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The Last Man in a Totalitarianism without Alternative: George Orwell

In George Orwell's "1984", wars were a domestic necessity to divert the people from domestic contradictions. Dissent was obliterated. People devoid of individuality were urged to give birth for Big Brother.
The "Last Man" in a Totalitarianism without Alternative

On George Orwell's "1984"

by Richard Saage

[This article originally published in: Utopie Kreativ, July 2000 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.rosaluxemburgstiftung.de/Bib/uK/Aktuell/117/saage.htm. Richard Saage is a professor of political science at the Martin Luther university of Halle-Wittenberg.]


Like hardly any utopian novel of world literature, George Orwell's 1984 has been interpreted very differently. Many interpreters simply read it as an anticipation to a future that we cannot escape. Others classified it in the tradition of satire established by Swift which warned contemporaries of present misdevelopments through their radical criticism, that the horrors of the future could be surpassed if they persisted in idleness. Interpretations saw an anatomy of the national socialist and bolschevist systems of rule as a model of a possible totalitarian future of humanity. 1984 was also historicized or personalized whether this novel was interpreted as a satire on the England of the Second World War or read as an emanation of the frustrated childhood and youth of its author. The core of 1984 was seen in the metaphysical despair in the nature of power.

Not only the "understanding" of this novel is controversial. Soon after its publication, there were attempts at instrumentalizing it during the time of the Cold War for the political goal of creating and controlling enemy stereotypes. While critics from the right-wing camp confirmed the warning clothed in an anti-utopia of possible political developments in the whole world and emphasized the truth-content of this work, leftist critics put in question Orwell's intellectual and literary achievement and tried to diminish the importance of his statements on politics by pointing out that Orwell was already terminally ill when he wrote this book. In such a view, the book is no more than the expression of a very limited private experience, the document of the psycho-physical condition of the author in the genesis of the work.

That Orwell from 1936 to his death professed democratic socialism speaks against the conservative monopolization of 1984. "Every serious line that I wrote since 1936 was written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." In a letter to an American unionist, he expressly resisted all tendencies to misuse 1984 as a political weapon against socialism. A one-sided anti-socialist interpretation of this novel ignores that it also contains all the essential moments of Orwell's criticism of capitalism. They extend from "the atomized existence" of individuals, the dichotomist social stratification of the totalitarian system and "the passivity of the proletariat" to the "destruction of quality of life", the "suppression of drives" and the "culture industry". However the attempt of leftist authors to deactivate the criticism in Orwell's 1984 in the Stalinist Soviet Union by insisting that he derived the sickness of the whole world from his own sickness represents an illicit psychologizing of his work. It suppresses not only the analytical qualities of "1984" which moved at the height of the contemporary history and socioeconomic exploration of the totalitarian structures of rule of his epoch. It also misunderstands that 1984 represents the sum total of all Orwell's works up to them in which all his political experiences appeared directly or indirectly.

In modern research, Orwell's literary work and his biographically mediated political goals represent a unity. He emphasized explicitly that texts are written for four possible reasons: 1. Out of sheer egoism, 2. Out of aesthetic enthusiasm, 3. Out of historical impulse and 4. To attain a political purpose. The last motive was decisive for his writing. In a peaceful epoch, he probably would have written ornate or merely descriptive books without being conscious of his political standpoint. However in an epoch like the time between the wars, he had to develop into a sort of pamphleteer. What personal and political experience enabled him to become a political author? George Orwell (pseudonym for Eric Arthus Blair) was born as a second child of Richard Walmesley Blair (1857-1939) and Ida Mabel Blair (1875-1934) in Motihari, Bengalen. The father worked as a colonial official in the Opium department of the Indian Civil Service which controlled the legal opium trade with China. The mother came from an Anglo-French teakwood trader family. In 1904, he returned to England with his mother and sister. Four years later, he changed from the local Anglican convent school to the preparatory school of St. Cyprian in Sussex.

In the essay volume "Such were the Joys" published after his death, he described the depressing experiences under which he suffered in this school. In the spring of 1916, he received a stipend for the elite school in Eton. Instructed among others in French by a teacher Aldous Huxley, he developed his first literary interests. Still his academic achievements were rather moderate. In 1921, Blair finished his training in Eton. He took the exam of the Indian office in the summer of 1922 and decided for the Burmese police. After his final exam in the police academy in Mandalay in November 1922, he started his service in Burma which he resigned in 1927 - nauseated by the colonial methods of the Brits.

Orwell reflected his Burmese experiences in the essays "Shooting an Elephant" and "A Hanging", not only in the 8th and 9th chapters of his book "The Road to Wigan Pier". He spent the 1927/28 winter in the working class area of the London East End. In the spring of 1928, Orwell took a room in a working class area in Paris and survived as a casual laborer and dishwasher. In December 1929 completely destitute, he returned to England and lived the life of a vagabond in London's working class areas. In addition, he was active as an auxiliary teacher, book shop clerk and journalist. He took stock of these years in "Down and Out in Paris and London". The second great work of this period is an analysis of the life of a miner in England. It appeared in 1937 under the title "The Road to Wigan Pier".

One of the most important sections in Orwell's political life began when he traveled to Spain in the middle of December 1936 to support the republicans in the battle against Franco's troops and their allies. IN Barcelona, he joined the P.O.U.M. (Partido Obrero de la Unificacion Marxista), a party in close contact with the English Independent Labor Party. Fighting at the Aragon front, Orwell experienced the barricade struggles in Barcelona. They were caused by the attempt of the communist party chief to occupy the central telephone office controlled by the anarchists. Returning to the Aragon front, he was injured with a throat wound and treated in a hospital of Taragona and then in the P.O.U.M. - sanatorium at the edge of Barcelona. After the prohibition of the P.O.U.M., Orwell and his wife Eileen who stayed in Barcelona since February 1937 had to escape and leave Spain. Outraged and horrified, he summarized his experiences of the Spanish civil war and the totalitarian methods with which the Moscow-enslaved Spanish C.P. liquidated "deviants" and "anarchists"in the1938 book "Homage to Catalonia. Living in England again since 1939, Orwell appeared as a recognized journalist, author and co-worker of the BBC from 1942 to 1943 who fought unrelenting for a leftist anti-totalitarian position.

With the outbreak of war, he registered as a volunteer but was not accepted on account of his health. From November 1943, he was a department head at the journal "Tribune". At that time, he began writing "Animal Farm" which he completed in 1944. In the early fall of 1947, the first version of 1984 was presented. Although his state of health dramatically worsened on account of a tuberculosis attack of his left lung, Orwell travelled immediately after his release from the sanatorium to Jura to finish his the work on his novel. The manuscript reached the publisher in December 1949. Orwell could not recover after this great feat. On January 21, 1950, he died of pneumonia.

Even while Orwell complained that he had "botched up" the work and the theme of 1984 on account of his sickness, this work can be his literary and journalistic testament since "connecting lines can be drawn from each of his works to 1984" (Crick, Orwell; Erzgrauer, Utopia). The framing action in which Orwell integrated the "sum total" of his political and literary life has a simple style. The novel starts from a future international system divided in three superstates, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Armed conflicts occur permanently between these power blocs. However they are only of a limited nature since each superpower has nuclear weapons so that a war no longer appears winnable. As a "purely domestic political affair", war legitimates the permanent state emergency which is used to develop an ingenious apparatus of discipline and oppression to completely destroy the individuality of persons.

In the example of the fate of the official Winston Smith, Orwell describes the failure of an individual rebellion against a system that shrinks from nothing, neither from brutal enemy propaganda, psychic and physical torture, systematic "language purification", permanent falsification of history or the uninterrupted surveillance of the private sphere of individuals by hidden television cameras. Winston Smith's rebellion was soon uncovered. "He fell into the machinery of the party apparatus which tolerated neither individual privacy nor personal bonds. With Julia, his beloved, he escapes into the niche that he imagined was unsupervised. He enjoys moments of happiness. To him and Julia, the sexual act was an expression of their rebellion against the hated party. They were discovered, separated and subjected to a psychic torture which crushed Winston mentally so that he betrayed his beloved. He was released `purified' in the totalitarian everyday life." (cf. Alpers, Fuchs, Hahn, Jeschke, Lexicon of Science Fiction Literature, 1987)

As mentioned at the outset, a novel like Orwell's 1984 allows many readings. Perhaps the diverse common intersections with the different experiential horizons and cognitive interests of the interpreter or reader offered by this text is the reason why 1984 was at once a bestseller after its publication and contributed substantially to Orwell's increasing significance and influence after his death", a development that continues undiminished. One interpretation tries to interpret this novel within the tradition of classical utopian thinking as its self-criticism without abandoning Orwell's political experiential horizon of the 30s and 40s of this century. This version suggests itself since Orwell was never an anti-utopianist in the sense that he abhorred (perhorreszierte) the whole genre a priori as ""otalitarian"" Rather he constantly emphasized the constructive continuity between utopian thinking and social reform. The structural characteristics and topoi of this novel urge such an interpretation. Thus Norbert Elias declared that "the good land utopia" of Thomas More "recalled a little George Orwell's 1984" (Norbert Elias, Thomas More's State Criticism). This hypothesis raises two questions. 1. Does Orwell's "1984" actually follow a pattern with a model in the utopias from the 16th to the end of the 19th century even if now turned radically negative in its concrete vision? 2. Is the negative scenario of 1984 a rejection of the secularized reason and thus of utopian thinking?


The social critique of utopian thinking since More had the task of naming the misdevelopments from which the utopian design should liberate. The social mechanisms that caused the social misery or dehumanization of millions of uprooted existences were presented as real tendencies of European societies. The fictions of a better alternative first gained their binding force and persuasiveness on the background of feudal and capitalist relations of exploitation and the absolutist or civil state machinery covering them. What is new in Orwell's diagnosis of time in 1984 is not that the topoi of anti-capitalist criticism is missing. In a coarse and simplistic form, the Ancien Regime is characterized and the pattern of utopian diagnosis of time since More informally adopted.

The utopian criticism of time in Orwell's 1984 first gained originality in that its reality was put in question: the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, mistrusts this interpretation of the capitalist past. Without glorifying it, he suspected that the realities of the pre-revolutionary epoch despite all their social deficiencies were more human than the present of the totalitarian state in which he lived. In Orwell's utopian pattern, the subject of social criticism is changed. The magnified deficits of the utopian community are prominent.

With his emphasis on the political and social conditions of the utopian state, Orwell made the reversal of the utopian ideal of the classical tradition into its opposite into the central theme of his temporal criticism. What was once conceived as a normative vanishing point of the liberation of humanity from misery and exploitation became their fate, the sign of the extinction of everything human. The negativity of the normative points of the state of 1984 is not first visible through ideology-critical interpretation. According to their claim, they are "the exact opposite of the imbecile utopias aiming at joy which the old Reformers had in mind, a world of fear, betrayal and torment, a world of crushing and being crushed, a world that becomes increasingly inexorable, not less inexorable, the more it develops.

Progress in our world means progress to greater pain. The old cultures claimed to be grounded on love or justice. Our culture is founded on hatred. In our world, there are no other feelings than hatred, rage, gloating and self-shame. If you want to draw a picture of the future", Orwell allows O'Brien to say, the protagonist of the state of 1984, "it would be a boot that tramples a human face again and again".

Seen this way, central elements of the ideal of the classical utopia tradition are changed in Orwell's 1984. Anti-individualism has always been a sign of the social utopia since More. However it always had its corrective in emancipation thinking to help the individual gain his right despite the priority of the "whole". This corrective definitively belongs to the past in Orwell's state of 1984. The anti-individualism of the older utopia tradition serving the abolition of material misery and oppressive living conditions is now replaced by the simple negation of the individual and his own personal value: ""he individual only has power when he ceases to be an individual."" Expressed in a simplified way, all normative points of the classical utopia tradition are reversed into their opposite in Orwell'' 1984 since their original claim , the secular emancipation of humanity from social misery that became historically superfluous, was abandoned.

The perverted goal of the state propagating universal oppression as its last goal also changes the original goal of utopian property relations. The abolition of private control over means of production and labor in favor of communist communal property was a central demand of the classical utopia tradition. The production barriers were removed, standing in the way of supposedly optimal industrial-technical development, not only making possible the most egalitarian distribution of social wealth. In contrast, the abolition of private property in Orwell's 1984 followed the exact opposite goal. This abolition served only the fortification of social inequality in the interest of the absolute claim to power of a tiny party oligarchy.

For Orwell, the shattering of capitalism actually amounted to a "concentration of property in far fewer hands than before" with the difference that the new owners were a group instead of a large number of individual persons. As an individual, nothing was owned by any party member aside from his insignificant personal belongings. Everything belonged to the party since it controlled property and everything according to its pleasure." This form of property relations resulted from the insight "that the only secure basis of an oligarchy consists in collectivism. Prosperity and privileges are most easily defended when they are in common possession."

What role is played by the three pillars of classical utopian economic systems, namely work, technology and science as well as the structure of material needs to be satisfied in Orwell's "gloomy" or "black" utopia of the year 1984?

1. As in most classical social utopias, a complete mobilization of all available work resources occurs in Orwell's 1984. However a decisive distinction cannot be ignored. Since More, the general work obligation was always joined with a reduction of working hours, opening possibilities for creative occupations. This connection between work and leisure is brutally disrupted in Orwell's 1984. Both the elite of the party and the "proles", the great mass of the working population, were subject to work dictation up to physical and psychic exhaustion without ever having the prospect of cultivating abilities not immediately connected with the material reproduction of the coercive system. A qualitative distinction of work along caste lines cannot be ignored. Elite officials were relieved from bodily work as in the classical utopia tradition. In contrast, all physical labor was charged to the "proles". They have the position of slaves in More's "Utopia". A fifth of the whole population of the earth was available to the three superstates who passed over into the possession of respective conquerers as work slaves. In Orwell's 1984, "productive work again became a slave work which it had widely been in late antiquity before the western civilization process."

2. In classical social utopias, natural science and its application as technology had a clearly outlined function. This consisted in the expectation that hunger, overtime hours, filth, misery, lack of education and sickness will be definitively overcome with the development of scientific-technical potentials. A function different from the utopian tradition is ascribed to science and technology in Orwell's 1984 as a direct instrument of rule of a small self-styled elite. This re-orientation can be read as a kind of advancement of science. Since all three superpowers have a nuclear weapon potential, war cannot appear winnable any more. The only relevant task for natural science and technology consists in discovering the ideas of another person. Unlike military research, this goal is of decisive significance: "Nothing... is more efficient than the thought police", we read. The scientist is "a mixture of psychologist and inquisitor who with exceptional conscientiousness studies the meaning of facial expressions, gestures and changes of moods and tests the effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis and corporeal torture forcing truthful statements. Or he is a chemist, physicist or biologist only occupied with questions of his special subject referring to the destruction of life."

3. The great utopianists of the 19th century subjected the unparallelled social wealth achieved by industrialization to the traditional luxury prohibition. As Orwell wrote, their sign was the "vision of an incredibly rich future and a responsible social order provided with leisure - a glittering antiseptic world of glass, steel and show-white concrete". Unlike Herbert George Wells (Men Like Gods, 1927) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1958) who emphasized this tradition to the end up to cynical excess, Orwell returned to the social asceticism of the early nineteenth century utopia. The characteristic difference was that material deficiency was a framing condition of the social utopia corresponding to the control of nature still in its beginnings from the 16th to the end of the 18th century but was artificially brought about in the state of the year 1984 to reinforce the existing caste structure.

The harsh freezing of the living standards of the majority at the subsistence level occurred through the systematic destruction of overproduction. Machine creations fell prey to destruction in the course of permanent war preparations to prevent the general standard of living from rising. Apart from the top of the party leadership, these consumption limits were in force for the medium and lower cadres of officials. If people in the social utopias of the 19th century received their exquisite meals in luxurious palaces, the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, was fed in a shabby canteen whose ugliness was only surpassed by the miserable quality of the food and sedatives.


Notwithstanding its historical models in modern totalitarianisms which Orwell seeks to surpass, his composition of the state of 1984 cannot deny the model which it copies: the social utopia in the succession of Plato and More. An important presupposition for the smooth functioning of this perfected superstate was the state organization of sexual relations. When the dynamic of sexual energies was put in the service of the state, its smooth functioning could be certain. A similar model can be recognized in Orwell's 1984. While the sexuality of the "proles" remains unconsidered, it is strictly disciplined among the party members. As an indissoluble bond sanctioned by the state, the only goal of sexuality in marriage is "to bring children into the world to serve the party". This abstinence propagated by the party had a double reason: on one side, the sexual act practiced joyfully was rebellion against the system. "Desire, appetite or lust was a thought crime." On the other hand, the party's will to power commanded instrumentalizing the sexual drive in the interest of an unconditional claim to power: "If one otherwise had fear, hatred and fanatical belief as the party assumed for its members, how could they be maintained in the true white heat if a powerful basic instinct was not used as fuel?"

The conception of a "new person" is also found in Orwell's 1984. In the classical social utopia, he was marked by a well-shaped body, not only by great intelligence, an all-embracing cultivated personality and a long life. All these attributes are reversed into their opposite in Orwell's state of 1984. The dominant human type is the apparatchik smoothly functioning in the sense of the party who only understood the party doctrine. He simply devours everything, it is said. "What is devoured does not hurt him and leaves behind nothing as a grain of seed passes through the stomach of a bird undigested." .The "new person" orients himself in the ideal of large muscular men and full-breasted women, blond, life-affirming, suntanned and careless. However a very different type thrives in reality under the rule of the party: "little subordinate people who become corpulent in their young years, with short legs, sudden restless movements and bloated inscrutable faces with very small eyes."

The political system in the narrow sense also has characteristics that could be compared with the structure of the government apparatus of many social utopias modified by the experience of modern totalitarian dictatorships. The ministries of "power", "wisdom" and "love" in Campanella have their equivalents in those ministries forming the core of the system of rule of the year 1984 with Orwell. The "truth ministry was occupied with the news service, leisure time organization, educational system and the fine arts. The peace ministry negotiated war affairs. The ministry for love maintained law and order and the ministry for surplus dealt with rations." Unlike More's Utopia and Campanella's sun state, these ministries are agencies of an omnipotent state party with a totalitarian dictator at the top under the name "Big Brother". He stands at the top of a social model whose stratification is referred back to James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941). Still this classification should not conceal that Orwell's totalitarian state has a different precursor which is older than Burnham's creation: the conception of an ideal state as Plato developed it in the Politeia.

In Orwell's system of "oligarchic collectivism", political power is controlled by an intellectual elite consisting of two percent of the population. The top of the system in the form of the "Big Brother" emerges from this "inner party" which replicates Plato's philosopher. Like Plato's philosopher-king, he is infallible and omnipotent. The caste of watchmen is like the "outward party". Covering 17 percent of the total population, it acts as the "hand" of the state which has to execute the commands of the "brain" or the "inner party". Its fields of activity are defined as brain-washing, re-education and liquidation. Finally the mass of physically working slaves, artisans, laborers and peasants in Plato's "ideal state" correspond to the so-called "proles" who make up 85 percent of the population. Repressed in an existence of dull privateness, they play no role - as with Plato - as a political factor. This caste society in principle is a static pyramidal monolith. However a selective mobility occurs between the elites and between the dominant castes and the "proles" in replacing "failures" in leadership positions with capable social climbers. As everybody knows, Plato also provided that intelligent children of artisans and peasants were accepted in the dominant caste while conversely incapable descendents had to do physical work in the area of material reproduction.

One important difference between Plato's estate communism and the dominating model in Orwell's 1984 cannot be overlooked. All utopianists of the classical tradition who were inspired by Plato functionally interpreted his model of elites. In other words, the power ascribed to them was not an end-in-itself but had its legitimation in the well-being of the general public. In contrast, the negative turn of the elites concept in Orwell's 1984 resulted from the fact that the socio-political power of the dominant caste only knew one goal: maintaining themselves in their privileged position. "The party strives for power merely in its own interest", proclaims O'Brien, the protagonist of the state of 1984. "Only power as such interests us, nothing about the well-being of others... The goal of power is power."

A will to power relieved of all normative correctives is clearly distinguished from the repression techniques of the classical utopian tradition. For them, coercive means could only be used in an "accompanying" way for the integration of individuals in the community. The actual social cohesion should be encouraged so that an optimal satisfaction of human needs is achieved - according to the state of scientific-technical development. In contrast, the means of power in Orwell's 1984 make themselves absolute. As a result, in their totality they constitute a surveillance- and repression system whose background was the sanctioning authority of the classical tradition. Campanella's news services and auricular confession gave way to the "Televisor" which potentially watched over all citizens.

The truth monopoly of the classical utopian elites is supplemented in Orwell's 1984 by the "reality monopoly" of the totalitarian party which should prevent the germination of any critical thought according to the actual goals of the party with the help of a new manipulated language, "Newspeak" and the permanent falsification of history. In the classical utopia tradition, forced labor and in exceptional cases the death penalty was provided for offenses against the norms of the ideal community. In the example of the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, Orwell shows that deviating conduct first entails "brainwashing" in the form of physical and psychic torture, then "re-education" leading to unreserved identification with the system before the "delinquent" was liquidated. This technique of "vaporizing" had only one goal: Potential adversaries of the system should disappear without making martyrs of them.


Comparative research has demonstrated that nearly all topoi of the normative classical social utopia of time criticism were present pointing to the economic and political system in Orwell's "black" utopia. One decisive innovation unknown to the older utopia tradition was the abandonment of emancipation thinking, the turning point and focus of older social utopia. The classical utopia tradition adopted the formula that the whole has priority before the individual with the expectation that its honoring could only produce a harmonic community without irrational rule and social misery.

In Orwell's 1984, this formula emphasized a forced social reality whose explicit goal was not the "reconciliation" of individuals with the whole. There is legitimate doubt whether the classical social utopia has ever reached or can reach this "telos". It was arrested too much to Plato's thinking which allegedly was subject to the higher dignity of the "general" or "universal". Its anti-individualism did not refer structurally to the extinguishing of individuals but to their binding in the collective. What it opposed was that boundless egoism which made balancing particular interests with the public welfare appear obsolete per se.

This relation is presented very differently in Orwell's "gloomy utopia'. The idea of a public welfare that could have consensus is abandoned. In its place is the absolute claim to power of a little self-styled elite who controlling the scientific-technical resources has only one objective: stabilizing the existing system of oppression and exploitation in a "post-history". Considering this diagnosis, Orwell with his "black" utopia wanted to strike up the swansong to the emancipatory reason of the Enlightenment. The hero of the novel, Winston Smith, is the "last person" so to speak who tries to sue for his dignity against the exactions of a totalitarianism without alternative but was not a match for its omnipotence. In that the exponent of the Enlightenment, the critical intellectual, inwardly agrees to the last authority of power and thus legitimates the totalitarian system, he capitulates to naked violence and actually abandons emancipation ideas. Certainly Orwell regarded the destruction of humanity as possible.

Orwell's anthropology on whose background he described the deprivation of human existence is not relativistic. As Fromm rightly emphasized, he sees existence characterized by "its own qualities", "an intensive longing for love, truth, justice and solidarity". Orwell with his horror vision of a possible society of the future seeks to mobilize energies in the reader that rebel against such a misdevelopment.

In his novel, "what makes the hero slip, what first separates him from his environment, what breaks through the one-dimensionality" is sexuality. Sexuality is the only remaining space of emancipatory reason that has not yet been reduced to a mere rule calculus. "Not only love for a person", Orwell says, "but the animal drive is the simple blind desire. That was the power that could burst the party in fragments." Since the negative utopia gains its critical and subversive force imminent to utopia from this psychic center that evades the control of the system, the Enlightenment as such is not denounced but every false rationality which denying its emancipatory inheritance decays to a mere instrumental perfection (cf. Erzgraber, Utopia).

Isn't this Orwellian intention opposed to his anatomy of a totalitarian system homogeneous in itself in which all the individualizing attempts fail including the hope for the revolutionary power of the "proles"? This apparent victory of the system could be a mere Pyrric victory. How can a regime last in the long run when it commands by decree that 4 + 4 = 5? How can a minimum in technical efficiency be maintained without a modern oppression machinery when the party claims power for itself to change natural laws according to its pleasure? In the figure of O'Brien, Orwell shows that a realization of his "dark" utopia represented nothing other than the transformation of humanity into a conglomerate of the mad. In O'Brien's face while the tortures were inflicted on Winston Smith, "a kind of ecstasy", a "mad hysteria" or a "vague demented flash of enthusiasm" could be seen. These hints point glaringly at the self-destruction of a dehumanized system that dismissed those correctives indispensable for its own survival.

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