Orwell: Uses and Abuses

George Orwell, one of the most revered, celebrated, ubiquitous, over-egged, over-parodied and overrated of all the twentieth century writers. Invoking Orwell in an online argument, as a friend pointed out, is the new ‘but what about Hitler?’. Painfully English, expensively educated and universally respected, Orwell has become a powerful signifier of Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics which has proved irresistible to commentators and politicians across the political spectrum. Orwell has become what is known in Laclau and Mouffe’s Discourse Theory as a ‘floating signifier’: an empty concept only given meaning when it is anchored by other ideological assumptions or ‘nodal points’. In other words, Orwell’s name conjures ideas of objectivity, anti-authoritarianism and sensible dissent. Invokers of Orwell can therefore claim these traits as their own and deny them to their political opponents. In an era of political flux and fluidity, when the technocratic liberal centre is beset by challengers on both sides, returning to Orwell appears to many as a return to sanity. From far-right to centre left, Orwell has been instrumentalized to bash the contemporary, transformational left for supposedly betraying its old values and endorsing authoritarianism, doctrinairism and ‘loony leftism’. Relatedly, Orwell is a shield used to hide behind for deserters of the left seeking to avoid the criticism of their old comrades. Perhaps after wading through the public discourse on Orwell and recognising his many, many faults (anti-feminism, homophobia, racism, his Orwellian ‘snitch list’of leftists he gave the Ministry of Information etc.), we can review whether there’s anything worth salvaging.

In the age of Trump, Orwell scholars are clamouring to make the writer relevant once again. Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia Nineteen-Eighty Four, it is said, provides a stark warning of what is now called the ‘post-truth era’. Orwell scholars, seizing their moment in the sun, put historical and literary accuracy aside and pressed home the comparisons between a totalitarian dystopia and Trump’s nascent administration. Commentators in the US followed suit, one in the Washington Post claimed Trump’s administration has meant America has gone ‘full Orwell’. A few flagrant lies were apparently enough to render our society Oceania under Ingsoc, allowing some of the most duplicitous politicians in history (Tony Blair etc.) off the hook. The public relations and advertising industry, which indeed influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, also get off scot free in this reading. Trump’s erstwhile opponent, Hillary Clinton couldn’t help but jump aboard. Her new book, What Happened, is an attempt to write the history of the election before anyone else can. ‘Attempting to define reality’, she writes, ‘is a core feature of authoritarianism’. Yet as Clinton well knows  —and Orwell emphasized— liberal democratic governments also seek to bend reality to their own material and ideological ends (see The Iraq War and, in Orwell’s time, The British Empire). She continued:

‘The goal [of Trumpian politics] is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts, who seek to guide public policy based on evidence…’

It’s harder to imagine a worse or more bizarre misreading of Orwell’s work than: ‘leaders, the press and experts should be trusted’. The implicit assumption of the ‘post-truth’ thesis is that Western politics was based entirely on truth before 2016. It goes without saying that this notion would be entirely foreign to Orwell.

Orwell the signifier has also been instrumentalized by Trump’s supporters on the far-right. Paul Joseph Watson, lips-tickle of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, online alt-right troll and general stain on humanity, tried to bash antifascism using the shield of Orwell. Watson perhaps forgot that Orwell joined a Marxist militia to fight the Franco-led fascists in the Spanish Civil War, a chapter in his life recounted in A Homage to Catalonia. In these memoirs, Orwell explains why he signed up to fight:

‘When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct.’

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Orwell fought with the POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) a Spanish Republican Marxist Militia  (Photo from GeorgeOrwell.org).

Attempting to somehow separate Orwell, the anti-fascist solider, from contemporary antifascist organizations required Watson to go down the route of fudging and misreading, selecting quotes from dodgy quote websites to dupe his Alt-Right YouTube fans. In insisting that Orwell would have defended the fascists right to free speech, Watson demonstrated he hadn’t read the passage in Orwell’s proposed preface to Animal Farm, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, where he explains his position on this:

‘Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure.’

Most reprehensibly, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi and KKK march — which resulted in the death of an anti-fascist counter-protestor, Heather Heyer — Watson denied that fascists were present at all. Perhaps he missed the hundreds of neo-Nazis who sought to terrorize the locals by chanting ‘blood and soil’ (a well-known Nazi slogan) on their nightime, torch-lit march.

The frame of George Orwell was also used in left of centre think pieces to mock and derail Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Left in general. Pseudo-woke Telegraph writer Michael Deacon mocked Jeremy Corbyn for being ‘bearded’, ‘vegetarian’ and the type of socialist that Orwell claimed drove the working-class away from socialism. This was of course a selective reading of Orwell but also Orwell at his most wrongheaded. There are far better reasons why the 20th century working class did not opt for socialism: class consciousness, ideology, the public relation industry, nationalism, socialism being bought off by social democracy and the failure of Soviet Communism etc.. While it would be spiteful to mention, Corbyn did best amongst those who were the most deprived at the recent general election, making Deacon look petty and smug. Others suggested that Corbyn was a crusty, old crank who is stuck in the past. That is, he is too much like Orwell. As the Labour Party develops policy on alternative models of ownership and automation, while continuing to garner the support of young people, the centre-left Orwell fans look to be wrong again.

Those of the same centre-left ilk have also misread Orwell in order to weaponise him for their anti-socialist agenda. Socialist revolution, for Blairite Robert Webb (Jeremy from the Peep Show):

‘… ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.’

Of course, Orwell never said this, he repeatedly emphasized his commitment to anti-capitalism. Indeed, part of the reason he went to Barcelona to fight fascism was to defend the 1936 socialist revolution. Plus, Animal Farm is as much pro-Trotsky as it is anti-Stalin: Trotsky’s ideas are presented as progressive and innovative through the character of Snowball and the metaphor of the windmill. ‘Read some Effing Orwell’ has since become the catchphrase of Twitter sensation Simon Hedges, the parodied embodiment of the Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics that Orwell’s name so often evokes. It communicates a basic premise, ‘stop asking for so much’, ‘things are basically okay the way they are’. This belies the radical germ embedded in Orwell’s work and life. Orwell explained he joined the Independent Labour Party because he was committed to abolishing capitalism: socialism to him meant more than setting up Sure Start centres. The summoning of Orwell to bash the ‘loony left’ who ask for too much change is therefore obnoxious and ludicrous.

Relatedly, Orwell has been used as a shield to hide behind for those who have deserted their leftist comrades. Despite years of being a pivotal figure on the anti-war, anti-imperialist left, Christopher Hitchens supported the War on Terror and drew on Orwell in support of his decision. It was only after supporting the Iraq war and deserting comrades in the field, like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, that he wrote about Why Orwell Matters. Less importantly, Nick Cohen, who likes nothing better than sticking it to the contemporary left, is constantly evoking Orwell — ‘Orwell would have hated you!!!!!’— is in his barely comprehensible drunken rants to defend his back from critics on the left and the right.

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Christopher Hitchens realised Why Orwell Matters only after disparaging his old leftist friends and comrades and supporting the War on Terror and the Iraq War

Orwell would not have been unable to grasp the idea that his name had become a very fluid political concept in its own right. In a rather problematic yet celebrated essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell himself demonstrates that he was aware of how concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘science’, ‘equality’ could be rendered meaningless by ideological point-scoring. Nonetheless, he did not live long enough to see his own name become a floating signifier in 21st century online arguments. Perhaps, after commenting on the commentary on Orwell we might see if there is anything left we can recover.

Firstly though, it’s worth dispensing with the common image of Orwell as a Sensible left-wing sage. One of the reasons Orwell has come to embody the objective, anti-authoritarian, common sense writer is because his work was instrumentalized by the capitalist west in the Cold War. Research from 2000 elucidates how CIA agents even bought the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow in order to alter the ending, tone down the anti-capitalism and intensify the anti-Soviet Communism. Furthermore, the idea that Orwell would be uncomfortable with his work becoming propaganda belies the fact that he worked as a ‘propagandist’ at the BBC in the 1940s and criticised British wartime propaganda for not being convincing enough. His commitment to truth and justice is also made questionable by his infamous ‘cryto-communist’ list which he handed to the British security services. The list includes former Labour leader Michael Foot and Paul Robeson, who was, in a blatant show of racism, referred to as ‘anti-white’. Others were included on the spurious —and inexcusable— basis that they were Jewish or homosexual. Add to this his anti-feminism (see the portrayal of women through Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four), his hatred of left-wing academic work and it might be hard to see why Orwell matters.

And yet, despite all its flaws, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the seminal portrayal of the totalitarian dystopia. Animal Farm offers an accessible allegorical take on the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Homage to Catalonia is a canonical anti-fascist text which provides an inspiring and moving account of socialist Barcelona which Orwell described as ‘a workers state… a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, while not without their faults, document working class life in the mode of what has since become known as cultural studies. Burmese Days might be interpreted as incomplete, problematic and proto-anti-imperialism. Maybe, in an era of neo-colonial resource grabs, rising white nationalism and authoritarianism, plus an incurious, conformist and wrongheaded pundit class, this stuff could be useful. But please don’t go round telling everyone to read some effing Orwell.

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Brexit: A Crisis of Democracy?

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Figure 1 Picture credit: Reuters, Victoria Jones/Pool.

Six months on and despite Theresa’s May insistence, nobody really knows what Brexit means. Unsurprisingly, as a leaked memo shows, the government doesn’t know what Brexit means. All that we do know is that we are getting it. For most, Brexit has meant confusion. The concept of democracy has been caught up in this confusing mess. When it comes to the British constitution, Brexit has opened can of worms. Mostly remain representatives were voted into parliament during the 2015 General Election. Yet Britain (England and Wales being the only home nations with majorities) voted for Brexit in 2016. Clearly this is something to do with First Past the Post which fails to proportionately represent public opinion and reduces everything to a two horse race. But it’s more than that. The referendum highlighted how differently we’ve come to use the same word, ‘democracy’, to mean lots of different things on this issue.

Close to home, we’ve seen the rise of direct democracy as a result of the referendum. Having won the referendum, Brexiteers are convinced the people have spoken. All we need to do now is get on with it. They support the Theresa May’s attempt to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, which, if successful, could allow the government to circumvent a parliamentary vote on activating Article 50. After continually emphasising British parliamentary sovereignty through the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, Brexiteers have come full circle. Now Parliament, chock-full of Remoaners as it is, can’t be trusted to carry through the will of the people. For them, a metropolitan liberal elite with their love of parliamentary procedure and independence of the judiciary, are just getting in the way. The Brexit tabloid press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express have been keen to push this line about a liberal elite as the ‘Enemies of the People’. Nigel Farage has followed suit, his ‘betrayal’ rhetoric comes eerily close to the Nazi’s stab-in-the-back-myth about World War I. Farage is himself an emobodiment of the failure of parliamentary democracy to deal with 21st century politics. He has shown that you can radically alter British politics without even being a Member of Parliament. In short, referenda attempt to represent the people by asking for a simple answer to a complex question.

On the other side, Remainers are keen to emphasise the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. Previously more than willing to delegate power to the undemocratic European Union, paradoxically, many Remainers now find themselves defending parliamentary sovereignty. Liberal Democrats, and various figures within the Labour party, from Owen Smith to David Lammy, have emphasised that the referendum was merely advisory and was not legally binding. Parliamentarians, elected to represent the people, should choose whether to activate Article 50, the assumption being that many would opt against it. Similarly, these Remainers also reserve the right to call a second referendum on Brexit, the idea being that the referendum didn’t reflect the will of the people in the way they wanted, so let’s give it another try. This may appear undemocratic if we follow the logic of direct democracy. Thus, we see that direct democracy and representative democracy are in conflict. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering many ‘Remoaning’ MPs sitting in strong Leave constituencies, Tristram Hunt for example, are flying electoral kamikaze missions. In short, parliament is a machine designed to mediate between the conflicting, contradictory and often contrarian opinions of the general public: a complex (and often unsatisfactory) answer to a complex question.

When the referendum was first announced, many on the continent assumed that Britain would set up local forums to debate Brexit. This deliberative form of democracy stresses the importance of informed debate. The idea being to ensure citizens knew what they were talking about, had heard opposing arguments and were in touch with public opinion generally. The basic point is that democracy is a process. Its vital values, like engagement and participation, have to be cultivatedand nurtured. It’s not just, like football, a results game. As the referendum played out, it became clear how foreign this continental idea is to British political culture, where the arena of debate tends to be limited to parliamentary chambers, television studios and the columns of the national press. Without localised forums and deliberations, it is unsurprising that on a national level, the debate was polarised and involved almost no nuance. In such a climate, democratic politics therefore becomes decided by personalities. These personalities tend to be media constructions: the result of good media management and spin doctors. As a result, the referendum campaign was framed in the media as David vs. Boris, the ultimate final decider of a schoolboy rivalry, as The Guardian’s results and analysis coverage exemplifies.

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Screenshot from The Guardian’s Results Coverage. Available –

We need some clarity about democracy. We need to move beyond the Brexiteer and Remoaner deadlock. We need to resolve the tension between direct and parliamentary democracy. Democracy is about people power. It is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with the result of an election or referendum. When it comes to Brexit, paradoxically, a European approach is in order. Working out what we want from Brexit will involve talking to each other, not just to our representatives in parliament, but on a local level. Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell were on the right lines when they toured Britain, setting up public meetings with space for dissent and discussion, arguing the case for a more radical, democratic Europe. Public engagements such as this need to become more commonplace to inform and politicize people. We need to improve the standard of debate, lift it out of the gutter, before we can get on with doing anything.

Ken Clarke is right, it’s not surprising the public are switched off by elections

As the UK 2015 General Election approaches, we are barraged with a set of candidates who, as always, ‘preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry’, as the late Howard Zinn once commented. The unpopularity of such candidates has been reflected in voter turnouts in Britain, which have been on whole decreasing: less than two thirds of the electorate voted in 2010 yet that was the highest turnout in a general election of the 21st century so far. There is also an undeniable correlation across the country in recent years between low voter turnout and poverty. The party most harmed by this was Labour, Blair’s centrist coup in 1997 and the consequent 13 years of ‘Third Way’ politics caused Labour to lose 5 million working class voters and forced members to leave in droves. In the 2010 Labour received the lowest share of the popular vote since 1918 and Scottish Labour in 2015 has been described as being ‘in meltdown’.

One of the overall reasons for this is because people are totally disillusioned by the political system, elections are fought less and less over issues which matter to people and more and more over the personality of the leader. Even at the heart of the Establishment, we had Ken Clarke, Tory cabinet minister for Thatcher, Major and Cameron commenting in The New Statesman

‘The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre. Everybody’s election campaigns are presidential, everything’s attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.’

Clarke’s analysis seems on point, elections more than ever are based on the style and the personality of the party leader. David Cameron was recently filmed by The Sun, most of the footage concentrated on the Camerons having their breakfast at No.10 while trying their hardest to appear like normal people. Similarly, The Daily Mail interviewed Samantha Cameron for a personal insight into their family life, another clear attempt to humanize and normalise the Camerons. This ‘celebrity culture’ which has pervaded into the election campaigns is a symptom of our broken political system which breeds this ‘theatre’ kind of debate.

Paul Krugman touches on the economic aspect of this ‘theatre’ in his article in the New York Times where he refers to the ‘misleading fixation of budget deficits’, both Labour and the Conservatives have accused one another of making ‘irresponsible’ funding promises. Moreover, over the last five years the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and much of the media have lectured us on the necessities of cuts while borrowing went up and the economy almost slumped into a triple-dip recession.

This is the dominant narrative Krugman was referring to –

“In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.”

Tories to match labour spendingBut this is simply not true. In 2007, George Osbourne said he would match Labour’s spending over the next three years, despite the fact that now he claims Labour overspent. Britain was nowhere near the so-called ‘Greek style-crisis’ and no other economy which borrows in its own currency was liable to such a crisis. Furthermore, the only reason the economy has now tenuously recovered is because Cameron held off reams of planned spending cuts. As Krugman points out-

‘if this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop’.Tories to match labour spending 2

While unemployment is decreasing, the jobs the coalition congratulates itself on creating amount to low-wage, low-skilled jobs and zero hours contracts. The ‘recovery’ narrative ignores the fact the coalition presided over the biggest decrease in average living standards for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the extremely rich, the so-called ‘wealth creators’, have benefited significantly and even received nonsensical tax cuts.

Unsurprisingly, this inequality comes at a price, The Telegraph and The Guardian reported that the life expectancy in Britain’s poorest areas is worse than Rwanda and on par with Botswana. This reality is completely ignored by the established narrative: ‘the recovering is working’, ‘we’re cutting the deficit’. A government could both cut the debt and improve living standards, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Considering the money spent on benefits for people who’re in poverty-paying jobs, surely making employers pay the living wage saves the Exchequer money and stops the public subsidising low-wage labour?

It’s clear this pervasive narrative has also been a distraction from the privatisation of the National Health Service which the coalition have successfully downplayed by referring to it as ‘reform’ or ‘reorganisation’. The Health and Social Care act of 2012 has allowed companies to bid for NHS contracts, the biggest of which in March 2013… was worth up to £780 million’. According to RT News, it ‘will see 11 private firms perform heart and joint surgery, carry out scans and provide diagnostic tests for patients from mobile medical facilities’. Among the companies engaged in bidding for contracts is Lockheed Martin, an arms producer. To add further salt to the wound, this has been carried out while cuts are taking place to public-run facilities. While there has been a lot of rhetoric from Labour on the NHS, the reality is that Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) implemented by New Labour also privatised large chunks of it under the guise of a ‘public-private partnership’. The public, perhaps quite rightly, doesn’t know who to trust. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US provides us with the perfect example of an expensive, inefficient and sub-standard health system run for private profit. In the States, those who can’t afford insurance can only receive treatment if they stay in Accident and Emergency, often for days on end, their family therefore is forced to stay with them to bring them food and care for them. Our politicians continue to push us further in that direction and away from most countries in the developed world.

Despite the important issues at stake, the childish squabbles refuse to cease, so you would be forgiven by me for thinking that it’s all just theatre.