Science in Christian Perspective



1984 Symposium
The Future Becomes the Present

The State In 1984
Professor of Political Science
Bethel College
St. Paul, Minnesota


From: JASA 33 (March 1981): 36-41.

Politics is so central in modern life that one could scarcely imagine a future without a prominent place for some kind of governing structure. Yet, those who seek to anticipate the future differ widely on what that government of 1984 (and the decades to come) will be and ought to be. George Orwell's 1984 has been so useful to students of the future and of politics because it has stimulated them to think criticaly about their expectations and values.

The purpose of this article is to survey the modes of futurist thinking essential to profit from 1984 and similar works, to identify major options for government in coming years, and to suggest principles which Christians should consider in favoring one option over another. The author assumes that the future is not predetermined, at least during the period prior to the personal return of Christ. Rather, it is chosen by an intricate chain of human decisions, often random and unconnected, but which interact to create successive worlds for man to live in. One future can be chosen rather than another, and a future that appears likely from one point in time can be avoided and replaced by another. It is this discipline of choice making which 1984, above all, ought to cultivate.

Three Modes of Futurist Thinking

The most common approach to thinking about the future is to view it as a set of probable conditions and events. The effort is to forecast these from present trends and commitments, often attaching a probability estimate to them. This is not rigidly predeterministic, since an honest forecaster cannot call anything certain. However, to call a future "95% probable by year N" is to say that its likelihood is great in view of the commitments to it that now exist. Such a forecast implies that we (as a society, or as individuals) had better prepare for its coming, to solve the problems it will bring or exploit its opportunities.

This approach is one plausible response to 1984. For example, David Goodman, a research scientist, has identified 137 specific predictions of scientific, technological, social, and political conditions in that book. By 1978, he claimed, more than one hundred of them had come true, and he concluded, "1984 describes a future that is clearly possible."1 Many have argued that the political and technological choices of the past forty years have led down a road of no return toward totalitarianism. A nation may choose only to travel faster or slower, but that destination cannot be avoided. So viewed, 1984 is a scenario of a future that the Western nations have already chosen in large part, even if unwittingly.

A second mode is to consider the future as a wide range of possible conditions and events. While this is not to deny that some are more likely to occur than others, the focus is on the alternatives to the "probables," the futures that could be attained if certain choices were made now. This mode resists the mood of inevitability that clings to the first one. It also seeks to learn what steps must be taken year by year to arrive at the various alternatives and the larger consequences of taking them.

In encountering 1984 and other dystopian scenarios, futurists concerned with "possibles" admit that they do portray the product of one set of public decisions. The more pessimistic may even concede that the realm of Big Brother is more probable than any other. But they go on to assert that there are many features of Western civilization, many choices now being made, that could lead in other directions if properly followed up. They point to significant efforts to protect privacy, expand citizen participation in governmental and business decision making, and enlarge opportunities for disadvantaged persons. Popular movements against militarism and nuclear power dovetail with the "small is beautiful" ethic of E. F. Schumacher and his disciples.2 Many things are still possible, they conclude, and present choices do count.

Third, one can study the future to identify preferable events and conditions. It is an exercise in comprehending and analyzing values in both the present and future scenarios. One might place the range of possible futures on a scale from the most desired-in conformity with the values one holds-to the least desired. Each one can be studied as the logical outgrowth of certain values present in today's culture, and so enable us to assess current normative choices in the perspective of a longer time frame.

Again, 1984 offers a setting for analysis of the preferable. Orwell's state is based on an ethic that places military dominance and political stability at the top Qf. the value pyramid. All other norms-truth, beauty, human autonomy-are so subordinated that they are lost completely. This is the most natural evolution of what the political scientist Harold Lasswell called in 1941 the garrison state. In that system, "the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society."3 For Orwell, this violence was not only military but also psychological. Lasswell further envisioned "an energetic struggle to incorporate young and old into the destiny and mission of the state."4 Oceania sought not only to neutralize or eliminate dissent, but also to mesmerize its key citizens into a "love" of Big Brother. Finally, Lasswell anticipated rapid technological advancement when it would serve the garrison state's purposes.5 Orwell portrayed the telescreens and brainwashing techniques in precisely this way.

These parallels between the garrison state and 1984 raise disturbing questions about the likely products of present value systems. Many Americans appear to have a deep, primitive faith in violence as the only solution to foreign and domestic problems; to what end can that lead? Some trends are devitalizing the autonomy and responsibility of individuals in the drive for economic growth, political order, and social solidarity. But countertrends to these appear as well, confusing the picture. The danger may not be so much in the conflicting choices between value systems, as in the anomie that society may collectively feel in facing them. After throwing off its traditional beliefs in order to be "modern," it may be unable to select replacements. A society that can no longer make such choices and commit itself to them will become like Oceania's proles, mindlessly slaving in the service of anyone with a strong purpose.

Alternative Models for the State Beyond 1984

The next step in this inquiry is to apply these modes of thought to identifying some major alternatives for political development that are realistic choices today, and exploring their roots in current trends. These alternatives encompass not only structures of government and the distribution of its power, but also the policies it makes, particularly about economic issues. They may take many forms, but this analysis greatly oversimplifies them for the purposes of contrast.

Consider two opposing trends of development for the system of governmental authority and power. On one side, there is the option of centralization, in which the reins of control are held by the few who are most skilled and knowledgeable. These elites take advantage of vast information banks, a monopoly of decision-making capacities, and control of the communication media. Other groupings in society, whether business enterprises, labor unions, universities, or churches, are either integrated into the state or stripped of independent influence. The amount of coercion and violence may vary, from 1984's brooding oppression to a willing acceptance of such a system by most citizens for the protection and prosperity it promises.

The jurisdiction of this leviathan need not be limited to its present national borders, but it can imperialistically expand to resemble the three combatants in 1984, if not a global empire. Many rationales could be used to justify this centralization, from the desire for world order and to share material wealth more equitably, to the ambitions of one person or group to build a utopia or enthrone Truth and Right.

The countertrend to this is a devolution of political and economic power away from national governments and multinational corporations and alliances. The beneficiaries are smaller units that are geographically dispersed and more subject to control by their citizens and workers. At first glance, this appears as a futile effort to reverse the powerful historical trend of the past millennium in the West. Modern economic productivity and technological innovation have drawn the hitherto independent villages and communities into a web from which their citizens clearly benefit. Even so, the proponents of this alternative argue that emerging circumstances will make this not only desirable but inevitable.

This decentralization trend can take several forms, with varying plausibility. A moderate view is of an incremental shift in the powers of government (and probably business as well) to enhance the initiative and diversity of state and local governments and the various elements of the private sector. As this proceeds, government still plays a significant role in both regulating the economy and in providing social services, but expects smaller enterprises, universities, and nonprofit agencies to take the lead in innovation, human development, and supply of material needs.

A more radical form of decentralization can follow a Jeffersonian view of society, with its control dispersed among local communities that enjoy a high degree of selfsufficiency. Although lacking a central command system, these units (which may contain from a few thousand up to several hundreds of thousands of people) can communicate with each other readily by means of audio, video, and data links, and exchange such goods as they need. William Ophuls has described such a "minimum, frugal steady state" as the ideal response to the coming age of scarcity.6

No discussion of political futures can be complete without a parallel view of economic constraints and choices. The democratic processes that most Western nations have established are interdependent with their affluence and high resource use. These economic conditions were made possible by both an abundance of natural resources relative to the population and a technological system that could transform and apply them at relatively low cost. The following dichotomy of choices exists because some observers claim that the age of abundance is still in an early stage of its history, while others argue that it is now near its end.

From one perspective, the economic policies of the state of 1984 will be oriented to maximum production and consumption of goods and services and their distribution throughout the world to raise living standards for all. To be sure, there will be dislocations and adjustments, particularly in substituting renewable energy sources for fossil fuels. But the rapid pace of innovation will supply the new products and techniques as they become necessary. The most cautious forecasters anticipate economic fluctuations and some continuing amount of unemployment, inflation, and international competition. However, such optimists as Herman Kahn foresee that in the longer run those difficulties will be only chapters in history books as man finds technological and institutional solutions for them as well.7

The opposite position, often called the "limits to growth" thesis, is that the pace of consumption must decline sooner or later.' The earth has only so much "carrying capacity" for food production, resource exploitation, and absorption of pollution. When this capacity is exceeded in much of the world, various catastrophes will result, abruptly forcing down population and living standards. Prudence naturally directs public policy toward an economy which recognizes those limits and restrains production within certain levels. While some advocates of this position hold that necessity alone makes it a virtue, others welcome these limits as compelling mankind to return to the simple humane values and relationships that were smothered by the rampant materialism of the past century.

Model I for the Future: Affluence and Technology

From these contrasting options for political and economic development emerge four models for the state of the future. Model I combines centralization in political processes with economic policies oriented to maximum production and consumption. Its society has set the highest priority on affluence and technological innovation to conquer the limitations imposed by nature. Further, it expects government to be the director and guarantor of such prosperity, responsible to secure raw materials at home and abroad, organize or regulate industry, distribute its products, and inhibit any dissent that may arise to those priorities. A government must have a high concentration of power at the center to make such economic plans and implement them effectively.

This model can take both socialist and capitalist forms. In the former, government owns and manages all production and distribution directly, in the name of the people whose prosperity it seeks. A small elite political party with an ideological mission determines the priorities and standards and chooses the leaders. The capitalist variant could be an advanced form of what John Kenneth Galbraith identified as the "new industrial state," in which the largest manufacturing, service, and financial enterprises come to occupy the organs of government and use its legal powers to serve their own purposes.' Supplying the state with its key officials and shaping its policies, they build a community of political/economic interests that achieves this centralization under the banner of free enterprise.

Model I can also vary in its coerciveness. If a government chooses to destroy old institutions and practices that stand in the way of its policies, as Stalin did with the prosperous Russian peasantry in the 1920s, violence is inevitable. On the other hand, the social democracies of western Europe have built incrementally on the existing capitalist and cooperative institutions and avoided such coercion. For the nations that have known stable democracy, a more likely version of Model I is what Bertram Gross has called "friendly fascism." In his scenario, the United States reacts to international threats and domestic conflicts by establishing an impersonal complex of "warfare-welfare industrial-communications-police bureaucracies" which develop an empire rooted in "a technocratic ideology, a culture of alienation, multiple scapegoats, and competing control networks."10 The threat of violence remains in the background, available to keep in line those who do not regard it as "friendly."

Among the current trends in the United States that point toward the emergence of Model I are the growing role of government in economic regulation, its fiscal controls aimed at reducing inflation while stimulating production and maintaining employment, and its extensive computer banks that facilitate monitoring of private activities. When Washington acts to revive or bolster a faltering Lockheed or Chrysler Corporation, and continues to support a large share of basic scientific research, it builds such a mutual dependence with the business and educational communities that any problems which appear are most logically solved by greater centralization. This scenario represents the most probable of the four model futures, although it is far from clear which variant is most likely to triumph.

Model 11 for the Future: Affluence with Decentralization

Model II retains the expansionist economic policies of Model I but builds them on a decentralized approach to government. The picture resembles the United States and Great Britain in the 19th century, with their rapid economic growth under the aegis of a permissive state. The priority is also on affluence, but unlike Model 1, the belief is that only a free economy and decentralized governing order can be flexible enough to solve the adjustment problems. Government acts only within a limited realm of powers to protect the value of money, enforce contracts, keep internal order, and render selected aid to the entrepreneurs at their request. Foreign policies are to guard the nation against military or economic aggression and protect the sources of what raw materials the nation must import.

Coercion is likely to be minimal in the Model 11 state. Its

Four models for the future: affluence and technology, affluence with decentralization, centralization and shortages, decentralized steady state.

 government lacks the extensive powers to impose a tyranny. The economic order, decentralized among competing enterprises, may try to suppress workers' and consumers' movements, but such actions would be localized. To be sure, government would find it difficult to prevent racial, religious, and sexual discrimination by the private sector, and what injustices ensue may be unremediable by law. There is no assurance that the benefits of prosperity will be distributed equitably, and a wide disparity in wealth contains the seeds of instability and revolt.

There are few, if any, trends toward Model 11 today. Some would point to the movements in many urban neighborhoods to claim decision-making power that is now held by big-city governments. Yet they are too isolated and dependent on other large institutions-notably the Federal government-to represent a genuine trend of this sort. The Libertarian Party in the United States holds to a version of this model, particularly the sharp reduction in powers of government at all levels, but its electoral and philosophical impact to date is not impressive. Public opinion polls of recent years show a marked distrust of government and a desire to "get Washington off our backs" but the accompanying demands for many kinds of public benefits offer little hope to advocates of Model 11.

  Model III for the Future: Centralization and Shortages

Model III represents the centralized government that must cope with serious material limits and shortages. Essentially, it develops as dwindling supplies of food, energy, and raw materials drive up prices and large segments of the population find their living standards dropping with no hope of recovery. Internal conflicts flare up between those who can still buy what they desire and those who cannot afford even the necessities. Similar violence grows on a global scale, as "have-not" nations reach out to seize their share from those which have surplus grain, oil, and minerals. To respond to these demands, government must consolidate its power in order to allocate scarce goods on some basis that it

William C. Johnson has a BA from Wheaton College, an MA from the University of California, Berkeley, and the PhD from Claremont Graduate School. He has served at Bethel College since 1969. He is an active member of the World Future Society and the Minnesota Futurists, and of the Shoreview (MN) Planning Commission.

In the potential of the kingdom yet to come the Christian futurist finds hope.

deems fair, and suppress the opposition of those who disagree with that standard of fairness. Yet it is never very successful at this, for its citizens comply with the laws only when coerced to.

This unappealing alternative, in its extreme form, was labeled by economist Gary Gappert a Hobbesian future, after the English philosopher who described the lives of people in a similar state of semi-anarchy as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."11 It most closely resembles 1984, in which what wealth Oceania possesses is sacrificed to war ' and a tyranny over the mind forces compliance with law. Those who hold the limits to growth thesis foresee the rise of this kind of state in the ecological catastrophes that would result from the unrestrained pursuit of affluence. The economist Robert Heilbroner has judged this future to be most probable for the western nations.12

Thus far, the industrialized democracies have avoided the supply crises that could produce this alternative. However, some plausible scenarios beginning with a Middle East war that shuts off all oil shipments to the West give this model a haunting degree of possibility. As a government must ration out a stock of oil that is cut by one-half or more, it will be hard pressed to respect the traditional liberties and democratic processes.

Model IV for the Future: Decentralized Steady State

Finally, Model IV portrays the decentralized political/ economic system in a limited-resource economy which has attained a steady state in production and consumption. The priorities of society are set on preservation of nature, personal development, and social harmony rather than competition for material acquisition. Disparities between the wealthiest and poorest are relatively small. Governmental and economic units are organized to exert control at local and regional rather than national levels. There is greater opportunity for citizens to participate in localized political processes and for sharing in management decisions by the employees of business enterprises. Some businesses are even owned by their employees and the residents of the community in which they are located. Electronic communication has replaced much of the previous travel, and resource use is cut by low-energy techniques for producing goods, increased durability of products, and extensive recycling of wastes. The communities and regions have attained equilibrium with one another and conduct their relations through diplomacy rather than overt conflict.

The futurist literature often pictures Model IV as the paragon of successful political/economic transformation. Gappert called this an Emersonian future to reflect the ideals of that 19th century reformer,13 William Ophuls endorsed this model as most in harmony with a true understanding of ecology-man in the earth's "household."14 These writers express a more extreme form of this model than can realistically be attained, yet they rightly point out that a radical shift of public values is necessary for any progress in this direction.

What trends might foreshadow the advent of Model IV? As with Model II, none is sufficiently strong to allow it more than a miniscule probability in the 1980s. One could also cite at this point the neighborhood power movements, particularly those which stress self-help and autonomy from outside authorities. There are also a few workerowned businesses in the United States. Several nations in western and central Europe are experimenting with formal employee participation in the management of large enterprises, although the results to date have not supported the brightest hopes for workplace democracy. As with Model III, the trends are not visible now in the eyes of most, but could appear with a set of events that sharply constrict the material lifeblood of an affluent economy and force a thorough re-evaluation of societal values.

How Can Christians Respond?

Christians who are committed to certain principles for political and economic life are often frustrated because they cannot apply them in their "pure" form. Public choices are always partial and fragmented, and at best they can strengthen one trend or commitment rather than another. Rarely can one action affirm all of one's values simultaneously; usually one must sacrifice one objective temporarily in order to progress toward another. This is why compromise is such a basic feature of political life. Yet, while none of the four models can be labeled Christian in itself, it is clear that some tendencies are more worthy of selection than others.

Among the biblical teachings on government, two general principles are most useful in this context. First, the Christian community should take seriously the tenet that governments are divine agencies and are accountable to God for their conduct.15 The purposes of government are to maintain order, practice justice, and assure that the needs of the poor, helpless, and oppressed are met. All citizens, and especially Christians, are obligated to hold their political authorities responsible to meet these expectations and to act when they do not. Beyond this, governments are channels for some of God's actions in history, both in building His kingdom and in judging evil. Christians cannot discern all of these acts with confidence, but they can be His instruments in them as they obey the leading of the Holy Spirit.

A second basic principle is that there are, and must be, limits on man due to the pervasive presence of sin. These limits take several forms. First, they are necessary for the governmental and economic institutions, to withhold from their leaders more power than they can responsibly use. It may be necessary to sacrifice some power to do good in order to minimize the evil that could be done instead. Second, there must be limits on individual and group acquisitiveness and exploitation of the earth. The greed of the wealthy denies God's material gifts to the poor of their own generation and to all in future generations. Finally, there are limits to the wisdom that any person or institution can claim. The fallibility of all human knowledge and reason dictates that choices of futures not be left to a self-anointed few but be shared among as many enlightened citizens as possible.

These principles suggest a movement toward a compassionate government that acknowledges its accountability to God and its citizens, one that respects constitutional and political limits on its own power but imposes, through law, limits on popular excesses as well. Which of the four models best describes this? None does completely, but many combinations could be acceptable, if not ideal. The Christian community should examine and debate these possibilities as its response to 1984. What political action it takes will not be the gateway to the Kingdom of God, to be sure. Nevertheless, as Richard Mouw has suggested, "participation in the structures and institutions of the present age is not a mere 'holding action' but a legitimate means of preparation for life in the kingdom which is yet to come in its fullness."16 In that potential, a Christian futurist finds hope.


1David Goodham, "Countdown to 1994: Big Brother May Be Right on Schedule," The Futurist 12 (December 1978), p. 347.
2See, for example, E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, and L. S. Stavrianos, The Promise of the Coming Dark Age, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1976.
3Harold D. Lasswell, "The Garrison State," American Journal of Sociology 46 (January 1941), p. 455.
4Loc. cit., p. 459.
5Loc. cit., p. 466.
6William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1978, especially chapter 8.
7Herman Kahn, William Brown, and Leon Martel, The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for American and the World, New York: William Morrow, 1976.
8The best known expression of this view is in Donella. H. Meadows, et al, The Limits to Growth, New York: Universe Books, 1972. Most futurists have rejected its imminent catastrophism, however.
9John Kenneth Galbraith,
The New Industrial State, New York: New American Library, 1967, chapter XXVI.
10Bertram Gross, "Friendly Fascism: A Model for America," Social Policy (November-December 1970). Reprinted in Franklin Tugwell, Search for Alternatives, Cambridge MA: Winthrop, 1973, pp. 287-301.
Gary Gappert,Post Affluent America: The Social Economy of the Future, New York: New Viewpoints, 1979, p. 20. Hobbes' statement is from Leviathan, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958, p. 107.
Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.
13Gappert, op. cit., p. 21.
14Ophuls, op. cit.
15These are most clearly set forth in Rom. 11.1-7 and in Psa. 3 and 82.
16Richard J. Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976, p. 138.