

    Second, regarding what AlGore et al are doing, it certainly doesn't involve rats or things like that. However, it is in some ways similar to what's in the book, specifically relating to the media.

    Perhaps they are. So what? Did you manage to read all the way down to the end of the article? If you did, I hope you noticed the lengthy section where she discusses how we can learn lessons from 1984 without making Godwinesque comparisons between our rivals and Big Brother. Focus, OLS. Even if there are parallels, it's important to keep a sense of proportion, lest we run about like Chicken Little constantly declaring the advent of a new Soviet-style totalitarian menace.

    And, of course, libertarians like those to be found at this site would be more than willing to help out, just as long as certain people are able to make money off the deal or at least DC cocktail party invites are forthcoming.

    This isn't a point either, as it's a jumbled, incoherent quasi-ad-hom apparently directed at libertarians who help Al Gore. I say quasi-ad-hom, because it's difficult to establish which hom this barb is directed ad. I assume cosmotarians, but who's to say? Again, I don't care to sit around playing the guessing game. Make your point or don't.

  • ||

    How very, very ironic. "Coercive interrogations", Cathy?

  • kelley||

    I assume that when the folks at CEI created the Apple "1984" spoof, they knew that Al Gore sits on Apple's board.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Yo, fuck Chris Kelly!

    Inspired by Xeones

    P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs delivered through sockpuppets, thereby conceding my points and showing the cowardly, childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians.

  • exploded head||

    If "concede" changes its meaning, it will be because of this forum.

  • ||

    We have met Big Brother, and he is us.

    Worst. Closing. Ever.

  • kinnath||

    Wow, it's 2044 already?

    Uh, the book was published well before 1984.

  • Algernon||

    I am pluxy birth of ironic girth for a govenors sake. Selah.

  • Ben Kenobi||

    I always liked the phrase "you're just a rebel from the waist down." A beautiful, depressing book.

  • Ben Kenobi||

    Oh, how is Animal Farm in comparison to 1984? Is it as good?

  • ||

    I, for one, embrace our new, sleeveless overlords.

  • anarch||

  • ||

    Contra Orange Line Special:

    I enjoy and respect Cathy Young's writing, and have for years. I have never found the slightest evidence that she is anything but an unusually bright and fair-minded bulb.

    I don't understand how any of your points equate to dimness in the author.



    Contra aix:

    Why? Not a Pogo fan?

  • Mike||

    I'm with anarch. 1984 was great, but Animal Farm was amazing (and a lot shorter).

  • ellipsis||

    The UK is well on its way to realizing all the dystopian descriptions of Oceania. Oh the irony.

  • ||

    hey, Cathy, you mgiht find this story about Cold War spies in America intersting:

    Anne Applebaum at TNR

  • anarch||

    Here's Lewis on 1984.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Here's the latest on Lonewhacker.

  • ||

    BP, gold as usual. I need a t-shirt with your image of LoneMeathead on it. Also, bonus on Anonymity Guy's image.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Epi, the second I saw that dude, I thought "anonymity guy".

  • Sean W. Malone||

    How come LoneWacko has so many damn handles... it's hard to keep track sometimes.

  • ||

    ..

    Your right ever is a very long time. I should clarify, by ever I meant up to this point. As a fan of dystopian literature, both Animal Farm and 1984 are very powerful books that I've enjoyed reading multiple times. I can't say the same for other books such as Huxley's "A Brave New World," which I don't think is nearly as good. I would also recommend the novel "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Not nearly as good as 1984 but I am under the impression that it was the book that inspired Orwell to write 1984.

    Regards

    Joe Dokes

  • ||

    George Orwell has been considered a libertarian socialist (yes there is such a thing) for a long time now.

  • ||

    Sean W. Malone,

    It's exact that. He's trying to evade filters.

    Changing your name to trick people who have already taken active steps to ignore you is the sort of cowardly and childish behavior he likes to accuse us of. His posts are 100% content free and as useless as the dried-out rubberband he calls a penis.

  • dhex||

    the problem with 1984 is that it is ultimately cartoonish and unrealistic in large part because it was intended to be a finger-wagging parable directed at a segment of the population that no longer exists. the very notion of "newspeak" is absurd compared to how language actually works.

    on the other hand, it is a powerful blank slate (no one would argue in favor of the party, obviously) and can be used by people from all stripes to apply to whatever modern situations they're unhappy about. it's also an excellent companion to waiting in a jury pool for eight hours.

  • Sean Healy||

    I like old George as much as the next guy - well, maybe less than Andrew Sullivan, judging by the size of his hard-on - but it has to be said that 'Politics and the English language' shows a transparently totalitarian attitude towards English usage. His rules at the end of the essay are particularly wrongheaded. The whole piece is an exercise in mental hygiene and cultural sanitization that would not have been out of place in the horror societies he opposed.

  • dhex||

    man, i completely disagree!

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


    he's coming from a journalistic background so all of these rules make sense there. i think they'd be perfectly useful to stress in any freshman comp writing class, for starters. lord knows they could use them.

  • ||

    Orwell gave us a vocabulary with which we can now recognize and discuss the manipulations of totalitarian entities and propaganda. 1984 is very much relevant today. Fine make your obligatory all-sides-are-equal jabs at the left and the right, but it's hard to deny that the Bush years were a tour de force of Orwellian manipulation.

  • ||

    """The oppressive machine in 1984 is a tyrannical state that maintains total control over the lives and even thoughts of its subjects and brutally crushes all dissent. It is unchecked power, "a boot stamping on a human face-forever.""""

    Come on, the government in 1984 COULDN'T control the thoughts of it's subjects. It didn't prevent Winston from having a relationship, although it did punish the two once the relationship was discovered. That's part of the point, it requires constant surveillance in the attempt to control. You can't control the individual that is why you must watch his every move.

    Sorry Cathy, but your article makes it seem like you've never read the book, or didn't get it. This book is about how government can use surveillance to control the citizenry, and our governments thirst for surveillance, be it cameras on the street, recording purchases of what use to be over the counter drugs, or government attempt at nannyism of substances use, is all about passive control of our behaviors.

  • ||

    I say Little Brother exists and is growing. How much it grows is somewhat up to us and how much we approve of assorted types of surveillance, or not. So far there is a strong case to say we approve. In that, I say Cathy is right when she says Big Brother is us. So far, as a nation, we not only approve but we partisipate by providing the government the ability to access shitloads of personal information via social networking sites.

  • ||

    Orwell's writings will always be relevant because the specific political system isn't the point. The larger idea has to do with being able to (or losing the ability to) sift through bullshit. Such is universal and timeless.

  • ||

    Changing your name to trick people who have already taken active steps to ignore you is the sort of cowardly and childish behavior he likes to accuse us of. His posts are 100% content free and as useless as the dried-out rubberband he calls a penis.



    I would think filtering/putting people on ignore is the cowardly act. Is it that hard to scroll down if it looks like he's bloviating?

    His posts have content, btw. Stupid content still counts as content.

  • BLOVIATING BILLY||

    "quack" said the noisy libertarian

  • Sean W. Malone||

    I dunno Tulpa...I'm with SF here... I don't filter the idiot, but it's hard to describe what OLS, LoneWacko, 24aheadDotCom, etc. does as "content creation".

    I've been to his "website", against my better judgment, 3 or 4 times now and it's just a bunch of incoherent anti-MassiveImmigration (read: racist) nonsense. He also considers himself to be, what was the word? Oh yes... a "Blogging Superstar". I think he wishes he were Drudge. I'm not sure... But a racist idiot conspiracy nut who clogs up our boards over here with drivel so often is nothing but a spammer, and really not a "content" provider. IMO.

  • Sean Healy||

    I'm a journalist, so I know whereof I speak. Those rules work in newsprint because you want maximum impact per square inch - to save money and grab attention! Just because Orwell assimilated these print-bound concepts as moral precepts doesn't make them correct for writing in general. Keep in mind that the kind of rhetorical ideology he espouses winds up privileging sensation over significance. Honestly, do you go to newspapers for nuance? Pow! and Zap! are very short words.

  • dhex||

    sean, i dunno, i feel him on those rules. then again, i went to j-school so perhaps i too have learned to love big brother.

    there's something to be said for keeping it simple.

  • ||

    P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs delivered through sockpuppets, thereby conceding my points and showing the cowardly, childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians.

    If I deliver an ad hom to you directly, as my actual IRL self, rather than through a sockpuppet or under the cloak of anonymity, do I thereby deflect your masterful counterattack, Captain Genius?

  • Rich||

    It seems, sixty years after, many people are learning to see the true number of fingers held up. Still (digressing a bit), THX 1138 received better guidance: "Work hard. Be happy."

  • Mitchell Freedman||

    I'd nominate "The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth as more appropriate dystopic fiction as a more worthy book for Americans to read. And the sequel, "The Merchants' War", too, which Pohl wrote himself about 35 years later (a rare feat of a sequel that was as outstanding the original).

    Orwell's book was so sad and dreary, while the two books id'ed above were funny, sharp and fast paced.

    I also believe George Schuyler's "Black No More" is as worthy a dystopic book about America and race as anyone has ever written.

    Too bad our high schools and even colleges don't seem to know any of these books. Instead, we tell our children to read 1984 and the way it's often discussed is not inward as much as a wink and a nod about "them" meaning someplace other than America. And why should anyone really think of America when reading 1984? That's why it's taught after all...to not think about America. It's self-congratulation by indirect methods...

  • I\'m Not An Addict||

    Another pervasive feature of the Orwellian state was the practice of constantly whipping up hatred toward the ideological enemy du jour. Looking at much of our political discourse today, from right-wing talk radio to left-wing blogs, it's hard not to think of such rituals as "Two-Minute Hate" and "Hate Week." On too many political websites, every week is Hate Week-whether the object of hate is liberals, Muslims, neocons, or Christian bigots. Partisan propagandists and professional hate-mongers bear a large share of the blame, but so do "regular" people who need little encouragement to demonize political opponents.



    Read David Brin's "An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology" (2005). Here's a relevant excerpt:

    I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.

    We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported -- even promulgated -- by messages in mass media.

    While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even... well... addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.

    Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover, as Westin et.al. have found, this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.

    Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current "culture war."

    If there is any underlying truth to such an assertion, then acquiring a deeper understanding of this one issue may help our civilization deal with countless others.




  • ||

    I'm Not An Addict | June 13, 2009, 7:18pm | #

    Nice. It's an interesting recurring idea, especially if one takes the reductionist view of the brain as being an abundance of circuit traces through a biochemical mass, that certain patterns of thinking are roughly isomorphic to the proverbial "brain on drugs" ("Ideas As Opiates", Tears for Fears called it, riffing on Nietzsche). How funny it would be if many people's faith in the War on Drugs had an anodyne effect in itself.

  • cbmclean||

    1984 has always been one of my favorite books. That being said, I have a big problem with one of the topics brought up in some of the dialog between Winston and O'Brian during the interrogation.

    I can't remember the exact wording, but the crux is:

    Winston objects that the party will not be able to control the people for ever because human nature will not allow it. O'Brian claims that the party can control human nature and mold it to be subjagated.

    O'Brian is right in a small sense but wrong in a larger sense (or so says I). He's right as long as he's only talking about the kind of human nature that Winston was refering to: i.e a yearning for freedom. That can easily be controlled by fear.

    The real part of human nature that would make a government such as was presented in 1984 isn't a yearning for freedom, but greed and pride. And the humans in question wouldn't be the controlled, but the controllers (i.e. the Party) Total control of the population, like that shown in 1984 presupposes perfect cooperation among the members of the governing clique. There could be no disaggrements about policy, no power struggles, no covetousness, no personnal rivalries, no party infighting.

    The inner party would all have to be perfect automotons. In short it would have to be government by Skynet.

  • ||

    www.pajamasmedia.com/michaelledeen/2009/02/14/were-all-fascists-now-ii-american-tyranny/



    We're All Fascists Now II: American Tyranny

    Posted By Michael Ledeen

    On February 14, 2009 @ 12:21 pm In Uncategorized | 115 Comments

    Most Americans no longer read Alexis de Tocqueville's masterpiece, Democracy in America, about which I wrote a book (Tocqueville on American Character; from which most of the following is taken) a few years ago. What a pity! No one understood us so well, no one described our current crisis with such brutal accuracy, as Tocqueville.

    The economics of the current expansion of state power in America are, as I said, "fascist," but the politics are not. We are not witnessing "American Fascism on the march." Fascism was a war ideology and grew out of the terrible slaughter of the First World War. Fascism hailed the men who fought and prevailed on the bat tlefield, and wrapped itself in the well-established rhetoric of European nationalism, which does not exist in America and never has. Our liberties are indeed threatened, but by a tyranny of a very different sort.

    Most of us imagine the transformation of a free society to a tyrannical state in Hollywood terms, as a melodramatic act of violence like a military coup or an armed insurrection. Tocqueville knows better. He foresees a slow death of freedom. The power of the centralized government will gradually expand, meddling in every area of our lives until, like a lobster in a slowly heated pot, we are cooked without ever realizing what has happened. The ultimate horror of Tocqueville's vision is that we will welcome it, and even convince ourselves that we control it.

    There is no single dramatic event in Tocqueville's scenario, no storming of the Bastille, no assault on the Winter Palace, no March on Rome, no Kristallnacht. We are to be immobilized, Gulliver-like, by myriad rules and regulations, annoying little restrictions that become more and more binding until they eventually paralyze us.

    Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated…

    The tyranny he foresees for us does not have much in common with the vicious dictatorships of the last century, or with contemporary North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. He apologizes for lacking the proper words with which to define it. He hesitates to call it either tyranny or despotism, because it does not rule by terror or oppression. There are no secret police, no concentration camps, and no torture. "The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling." The vision and even the language anticipate Orwell's 1984, or Huxley's Brave New World. Tocqueville describes the new tyranny as "an immense and tutelary power," and its task is to watch over us all, and regulate every aspect of our lives.

    It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

    We will not be bludgeoned into submission; we will be seduced. He foresees the collapse of American democracy as the end result of two parallel developments that ultimately render us meekly subservient to an enlarged bureaucratic power: the corruption of our character, and the emergence of a vast welfare state that manages all the details of our lives. His words are precisely the ones that best describe out current crisis:

    That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

    The metaphor of a parent maintaining perpetual control over his child is the language of contemporary American politics. All manner of new governmental powers are justified in the name of "the children," from enhanced regulation of communications to special punishments for "hate speech;" from the empowerment of social service institutions to crack down on parents who try to discipline their children, to the mammoth expansion of sexual quotas from university athletic programs to private businesses. Tocqueville particularly abhors such new governmental powers because they are Federal, emanating from Washington, not from local governments. He reminds us that when the central government asserts its authority over states and communities, a tyrannical shadow lurks just behind. So long as local governments are strong, he says, even tyrannical laws can be mitigated by moderate enforcement at the local level, but once the central government takes control of the entire structure, our liberties are at grave risk.

    It is evident that our associations, along with religion one of the two keys to the great success of the American experiment, are prime targets for the appetite of the state. In the seamless web created by the new tyranny, everything from the Boy Scouts to smoking clubs will be strictly regulated. It is no accident that the campaign to drive religion out of American public life began in the 1940s, when the government was consolidating its unprecedented expansion during the Depression and the Second World War, having asserted its control over a wide range of activities that had previously been entrusted to the judgment of private groups and individuals.

    When we console ourselves with the thought that the government is, after all, doing it for a good reason and to accomplish a worthy objective, we unwittingly turn up the temperature under our lobster-pot. The road to the Faustian Deal is paved with the finest intentions, but the last stop is the ruin of our soul.

    Permitting the central government to assume our proper responsibilities is not merely a transfer of power from us to them; it does grave damage to our spirit. It subverts our national character. In Tocqueville's elegant construction, it "renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself." Once we go over the edge toward the pursuit of material wealth, our energies uncoil, and we become meek, quiescent and flaccid in the defense of freedom.

    The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

    The devilish genius of this form of tyranny is that it looks and even acts democratic. We still elect our representatives, and they still ask us for our support. "…servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind…might be combined with some of the outward forms of freedom, and…might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people." Freedom is smothered without touching the institutions of political democracy. We act out democratic skits while submitting to an oppressive central power that we ourselves have chosen.

    They devise a sole, tutelary and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people…this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.

    There is a very old joke about the husband who announces that he has a perfect marriage: he makes all the big decisions, and lets his wife deal with the minor matters. He decides when the country should go to war, while she manages the family budget. He decides who should govern America, and she makes all the decisions about the upbringing of the children: where they go to school, what they wear, how much allowance they receive, and so on. That is precisely the sort of division of powers Tocqueville fears for us. We will be permitted to make the big decisions: who will be president, and who will sit in the legislature. But it will not matter, because the state will decide how our money will be spent, how our children will be raised, and how we will behave, down to the details of the language we are permitted to use.

    We laugh at the joke because we realize that the husband's "big decisions" are meaningless; the same eventually applies to a "democratic" state that makes all our little decisions for us. Tocqueville unerringly puts his finger on the absurdity: we give power to the state in matters that require only simple good sense, as if we were incapable of exercising it. But we elect the government itself, as if we were the very incarnation of wisdom. We are "alternately made the playthings of [our] ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men."

    We may chuckle, but it is the rueful laugh of the powerless, because such a government is far harder to resist than a traditional tyranny. "Nothing is so irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people," Tocqueville intones, because it wields the awesome moral power of the majority and "acts…with the quickness and the persistence of a single man."

    As Tocqueville grimly predicted, modern totalitarians have thoroughly mastered this lesson. Nazis, Fascists and Communists have passionately preached sermons of equality, and constantly paid formal homage to the sovereignty of the people. Hitler proclaimed himself primus inter pares, the first among equals, while Mao and Stalin claimed their authority in the name of a classless society where everyone would be equal. And, while Communism was brought to power by violent coups or by military conquest, Fascism was not installed by violence. Hitler and Mussolini were popular leaders, their authority was sanctioned by great electoral victories and repeated demonstrations of mass public enthusiasm, and neither of them was ever challenged by a significant percentage of the population. The great Israeli historian Jacob Talmon coined the perfect name for this perversion of the Enlightenment dream, which enslaves all in the name of all: totalitarian democracy.

    These extreme cases help us understand Tocqueville's brilliant warning that equality is not a defense against tyranny, but an open invitation to ambitious and cunning leaders who enlist our support in depriving ourselves of freedom. He summarizes it in two sentences that should be memorized by every American who cherishes freedom:

    The…sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it. Thus the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a single principle.


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    Article printed from Faster, Please!: http://pajamasmedia.com/michaelledeen

  • Vince Lacey||

    Very good book.
    But the best libertarian/anti-authoritarian (fantasy) book of the century, Lord of the Rings.

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

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