What Both Orwell and Huxley Got Wrong
Most of you have either read or are familiar with the basic premise of the best known works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. In case you are still wondering, I am talking about 1984 and Brave New world. I am also reasonably sure that you have read many “expert” opinions about which of these two fictional dystopias is closer to present day reality. Some see Orwell as being more prescient, others thinks Huxley was more accurate and then there are those who think both got some parts right. But this post is not about who got it more right. Instead, I will examine one unconscious, but very crucial assumption, that is common to both books.
Did you notice that the elites in both books are very intelligent, hyper-competent, very disciplined and restrained in their personal greed.
Have you ever wondered why both dystopias have elites that are remarkably alike? And could either dystopia function for any extended period of time without that feature? In Huxley’s book the elite alpha are literally bred to be like that, while Orwell talks a lot about careful selection and whetting of people for positions in the Inner Party. Both also describe the elaborate precautions and constant pressures to keep things that way.
But is that realistic or feasible under any set of conditions? And how do you reach that state to begin with?
As I have said in many of my previous posts (such as 1, 2) the elites in every single society, that we know of, attained their position mainly through chance and luck. They are NOT the smartest, most competent, most creative, most capable or even the most greedy or sociopathic. They just got lucky for a variety of reasons such as birth parents, era and country they were born in or chance meetings with people who had the right complementary abilities.
Scamming others in believing they deserve their position and riches has been the only real “special” ability of elites throughout human history.
The ability to con and steal from others is the only thing elites have ever been really good at. Basically every single elite from someone in the ruling class of the first Mesopotamian or Egyptian Kingdoms to an associate at Goldman-Sachs or other “financial” institutions are, first and foremost, CONartists. This also applies to the heads of every large institution with a steep hierarchy- from temple head priests in bronze age kingdoms to upper management in corporations, universities and municipalities. Even institutions operated under paradigms other than capitalism (of any flavor) tend to be led by the same type of people. Do you really think that the elites in USSR or Mao-led China were that different from their counterparts in “western” capitalist countries?
And this brings us to the next logical question: How long can a bunch of CONartists keep up the facade of high intelligence, competence, discipline and manage to restrain their greed?
Luckily we can use history to answer that question. Large institutions can persist, and even flourish, irrespective of what they do as long as they can create enough surplus to redistribute to even their most junior members. To put it another way, even fairly dysfunctional institutions can escape collapse and widespread defection as long as they grow fast enough. But why is this surplus or growth necessary? Conversely, why do large institutions decay start decaying without that surplus or growth?
Well, here is why..
In every large system, the undeserving elite always take the biggest portion of any surplus created by the institution they head. Consequently, only amounts of surplus large enough to temporarily saturate the appetite of elites will ever reach the majority of the people in said institution. Even then, the insatiable appetite of the elites and their ability to extract rent from their own followers quickly returns that institution to square one. Once that occurs, the followers start losing trust in the abilities of their elites. Without further large surpluses, things end in one (or more) of the following three ways: Slow collapse, Internal Coup or Conquest.
Only a continuous stream of ever larger surpluses such as those experienced by western europe (~1800-1990s), north america (~1800-2000s) or east asia (~1950s-2000s) can provide the means to keep everyone in the system somewhat content. This growth also provide the means to literally paper over the mistakes of elites and make them appear intelligent, competent, disciplined and altruistic. But such conditions cannot last forever and elites show their true nature once those surpluses start drying out.
As I have also previously said, elites react to reduced opportunities for external growth by doubling down on repression and rent extraction at home. It is always easier to steal than create something new. This process of domestic parasitism usually starts slowly, but keeps on accelerating and intensifying till it becomes their main source of livelihood. It might appear stupid and short-sighted, but try telling that to cancerous cells. Eventually the entire system becomes unstable, dysfunctional and fragile due to a combination of elite parasitism and defensive responses by the majority. Did I also mention that this pattern of events has repeated itself throughout human history.
The biggest obstacle to making those fictional dystopias function is therefore not technological. It is far more simpler.. How do you convert cancerous cells into intelligent, competent, disciplined and restrained people? especially when being a cancerous cell is far more profitable in the short-term.
What do you think? Comments?