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The Orwell Ratio

When I first read “1984” many years ago, I clearly remembered a set of Orwellian statistics that somehow got glued in my mind. I did not understand the significance until later in life.

When Winston Smith is captured and tortured by O’Brien, Orwell’s dystopic social order is laid out for the reader:

2% of the population belongs to the Inner Party. These people have total control of society. They enjoy the good things of life.

13% of the population belongs to the Outer Party. They seemingly have some power but not really. These people have a better life, but this life is at the mercy of the Inner Party. Winston belonged to this group.

85% of the population belongs to the Proles. These people do the real work of society. They are kept in destitution and ignorance.

2%! 13%! 85%! Something resonated within me with these numbers, but I just couldn’t put the pieces together.

As I read more history, I started seeing this pattern repeat itself over and over again—in both place and time. Most societies have a small elite who make the decisions. Most societies have a somewhat bigger middle class that owes its better life to the elites. And most societies have a very large lower class. As I studied other societies, it almost seemed that the ratio of 2/13/85 is a natural order for human beings to organize themselves into social classes.

In 1900, western societies were more of a mirror of Orwell’s 2/13/85 society than our western class structure of 2021. While the popular culture of then and now likes to portray the 2% and 13% of the “roaring 20s,” life was still hard for 85% of the population. There wasn’t a lot of disposable income. It became much harder a few years later.

After World War 2, this order changed. The Marshall Plan, social programs for returning veterans, and pent-up consumer demand, and a labor shortage all contributed to a burgeoning middle class in North America and Western Europe. Many citizens moved out of the lower classes. The world had not seen that kind of transition before.

Let me make this point a little more clear: This strong middle class was an aberration of history.

Most readers of this article would agree that this middle class was a good feature of the last half of the 20th century. When people can sense there is opportunity, they have hope—and a place to move their ambition and children forward. If they don’t move forward, they still believe they could have with a little more effort. Many citizens find their own balance between effort and material reward.

Unfortunately, from most economic analyses, the middle class has been shrinking since 1990. While it is still quite large, the children of today’s middle class are seeing less opportunity than their parents had.

The best article I’ve read on Medium is The Atlantic’s analysis of the New American Aristocracy. It is a lengthy article, but it sure explains the social movements of the last generation. When reading this article, I got a sense that the western world is slowly returning to Orwell’s natural order of 2%, 13%, and 85%.

Did western democracy somehow magically find more capable political leaders after World War 2 to lead us into this middle class? I just don’t think politicians of the 1950s were smart enough to build any middle class. They were riding an unusual economic wave where a strong middle class magically appeared. There was no plan. It just happened.

Should we believe that western democracy can somehow maintain or enhance this middle class? If yes, then let’s continue to believe—and hope—and wish. Magic happened before.

If no, we need to get to work. It is time to reinvent democracy. Let’s build a totally new democracy: a democracy that can keep the middle class off the ground—and not fall into the lower class. Show to the lower classes that citizens can still work their way up. This will be a better society than the one to where today’s democracy seems to be heading.

But we have to get to work. And that work means volunteering for this new democracy. 

Published on Medium 2021

Asimov, Foundation, & Democracy

The American Aristocracy