Part 2: The Nature of Power
In grappling with the question of evil over the years, I turned to perhaps its most lucid literary distillation: George Orwell's 1984. I read it not so much to find the answer, but to find the purest statement of the problem. For it provides no answer: The rebellion of Winston and his lover Julia against the Party—an all-encompassing, all-powerful, totalizing evil—is, after all, a failed rebellion. Orwell depicts it not only as a failed rebellion but as a doomed rebellion, an impossible rebellion. No hope leaks from this book’s watertight exposition of despair.
Nineteen Eighty-four carries an extraordinary emotional impact. It comes in part from its high literary quality, from its unsettling opening line (“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”) to its devastating final sentence (“He loved Big Brother.”) Orwell is a consummate stylist. As if looking through a spotless windowpane, when I read 1984 I forget that I’m reading. I am in its world.
Normally people take 1984 as prophetic political warning, but it also works as a psychological allegory. On the one hand, the Party is the fictional embodiment of that impersonal collocation of forces, institutions, and ideologies that holds the world in thrall. Orwell gives form to what in the real world has no form: the evil cabal, a conspiracy so subtle that even the highest elites are its puppets. (Another paradox – a conspiracy with no conspirators; puppets with no puppet-masters.) On the other hand, the Party is an interior presence in the psyche. I can feel it even now. The Thought Police have me under surveillance, monitoring my every move, judging, punishing, controlling, holding me to a merciless standard of orthodoxy.
Big Brother is the ever-watchful internal authority that surveys every thought, word, and deed. We crave his approval. Adulation of Big Brother corresponds to the gratifying feeling of being a good boy. He is the personification of Good. "Big Brother is watching," say the slogans in 1984. Big Brother, the internalized eye of civilization, is watching you, the human being, all the time. Through his agents the Thought Police, he constantly monitors everything you think, say, and do.
Though internalized, the watchful eye is of course not only internal. The increasingly omnipresent eye of Big Tech surveillance is but the most obviously Orwellian expression of it. Big Brother is also an emergent social phenomenon. The social pressure that maintains norms, which in a healthy society embody compassion and responsibility for life, is crucial for the administration of totalitarianism. People become agents of the state, reporting on each other, censoring themselves, and by their obedience creating an appearance of universal loyalty even if, privately, they may wish to rebel.
To be good is to be accepted in the in-group; it is to conform to the group’s norms and maintain its harmony. Big Brother, then, is what good becomes with the capture and totalization of society’s normative impulse. In other words, Orwell is showing us that the ultimate icon of Good is actually the ultimate fabrication of Evil. Internally, this refers to the internal judge, rewarding and punishing, controlling and improving, motivating through psychological threats and rewards, all in the name of our own good.
To better understand the process by which good becomes evil, consider for a moment the two goals of the Party. There is the public goal, and the real goal. They will be familiar to many who seek social change or any other idealized good: They are (1) the greater good, and (2) power. That each of these goals is inimical to the other is not readily apparent. On the face of it, power is fine if it is used for the good of others, right? Censorship is fine if we only censor hate speech and misinformation. Military power is fine if it is used to protect the innocent. Bombing is fine if it is a “humanitarian bombing.” Concentration camps are fine if they protect society from degenerate elements. Torture is fine if it uncovers terrorists or witches who would cause greater harm… Uh oh.
The tendency to do evil in the name of good hints at a problem. The evil that appears to us so insane, the hunger for power that seems so monstrous and which invites the elemental label “evil” to begin with, is actually very rational. It is the inevitable conclusion of the crusade for good and against evil. Good, as an absolute concept, justifies any measure to achieve it. Evil, as an absolute concept, justifies any measure to destroy it. If you are on the side of Good, then the more power you have, the better. Power therefore becomes an end in itself. To see where this comes from and where it leads, and to illuminate an alternative to fighting evil, let us consider what Orwell had to say about power.
What is power? Winston's interrogator O'Brien answers that question with another: "How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?" Winston replies, "By making him suffer." Later, O'Brien elaborates, offering, in this famous passage, an extraordinarily pure statement of evil:
Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.... We will cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman.... There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science.... There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life.... You are beginning, I can see, to realize what that world will be like. But in the end you will do more than understand it. You will accept it, welcome it, become part of it.
What usually escapes commentators is that the source of this seemingly mad vision is purely rational. It is not a senseless evil. The logic is that power must have no limit when it is in the hands of us. And recall the deep taproot of the concepts of good and evil: Us is good. Them is evil. Therefore, we must, regrettably, turn even art, even sex, even science toward the ends of power. As Mussolini put it, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”
Power is the power to make another suffer. This is an unavoidable corollary to the story-of-self that underlies our civilization: the discrete and separate self in an objective universe. In that universe, for that self, more for me is less for you, by definition. By that axiom, to serve the common good it is necessary to suppress the individual, for the individual is a maximizer of self-interest at the likely expense of everyone else. For the common good, the individual must suffer. Therefore, the power to make someone suffer is also the power to do good. What we call evil rests upon the deep axiom I mentioned before: the Total Depravity of Man, the lordship of the ego.
Let me state the logic in another way. In a world of competing separate selves seeking to maximize rational self-interest, some authority is needed to suppress this interest-seeking for the sake of the common good. The discipline it imposes, whether “party discipline” as in the former communist countries, or religious or ethical discipline, or the discipline of the marketplace in capitalism, is from the individual's point of view a kind of suffering. People must be made to do what they don't want to do, and to refrain from doing what they do want to do. Internalized, it is a war against the self, a fight against desire or pleasure, a battle of biology against will.
The goal of the internalized Party is therefore the same as that of the external: to make you suffer. Paradoxically, the justification for this goal is your own well-being. We suffer for our own good, just as the Party makes people suffer for the greater good. At least, that is the initial motive or the initial justification. At the beginning, self-control or self-discipline is a means to an end; for example, to lose weight or to finish a book by the deadline or to accomplish a political revolution. Eventually, though, because our deep ideologies have made it into a universal means, the agenda of power takes on a life of its own, and power becomes an end. Self-control becomes the ultimate personal virtue, just as party loyalty becomes the ultimate political virtue, and the shared ideal that inspired the party to begin with takes second place. Eventually, it becomes lip service, a set of empty slogans, and then withers away entirely.
This is how good, decent citizens can carry out evil activities as members of corrupt organizations. Again, the “good” are the ones who belong, who are loyal to the group, who abide by its norms and taboos. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. Organizations value and reward team players. That is why, for example, journalists who participated in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction hoax were promoted while those who called it out were fired, or at least took an an aura of disrepute. One would think it would be the other way around. But those who went along with the delusion were team players.
Today around the world, authorities impose repressive, thoroughly anti-democratic measures in order to protect democracy. One can almost read the thoughts of the architects of the surveillance state: “These tools would be dangerous if they fell into the wrong hands, but luckily it is we, the moral, the educated, the scientific, the rational, who are in charge.”As long as they believe that, there is no limit to how far down the Orwellian path they can travel.
Orwell explains that the goal of power is power: "Power is God," says O'Brien. Past totalitarians were hypocrites, he says, too weak to face this truth. So they persuaded themselves that they were only seizing power temporarily, “until such a time as all men were free and equal,” while in reality they wanted power for its own sake. The inner circle of the Party, he says, has dispensed with this illusion. They are fully conscious of wanting power for power's sake, and mean by this the power to inflict unlimited suffering on others. Yet thanks to doublethink, they are able to do this while sincerely believing that they work for the greater good.
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I just spent two months working with a 20 year old who had abandoned his smart phone because it was impinging on his time and his ability to focus. Within himself, he seemed to have found something larger, something that he couldn't access thru the phone or with his peers. He continues to seek that larger thing, by himself, and with others — when they're not on their phones, or otherwise consumed by all that would distract them from the larger thing inside themselves — which is why he loves singing in a choir, because the goal is a harmony that none can acheive by themselves, and that is bigger, even, than the group.
Harmony contains both "good" and "evil" — tho we may never understand the boundaries that separate one from the other. How can we define what we cannot see or know? We can’t get to that place of harmony by ourselves. Neither can a group of us force anyone to go there. It's a mystery.
Here’s a lovely line from Richard Wagamese’s lovely movie (from his book), Indian Horse:
"Mystery fills us with awe and wonder. It is the foundation of humility and humility is the foundation of all learning. So we do not seek to unravel it. We honor it by letting it be that way forever."
It seems to me we can’t unravel good from evil. But we can seek to live in the mystery, cultivate humility, learn to make compost, love the humus that results, and go deeper into the mysteries of life, death, and fertility.
I am a fan of Distributism, the approach that power, ownership, social and government structures is to be “distributed” into small, local units and the consolidation of these things is to be guarded against. G.K. Chesterton quipped “The problem with capitalism is not there are too many capitalists, but there are too few”. Of course individual smaller units can go wrong, but the damage is limited and the answer doesn’t lie in erecting superstructures to make a perfect world where nothing goes wrong.
I was raised in the last days of an intact small town, small business, family based agrarian Midwestern culture in rural Wisconsin. Order was maintained through shared expectations of honesty, responsibility and civility and working things out privately with very little need for legal intervention. There was a interconnected matrix of friendships, families, business relationships, broad based involvement in township and village self government, school boards, volunteer fire departments. You knew those in those positions or knew someone who did. There was also an array of private organizations, churches, clubs, volunteer service opportunities. It was a diverse stable ecosystem with many small components. My mother volunteered for Meals on Wheels for shut ins and was in the same Homemaker’s Club for 50 years. Neighbors helped each other out in crisis. It wasn’t utopian perfection, human conflicts, problems, and unhappiness occurred, but it was safe, crime was unheard of, no locked doors anywhere in homes and cars. My parents in their retirement would winter in Texas and their house would sit there on the farm unlocked for two months with my brother coming by occasionally to check on things.