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Friday, July 12, 2013

George Orwell and the Cold War: A Reconsideration - Murray N. Rothbard

Mises Daily: Friday, July 12, 2013 by Murray N. Rothbard
[From Reflections on America, 1984: An Orwell Symposium. Ed. Robert Mulvihill. Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1986.]

In a recent and well-known article, Norman Podhoretz has attempted to conscript George Orwell into the ranks of neoconservative enthusiasts for the newly revitalized cold war with the Soviet Union.[1] If Orwell were alive today, this truly “Orwellian” distortion would afford him considerable wry amusement. 

It is my contention that the cold war, as pursued by the three superpowers of Nineteen Eighty-Four, was the key to their successful imposition of a totalitarian regime upon their subjects. We all know that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a brilliant and mordant attack on totalitarian trends in modern society, and it is also clear that Orwell was strongly opposed to communism and to the regime of the Soviet Union. But the crucial role of a perpetual cold war in the entrenchment of totalitarianism in Orwell’s “nightmare vision” of the world has been relatively neglected by writers and scholars.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four there are three giant superstates or blocs of nations: Oceania (run by the United States, and including the British Empire and Latin America), Eurasia (the Eurasian continent), and Eastasia (China, southeast Asia, much of the Pacific). The superpowers are always at war, in shifting coalitions and alignments against each other. The war is kept, by agreement between the superpowers, safely on the periphery of the blocs, since war in their heartlands might actually blow up the world and their own rule along with it. The perpetual but basically phony war is kept alive by unremitting campaigns of hatred and fear against the shadowy foreign Enemy. The perpetual war system is then used by the ruling elite in each country to fasten totalitarian collectivist rule upon their subjects. 

As Harry Elmer Barnes wrote, this system “could only work if the masses are always kept at a fever heat of fear and excitement and are effectively prevented from learning that the wars are actually phony. 

To bring about this indispensable deception of the people requires a tremendous development of propaganda, thought-policing, regimentation, and mental terrorism.” And finally, “when it becomes impossible to keep the people any longer at a white heat in their hatred of one enemy group of nations, the war is shifted against another bloc and new, violent hate campaigns are planned and set in motion.”[2]

From Orwell’s time to the present day, the United States has fulfilled his analysis or prophecy by engaging in campaigns of unremitting hatred and fear of the Soviets, including such widely trumpeted themes (later quietly admitted to be incorrect) as “missile gap” and “windows of vulnerability.” What Garet Garrett perceptively called “a complex of vaunting and fear” has been the hallmark of the American as well as of previous empires:[3] the curious combination of vaunting and braggadocio that insists that a nation-state’s military might is second to none in any area, combined with repeated panic about the intentions and imminent actions of the “empire of evil” that is marked as the Enemy. It is the sort of fear and vaunting that makes Americans proud of their capacity to “overkill” the Russians many times and yet agree enthusiastically to virtually any and all increases in the military budget for mightier weapons of mass destruction. Senator Ralph Flanders (Republican, Vermont) pinpointed this process of rule through fear when he stated during the Korean War:

Fear is felt and spread by the Department of Defense in the Pentagon. In part, the spreading of it is purposeful. Faced with what seem to be enormous armed forces aimed against us, we can scarcely expect the Department of Defense to do other than keep the people in a state of fear so that they will be prepared without limit to furnish men and munitions.[4]

This applies not only to the Pentagon but to its civilian theoreticians, the men whom Marcus Raskin, once one of their number, has dubbed “the mega-death intellectuals.” 

Thus Raskin pointed out that their most important function is to justify and extend the existence of their employers. ... In order to justify the continued large-scale production of these [thermonuclear] bombs and missiles, military and industrial leaders needed some kind of theory to rationalize their use. ... This became particularly urgent during the late 1950s, when economy-minded members of the Eisenhower Administration began to wonder why so much money, thought, and resources, were being spent on weapons if their use could not be justified. And so began a series of rationalizations by the “defense intellectuals” in and out of the Universities. ... Military procurement will continue to flourish, and they will continue to demonstrate why it must. In this respect they are no different from the great majority of modern specialists who accept the assumptions of the organizations which employ them because of the rewards in money and power and prestige. ... They know enough not to question their employers’ right to exist.[5]

In addition to the manufacture of fear and hatred against the primary Enemy, there have been numerous Orwellian shifts between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Our deadly enemies in World War II, Germany and Japan, are now considered prime Good Guys, the only problem being their unfortunate reluctance to take up arms against the former Good Guys, the Soviet Union. China, having been a much lauded Good Guy under Chiang Kai-shek when fighting Bad Guy Japan, became the worst of the Bad Guys under communism, and indeed the United States fought the Korean and Vietnamese wars largely for the sake of containing the expansionism of Communist China, which was supposed to be an even worse guy than the Soviet Union. But now all that is changed, and Communist China is now the virtual ally of the United States against the principal Enemy in the Kremlin.

Along with other institutions of the permanent cold war, Orwellian New-speak has developed richly. Every government, no matter how despotic, that is willing to join the anti-Soviet crusade is called a champion of the “free world.” Torture committed by “totalitarian” regimes is evil; torture undertaken by regimes that are merely “authoritarian” is almost benign. While the Department of War has not yet been transformed into the Department of Peace, it was changed early in the cold war to the Department of Defense, and President Reagan has almost completed the transformation by the neat Orwellian touch of calling the MX missile “the Peacemaker.”

As early as the 1950s, an English publicist observed that “Orwell’s main contention that ‘cold war’ is now an essential feature of normal life is being verified more and more from day to day. No one really believes in a ‘peace settlement’ with the Soviets, and many people in positions of power regard such a prospect with positive horror.” He added that “a war footing is the only basis of full employment.”[6]