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?

  1. Hipparchia
    July 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Well, having lived in a communist country, I would say the part about the trained elite rings true. There were special schools, and you could find a lot of functionaries that actually took the stuff seriously. Among them were people who awoke to the opportunities and grew greedy. But there were the stalwart, the educated, the absolutely serious, ready to die for the system elites. There were “scientific communism” schools for them. Of course that was the first generation. The next time, their children filled the positions. But not without the special schooling and indoctrination.

  2. Webe
    July 31, 2013 at 4:29 am

    > chance and luck
    Behind every great family lies a great crime. Not just luck. Good-hearted content and helpful people (almost) never rise to positions of power, except by an accident of birth. Chance and luck spell opportunity, but it is essential that the opportunity is seized by people who are convinced they actually do “deserve better”.

    The mechanism by which people who are convinced they “are better” succeed in pulling the strings can be observed even in very small scale, non-elite settings (schools, clubs, churches, etc). It is crucial.

    But equally crucial as the absolute conviction of being elite, is the concomittant aiding and abetting by the rest of the members of a society. When push comes to shove, 9 out of 10 people suddenly abandon their criticism and dissatisfaction with the elite and act as if those people are not in a position of leadership for nothing after all. This is observable in any organisation or even on your block action committee. When it’s time (for instance) to get the city to fix the curb or the streetlights, most of the people who have bitched and moaned about the municipality’s incompetence pull an AWOL.

    Perhaps the sheep are a greater pre-requisite than the wolves.

  3. August 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    obviously Orwell and Huxley were contemporaries so they would have similar world views.

    and also obvious is when the economy grows and most have some shot at advancement there is little discontent. (Easy credit made up for wage stagnation in the US for many years, that house of cards is falling.)

    One revealing thing is working jobs. Started out thinking the managers knew much more than me, started seeing that often wasn’t the case. There was sometimes someone who really knew their stuff, but saw promotions go out to guys who went drinking with the boss but who were otherwise incompetent.

    And that is the real problem.. all hierarchies are based on who is a better scammer and short-term thinker.

  4. Marcus666
    August 6, 2013 at 12:18 am

    The question is: how do you maximize your chances? If you decide to rise in the hierarchy you HAVE to become a sociopath. How big is the factor “luck”? To what degree do you have to be manipulative and psychopathic? How far is “48 laws of power” needed to increase your chances? How can you steer your life?
    I’m talking about rising to a level where you are safe from the bullshit that’s going on around you without being consumed by the bullshit. Acting proactive so to speak. Think about eat or being eaten. But is that even possible: protecting yourself? In the end all we need is money for food, shelter, sex and hobbies. But getting money is impossible without participating in the bullshit. Food 4 thought…

  5. P Ray
    March 4, 2016 at 8:28 am

    Orwell says “the truth will be stifled”.
    Huxley says “you will lose your identity”.

    What actually happened: “there will be so many truths and lies, and so many identities for you to take up, with everybody else talking about how authentic or inauthentic you are”.

    Of course, while this is going on, the demagogues get your participation to keep them in power.

    In short, you are shown lots of bread and circuses to occupy you as someone pilfers your time, money and effort. And if you don’t want to look, you will be “re-educated” by the modern religions:
    1. EAT RIGHT, 2. EnvironMENTALism, 3. FEMINISM, 4. MERITOCRACY, 5. POSITIVE THINKING, 6. RESPECT AUTHORITY, 7. FREE CHOICE, 8. FREE TRADE, 9. DEMOCRACY
    (none of the labels have anything to do with something that is going to turn out good or profitable for you).

  1. January 14, 2017 at 6:19 pm

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