Orwell reconsidered

I’ve been reading a collection of George Orwell’s essays and it’s been a slightly disturbing experience. If you’re accustomed to thinking of Orwell as a remarkably prescient and perceptive writer with a knack for penetrating to the heart of the matter it can even be a shocking experience.

The truth is that Orwell did not have quite the brilliant mind that w’ve been led to believe. He was quite good at pointing out the fallacies in other people’s thinking but he was prone to making exactly the same mistakes himself. He points out that most people believe atrocity stories when the atrocities are allegedly carried out by people of whom they disapprove, and tend to disbelieve atrocity stories when those atrocities are alleged to have been committed by people of whom they approve. This is true and it’s very important. And then in the same essay he assures us that we should believe all the stories of Fascist atrocities in the Spanish Civil War because, after all, the Fascists are bad people. They’re people of whom Orwell disapproves.

Orwell had a knack for being wrong, or at least for being partly right but mostly wrong. He believed that the first year of the war had conclusively demonstrated the failure of capitalism. Britain could not hope to survive unless it adopted full-scale socialism. Without socialism Orwell was convinced that defeat was inevitable. He was of course partly correct. Britain (and the United States) did adopt a form of War Socialism, and it is quite likely that victory would have been impossible otherwise. What Orwell failed to anticipate was that once the war was won the ruling class would reinstate capitalism. He also failed to anticipate the way in which the working class would be bought off with the expansion of the welfare state which eliminated any desire on the part of the working class for the kind of full-scale socialism that Orwell craved.

Let’s be quite clear about this. For all his opposition to national socialism and Soviet communism Orwell was most certainly not a moderate leftist. He was a hardcore socialist. Orwell’s vision of the ideal future was pretty much full-on communism. On the other hand Orwell seemed to disapprove of all the established leftist groupings. He despised the Labour Party. He despised the English communists. He particularly loathed what he called the pansy left. He talks about a kind of democratic socialism which really is pure fantasy. The kind of socialism that Orwell wanted was never going to be brought about by the ballot box. Orwell’s beliefs were doubtless since but hopelessly unrealistic.

Orwell also suffered from a crippling case of colonial guilt. He had been, briefly, a colonial policeman in Burma. It was a career for which he was ludicrously unsuited and it turned him into a rabid but somewhat irrational anti-imperialist. He was convinced that Britain’s prosperity was based entirely on the exploitation of the huddled masses of India and Britain’s other colonial outposts.

All of this of course just shows that Orwell was human and was as much a prey to intellectual prejudices and emotional misjudgments as anyone else. His belief in socialism doesn’t bother me but it does seem to me that his ideas as to how it could be implemented were hopelessly naïve. His dislike of imperialism also doesn’t bother me although he does take it to an unrealistic extreme. The European colonial empires may have been a disastrous mistake but to see them as having not even the slightest positive element is I think going too far.

Orwell had a somewhat unique perspective. Intellectual circles in Britain in the 30s and 40s were fairly overwhelmingly dominated by leftism but Orwell was a kind of contrarian communist who managed to remain entirely independent of all the established leftist groupings. For this reason alone his essays are worth reading.

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victim hierarchies, orthodoxy and group-think

Dissidents often observe, with a mixture of horror and amusement, the ever-changing victim hierarchies of the cultural left. It used to be fairly simple when the number of victim groups was small. Blacks were pretty much at the top. Feminists and homosexuals disputed the number two spot.

Now there are countless victim groups, and even sub-groups. There are for example several warring factions within feminism and they hate each like poison.

But what’s really odd is that it is no longer possible to determine a person’s status as far as  the cultural left is concerned merely by adding up how many victim points they are entitled to. You can be a homosexual and still be Literally Hitler. Ask Milo Yiannopoulos. You can even be black and be Literally Hitler.

This should not be possible because the cultural left subscribes to identity politics as a matter of religious faith and therefore your identity should automatically determine your victimisation level and therefore your status (since it’s also a matter of faith that victimness is next to godliness).

While the modern cultural left seems on the surface to be pretty much the same as the cultural left that emerged during the 1970s there are actually some very major differences. They still whine about the same issues (racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, blah blah blah). But now they have real power. And that changes everything.

What determines your status in the modern cultural left is orthodoxy. That’s all that really matters. You can have a stack of victim points a mile high and it won’t do you any good if you’re suspected of heresy.

And, interestingly, orthodoxy is not really determined by ideological purity. In fact the cultural left has no coherent ideology. Orthodoxy is determined by conformity. To put it more brutally, orthodoxy is determined by obedience. It is not necessary to understand. It is only necessary to obey.

It’s pretty much like the Borg. What matters is the extent to which you have fully assimilated to the Borg. It’s also similar to the Borg in that it’s a kind of decentralised apparatus of repression. There’s a kind of constantly changing consensus on orthodoxy. There’s no Social Justice Pope whose authority is final and there’s no one Scriptural authority to which you can refer. Which makes for a particularly nasty but particularly effective form of repression. It’s not group-think imposed by higher authority as in Orwell’s 1984. It’s group-think that arises organically out of the very nature of the Borg.

Orwell vs Huxley

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

In a comment to my earlier post jvc expressed surprise that I thought Huxley’s Brave New World predicted out current situation more accurately than Orwell’s 1984. I can see where jvc is coming from. I probably should explain my view in more depth.

Obviously both Huxley and Orwell were remarkably prescient. Between the two of them they predicted the present state of society almost completely. Both authors missed things but what’s interesting is that the points that Huxley missed Orwell picked up n and the points that Orwell were covered by Huxley.

Huxley’s future was a world of unlimited material prosperity while Orwell foresaw grinding poverty and chronic shortages (Orwell was obviously very impressed by the low-level soul-destroying misery of rationing in post-war Britain). So far Huxley has been proved right, up to a point at least. Even as it has drifted slowly towards totalitarianism the West has maintained material living standards quite impressively. There are some caveats I should add. Huxley thought that technology would provide vast material prosperity and almost unlimited leisure. We haven’t really seen that unlimited leisure yet. And the prosperity we do have is maintained by credit and no-one really knows if that can be sustained in the long term.

And wealth is today very unevenly distributed, which Huxley didn’t predict. Orwell expected a tiny wealthy elite, the Inner Party, with everyone else living a fairly poverty-stricken existence. In the modern West there is certainly relative poverty and some actual poverty (which is increasing). But contrary to Orwell’s prediction there are a very large number people living in luxury. Rather than a tiny rich elite we have maybe half the country doing very nicely and half the country struggling. Whether that will end up being a stable situation remains to be seen.

Eric Blair AKA George Orwell (1903-1950)

Where I feel Orwell really got it wrong was his assumption that power in a totalitarianism would be exercised openly, that coercion would be overt and brutal and that the violence that sustained the system would be on open display. His famous vision of a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Huxley’s totalitarianism is essentially voluntary totalitarianism. In Brave New World the citizens welcome their oppression. They don’t want freedom. The very idea frightens them. They want to be told what to do. They have lots of material goodies and they can have sex in unlimited quantity and unlimited variety. Huxley realised that people would gladly give up all their political and legal freedoms in exchange for sexual freedom and consumer goods.

And that is exactly what has happened. The sad truth is that most people in the modern West do not care about all those freedoms that classical liberals used to get so excited about. Most modern westerners understand that democracy is a charade. They don’t care. They really don’t care. Which could of course suggest that the classical liberals had no understanding whatsoever of what makes people tick and that democracy never was particularly important anyway.

In Huxley’s future power is exercised in subtle ways. There might be an iron fist in the velvet glove but it is never seen and it is not needed. There is coercion certainly but mostly people are happy to conform.

And that is pretty much what we have today. It’s depressing but most people are happy to conform. As in Brave New World they drug themselves with sex and happy pills and they don’t even realise how empty their lives are. They don’t miss all the things we’ve lost over the pasty half century because they don’t know about those things. Millennials have never lived in a society in which you can say that you think. They can’t imagine it and if they try to imagine it it makes them cry. They have lots of nice shiny toys to play with and non-threatening movies and lots of porn and they have apps so they can have anonymous sex with total strangers. They can’t imagine anything better than that. And if you suggest to them that maybe there is something more to life that makes them cry as well.

We don’t have the complete despair of Orwell’s future. That despair only affects the tiny red-pilled minority. What we have society-wide is the blankness of Huxley’s vision. A bland empty face staring at us, forever.