Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell

I haven't read Animal Farm or 1984 since high school, and I first encountered George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" in college. It was a long time ago.

I've only recently re-read "Notes on Nationalism" due to the embroglio over at Glenn's Place on the issue of "tribalism" -- which Glenn and others seem to believe is the same as Orwell's description of Nationalism. Which I dispute. Vigorously.

In fact, when I was in college, "Notes on Nationalism" was a powerful document that justified in my mind -- and the minds of many of my peers -- our fierce anti-war, anti-draft, anti-military, anti-authority and anti-establishment rage. After all, we were not like those who were so succeptible to the nationalist manipulations that underpinned the rulers who made the wars that destroyed the people at home and abroad.

Not us. We were better than that.

And at the time, I am reminded, I was a fierce individualist as well, for a time rebelling against practically everything and everyone, occasionally making more than a spectacle of my ostensibly independent self.

I think "notorious" is probably the correct word to describe my behavior in those days.

"Outrageous!" according to the straights and the fuddy-duddies.

"Provocative," I was deemed more than once.

"Hilarious!" from time to time.

"Get a job! Idiot!" well, there alway has to be a nay-sayer.

But that was then. Now, things are much calmer, quieter, far more conservative -- at least in the way I live my life. I never ceased fighting the straightjacket of middle class and Middle American expectations though, and I never entirely fit in to any large institutional environment, though I've been employed by or associated with -- or fought -- many of them.

When I read Orwell back in the day, and when I do now, I saw and see echoes of my own beliefs and perspectives. "How did he know?" Of course, he didn't. He was his own man who saw things the way he did, shared it as well as he could.

He's called a Socialist Libertarian, and which aspect of his politics you glom on to depends on your own special needs and desires. The combination of the two, however, is dissonant.

Socialism has taken a bad rap during the last generation, and it is widely considered the equivalent of Stalinism. On the other hand, libertarianism remains the same puerile nonsense and self-indulgence it's always been, but many, many libertarian economic and social ideals have become standard practice (while others, such as liberalized drug laws, have not.)

But Orwell's libertarianism was not the puerile nonsense that is bruited about today. It was, simply, personal liberty from overweening state control. Not license or self-indulgence, but privacy and autonomy. In other words, freedom to withdraw from the sociopolitical systems and be left alone.

That's quite a different thing than the common libertarian approach of constantly trying to impose one's own self-obsession on everyone else. As I have often put it, and will do so again, the Libertarian Motto is: "I demand the Liberty to impose My Authority on You."

The freedom to withdraw and be left alone that Orwell valued is nothing like that.

And the fact that he also admired Socialist values of common interest, purpose, and service -- just not the forced imposition of them -- is often ignored in the hagiographies of the libertarian cultists who see him as an accurate Foreshadower of the Future, and thus a Great Man. And a Libertarian.

So what I will try to do in future posts is explore some of the aspects of Orwell that have become distorted, explore some of his Future Vision, and I'll try to explore alternatives.


  1. I look forward to reading your further reflections on this.


    What prompted my coming around was ScuzzaMan saying this at UT: "Cultists"?!?!?! I've lived most of my life amongst cultists and I find your use of the term offensive ..."

    I found myself reminded of your defense of tribalism, which had at first struck me as sour grapes on your part (personal acrimony toward Glenn)..... upon reflection*, I was wrong: your point about using "tribalism" as a slur is valid: and although I don't believe there's any racism in Glenn's application of "tribalism", I'd also concede that there is a vestigial, likely subliminal racism in choosing that word to be shorthand for groupthink.

    And let me be clear: I see that same sorry vestige in my own preconceived notions of "tribalism". Although I've never consciously ascribed any of the odious aspects of blind loyalty to actual tribal constructs, I own up to lazy thinking insofar as sloppily sullying a term with real-world denotations that should be respected.

    When I saw Scuzza's comment today, to my surprise its mockery evoked real annoyance on my part. In equating a "cult" with a "tribe", he's upped the ante on the disrespect..... and for what little it's worth, you've changed one insignificant white boy's view on these semantics to the extent that I felt the need to come here and waste your time with my rambling.

    :) You're welcome.

    * Surprisingly, the comparison with Pedinska's continual — and uncontested — war against using female anatomical names as slurs was illuminating. (I agree with her, too.)


    That's quite a different thing than the common libertarian approach of constantly trying to impose one's own self-obsession on everyone else. As I have often put it, and will do so again, the Libertarian Motto is: "I demand the Liberty to impose My Authority on You."

    I think you can do better than this ungainly strawman. I'm no libertarian (though less contemptuous of them than you seem to be), but the above doesn't seem accurate — unless you're just talking about Saint-Dr. Paul vis-à-vis reproductive rights?

  2. Arren,

    I'll try to clarify that "Libertarian Motto" bit in further reflections on Orwell. There is a relationship/parallel. And get more into tribalism as it relatesto Orwell's thoughts -- and modern living.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    As for Scuzza, he can be exasperating, and a tease, and he can offer excellent analysis and understanding. I'll have to go check the comment you refer to...



  3. ...he can offer excellent analysis and understanding.

    Agree wholeheartedly — I rarely skip his comments despite the fact that I most often disagree with him.

  4. Arren,

    From my perspective, they want to impose their authority in many ways, and they have a wonderful rhetorical weapon to do so, which is quite similar to a "patriotism" trope.

    "Liberty" and "freedom".

    By couching the reduction of government social services (along with humanitarian aid across the globe) in the language of freedom and liberty, they can confuse countless issues and distort the dialogue.

    "Who, me? We're not authoritarians. You guys who want bigger government are!!"

    Thing is, if you impose the reduction of social services on your fellow countrymen and women, you are taking something away from them.

    That's the part that generally gets overlooked because of the positive/negative rights split. They would say, "How are we taking anything away from you? We're offering you freedom."

    No. The poor, the sick, the hungry, students, the elderly, the jobless, the homeless, the low-income, the working poor benefit from good social programs. They gain, often substantially, from good social services. Many depend upon them to get a decent start in life and live out the end of their lives in some semblance of dignity.

    Libertarianism takes that away. Depending upon the level of purity and adherence to dogma, all or in part. Their so-called "freedom" and "liberty" comes at deep costs to others. It's an imposition, an authoritarian imposition, of their vision on others and it costs others tremendously.

    In short, there is no "free lunch" when it comes to "freedom" and "liberty." One person's freedom and liberty means another person's loss of "rights", services, income, opportunities, health care, etc. etc.

    And all of that's really just the tip of the iceberg. That doesn't even account for the massive damage done to us by removing even our minimal restraints on business interests/capitalists/capital, etc. Economic tyranny actually kills millions of people a year, damages the environment to an incredible degree and creates massive levels of inequality throughout the world. Libertarianism would increase the levels of inequality and environmental degradation, which in turn would kill more and shorten more lives and put more people at risk. And they wouldn't have the social services to help them get back up off their feet when cataclysms hit. They'll be paying Blackwater for "help."

    "Freedom and liberty" for some comes at a huge cost for the vast majority. The more we privatize, the more we go in the direction of libertarianism and conservatism, the more the vast majority of people on this globe will suffer.

  5. Cu-hool,

    You said it better than I could. The notion that Libertarianism is really about freedom and liberty in a general sense -- and not about another way to impose Authority -- is one of the more pernicious and destructive ideas kicking around.

    In the context of Orwell, it gets complicated. This complexity is in the dissonance of the "Socialist Libertarian" ideal, something Americans especially seem incapable of addressing let alone accepting.

    What is a "Left Libertarian," after all, and what does that have to do with the so-called Progressivism rampant in the "lefty" blogosphere?

    Markos attempted to explain it some years ago:

    To me, his effort fails because it is a garbled mish mash as so much of his writing is, but at least he made the attempt; so many in the "lefty" blogosphere don't say anything or they play games with the political philosophies and ideologies they profess.

    What the propertarians and libertarian cultists want is the "liberty" to impose private authority without the hindrance of a nasty old government that may be acting on something called the Public Interest as expressed by the People. They want to make that impossible; thus, their goal is as strict a tyranny as any Stalinist.

    At least a Stalinist will admit to wanting tyranny. A propertarian/libertarian will lie about it to the grave.

  6. Interesting take by Kos.

    He gets part of it right, IMO. I don't think "government is the answer" always, either. I want a people's socialism, one that is centered on personal autonomy. And to get that, to defend and protect it, we need collective action. To defend and protect our access to the beauty of the land, to our cultural and natural resources, to the fruits of our civilization, we need collective action. If we leave it up to the rich and powerful, they will and have cut many of us out of the picture. The Pete Petersons of the world would cut out the majority, if they could.

    A lot of people have been brainwashed for so long, they think socialism is incompatible with personal autonomy and freedom. But it's actually a natural fit, if it rests always in the democratic.

    In this case, if done correctly, the government and business interests respect personal autonomy, dignity and liberty. There is a true social contract in place that results in an improvement of quality of life through enhanced access to education, health care, virtual and physical infrastructure, cultural resources, etc. etc for the largest possible number, from birth to death. The government of the people makes sure business interests toe the line when it comes to safe, sustainable, fair, just and equitable activity. Ideally, everyone thinks of themselves as a part of the same tribe. Yep. Tribe. :>) And the government, business and all other sectors are parts of that same tribe. We all are. And everyone unites to create common goals and plans and then works to implement those on behalf of the tribe. The we the people tribe. Reciprocity, synchronicity, photosynthesis. Karma.

    And this is key: business interests are not privileged in this society. They are a part of the whole. Not greater than any other part.

    Individuals have control over their own bodies, and government and the business world stay the hell out of our homes. As long as individuals do not impose on the rights, liberties, health and safety of other citizens, they are free to do as they choose. Everyone is free to seek their own bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, and to pursue their own dreams. They have limitless latitude when it comes to that, unless they impinge on the liberties, health and safety of others in the tribe.

    The beautiful potential of this system is that through time, the increased security of everyone in the tribe will produce less and less conflict over scarce resources, and more and more natural cooperation. Eventually, this will be second nature. When that happens, government will be able to withdraw from those areas it once had to prod and push. It could actually shrink in size. I don't agree with Marx or Lenin about the eventual withering away of the State, but I think downsizing it in real terms is quite possible over time. It should be done, however, with great forethought and long-term planning, to avoid any need to reimpose its authority. That re-imposition could very well destroy the work of decades previous to that point, and cast doubt on the entire project. Any formation of a new "ruling class" would also ruin the project. This must always remain a participatory democracy.

  7. Orwell could not have made his position any clearer than he did in "Why I Write" linked in the post above.

    He said, as straightforwardly as possible:

    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.

    That should settle it, but it does not. There will still be those who insist that Orwell was some sort of rightist or rightist-libertarian, as he was wrongly characterized in the 1950s and later.