George Orwell and the Weapons of Democracy

George Orwell’s 1984 is sometimes described as his essay Politics and the English Language rewritten as a novel. While 1984 certainly extrapolates themes discussed in Politics, most of the world-building for 1984 comes from a different Orwell essay. You and the Atomic Bomb was published in October 1945, just two months after the Japanese surrender. In it Orwell considers whether the atomic bomb is a weapon or tyranny or a weapon of democracy and correctly deems it a weapon of tyranny. The essay then follows up with some predictions about the future. Oceana, Eurasia, and Eastasia are all there.

Orwell is aware that the atomic bomb is so uniquely destructive that it’s probably better that The Bomb is a weapon of tyranny:

Some months ago, when the bomb was still only a rumour, there was a widespread belief that splitting the atom was merely a problem for the physicists, and that when they had solved it a new and devastating weapon would be within reach of almost everybody. (At any moment, so the rumour went, some lonely lunatic in a laboratory might blow civilisation to smithereens, as easily as touching off a firework.)
Had that been true, the whole trend of history would have been abruptly altered. The distinction between great states and small states would have been wiped out, and the power of the State over the individual would have been greatly weakened.

Orwell rightly concludes that if the bomb were simple and cheap, easy enough that what today we call a “non-state actor” could make one, then “machine-civilization” would likely come to an end. Fortunately, this is not the case. However, the coming atomic age is likely to be bleak.

However, it appears from President Truman’s remarks, and various comments that have been made on them, that the bomb is fantastically expensive and that its manufacture demands an enormous industrial effort, such as only three or four countries in the world are capable of making. This point is of cardinal importance, because it may mean that the discovery of the atomic bomb, so far from reversing history, will simply intensify the trends which have been apparent for a dozen years past.

The future is bleak. The age of nuclear arms is likely to continue to strengthening strong nations, and increase the power of the state over the individual. The atom bomb is very much not a weapon of democracy, even if we would not really want it to be.

Orwell predicts that there will be no future weapons of democracy. A musket armed emergent bourgeoisie was able to destroy feudalism and even sometimes kill kings. But since shortly after the Napoleonic Wars, technological change has made revolution or even resistance almost impossible. Power became concentrated in the most highly industrialized states, and the citizens of those states generally became weaker. In the Atomic Age, Orwell predicts that power will become concentrated in just three states.

So we have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them. It has been rather hastily assumed that this means bigger and bloodier wars, and perhaps an actual end to the machine civilisation. But suppose — and really this the likeliest development — that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless….

…, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.

And here we have the world of 1984. There are a few differences between the political speculations in this essay and the famous novel, but the overall political structure of 1984 is laid out here.

Obviously the world didn’t turn out to be quite as bad as “You and the Atomic Bomb” and some small states have been able to acquire an independent nuclear deterrent. At the end of the essay, Orwell compares the cost of a nuclear program to the cost of battleships. This is an apt comparison for early nuclear programs, but as nuclear materials processing became a global industry, entry into the nuclear club has become much cheaper. A nuclear weapons program is far cheaper than an ocean-going navy these days.

Are there any weapons of resistance and democracy these days?

I don’t think so. Some might say that asymmetric warfare is a good example and cite the success of North Vietnam against the US or the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. I believe these aren’t really cases of homegrown resistance. While both North Vietnam and the Mujahideen defeated a superpower, they each had massive support from another superpower.

Hacktivism and cyberwar don’t really seem to give much hope either. And I don’t really want to even think about biological weapons. The costs of genetic editing are coming down and I really do think that biological weapons could become cheap and easy enough to make that a small group might be able to challenge a superpower. That prospect is as horrifying as the workbench nuke Orwell considers in his essay.

The age of muskets is over. And it seems there will be nothing like them again.


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