Forget Orwell

by Sam Kriss


Monday of last week marked the first annual George Orwell Day, seeing Penguin’s rerelease of several of his books, mass giveaways of his essay Politics and the English Language, and the launch of an Orwell season on BBC radio. (Purely by coincidence, it was also ‘blue Monday’ – the day calculated by to be the most depressing of the year.) For a supposedly radical writer, Orwell fits very comfortably into the cultural mainstream. Certainly it’s easy to claim that Orwell’s been hijacked by the political Right – witness the countless chiding voices from the Left reminding those that hold up the Obama administration as a prophecy fulfilled or recommend Animal Farm as an education for naive socialists that Orwell was, in fact, actually, despite what you might think, incredible though it may seem, something of a leftie himself. Was he actually, though? Now that Orwell’s been thoroughly assimilated into the ideological state apparatuses, it’s time to ask if there’s really much left over. To be honest, there’s not a lot. Here’s why.

1: Nineteen Eight-Four misses the point entirely.

I’ll start with the big one. There are two main criticisms of the dystopian society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four: firstly, it’s impossible, and secondly, it already exists. These aren’t quite as contradictory as they appear.

The society in the novel is an absolute tyranny, a warning (not, as we’re continually reminded, a prediction) of the horrific consequences of absolute power and its ability to completely dominate both the individual human and the entire world. This Orwellian-Arendite dogma needs to be challenged. So-called ‘totalitarian’ societies are in fact defined not by their totalising discourses but by their utter failure to exert such a monopoly. Totalitarianism is a state of vulnerability: the paranoid totalitarian state continually affirms its own weakness. It is beset by saboteurs or contaminated with impure races; it is situated in opposition to a political Other with which it must maintain a constant dialogue (albeit one of repression); it depends, utterly and openly, on the support of the faithful masses. (Really, Arendite totalitarianism should be considered not as a social form but as a tactic.) The Orwellian society simultaneously projects an image of fragility (bombing its own citizens, inventing a political Other in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein) and an image of strength (orders are barked from screens, Big Brother is everywhere, sexuality is confined, reality itself is moulded to its rulers’ will).  Such a society wouldn’t last two minutes: in its crude parody of authoritarianism it could never admit that the source of its continuation lies in the faith of its populace, despite such an admission being absolutely essential for its operation.  This is why, for instance, present-day dictatorial societies are in general far more likely to yield to popular pressure on matters of policy. It’s precisely because such governments are not constrained by judicial, constitutional or electoral limits to their power that they have to listen very carefully to the voice of the street: if they ignore it too much, they lose all legitimacy. Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, already have their legitimacy in the ritual of the vote; they are entirely unbounded; they can ignore millions of marchers or break up protest camps with disproportionate force, and when challenged, they have an undeniable excuse: well, you voted for us.

This is where the impossibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets its pre-existence. We do, in fact, live in a society where discourse is totalised and panopticism is embedded in the structure of everyday life. Dictatorial societies must engage with their Other; in liberal society the political Other is pathological or an aberration, it can be rectified through the use of military violence but is never engaged with. A constrictive discourse of rights, freedoms, limitations, and above all of choices is maintained far more subtly than any Newspeak because the violence that underpins its operation is not an overt one. The panoptic gaze that fixes and individuates us is everywhere, but rather than watching for forbidden activity, it commands us to enjoy. When it comes to subsuming libidinal flows, the pornographic commodification of sexuality functions more efficiently than the Junior Anti-Sex League.

The root of the problem here is Orwell’s conception of power as something that is held and wielded by a group or individual. It’s not: power is a field, it’s decentred, something that can only be directed; that’s what makes it so pernicious. In the medieval period the field of power was fractal, with the feudal and family units replicating royal sovereignty; in this manner its structure was able to be continually reproduced. In liberal capitalism it is decentred; this is another defence mechanism. In the panopticon the exercise of power is both universally supervised and universal in its reach; there is no Big Brother, just everyone else. Improper attitudes aren’t punished, they’re medicalised; the patient turns herself in, there’s no need for rats, and the administrator of the cure can believe that she’s doing the right thing.

Displacing the panoptic and discourse-totalising elements of contemporary society onto an imagined ideal totalitarian state means that these aspects are relegated to the Outside of contemporary politics. It is precisely because of this that paranoiacs of all shades can see the incipient elements of a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style tyranny manifesting themselves in our society: totalitarianism is evident in security cameras, in government jargon, in detention without trial. The Orwellian society is one that we might move towards, it is not something that is already there. Not that these aren’t valid concerns, but they’re the accoutrements of totalitarianism, not its content. Our present society can’t exert despotic power, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us, not until the government starts rationing food and banning sex.

2: Animal Farm is pretty awful and Trotskyism isn’t much good either.

Admittedly, the most glaring problem with Animal Farm isn’t so much the text itself as the way it’s entered the literary canon. It’s a staple of the GCSE curriculum in the UK, and seems to be just as prevalent in America. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that it’s not presented as a historical document embodying a certain political attitude, but both as allegorical literature representing universal themes and as an accurate history of the Russian Revolution. It’s no such thing. Animal Farm is, avowedly and openly, a Trotskyite polemic, a political pamphlet.

The text has its own problems – the lack of a Lenin-figure, for instance, or any allegorical representation of the Civil War – but it’s this Trotskyism that lies at the root of its easy integration into the educational apparatuses of ideology. Trotskyism shouldn’t really be considered as a branch of Marxist thought in the proper sense. Rather, it’s a symptom. Trotskyism represents simultaneously the elevation of the October Revolution to a world-historical moment and the disavowal of every subsequent attempt at building socialism. Trotskyites like the idea of revolution – which is why they make every effort to turn 1917 into an abstract ideal – but they don’t much like any of its ‘perverted’ aftereffects. Trotskyism means keeping the revolution pure and unsullied by historical reality, turning it into a dinner party.

Trotsky himself is really incidental to all this. His actual deeds and policies are irrelevant; he’s only a master-signifier for anti-Stalinism. Needless to say, this is all profoundly anti-materialist: despite their attempts to effect a materialist analysis of Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism,’ the jargon really just disguises a complaint: ‘if my guy had won out, everything would have been so much better!’ – with the unspoken caveat that this can never be anything other than a conditional, that Trotsky represents nothing more than the guy who didn’t win out. As such Trotskyism raises the cult of personality to its apotheosis: it’s pure personality-cult, based on a ‘pure’ personality, defined entirely negatively, a personality that can gain universal relevance through avoiding any particular affirmation.

It should be remembered that after he consolidated his power, Stalin actually put most of Trotsky’s ‘far-left’ policies into practice, collectivising agriculture and focusing on the rapid development of heavy industry in the five-year plans. None of this is to say that the excesses of Stalinism should not be critiqued; the point is that the Trotskyite critique lacks any substantive foundation. Imagine a counterfactual: if Trotsky had won the Soviet power struggle, expelling Stalin and extending the violence of War Communism into peacetime, would present-day Trotskyites have affiliated themselves with his period in power? Of course not. They’d be calling themselves Stalinists.

You can see this in Homage to Catalonia: Barcelona under the Anarchists and the POUM is described as ‘real socialism,’ pure and unsullied. Why? Because they were crushed. Any successful socialist project is inherently untrustworthy; ‘real socialism’ is that which is crushed. This is why Animal Farm lends itself so easily to anti-Communist interpretation. The only pig-character not at fault – including Snowball, the Trotsky-surrogate – is Old Major, representing Karl Marx, who dies before the Revolution. While Napoleon demonstrates his evil by drinking the communal milk, his evil is on an axis with Snowball’s speechmaking and political organising; despite their internal differences the pigs are for the first few pages presented as a coherent bloc. Class divisions inhere; socialism is ultimately a quixotic endeavour. In other words, Trotsky himself is guilty of the Trotskyite original sin: he actualised revolutionary ideology.

3. Politics and the English Language is utterly repulsive.

Really it’s not the whole essay I want to take issue with, but this helpful list right near the end:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s a great line in Godard’s film La Chinoise: ‘We are not the ones using obscure language; it’s our society, which is hermetic and closed up in the poorest of languages possible.’ Orwell’s rules, more than those of anyone except perhaps Strunk and White, have impoverished the English language. They’ve become entrenched: creative writing programmes encourage their students to righteously purge their works of any adjectives or adverbs, contemporary literature has become a sullen grey plain of terse mediocrity. Why shouldn’t we use long words? Why shouldn’t we use more words than is strictly necessary? Why not enrich our works with language from around the world and throughout the span of human knowledge? Orwell has his answer: without poetic language it would be impossible for politicians to mislead people. Any cursory reading of the grimly matter-of-fact reportage that surrounds the ongoing drone war would be enough to bring that into question. Nonetheless, he has something of a point: it would be hard for a dictatorship to survive under his rules; the same goes for anything approaching literature. Orwell is not a great stylist. He communicates himself through language well enough, but to reduce the incredible power of language to its capacity to convey a series of statements – in the name of combating totalitarianism, no less – is to rob it of everything that makes it valuable. It’s barborous. And so, by Orwell’s sixth law, the others should be immediately discarded.

4. Time for a purge.

There’s plenty more to be said, I’ve barely scratched the surface. John Dolan has an excellent piece on Orwell’s racism, classism and anti-Catholicism. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he wrote a blacklist of ‘crypto-communists’ working in the media for the British Foreign Office, or that the dissemination of his books was encouraged by imperialist intelligence agencies. Above all, however, the problem with Orwell is not that he was a writer who collaborated with oppressive forces or held incorrect or prejudicial opinions – there have been plenty of those; some are very good – but the extent to which he’s wormed himself in to the general understanding. To understand totalitarianism, you must read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and end up with an entirely distorted view of what State power is and how it functions. As an introduction to Soviet history, we’re given Animal Farm, and a partisan screed is enshrined as a true historical fable. And, God knows why, but being a writer still means being held to the standard of Politics and the English Language, and the blandly awful fiction being produced today speaks for itself. It’s time to rid ourselves of this toxic influence – maybe only temporarily, so that afterwards we can go back to Orwell without the figure of Orwell weighing down on us. It’s interesting that this year’s Orwell Day was held not on the anniversary of the writers birth, but that of his death. Perhaps Orwell Day should mark the day that he can finally be laid to rest.