Perpetual War in Orwell’s ‘1984’

George Orwell, (1903-1950) among his many books were "Ninteen Eighty Four" and Animal Farm".1984 as a novel is simply an effective amalgamation of existing literary and political ideas and themes. But Orwell’s technique and summarisation make the book a work of art. The storyline draws distinct influence from two earlier novels, We (1925) by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, whilst extracting theory from various historical materialist and realist sources including essays by Vladimir Lenin and Nico Machiavelli. One of the most interesting concepts in the novel, that of perpetual war, is discussed in such an academic manner that it could be drawn on by political scientists. Perpetual war is first analysed in the form of a book within a book, Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, written by chief rebel Immanuel Goldstein, a book that most Orwellians wish George had actually written himself. The extracts that are read aloud by protagonist Winston are fascinating, and provide an insight into the international politics and economics of the system within which he, Julia and the rest of the population of Airstrip 1 (Great Britain) exist.

The International Politics of Perpetual War

Whether or not the international relations described by Goldstein’s book are intended to be true or not in the context of Orwell’s novel, perpetual war is used to regulate both the international system and the societies within it. Oceania, the superstate that governs the Americas, Australasia and the UK, exists alongside two other superpowers: Eastasia (roughly China, Japan, Indochina and Central Asia) and Eurasia (namely Russia and the European continent). The three superstates retain their rough geopolitical shape by claiming to fight over disputed land, mainly in Africa, thus effectively rendering the war abstract and distant; it is also alluded that the states are simply too powerful to ever defeat one another – even with changing alliances – and also that there would be not advantage in doing so anyway.

This latter point refers to Goldstein’s description of the regimes within the polities, which he notes are almost identical. Airstrip 1 within Oceania maintains English Socialism, Eurasia Neo-Bolshevism, and Eastasia an amalgamation focusing on devil worship. There is, therefore, no political benefit to gain for any of the three susperstates from controlling one another’s territory. Thus the war is used by all three to maintain the regimes and parties in power in their respective polities. It has no actual material aims other than this.

“War is Peace” – The Economics of Perpetual War

This slogan of the Party, which maintains a totalitarian regime in the province of Oceania based on socialist principles, is not as hypocritical as first meets the eye. It is by this slogan that the citizens of Airstrip 1 as a whole are controlled. Peace, to the Party, is equivalent to the upholding of the power relationships present in 1984, and in terms of socio-economics, promoting a constant state of war is the best method by which to do this. The social structure renders around 85% of the population of Oceania, known as the proles, in uneducated poverty; another 13%, known as the outer party, under constant surveillance; and finally the last 2%, the inner party, who hold power in the system.

Goldstein proclaims that increased productivity will inevitably lead to socio-economic change, and so it is imperative to the Inner Party that the fruits of production are not channelled down into the system. War is the perfect consumer for the economic surplus – it is a justifiable means of ensuring that public coffers remain static. Socially too, war provides control for the Party, in the form of nationalism and focused xenophobia. In short, perpetual war prevents the standard of living from changing, and uses up all the motivation of the system by focusing it on an abstract conflict.

Conclusion

In sum, perpetual war equals perpetual peace. The system remains static, both nationally and internationally; boundaries and borders generally hold their shape. The only material difference is that perpetual war provides a ‘rubbish chute’ for the surplus of production in a way that perpetual peace does not. What the Party do to ensure this state of affairs is make perpetual war appear to be limited war – i.e. they ensure that the people of Oceania believe that the war can be ended by increased productivity and nationalistic comradeship. The motivation behind all this is revealed by ambiguous antagonist O’Brian towards the end of the novel: “that power is not a means, it is an end. The object of power is power.”

 

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