Totalitarianism and Perpetual War: 1984, A Case Study

In this literary case study, Prachi Jain balances a close reading of Orwell’s classic 1984 with a discussion of Hannah Arendt and Charles Tilly’s scholarship on totalitarian regimes

By Prachi Jain


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George Orwell’s 1984 describes a dystopian society in which the future of London, a city in the super-state of Oceania, is abysmal and steeped in totalitarianism and perpetual war. As seen through the eyes of Winston, a humble citizen turned impassioned rebel, the control of the totalitarian regime “Ingsoc” is an undeniable part of every citizen’s life in Oceania. This, combined with the regime’s state of perpetual war with either Eastasia or Eurasia over disputed territory, makes these themes in 1984 an interesting case for analysis through the lens of Charles Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Through this analysis, it is clear Oceania holds a monopoly on violence and is engaged in war making, in fact perpetual war making, through external and internal extractions. Additionally, it is a totalitarian utopia because of its efficient use of the secret police for identification of objective enemies, its monopoly on facts, and its desensitization of generations of citizens.

The Lost Meaning of ‘War’

In order to understand the complicated foreign relations Oceania has with Eastasia and Eurasia, it is first essential to apply Charles Tilly’s theories about war making as organized crime and war leading to creation of states. According to Tilly, states engage in four actions:

  1. War making: Eliminating or neutralizing their own rivals outside the territories in which they have clear and continuous priority as wielders of force
  2. State making: Eliminating or neutralizing their rivals inside those territories
  3. Protection: Eliminating or neutralizing the enemies of their clients
  4. Extraction: Acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities—war making, state making, and protection (Tilly, 1985, p.181)

Oceania is already a state, as described by Emmanuel Goldstein, a former Party member and assumed leader of the Brotherhood: “With the absorption of Europe by Russia and the British Empire by the United States, two of the three existing powers, Eurasia and Oceania, were already effectively in being. The third, Eastasia, only emerged as a distinct unit after another decade of confused fighting” (Orwell, 2015, p.185). This is important because it highlights that the territories of the three super states are already decided and that all three are evenly matched in terms of strength in warfare. Surely war played a part in creating the three super states themselves; however, the meaning of war in the novel contrasts with Tilly’s argument about war as international relations. While Tilly (1985) points to war being waged to defend or enhance a position within the system (p.184), in the novel, Goldstein’s book explains that war has lost all meaning, since there is no victory, and war is never ending between the three states. The sole purpose of the war between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia is to keep the wheels of industry churning without increasing the wealth of the world. Thus by the Party’s standards, war is peace. The Party’s foreign policy concerning war is reflected in the oppression of its citizens because the continuous war destroys any surplus of consumer goods, keeping inhabitants in a vicious circle of poverty.

Even though motivations for war are interpreted differently by Tilly and Goldstein, war making does indeed lead to state making both in 1984 and in regimes observed by Tilly. As Tilly observed, European governments created a monopoly of violence by extending their officialdom to the local community through bureaucracies, similar to institutions such as the Ministries of Truth, Love, Plenty, and Peace in 1984. Each ministry’s purpose is a contradiction to its name. For example, the Ministry of Truth is a propaganda ministry, responsible for the falsification of historical records. The Ministries of Love, Plenty, and Peace are responsible for brainwashing, overseeing the rationing of food, supplies, and goods, and fueling perpetual war, respectively. Tilly describes how European governments also encouraged the creation of police forces that were subordinate to the government, a feature also seen in the novel as the more dangerous Thought Police. The Thought Police is an organization in Oceania that demands officers address Party loyalty by eradicating scores of people who go against Party beliefs.

Tilly (1985) also argues that protection is a double edged sword because “with one tone, protection calls up images of the shelter against the danger provided by a powerful friend… with the other, it evokes the racket in which a local strong man forces merchants to pay tribute in order to avoid damage” (p.170). When this theory is applied to states, it looks as if states can be organized as racketeers to the extent that false threats are created by the government to continue the cycle of war and maintain the illusion that states protect their citizens whether they demand it or not. This is applicable to Oceania, where it becomes apparent that the Party maintains a perpetual war with either Eastasia or Eurasia in order to manufacture a need for protection and then offer that protection to its citizens. Winston explains how “for several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself” (Orwell, 2015, p. 33). He goes on: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia… actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years ago since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in an alliance with Eurasia” (Orwell, 2015, p. 35). There is mass confusion as to whether Oceania is at war with Eastasia or Eurasia because of the Party’s control of information and distortion of the past.

Perpetual war is important, Goldstein argues, because war extracts cheap foreign labor, which distracts the masses and ultimately keeps citizens poor to preserve a hierarchical society (Orwell, 2015, p. 189). Extraction, either internal or external, is the means by which the state executes its promise of protection and intention of state building. Internal extraction demands resources from the state’s own citizens, while external extraction exploits the conquered population’s resources—in this case, labor power. Tilly (1985) describes a need for internal extraction, one that states can monetize in forms “ranging from outright plunder to regular tribute to bureaucratized taxation” (p. 181). These forms of extraction are characterized as those that are obtained from within the state. Tilly (1985) also briefly comments on external extraction, writing that the “power holders’ pursuit of war involved them willy-nilly in the extraction of resources for war making from the populations over which they had control…” (p. 172). In Oceania, these extractions are external because perpetual war involves the conquest and exploitation of people in disputed areas.

Even though Tilly argues that internal extraction will lead to better protection, state making, and war making, I argue that Oceania’s external extraction (use of cheap foreign labor) combined with existing internal extraction efforts develop a state maintenance of sorts to preserve the Party’s quest of economic inequality. Oceania is engaged in war with the other two states for labor power, so “whichever power controls equatorial Africa, or the countries of the Middle East, or Southern India, or the Indonesian Archipelago, disposes also of the bodies of scores of hundreds of millions of ill-paid and hard-working coolies” (Orwell, 2015, p.187). Consequently, those hundreds of millions of workers are passed around from conqueror to conqueror as expendable resources that help each state sustain a perpetual war. Even without this external extraction, wars are financed by internal extraction (taxes, etc.). However, the non-domestic and low-cost labor keeps the war perpetual and expedites the war effort. External extraction also brings perpetual poverty for Oceania’s citizens by concentrating on the production of war materials, which are eventually destroyed.

Tilly describes what states do: war making, state making, protection, and extraction. In my analysis, Oceania is a state that engages in perpetual war making between Eastasia or Eurasia, not to defend its borders, but to incite fear in its citizens. War keeps power within the elite Inner Party members, thrusting everyone else into unceasing poverty. Tilly’s theory that war making leads to state making shows that power holders want to maintain their monopoly on violence. To do that, they create bureaucracies and strong police forces—elements emphasized through the Ministries of Peace, Plenty, Love, Truth, and the Thought Police in 1984. Furthermore, protection is a legitimized business in Oceania because the Party preserves the citizens in a state of never-ending fear by spreading propaganda about its current enemy. Finally, in addition to internal extraction (collection of taxes or tributes within Oceania) as a means for state making, war making, and protection, Oceania’s ruling party emphasizes external extraction of cheap foreign labor to fund and maintain protection policies and perpetual war. Ultimately, indefinite war making and state making as organized crime are so efficient that Oceania is classifiable as a totalitarian state.

London in a Dystopian Fog: A Totalitarian’s Dream

From page one Oceania is depicted as a totalitarian state, one that has remarkable parallels to The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Arendt explains how totalitarian regimes exchange the use of veiled threats and scientific proofs (a means of validating propaganda) in their efforts to direct commands once they are in power, to distinguish between suspect and objective enemies through their use of a secret police, and to spread their ideology so that neighbors appear more threatening. She distinguishes between all three aforementioned actions of totalitarian regimes both during their movement to gain power and after the regime has gained power (Arendt, 1958, p.345). The difference between these regimes is that once they are in power, justification of government actions is irrelevant. The Party of Oceania is examined through the totalitarian regime in power because the novel is set in a period in which the Party already successfully completed the totalitarian movement to power.

Arendt (1958) contends that “science in the instances of both business publicity and totalitarian propaganda is obviously only a surrogate for power. The obsession of totalitarian movements with ‘scientific’ proofs ceases once they are in power” (p. 345). In Oceania, the Party replaced scientific propaganda with direct commands, a characteristic of totalitarian regimes. The Party literally alters history (without justification) to reflect how well their regime is functioning at the present moment. For example, Winston works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth where he updates old newspapers with statements from the Party. One message read “times 19.12.83 forecasts 3 yp 4th quarter 83 misprints verify current issue” (Orwell, 2015, p. 38), which meant that the forecasts for various classes of consumption goods were incorrect and Winston had to rewrite the old forecasts to reflect the actual numbers. The control of information without justification is a classic characteristic of totalitarianism in power.

Another distinction for Arendt is the use of secret police or spy services to eliminate enemies, both objective and suspect. Suspect enemies are those who threaten the regime’s movement to power, or political opponents (Arendt, 1958, p.421). Objective enemies are enemies that threaten the existence of the regime in power; Arendt (1958) describes objective enemies as those “…defined by the policy of the government and not by his own desire to overthrow it” (p. 423). Suspect enemies are eliminated through the use of provocation in the totalitarian movement; objective enemies, on the other hand, are hunted once the regime is in power (Arendt, 1958, p.422). In the process of hunting down suspected enemies in the movement, the re-education of old party members is common amongst totalitarian regimes, and eventually “it is during this stage that a neighbor gradually becomes a more dangerous enemy to one who happens to harbor ‘dangerous thoughts’ than are the officially appointed police agents” (Arendt, 1958, p.422).

In 1984, Winston describes his neighbor’s children: “Both of them dressed in the blue shorts, gray shirts, and red neckerchiefs which were the uniform of the Spies” (Orwell, 2015, p.23). In Oceania, children are encouraged to join organizations such as the Spies and the Youth League so they can be brainwashed into thinking the Party’s word is the only truth. Eventually, generations of citizens are made paranoid if they oppose Party ideology—war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Although this process happens during the movement phase of totalitarianism, I argue that in 1984 ideology conditioning and paranoia are formally reinforced to younger generations after the regime is in power to ensure the survival of the regime. Winston describes his neighbor and co-worker, Parsons, as “one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended” (Orwell, 2015, p.22). He goes on to describe how Parsons’ kids are becoming indoctrinated with the same loyalty to the Party when one of the kids calls Winston a traitor and accuses him of thought crime (Orwell, 2015, p.22). Undoubtedly, the Party rigorously trains younger generations to report thought crimes even after the regime is in power.

In the case of 1984, it seems an objective enemy is anyone who commits thought crime or goes against Party ideology, which is adjustable according to the changing will of the leader. The members of the Outer Party in Oceania are labeled objective enemies since the “Proles” are left alone and treated like animals. According to Arendt (1958), objective enemies are hunted, not targeted for a reason, so “the task of the totalitarian police is not to discover crimes, but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population” (p. 426). In 1984, the telescreens are mandatory 24/7 monitoring devices that cannot be turned off and are the equivalent of Arendt’s secret police, while the Thought Police officers are just a vehicle for carrying out exterminations or making a person an “unperson” (one who is caught by the Thought Police and eliminated from history itself). An example of an objective enemy is Syme, Winston’s friend in the research department. While conversing with Winston about Newspeak, Syme asserts “…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought” (Orwell, 2015, p.52) and several chapters later, he is found to never have existed. Therefore, it seems Syme was eliminated just because he was able to understand the true nature of Newspeak (thought conformity), qualifying him as an objective enemy who could spread ideas about the Party’s true intentions.

Oceania embodies the utopian goal of the totalitarian leader because Oceania has all the attributes Arendt defined as totalitarian, only more efficient. The Party in Oceania is totalitarian because the party is already in power and can justify the absence of “scientific” facts, the separation of suspect and objective enemy through the use of a secret police, and the education of younger generations toward Party loyalty.


Analyzing Charles Tilly’s idea of war making and Hannah Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism reveals important similarities to Oceania. Similar to Tilly’s idea of state expansion and war making as organized crime, Oceania engages in state making through its institutions and is in a perpetual war with international states for the illusion of protecting its citizens. Oceania’s external extraction policy further supports the eternal war through its exploitation of cheap foreign labor. Analogous to Arendt’s description of totalitarian regimes, the Party is also totalitarian because of its desire to eliminate objective enemies, be the sole expert on factual information, and desensitize the younger generations of citizens to the ways of the Party.


Arendt, H. (1958). Origins of Totalitarianism (2nd Ed.). Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company.

Orwell, G., & Fromm, E. (2015). 1984: a novel. New York, NY: Signet Classics.

Tilly, C. (1985). War Making and State Making as Organized Crime. In P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, & T. Skocpol. Bringing the State Back In (pp. 169-186). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Published February 5, 2018

Photo credit: “File:L’œil (48393850751).jpg” by Claude Attard from Toulouse, France is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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