Writing Contest: Second Place
The Paradoxically Polarizing Forces of Policies Designed to Promote Economic Equality
In writing one of the most famous political novels of the twentieth century, George Orwell recognized and described a truth that becomes evident after reading 1984: All efforts put forth by the government to regulate the economy are dictated by the elusive possibility of perfectly equal distribution among the people, and, as Orwell has taught readers for decades, sometimes to the point of self-defeat. 1984 establishes a dystopian society to emphasize the possible outcome of this perpetual struggle of the government to strike a flawless balance between overproduction and scarcity. Ultimately, as the novel reveals, such a temperamental and idealized equality cannot be attained because of the measures taken to achieve it. Using economic extremes of communism and controlled capitalist markets, Orwell portrays a society consumed by either total material dispossession or government-owned, rationed wealth, both of which prove to be simply different forms of poverty.
The lowest class in the nation of Oceania, deprived of any monetary wealth, is known as the proles, the abbreviated name of the proletariat class. The Inner Party is the financially privileged, legislative echelon of the government that exists in stark contrast to the proles. Referred to simply as The Party, the class enjoys control over government actions and policy decisions. The main character, Winston Smith, belongs to the class between these two groups, the Outer Party. The Outer Party, subjected to close surveillance and assigned lower government tasks, serves as the 1984equivalent of the middle class. However, an overwhelming truth comes to pervade the class system in the novel: because 95% of the population is composed of proles, the middle class, the backbone of most economies, is devastatingly impoverished.
This fact, although easily concealed by the intelligence operations of the government in 1984, reflects the utmost failure of an economy to achieve perfect-or at least sufficient-distribution among its citizens. In Orwell's dystopia, this job is assigned to the Ministry of Plenty, one of Oceania's four ministries designed to control the country and society. The Ministry of Plenty controls rations in a way suited to deceive the general population about the state of the economy and the government. Deceptions are the most valuable output of the Ministry, a group that drastically overestimates the production of goods and issues false statements on the economy to keep the people misinformed and optimistic. At various points in the novel, the Ministry of Plenty announces false advances in the economy, including such inconsequential matters as declaring that the production of boots surpassed the projected estimates. All such statements are used to maintain a false security among citizens, the vast majority of whom dwell precariously on the brink of total destitution because of what they perceive as scarcity. In reality, the imminence of hardship is due to another government-controlled tool designed to perpetuate social tranquility through poverty: a permanent state of war.
War, in the economy of Oceania, is merely an aspect of fiscal policy intended to counteract overproduction. While everyday consumers stay constantly occupied in order to produce the output they are told is sufficient to survive, Oceania continues in perpetual war, destroying its own resources. The enemy is changed in regular cycles because the source of conflict itself is largely arbitrary; the only significant purpose of the war is to lessen overproduction and keep scarcity as permanent as possible in order to further constrict the working class to labor and thus prevent any possibility of dissent or rebellion. In this aspect of the novel, Orwell comes close to satirizing the mercantilist school of thought that championed government-imposed monopolies and used labor as a pacifying force in order to oppress the population and keep the economy running efficiently. The end result in 1984 is a nation that, figuratively and literally, destroys itself.
The most thought-provoking and central paradox emerges from this restraint of social classes, especially the amount of freedom allowed to the Outer Party as opposed to the proles. The proles, who are constrained by no social obligations, are content to revel in total vice and immorality because, with no opportunity to obtain information or advance themselves, they are no threat to the government's power. Members of the Outer Party, however, are often more educated and informed about the workings of the government, and, as a result, are subjected to constant surveillance and complete deprivation of privacy. The central government in 1984 has found this is the only way to delegate important tasks while still controlling the population. While the proles are constantly oppressed by economic constraints, the Outer Party is oppressed by psychological constraints. This subjugation and poverty, achieved by full dispossession of opportunity for any member of the population, is Oceania's way of striking perfect equality and perfect distribution among the citizenry. Such oppression symbolizes the failure of governments to strike a perfect balance between classes and between scarcity and overproduction.
The one important fact that Oceania neglects to consider while implementing its ideal of perfect equality-and the cause of most dystopias in twentieth-century literature-is the equalizing power of opportunity. In seeking to level the discrepancies between social classes, the economy of 1984, as well as several criticized economies in reality, seeks to deprive citizens of the possibility to advance themselves. Equal opportunity can be the only real force behind an equal population; equal distribution, as 1984 shows, only opens the temptation for further polarization through subjugation. Any economy that relies on oppression is its own enemy, as 1984 continues to remind us, and, like Oceania, could ultimately destroy itself.
Orwell, George.1984. New American Library of World Literatures: New York, 1961.