Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Appeals to Orwell -- The Wrap Up and a New Day Dawning


Lawrence Malkin is a hard boiled writer and reporter from the old school. When he wrote "Half Way to 1984" for Horizon magazine in 1970, he was contributing to an issue devoted to the counterculture developing in this country and to countercultural visions from history.

One of them, of course, was George Orwell's dystopian vision of 1984.

The threat of totalitarianism was still very real to people at that time; the Soviet Union was resurgent, Red China was starting to finish up its Cultural Revolutionary phase which had sent shock waves through leftist/Maoist communities, and memories of the Nazis were still raw for many who had lived through World War II.

In Nineteen Eighty Four Orwell was postulating a fantastic totalitarian near future in Britain and through his allegory described much of what was wrong with totalitarianism.

Malkin used his opportunity with Horizon not just to explore Orwell's themes and visions in Nineteen Eighty Four but to probe Orwell's life and letters, and to dig as deep as he could into Orwell's actual political philosophy.

By 1970, it was clear, despite indulgence and mockery, that the Counterculture was real; rebellious youth was not just rebelling but was literally leaving the socio-political construct of their parents and grandparents world, forming distinctive new communities and developing alternative ways of living in the not-so material world.

We forget what was being rebelled against. The 1950s and early '60s was an age of rigid conformity, and sometimes draconian punishment for getting out of line. It was a time of McCarthyite anti-Communism, of loyalty oaths, of suburban homogeneity, of very narrow and directed political paths. The class structure seemed to be rooted in permanence. Though most Americans had a reasonably comfortable living standard, there were many pockets of intractable poverty, race-hatred, and oppression. The American Dream was not fulfillable for many millions, and for the rest, their status was practically immutable. Barring the unforseen, the upper classes would remain so, the working classes likewise, and the middle class of professionals would stay in their place as well.

In that context Nineteen Eighty Four might have seemed an allegory to some, but to many others, especially among the young, it was living truth. Our society was already a totalitarian nightmare. We didn't have to wait. It was here.

Yes, there were other totalitarian nightmare societies on the face of the earth, and they might or might not be "worse" -- we didn't know and we couldn't know. The only information we had about the Soviet Union or Red China, for example, was the propaganda we were fed by the media and our various Ministries of Truth. Travel was forbidden except under very strictly controlled circumstances which no one could meet.

Propaganda from the other side circulated essentially underground, and it was clearly as fraudulent as anything on our side. Lies about our "enemies" were constant, as was the fear of what we might do if we learned the truth.

Of course there was a military draft throughout the era and that enabled the conduct of various wars, such as the bloody nightmare on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam engagement which commenced almost immediately after hostilities in Korea came to a close. There were many anti-colonial resistance movements in the disintegrating empires of the European powers, and almost always, the United States backed the Imperial powers against the Natives. Vietnam, for example, became an American enterprise when the French were finally expelled from their colonies in Southeast Asia, but the United States had already been involved on behalf of the French.

Africa was seething with anti-colonial movements, and the position of the United States was that most of it was due to Communist agitation. Nevertheless, the colonial powers mostly gave up their overseas possessions by the early 1960s, leaving their former subjects to sink or to swim.

And then there was rebellion at home, rebellion that could not be put down. It was hell out there.

This was the context of Lawrence Malkin's piece about Orwell in Horizon in 1970. It's important to keep that context in mind as we try to make sense of what he had to say in his hard boiled journalist style.

The principle was that 1984 wasn't the Future, it was the Present which was being rebelled against.

And Orwell was an Honored Elder (now deceased) of the Rebels.

Very difficult concepts to understand now, when clearly the State is so much more oppressive today than it ever was back then. Isn't it?

In certain details, yes. But on an overall objective scale? Not at all. Not even close. "Liberation" has become the standard in the decades since the Counterculture rebellion of the 1960's and 1970's. "Liberation" is taken for granted, so much so that resistance to such things as Marriage Equality -- a concept that hardly existed in the early years of the Counterculture -- seems quaint and anachronistic.

Liberationist movements were countered by Communitarian and Utopian ideals that were being acted on extensively. What we may remember of the era are the Liberationist activists, but there was a whole other Counterculture momentum toward community and unification that is still around, while Liberationism has morphed into something barely recognizable -- for example, the Corporate Liberation Act passed by a one vote majority on the Supreme Court with its Citizens United ruling, or the continuing calls for the "liberation" of the financiers and the big oil companies from the onerous restraints of the Government, no matter what horrors ensue.

Malkin makes much of who Orwell was -- an Eton schoolboy, a British Imperial functionary in Burma, an intellectual and a writer of essays and novels of various things, a propagandist for the BBC, a disillusioned polemicist. He was neither British Upper Class nor Lower Class, nor really was he integrated into the British Middle Class. He was an outlier, and as an outlier, he noticed things that others, socialized to their place and lot in life, did not. (Malkin doesn't point out that Orwell -- Eric Blair -- was born in India, that his mother was French, though she had been raised in Burma, and that he spent a good deal of time in the 1930's in France and Europe rather than in Britain).

Malkin's thesis is that Orwell is anti-Utopian. Given the Utopian countercultures that are the theme of the volume, Malkin is proposing that Orwell dissents from those who would use his works to foster Utopianism: the "Orwell Cultists."

And yet... Malkin also proposes that Orwell believed that there had been an abject failure of "liberal rationalism," and what he means, exactly, is not so easy to parse from his text. In some sense, "liberal rationalism" refers to the Enlightenment which -- though faltering in the face of growing absolutism -- can hardly be argued to have failed in the larger context. "Progressivism" -- in its old line guise, not that of today's internet "progressives" -- is often referred to as "liberal rationalism," as in technocracy, meritocracy, and rule by experts. That was in contrast to the corrupted crony capitalism and its purchased handmaiden "democracy" of the pre-Progressive Era. In Orwell's time that sort of "liberal rationalism" had not failed in the domestic context (it wouldn't do so for another generation or more), but the turmoil internationally from all the wars and revolutions occurring during the Progressive Era is certainly enough to give one pause.

More apropos of Malkin's point, however, is the Libertarian notion that through argument and rational consideration alone can appropriate actions and sensibilities be discovered. Malkin says that Orwell believed human nature did not allow the overly rational to dominate and completely control the emotional, and it was a Utopian belief to think that rationality could ever be successfully supreme.

In today's world, though not so much in Orwell's time, Libertarians assert the supremacy of rational argument in all things, and thus, they are today's "liberal rationality" Utopians.

There is no doubt that Orwell was not a believer in Utopia by any human agency. Yet Malkin refers to him as a "libertarian Socialist," which doesn't make any sense in today's context. What I think he meant was that Orwell was a Democratic Socialist, but the language to describe what that was didn't exist in American political discourse.

If anything, many Americans were more viscerally opposed to Socialism then than they are today.

Describing Orwell as a "libertarian Socialist" may seem dissonant, but the point was that Orwell saw the necessity of balancing personal autonomy and liberty with the needs of society, and he saw that balance being found in part through democratic processes -- which are not always rational.

Malkin quotes Orwell from a 1941 letter to H. G. Wells:

Sensible men have no power. The energy which actually shapes the world springs from emotions -- racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war -- which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action."

Malkin goes on to say:

Orwell's most important discovery was that the managers of our society [which at the time were almost all Progressives of the old school], far from being sensible men, share the irrational drives of their fellows, and these include power.


And in Orwell's conception, the rational idea cannot be made into effective rule.

Malkin again:

For Orwell [the allegory of Animal Farm and 1984] became the vehicle for explaining the major intellectual event of the first half of [the 20th] century, the failed Utopia -- in Russia and elsewhere. The raw material consists of the curiously dated sectarian quarrels of the left in the 1930's, which Orwell freezes forever in the brilliant amber of Homage to Catalonia. But the issue described there is still real: freedom vs. power.

And quoting Orwell again from "As I Please", 1943:

The real answer is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism.... The answer which ought to be uttered more loudly than it usually is, is that Socialism is not perfectionist, perhaps not even hedonistic. Socialists don't claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better. And any thinking Socialist will concede to the Catholic that when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of man’s place in the universe will still remain. But what the Socialist does claim is that that problem cannot be dealt with while the average human being’s preoccupations are necessarily economic. It is all summed up in Marx’s saying that after Socialism has arrived, human history can begin.

In June of 1949, shortly after the publication of 1984, Orwell's British publisher, Frederic Warburg, issued a memo -- which Orwell approved -- to settle some of the dust raised by the novel:

... Allowing for the book being, after all, parody, something like 1984 could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social, and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation. Specifically, the danger lies in the structure imposed on Socialist and Liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of which of course the atomic bomb is the most powerful and the most publicized. But the danger lies also in the acceptance of the totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colors. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: "Don't let it happen to you. It depends on you."

What a strangely and disturbingly prescient statement. But there is more:

The superstates will naturally be in opposition to each other or (a novel point) will pretend to be much more in opposition than they in fact are....

And so it goes.

Malkin asserts that Britain and Europe have escaped the bogey man of 1984 -- which may have been true enough in 1970, but it is hardly the case today -- but he claims that (even in 1970) the bogey man threat of 1984 "has roosted like a vulture in a tree, most firmly in the American consciousness." Even in 1970, he said, Orwell's dystopian vision was already coming true in the United States. Think how much farther along that path we are today.

As Malkin sums up:

It simply will not do to try to turn Orwell into a prophet of anti-Communism or some kind of New Conservatism. He simply refuses to get into bed with the left or the right, or any programmatic apostle. Just before leaving Spain in 1937 he wrote to Cyril Connolly:
I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism which I never did before."

If his words mean anything, Orwell remained a socialist to his death. But to him, socialism was not a programmatic ideology of social and economic change. It dwelt more deeply in the transcendent values of justice, liberty, equality, and the community of feeling (the brotherhood perverted into Big Brother) in which material values play their role alongside human ones. Its primary motives are neither rational nor public. Life is held together by family, community and the shared values that constitute culture. For the rest of his life, Orwell stressed the human and individual quality of this type of socialism.

And that to me is a nearly perfect definition of the "tribalism" that Libertarians and Glenn Greenwald have been so quick to mindlessly slur and denounce.


  1. Well done, Ché.

    Excellent series of essays.

  2. I left the above comment. Fat-fingered the tab.


    A suggestion. Weave this into a book. Orwell is a fantastic subject, and/or pivot point for all kinds of things. I think you could bring something to this that does not fit the norm. And we can all use more of that.

    Again, well done.

  3. Thanks for the kind words.

    Orwell is a fascinating character, to be sure. He could see and say the kinds of things he did when he did because he stayed "outside" the gates, refusing to succumb to the conventional wisdom...

    He was forever countering the liberal intellectual complacency of his era. Which does not make him a libertarian or conservative hero. Nevertheless, that's what too many people have tried to make him into.

    I like the notion of his being a "pivot point" for further consideration. Unfortunately, I feel something like a lawn sprinkler at this point. These essays are not at all disciplined -- to put it charitably.

    There is a deeper truth that Orwell was trying to get at, and Malkin essentially gives up on it, suggesting that what Orwell was really after is ineffable. May be.

    The key is in Malkin's summation:

    But to [Orwell] socialism was not a programmatic ideology of social and economic change. It dwelt more deeply in the transcendent values of justice, liberty, equality, and the community of feeling ... Its primary motives are neither rational nor public. Life is held together by family, community and the shared values that constitute culture.

    He may have got some things wrong, but I think he got that very right indeed.

  4. The key is to use Democratic Socialism as a means to an end. As Malkin says, Orwell got that. A more egalitarian world. If it becomes an end in itself, troubles arise. Perhaps there's a better word for it, one without the ism. Not sure.

    The goal, IMO, needs to be moving ever closer to an egalitarian world, using sustainable methods across the board, so we can leave a habitable world to the future. Each generation doing this. Hopefully, a progression from less equal to more equal, less healthy to healthier, less justice to more justice and so on.

    I've never believed in the inevitability of progress. I think a belief in that is dangerous. But I do think it's possible and logical. It's like studying literary history. Scholars today have an advantage in many ways over scholars in the past. There is an accumulation of data, interpretation, analysis, insight and revelation to draw upon. Oftentimes, there is greater access to once hidden works. We can build on the past and add to it, etc. etc.

    Of course, accumulations can work against the good as well. Obviously. Technological innovations can put people out of work, for instance, and can separate us more and more from Nature. William Barrett talks about how the Greeks were the first people to separate objects from their context in order to study them, hence science. But he says they were still connected with Nature in a spiritual sense, whereas Modern Man, especially after Descartes, is not.

    Gains and losses, etc.

    Perhaps the journey just requires constant scrutiny, close examination, and an open, critical mind. If we're always willing to reassess, then we should be able to progress. Like you, I believe humans will start living, really living, long after my lifetime, if they ever do.

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  6. Finally got back to these, Ché. Thanks for taking the time to write them — undisciplined they may be, but I found them fascinating nonetheless. (July was a bad month in which I had no capacity for real thought.)