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"Orwell on weapons and political dominance" Topic

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doc mcb12 Feb 2011 10:38 a.m. PST

Curious as to what people make of Orwell's analysis about weapons and political culture (despotism versus liberty).

Also, I would add, we should consider communications technology as important as weaponry; the printing press was obviously revolutionary, and the internet, and Twitter?

George Orwell in an essay titled "You and the Atomic Bomb,"

It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon--so long as there is no answer to it--gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day. After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans--even Tibetans--could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power. Already, in 1939, there were only five states capable of waging war on the grand scale, and now there are only three--ultimately, perhaps, only two. This trend has been obvious for years, and was pointed out by a few observers even before 1914. The one thing that might reverse it is the discovery of a weapon--or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting--not dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.

Pictors Studio12 Feb 2011 11:13 a.m. PST

Twitter has been a prime mover in three revolts just recently that I can think of. One didn't work and one did.

One thing that was difficult to foresee was the internet and the effect that it will have. I imagine that ultimately it will be one of the most revolutionary tools that have ever come about, until something that connects people more closely over further distances comes along. I can't imagine what that will be though so I'm as stuck with the internet as Orwell was with the atomic bomb.

The revolutionary nature of it is that kids are as likely to be playing games with someone from a completely different country as they are with another kid down the street. You can play Starcraft online with someone in South Korea. Play it with the same people enough times and they become your friends.

Relationships grow and as they grow the relationships online become a factor that is more important than things like patriotism and national identity. I can see people slowly seeing online communities being more important than their physical communities. I'm sure it is already happening. A lot of people in cities don't really know their neighbors, they might not like their coworkers but they can find an online community where others understand their likes and dislikes.

This is a case in point.

So what does that mean long term? The destruction of the nation state? Possibly, although the process would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary in most cases I'd imagine.

Personal logo Jlundberg Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2011 11:32 a.m. PST

Orwell was an anarchist/socialist and stteped in marxist historical determinism. He had turned from the Bolsheviks as their totalitarian nature was revealed during the Spanish Civil War, but was still dubious about the West.
He was also focused on weaponry as communications revolutions had not been harnessed in any meaningful way against authorities.

Even the communications revolution allows organization to happen in an amorphous way that is very difficult to shut down. The mid 20th century – sieze control of radio stations and telephone exchanges and you shut down communications and organization.

Now protestors can organize, but Egypt ousted Mubarak with the at least neutrality of the Army. They did not gun down the protestors – Iranians did

Martin Rapier12 Feb 2011 11:39 a.m. PST

Interestingly I came across a Sci-Fi short story many years ago which postulated exactly the same thing – in this case it was the development of a cheap and easily mass produced hand held laser weapon.

The 'revolution' which ensued was however the militia/survivalist fantasy of rugged individuals doing their own thing and thumbing their noses at the Feds.

EJNashIII12 Feb 2011 12:19 p.m. PST

For some classic Sci-Fi on the subject read HG Wells books the "Sleeper Awakes" and the "world Set Free".

I the Sleeper Awakes a advanced "modern" world that has all the hallmarks of Egypt 3 weeks ago goes through a popular uprising. The World set Free delves into the idiot-icy of a world full of nuclear weapons and great power politics (interesting in that the book, written in 1913, had a direct relation in the real world great powers quest to design and build the 1st Atomic weapons).

Pictors Studios, wonderful analysis. You have hit it on the head. Look at the TMP community. We represent at least 30 nations and have more in common on many issues than people who live next door to any one of us.

Oh Bugger12 Feb 2011 2:34 p.m. PST

"Orwell was an anarchist/socialist and stteped in marxist historical determinism."

He certainly thought of himself as a Socialist. I have never seen anything linking him to Anarchism. He also gave information about Communists to the British Government.

He was a former colonial policeman somewhat appalled by what he had seen and indeed probably done.

I think while he was familiar with the works of Marx and Engels his own political and public life shows little sign of a man 'steeped in Marxist historical determinism'. On the contary he seems to have disliked Communism and to have worked against it.

His analysis given above reflects his own life experiences but imho its hard to argue with his point about the 'democratisation' of weaponry. I notice some current economic commentators are arguing we have entered a Neo Feudalism stage. I think Orwell would have agreed with them judging by his novels.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2011 3:28 p.m. PST

Political power is a fiction agreed upon. A dictator only has power so long as anybody nearby with a weapon agrees he does. The instant that person disagrees, be the weapon ever so humble, the dictator's hold on power is entirely dependent upon the armed individual's choices, not the dictator's.

As for the state at large, the power of the state is solely dependent upon the willingness of those entrusted with the state's arms to use those arms as the state desires. If the troops in the tank won't act on the state's orders, the state has lost the power implied by the tank.

Even when arms are subtracted from the equation, power is dependent upon the willingness of the people as a whole to grant the state power, whether that state is a democracy (of any sort) or a dictatorship. If nobody listens to the king, he has ceased to be the king.

doc mcb12 Feb 2011 8:59 p.m. PST

"An absolute ruler is a ruler who may do as he pleases -- so long as he pleases the assassins."


drummer Supporting Member of TMP13 Feb 2011 5:47 a.m. PST

Interesting thread. Its like the internet is a non-lethal weapon capable of stunning military and police forces. Success occurs when enough people, especially those admired by or who pay for the military and police, get on line and make it clear there is widespread consensus the current government is "bad for business". The on-line activity and resulting strikes and demonstrations causes a "morale check" on the forces of government policy enforcement, which can lead to non-action, or even a coup against the government. It doesn't always work, and governments are becoming keener to have their own on-line-agents spreading their message. Some even attempt to restrict usage (China) to prevent trouble.

Maybe there is game potential here? A game of revolution where one gains or loses control of key industries and other sources of influence over the military/police forces through a mixture of truths, half-truths, and outright lies, along with cyber-attacks on opposing outlets? Perhaps some kind of card game?

Legion 413 Feb 2011 9:39 a.m. PST

My favorite "Orwellian" quote "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
Here's more link

Klebert L Hall13 Feb 2011 10:18 a.m. PST

When the general populace can be armed in some at least vaguely credible way, it becomes harder to enforce a tyranny.

Old Bear13 Feb 2011 12:28 p.m. PST

Twitter has been a prime mover in three revolts just recently that I can think of. One didn't work and one did.

As of now it doesn't look like any of them have panned out.

It does look like we are coming towards a watershed militarily. It seems to me that as food gets more short and populations grow that unless a pandemic does the job wholesale war is likely to become fashionable again. After all, politicians don't like civil unrest, and starvation is likely to upset the locals just about anywhere.

I suppose one possibility for enabling war on a grander scale is the unification of countries to enable that. I often wonder if the final plan for the EU is really just that, nicely disguised. Of course many people subscribe to a future based on corporations rather than nation states – not so unlikley when you think that not that long ago the idea of nation states wasn't such a common thing to many.

Martin Rapier13 Feb 2011 12:45 p.m. PST

I meant to add… Orwell was also fairly spot on about control of language and the means of communications being an aspect of state power, even in 'Homage to Catalonia' you can spot his musings about thought control which would finally surface in polished form in 1984.

I'm sure he would have thoroughly approved of the internet as a great leveller.

Airstrip One signing off.

troopwo Supporting Member of TMP14 Feb 2011 7:07 a.m. PST

I vaguely remember a quote of his that the best guarantee of democracy was the hunting rifle hanging over the working man's fireplace.

Wartopia14 Feb 2011 7:27 a.m. PST

Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon--so long as there is no answer to it--gives claws to the weak.

I don't know if I'd use the word "democratic" to describe these weapons. And I don't think weapons on their own make the difference.

But if you consider the weapons, political situation, and economics then insurgents armed with small arms can indeed defeat even super powers (see Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan x2).

The super power's weapons impose a crushing financial burden on the super power and even if they kill lots of insurgents they also kill so many civilians they alienate the civilian population at the very least and can even drive the civilians into the arms of the insurgents. It has proven virtually impossible for super powers to cost effectively defeat and control insurgents armed with small arms (eg in Iraq and Afghanistan paying insurgents not to fight has often proven easier and more cost effective than killing them).

I vaguely remember a quote of his that the best guarantee of democracy was the hunting rifle hanging over the working man's fireplace.

Unless that working man is manipulated by others into imposing tyranny (and terror) on others. For example, the KKK and their activities in the American south and mid-west (people often forget that the KKK was very active in places such as Indiana).

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