What is oligarchical collectivism in 1984, and its relevance to our world?

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Oligarchical collectivism is the economic and political system of Oceania and the other superstates in the dystopia Orwell depicts in 1984. It refers to a system ruled by a small group of elites, an oligarchy, in which the society is collectivist in the sense that ownership is state-controlled rather than private. In our world, we can understand it as the system that existed in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

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Oligarchical collectivism refers to the system by which Orwell's dystopian future nations are governed. In some sense it is a paradoxical term, since a "collectivist" society, at least ideally, is one in which the people as a whole, the "collective," govern themselves and control the means of production, instead of a small owner class controlling it as in a capitalist system. Yet an oligarchy is a small elite group that has absolute power. The Soviet Union was ruled by just such an oligarchy, though the Soviets claimed to have created a worker's state in which all people were equal.

Orwell projects the Soviet system into the future and gives it an even more extreme and exaggerated form than what existed in the real world under Stalin. In 1984 the oligarchy is the Inner Party, the group of which O'Brien is a member. These people have unlimited and arbitrary power over the rest of society. The organization of that society is collectivist because nothing is privately owned. The state, which is supposed to represent the people, owns and controls everything.

The irony, or the contradiction, in the system is that the state oppresses the people rather than representing them. It is not even a case of the transitional system Marxist theory envisions as occurring between capitalism and communism. The elites of Oceania, as O'Brien reveals to Winston, are not governing for the good of the masses as they publicly assert. They are interested only in power for themselves as an end in itself. Oligarchical collectivism is a form of socialism, but it's the opposite of the democratic socialism Orwell himself believed in. The people as a whole are disempowered under the pretext of equality for all.

In 1984, "The Book," The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, is purported to have been written by Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy of the Party. In reality it has been collectively written by O'Brien and others as a blueprint for the world they have created, though its stated intent is to condemn the system by which that world is governed. The members of the oligarchy are thus conscious of their own hypocrisy in claiming to represent the collective while oppressing it to an extent unprecedented in history.

In our own world today, given the fall of the Soviet Union decades ago, only relatively small countries such as North Korea and Cuba can be said to have oligarchical collectivist systems. China is an oligarchy, but it is not truly collectivist, given that private ownership is permitted. Yet even the democratic countries can be considered oligarchical given that corporations and economic elites have disproportionate influence and control over the elected government. The elements of Orwell's dystopia exist in the real world today, though not in the absolute sense shown in 1984.

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Oligarchical collectivism is the name given to the prevailing system of international power politics by the mysterious Emmanuel Goldstein.

Collectivism is a political practice whereby the group takes precedence over the individual. That's definitely the case in Oceania, where individuals like Winston Smith have no rights whatsoever. The collective, in the form of the Party, is everything. An oligarchy is a political and economic system where power is concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged minority. Again, this is an apt description of life in Oceania, where the elite members of the Inner Party exercise absolute control over the rest of the Party and of society as a whole.

One can certainly see why the Party seems so keen to suppress Goldstein's criticism: it's supposed to represent the will of the ordinary working people, yet the reality, as ruthlessly exposed by Goldstein, is quite the opposite. The Party represents its own interests and no one else's, or, to be more precise, it represents the interests of the privileged elite who constitute the Inner Party.

If we look around the world today, we can see many examples in which wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a small, unrepresentative elite. In the United States, for example, it has been estimated that the 400 richest people have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.

As for collectivism, the Soviet Union's communist regime, which inspired 1984, no longer exists. Nonetheless, the rise of ethnic nationalism in the United States and Europe has created a kind of collectivism whereby certain individuals who are deemed not to belong in mainstream society—on account of their race, religion, or sexual orientation—are becoming increasingly marginalized and excluded.

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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is a book given to Winston by O'Brien when Winston and Julia finally muster the courage to approach him. The book is supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, a former leader of Ingsoc who has become a sort of pariah and enemy of the state. It is Goldstein who is the main subject of the Two Minutes of Hate, and Party propaganda emphasizes that he is always scheming against the Party.

The book is a sort of exposé of the Party, displaying how and why it governs in order to provide a means of resistance this system. "Oligarchical Collectivism" itself is a system in which the world is divided into "superstates" like Eurasia, Oceania, and Eastasia that are constantly at war with each other. This is so their populations can be mobilized in service of war, which makes them willing to submit to the authority of the Party. It also means that they constantly work to produce things that will only be consumed in war, not for their own benefit. Only the "inner Party" really benefits in a tangible sense. The book also goes on to explain the ways the Party manipulates information, especially history, to advance its own ends and to create doubt about basic truths. As it turns out, O'Brien tells Winston later that he was actually responsible for writing the book, and we are left wondering whether Goldstein ever really existed.

But "Oligarchical Collectivism" is the term used to describe the system through which the Party exercises its power.

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The Theory and Practice of Oligicharic Collectivism is the title of the book by Goldstein that O'Brien gives Winston. Under an oligarchy, a small group runs the government, almost always for its own benefit. Collectivism is state ownership of the land and the means of production. "The Book," as people call it, states that the only secure basis of oligarchy is collectivism, because there is more power in the group than in individuals. In Oceania, the oligarchy is not exclusively based on heredity, but on who can make it into the inner circle of the Party.

We can understand this in our world because there are countries today where a small ruling elite runs the country for their own benefit. Some Middle Eastern nations arguably fall into that category, with the wealthy living in lush enclaves while the mass of the people are poor with high rates of unemployment. Some argue too that it was corruption caused by a small group running the country for their own benefit that caused the fall of the Soviet Union. Recently, some economists have pointed out the United States may be trending in that direction, with more and more wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The US, however, is not a collectivist state, and the money is held by families.

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