Monday, June 28, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell -- furthermore II

While there's a significant body of work by George Orwell to select from, two works in particular -- his short novel 1984 (published in 1949) and his long essay, "Notes on Nationalism" (published in 1945) -- have become the clearest statements of Orwell's socio-political point of view and philosophy.

The video above is a 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty Four. Its early date and thoroughly British provenance helps us to understand where Orwell was coming from with his deeply cynical dystopian vision of the future.

Of course his vision of the future is based in part on his own experience as a propaganda worker at the BBC during World War II, a position he left -- in disgust -- in 1943 during the height of the War.

The media was fully engaged in propaganda activities during World War II, in Britain and everywhere else. This was no mystery. Everyone knew it was the case, and most everyone agreed it was necessary for Home Front Morale.

Those who, like Orwell, conducted propaganda activities may have had reservations about what they were doing, but most, certainly, felt it was their patriotic duty to put the best spin (a word that wasn't used then) on the events of the day -- even if that meant falsifying the information.

Looking back on news from WWII these days, it's fairly easy to identify the propaganda elements. And yet strangely, the news -- despite the propaganda -- has a ring of truth to it that today's news often lacks. There may have been a "positive" thrust to every story of the War and the Home Front, and yet, the truth was often right there, told honestly, as well. Quite different from the constant and overt falsity of so much of today's news, particularly if it originates in the military. They simply lie today, always, even when they don't have to. During World War II, they would sometimes lie, to be sure, but most often they would more simply embellish or reach conclusions not necessarily justified by the facts, while -- surprisingly often -- providing the facts. Or, seemingly as often, they would not tell the public some particularly appalling story of some wartime event at all.

Even that level of propaganda was too much for Orwell, in part, it seems, because it wasn't being very well done. The Ministry of Truth -- BBC -- was being run by hacks and time servers. How could one expect any originality or consistency under the circumstances?

In Nineteen Eighty Four the Ministry of Truth is being run by timeservers and hacks who really believe themselves to be doing the equivalent of God's Work, and only Winston Smith -- for reasons he himself cannot comprehend -- disagrees.

I could relate.

How is it that one sees -- and knows -- what cannot be?

Yes. Well. That is always the difficult thing, isn't it?

Worse, what do you do about it?

This was Orwell's problem living in the material world, and it was WinSmith's problem living in his fictional world of the Future.

It's a world that is Britain, most assuredly, but as if it had been absorbed by a Soviet, more or less as if it were ruled by a Stalin with technology. It is not a pretty picture, but as Orwell conceives it, it's rather simple. Oceania, the encompassing hemispheric "nation" that England is now a part of is ruled by The Party, headed by Big Brother -- who may not actually exist. It doesn't matter. He is symbolically present always and watches over all. From him (and the Party) comes all that is Good, to him is given all social love and respect. Simple. Nothing like that occurs now, nor did it occur in Western society when Orwell was alive, and despite the Stalin's despotism and totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, nothing quite like this complete Leader Worship and abandonment of reality took place in the Soviet Union, either. Mindless loyalty was inculcated to be sure, but (at least from my interviews with former Soviet citizens who lived during Stalin's time), it was never completely achieved. It wasn't just a matter of dissent and disbelief, it was the nature of Russian society and the Russian people not to accept without question that which they were being told, or rather to accept it, with the understanding that it probably wasn't true. People could see with their own eyes, for example, and if they were being lied to -- as they often were -- they knew it, though they might profess the Party Line and Official Belief. As I was told by so many former Soviet citizens, "Nobody really believed the lies, and eventually nobody believed anything."

It makes it very hard for some of these people to believe Government in this country, too. They assume they are being lied to. Very often they're right.

The character of Emmanuel Goldstein -- the Arch Rebel of 1984, and the central figure in the universal Oceania practice of the Two Minute Hate -- is often said to be based on Leon Trotsky, and the actor playing the role in the BBC video above is doing an imitation of Trotsky in newsreels that I've seen of him before his murder in Mexico City by Stalinist agents in 1940. Indeed, Trotsky's point was that Stalin had stolen and ruined the Revolution (much as Goldstein accuses Big Brother), and it is by restoring the Revolution that peace and freedom can be achieved. The response, of course, to this heresy is the famous chants of "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength."

It's said that in Moscow during the 1930's there were electric signs scattered around the city with the motto: "2 + 2 = 5" which made sense to Soviet citizens, though outsiders might be perplexed, and someone like Orwell might use reports of such things to come up with his notions of NewSpeak. But when you understand that the signs were exhortations to the people to complete the objectives of the Five Year Plan in four years, you can easily see where the apparent false arithmetic comes from, and suddenly it isn't NewSpeak at all and it isn't even false. At least not in that case.

Not that there weren't plenty of examples of the twisting of language for political objectives, and not just in the Soviet Union or Mussolini's Italy or in Nazi Germany. The practice was nigh [o]unto universal.

And given the consistency of our own Storm Troopers to lie or distort everything that happens with the full complicity of the embedded American media, it's a practice that continues unabated.

Orwell's "IngSoc," English Socialism, was largely based on a very jaundiced view of Stalinist totalitarianism. Since English Socialism as practiced by the Labour Party (which was in power when Orwell wrote 1984) was never even remotely like Stalinist totalitarianism, and in fact no European Socialist party was even remotely like Stalinism, and Orwell himself was a strong believer in Democratic Socialism, the idea that Orwell was somehow indicating his opposition to Socialism and his fondness for rightist Libertarianism in his works is just absurd.

He is against totalitarianism. He is for Democratic Socialism. In his own words:

"The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it." -- from "Why I Write," 1946

It literally cannot be said more clearly and directly than that, yet for generations now, certain right wing and libertarian "thinkers" have distorted his anti-totalitarianism into some crackpot version of right wing hooliganism.

Greenwald is forever whining that his arguments are misconstrued and his plain statements are consistently misunderstood. And yet here's a case where a prominent 20th Century writer's plain words and concepts are still being shot down the Memory Hole -- or are being twisted and re-worked by historical revisionists, modern day MiniTrue drones and hacks -- to fit a preconception of what Orwell "meant."

That it would be done during the McCarthy Era is one thing; that it is still being done is truly grotesque.


  1. An interesting read.

    Your personal animus against Glenn still puzzles me*, though thankfully you wasted only a paragraph grinding that axe.

    "Libertarianism" encompasses a spectrum of ideological thought that defies its pairing with "right-wing hooliganism", LaRouche et al. notwithstanding.

    Your understandable exasperation with and contempt for a wide swath of that spectrum does not at all negate the weakening effect such conflation has upon your arguments — and I say that as someone who agrees with the lion's share of opinions you've expressed in these Orwell pieces (FWIW).

    (That said, it pales in comparison to the equivalent thought-sabotage of "Socialism" so ubiquitous in (what I still shiver to recognize as) mainstream America — or even in comparison to its more marginal equivalent, purveyed by doctrinaire capital-L Libertarians.)

    * As do the significant minority of his comments that are plainly no more than shrill** knee-jerk denunciations of those who disagree with him.

    ** Literally, not ironically à la UT's convention.


    (I've just now read your and Cuchulain's discussion — nominally responding to my comments — on your first Orwell post. I hope to have a response to that sometime this evening, if I'm not distracted by other things. Either way, just wanted you to know I did read and consider both of your comments..... even a solitary and utterly uninfluential audience is better than none, yeah?)

  2. The pedant speaks:

    "[N]igh onto universal" should be unto. That is all.

  3. Arren,

    Pedantry has its place.

    Since we operate without editors in this sphere, it's up to readers (if any) to spot and highlight errors. Or, contrariwise, just let them pass -- as is generally the case with Digby's posts.

    But I digress.

    Just a note: there is no personal animus against Glenn in my posts that reference him. I sometimes have strenuous disagreements with positions he takes or outrageous statements he's made or his level of what I consider ignorance and arrogance, but my tweaking him over these and other things is akin to his tweaking other members of the media for their outrages and failings. Glenn is a member of the media, and he leaves himself open to this sort of thing, as far as I know, deliberately. He's learning new skills and trying to become better at what he does. It's all good.

    On to other things. Libertarians like to say there is a spectrum of ideological thought within Libertarianism, but I disagree. The core ideology is very simple and straightforward: "I demand the Liberty to impose my Authority on you." That is the essence of Libertarian ideology.

    It's all about the imposition of private authority without the mediation of Government. Oh, but with the enforcement of Government.

    This is one of the ways chattel slavery was maintained as long as it was. It's how a tiny class of capitalists were able to maintain near absolute dominance of the masses for so long, and a mechanism by which they are trying to restore that complete dominance. It's how imperialism and colonialism came to dominate the 19th Century. The Libertarian may say he doesn't personally advocate or favor these things, but the result of the "liberation" they seek is the effective oppression -- to the point of enslavement and extermination -- of the weakest of the masses and the exploitation of everyone else.

    That's what happens in Libertaria.

    And it relates to Orwell. I'll quote a long paragraph from Lawrence Malkin:

    What the Orwell cultists cannot take is his description of the most pervasive development of postwar political thought: the bankruptcy of liberal rationalism. Most of us have been raised on the comforting meliorist belief that if only the weight of human institutions were more equitably distributed, man will at last behave decently and rationally. We may disagree... on where the balance of equity lies. But we will still believe that ideas will make a more perfect society. Orwell says that this simply is not true, or at the very best it is not possible. We have been schooled to believe that the best defense against totalitarian invasions of the human spirit must be centered around rationally perfectible institutions. Orwell maintains they are no defense. He warns that the rationalist spirit of progress represents in fact the first step toward the very thing it aims to prevent, because it means giving me the power to enforce my ideas on you.-- Malkin, "Halfway to 1984," Horizon, Spring 1970.

    The failure of "liberal rationalism," perfection by ideas, progress itself.

    And Orwell's counter to that failure? Democratic Socialism.

    It is all well worth further exploration...

  4. is generally the case with Digby's posts.

    Elicited a chuckle.

    I take your point about your tone regarding Glenn, using hyperbole as a "taste of his own medicine" approach. IMHO, though, he doesn't seem to be too receptive to it (based on some of his recent responses to you) — maybe, though, that's just his lawyerly saving-face win-the-argument first-reaction..... regardless, enough about that.

    As for the libertarian spectrum: well believe it or not, I'm not a libertarian, and I still think it's obvious that your usage is an over-simplification. In fact, even your central premise itself in this matter is dubious — does all libertarianism really share a "core ideology"?

    All of us whose views exist within the Left spectrum loathe the extremist "drown gov't in the bathtub" school of right-libertarianism*. However, I argue that philosophically, the libertarian spectrum is better understood as coexistent with the Left-Right dichotomy.

    Let's start with Wikipedia:
    Left-libertarianism is rooted in nineteenth century socialism. Left-libertarians believe in protecting the freedom of action of individuals from interference by state or other actors but are against unfettered individual ownership of natural resources and the means of production.

    Doesn't this neatly encompass the healthy individualism of reproductive & marital rights, etc. that (I hope) we agree are unironic examples of "liberty and freedom"? And doesn't it defy your categorical definition of "private authority without mediation of Gov't"? (Not to mention that the "enforcement of Government" is in reality a feature of all societal constructs with the iffy exception of anarchism?)

    (Hopefully you realize that I'm not so obtuse as to claim Wikipedia as any sort of Final Authority. I do, unlike some, find it to be an excellent starting point for research or debate of a given subject. If you consider the above in error, I'll gladly investigate any other sources you cite that contradict the above.)

    This is one of the ways chattel slavery was maintained as long as it was. It's how a tiny class of capitalists were able to maintain near absolute dominance of the masses for so long, and a mechanism by which they are trying to restore that complete dominance.

    Hmm. Randians, subscribers to the Great Man theory of history, Social "Darwinists" and the like are nearly universally owner-class actors (or their toadies/hagiographers), sure. But the problems of power and capitalism, of empire and subjugation in the wake of industrialization seem to me endemic to those institutions, not to some exaggerated definition of Libertarianism, distended by your reach to vilify it as the Root Cause of modernity's ills.

    ...but the result of the "liberation" they seek is the effective oppression...

    Is it really so binary? In a world redolent with plurality, what is it about libertarianism that makes it so uniquely suited for such a monolithically facile dismissal? "Libertaria" strongly implies a utopianist all-encompassing Libertarianism**; what is it about those of us who find some value and validity in exploring the conflict between centralized societal structures and autonomy, which justifies tarring us all with that broad brush?

  5. With regard to the Malkin quote: I quibble with the semantics. Again, in the seeming rush to dismiss wholesale all aspects of post-Enlightenment thought (apparently in a kind of macrocosm of guilt-by-association vis-à-vis the domineering European power centers that arose concomitant with the Enlightenment), the qualities properly denoted by "positivism" are speciously imputed to "Rationalism" instead. Sloppy thinking, one might even say. You can damn us all based on Leo Strauss' "reviv[al] of Classical Political Rationalism" (Wikipedia's phrasing), if you so choose, of course.

    It is, indeed, all worth further exploration. I appreciate you taking the time to discuss this stuff with me.

    * You used this term in discussing the false claim that school laid upon Orwell in the fifties. If all libertarianism were so intractably bound to this "core ideology", why would the hyphenated term "right-libertarian" even need to exist?

    ** A delusion that I'll gladly join you in deriding, in and of itself. (cf. Sinnard at UT.)

  6. Arren,

    I appreciate the time you've taken to make your points; this format can be exasperating because of the time it takes to pull something together sufficiently to post.

    And to your points: I don't claim that "all" Libertarians adhere to my minimal characterization of Libertarian ideology. Since I don't know them all, I can't make that claim. And sometimes in argument with Libertarians it does boil down to something as silly as, "You don't know us ALL! You can't say that!" To me, that's one of many diversionary tricks engaged in by puerile Libertarian hooligans, and I find that type of thing everywhere the topic of "Libertarian ideology" arises. (Man, I feel like an old crank telling the kids to get off my lawn after that statement!)

    As I've pointed out previously, the United States had an episode of pretty nearly ideal Libertarianism -- between about 1800 and 1850. We can study the results. It wasn't pretty. In fact, it was harsh and deadly on the majority and maddening on nearly everyone else. By law and custom. The result of the libertarianism of the early years of the United States was massive disparities in well-being, oppression, wars of aggression, expansionism, genocide, and ultimately civil war. That's what happened.

    No sane person wants to go back to that sort of "liberation."

    Now of course we can argue that the principles of government during that period wasn't "real" Libertarianism, but then we fall into the problem of determining what "real" Libertarianism is -- as opposed to the ever-present ersatz.

    If every individual Libertarian sets his own personal/private standards, and there is no common or core ideology, then what is Libertarianism? Individuals acting independently and free of governmental constraints? To what object?

    Any time someone tries to pin down a clearly stated Libertarian "core", the habit of the tribe is to slither away, throw up clouds of diversions, and giggle at the foolishness of those who would try to encage them ideologically.

    Oh well.

    As for "left-libertarianism," I hear the term bruited about from time to time and yet I never see any evidence of it among Libertarians. 90-99% of Libertarians who appear in public are rightists with an attitude. The handful of self-described "left-libertarians" are rightists with an attitude who will allow as how some forms of social assistance and mutual aid are sometimes necessary and personal autonomy does include decisions regarding the contents of a woman's womb.

    As for "left-libertarians" who advocate socialism or socialist solutions to common social problems, I haven't seen any evidence of them at all outside academia. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but I suspect they don't present as "libertarians," they present as "socialists." Which is to me intellectually honest.

    Malkin calls Orwell a "libertarian socialist" -- which is dissonant to say the least. Orwell called himself a "Democratic Socialist." Which makes sense.

    Where we can easily run into difficulty with Malkin is in the definition of terms. For example, when he refers to the failure of "liberal rationalism", what's he talking about? Just so with "libertarian socialism." What does he mean?

    Is he saying the Enlightenment is a failure? Is he saying Orwell thought that? And in what way is Orwell's clearly stated advocacy of Democratic Socialism related to Malkin's "libertarian socialism?"

    This will take another post, but I hope to get into some of this a little more thoroughly in the conclusion of this series on Orwell.

    I hope you can stick with it, and by all means offer your critique and objections as you see fit.