Reading Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” in 2020

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In February 1941, as Great Britain was standing alone against Hitler and staring defeat in the face, George Orwell wrote “The Lion and the Unicorn,” a long, impassioned essay arguing that his class-ridden country would have to become socialist if it wanted even the smallest hope of winning the war.

It was a compelling, and therefore dangerous, argument.

It went like this: The whole world could see that the British Army was a joke. This was evident by its abject failure to provide even a wisp of military aid to France against Nazi Germany in 1940. The infamous Dunkirk evacuation was the consequence of being swiftly and thoroughly routed by the Wehrmacht. There was no doubt that Britain had dispatched too small a force to stand up to Hitler’s juggernaut. But what outraged Orwell was how poorly prepared and equipped was the force it did send. This was the army of the richest empire on earth, an industrial behemoth, kitted out like it was 1918.

The British Army was a joke because the job of provisioning it had been left to Britain’s profit-seeking corporations. Owing allegiance only to their share-holders, Britain’s corporations produced the things that would make them the most money, not the things that the army would need to win the war. The things the army did need they traded away. “Right at the end of August 1939,” Orwell writes, “the British dealers were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell Germany tin, rubber, copper and shellac–and this in the clear, certain knowledge that war was going to break out in a week or two.”

So the world’s largest producer of textiles could not even make enough uniforms of sufficient quality to clothe its forces. Tanks and guns? Forget about it. Most of that steel had gone to Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

The very things that made Orwell’s argument in “The Lion and the Unicorn” so compelling were the same things that made it dangerous. The fact that (1) the premises of Orwell’s argument were undeniably true, and (2) the working people were increasingly  coalescing behind a patriotic struggle to save their country despite the corrosive greed and fecklessness of the upper class, meant that political power was on the verge of a massive shift. The elite’s grip on power was going to have to give. They could not go on making money off half-assing the war against fascism while the people volunteered in droves to fight and die. (And Orwell records, this was exactly what was shaping up to happen. As the volunteer ranks of the Home Guard swelled to a million, His Majesty’s Government stepped in to install leisured aristocrats to lead it. Can’t be too careful.)

Britain’s power elite was caught in open betrayal of the sacred cause of national survival.  In the end, Orwell was right about the shift in power produced by the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, even if he got certain details wrong.

The real reason to read “The Lion and the Unicorn” in 2020, though, is not to debate the accuracy with which Orwell prophesied a socialist revolution in Great Britain. The real reason is to consider why Orwell’s essay is compelling, and therefore dangerous, in the context of the unrest roiling America in 2020.

Briefly put: If America is the most advanced liberal democracy on earth, how does it fail so dramatically to produce justice? Isn’t that exactly what liberal democracies are for? If we are the best, why are we so bad at it? The killing of George Floyd provided us with a Dunkirk moment. The whole world witnessed how our institutions, ostensibly set up to protect human rights and freedoms on the basis of the rule of law, failed abjectly to do what they are designed for.

The legal suppression of citizens’ rights is a many-splendored thing in America. It has gone on for centuries and often involved open terror. All its various aspects call out to be exposed and redressed. The legal culture that enables the casually brutal murder of citizens by police and vigilantes on the streets is clearly at the emotional center of the current protests. If that is not the boot stamping on the face of humanity–which Orwell feared could materialize even in the heart of a developed democracy–then what is it?

The killing is horrific. But it is the straight line between its enabling legal culture and the profit-seeking motives of its money men that captivates me (and brings Orwell’s thinking to life, again). Most Americans are not so purely evil as to wish for sadistic acts of murder by the police on live-broadcast TV. But we are caught in a system, which we seem powerless to overthrow, that protects and normalizes such acts. And again, it is not because we are overtly and plainly wicked that we tolerate this system; it is because the system makes money, which the politically-connected class of idle rich will never surrender.

In 1940, British industry was organized to make money rather than produce the necessary military equipment that would defeat Germany. The industrialists knew this and went ahead making the things that would lose the war, flagrantly abdicating loyalty to their nation. In 2020 America it is the prison-industrial complex that betrays our country and mocks our values. We cannot keep it and call ourselves Americans.

I am not claiming that the prison industrial complex is the only force corrupting our principles of equality and justice for all. But it is the most illustrative. When you look at the talons of a hawk, you can read their evolutionary history quite plainly: form follows function. You know exactly what those talons are for.

And so it is with the prison industrial complex. Its purpose is on lurid display in its history, the plain facts of which are too vast, grim and obvious to need detailed review here. The privatization boom of prisons in America caused an explosion in the building and operating of a horror show that we would decry in any other country as a gulag archipelago. It is designed and promoted by lobbyists (interchangeable, as usual, with industry regulators) who write laws that guarantee the steady, generous supply of bodies for warehousing in the gulags. Obedient congresspeople sign these laws, and the prisons are built. The well-connected authors of the scheme reap the profits.

The tendency of the prison industrial complex scheme to target people of color is undeniable. Because of demonstrably biased increases in pre-trial bail and the inequity of sentencing periods, people of color are decisively over-represented in the prison-industrial complex. Our carceral state exists to stuff human bodies of any hue into its maw, yes, but the wheels of justice churn in a way that chews up many more black and brown bodies than basic crime rates would predict. Again, here is not the place to rehearse detailed arguments (but see the Aspen Institute study linked above at “over-represented”), so just consider this: black people and white people use and sell illegal drugs at approximately the same rate, but black users and dealers are much more intensely policed, leading to highly unequal rates of arrest, trial and conviction. So if you are inclined to say of jail-goers “they brought it on themselves,” bear in mind that white folks are working just as hard to bring such ruinous consequences on themselves, it’s just that most get a free pass.

My point is the same as Orwell’s, mutatis mutandis: There is a profit-seeking class of non-productive rich  in America who are openly betraying the national cause of liberty and justice for all. They reject this cause as surely as England’s industrialists rejected military readiness over profit, even if it meant surrender to fascism. It is treason. They do it because it makes them rich.

Floyd mural
(Image: Forbes)

And, also as in Orwell’s time, the masses are becoming dangerous in their growing awareness of this treason. It is right and proper that the current protests center on racial issues defined by Black Lives Matter. This essay is by no means an attempt to whitewash that emotion. But what makes the BLM movement dangerous is that it is building into a mass movement of all colors of citizen. It has an animating core of blackness, yes, but there can be no doubt that it is growing to resemble the force that Orwell felt Great Britain was on the verge of in 1941, when he wrote, “What is wanted is a conscious, open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. . . . [W]e have got to break the grip of the money class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape.”

If the BLM protests turn into a conscious, open revolt, as they seem on the verge of doing, it will be because of the serial failure of normal politics to solve the root problems they are protesting. Time after time, normal politics has failed to turn the quest for racial justice into a quest for national justice. The “process” has had ample opportunity to work. In 1967, after he was commissioned by the Johnson administration to diagnose the root causes of a wave of “race riots,” Otto Kerner first made a note of all the commissions like his that had failed before to redress racial injustice and advance social peace. The riots just kept happening. Kerner wrote this in the draft of his report: “Past efforts have not carried the commitment, will or resources needed to eliminate the attitudes and practices that have maintained racism as a major force in our society. Only the dedication of every citizen can generate a single American identity and a single American community.” LBJ excised this passage and buried the report.

But the truth cannot stay buried, as Orwell sensed in “The Lion and the Unicorn.” This is what he was telling his readers in the essay: You are Great Britain, not the corrupt, “unteachable” elites in the House of Lords and on the boards of directors. You must take your country: it belongs to you.

And this is what the BLM protesters are telling us: our national principles are not for sale. You can either stand back and let the rich own the country and turn it, like Caligula, into a tapestry of live-action horrors played out for their private pleasure–as they obviously feel entitled to do–or you can take what is yours–what our founding documents say is yours. This is a country of principle, not of money. All of the movements that are threatening the established powers are converging on this message. From BLM, to the Poor People’s Campaign, to Bernie Sanders’s criminal justice reform platform, all of them are telling the corrupt old guard that American lives are not for sale–you cannot buy the privilege of killing us on the street.

Orwell called the Nazi conquest of Europe a “physical debunking” of laissez faire capitalism. If you thought the ruling system of fat cats and trickle-down economics would keep you safe, here comes a Panzergrenadiergruppe to burn your village and wreck your naive dreams. Better start planning a war economy now, or be prepared to welcome the Panzers in whatever way you see fit. The lynching of George Floyd as also a physical debunking, of the illusion that our masters are loyal to our nation. If you thought the ruling class was in any way capable of delivering on the national promise of liberty and justice for all, take in the fact that your rulers can have you tortured to death on film and nothing will happen to them.

But there is hope, and it is deceptively simple to act on. Just as the solution for Britain’s war-losing economy was to change government spending and investment priorities, so it is in the present case. We must take the $8 billion a year that go into the non-productive prison industrial complex (well, non-productive except for the fruits of slave labor) and invest it instead in jobs programs that build communities and bring poor people out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

And please–don’t start wailing about jobs programs and socialism. Actually, come to think of it–do go ahead and so wail. Although I grow mightily tired of it, I will continue to point out that the prison industrial complex is already a socialist jobs program: it takes your tax money and gives it to the politicians and lobbyists who ensure their scheme continues to have a basis in law. It also trickles down just enough money to create a few entirely non-productive jobs. This is the system for which you tacitly express your support by remaining silent. The cohort that legalizes this deeply immoral fraud is what Orwell called, in his day, a “generation of the unteachable.” Their inability to learn springs from the fact that their (multi-million dollar) paychecks depend on remaining ignorant.

What was dangerous about populist support for a war economy in 1941 Britain is the same thing that is dangerous about BLM in 2020 America, and it is not the threat of incoherent fury in the streets. That is where the reactionaries want you to focus. The movement’s real business will be expressed in bullet points about budgets and policies.

As Orwell wrote in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” “The swing of opinion is visibly happening, . . . but it is very necessary that the discontent which undoubtedly exists should take a purposeful and not merely obstructive form. It is time for the people to define their war aims.” He meant that it was time for the people who made the equivalent of $1000 a month (in 2020 America dollars) to take billions of pounds from the aristocrats, to be spent on fripperies, and spend it instead on winning the war and saving their country from fascism.

The same is called for today. There is a war happening. Its battle cries are “Say His Name!” and “I Can’t Breathe!” It need not be fought with weapons or violence, but it is nonetheless dangerous. If we are to win the war, and become what we aspire to become, a democracy that ensures liberty and justice for all, we must end the prison industrial complex. The aged, the greedy, the corrupt generation that profits from it can give up their jobs program, which sanctions and normalizes injustice, or they can prove themselves teachable for once.

Review of “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The novel as a literary form sometimes seems to be the exclusive property of the liberal mind. Perhaps this is because imagining oneself in another person’s place is not just the essence of literary creativity; it is the starting point of any public system of morals–of recognizing the rights and freedoms of others as equal to one’s own.

In his landmark 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, the legal philosopher John Rawls argued that we must be able to take other people’s interests as seriously as we take our own if we are to fashion just laws. He proposed a now-famous thought experiment to frame this problem–the “veil of ignorance.” Instead of thinking of laws in the here-and-now, from your highly particular perspective as you, you must be able to take a step back to a postulated “original position.” From behind the veil of ignorance, you can envision yourself having fared radically differently in the various lotteries that shaped your identity before you appeared as you–your gender, your health and body type, your talents and abilities, your parents’ wealth, and so forth.

This thought experiment, wittingly or not, has been behind all the liberal-led rights movements in the United States since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Whether it’s the systemic disadvantages of having been born black, female, gay, handicapped, or what have you, the removal of those disadvantages by law has turned on the privileged person’s ability to observe the less lucky and say, with conviction, That could be me.

To borrow from another, more famous legal philosopher, when you think of the the whole range of social types around you–from slave to master–and the legal protections each deserves, you must be able to imagine yourself as “the least of these.” If you were a slave, would you wish for laws that entrench your master’s power or laws to liberate you and give you a full life?

Well, we know from the case of Christianity that the liberal imagination risks falling into a pity trap. While it’s all well and good to promote the interests of those less able to defend themselves, the process taken to an extreme can erode and eventually dissolve the stronger individual’s capacity to act or even engage in coherent moral reasoning. This is one of the most obvious holes in the Christian ideal of self-abasement–if I sell all my possessions and give the money to the poor, meanwhile allowing myself to be clothed as the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, I have consciously chosen to become an idle, penniless vagrant–noble and pure of heart perhaps, but more of a burden than a blessing to anyone around me. I would stink up any room I walk into, which, like it or not, is a widely accepted argument against choosing vagrancy as a lifestyle.

I am not sure if the novelist Lionel Shriver sets out to write great literature, but a recent New Yorker profile says she is on the lookout for trouble in the human condition, which may amount to the same thing. The challenges involved in determining our moral obligations to others certainly give humans no end of trouble: What role does individual choice play in determining one’s desert of protections or alleviations? Do heroin addicts “deserve” public clinics where they can shoot up safely? Who is entitled to my unreserved moral compassion, or even plain old generosity?–Certainly I would make large sacrifices for my spouse or children, but what about cousins? Friendly associates? Complete strangers? It’s Jesus’s old question again: When it comes to treating neighbors justly, who is my neighbor?

A rarity among novelists, Shriver examines these challenges from the viewpoint of the social conservative. I said at the outset that the novel seems to belong to the liberal mind, and, at a certain level of abstraction, I doubt I ever stop believing this. Try to imagine Germinal as a story that advances the interests of the coal mine’s owners. It wouldn’t even be a story; it would just be real, miserable life, thrown back in our hopeless faces. Literature exists, to paraphrase Don Delillo, to unmask dehumanizing systems.

So any novelist who breaks with liberal orthodoxy risks being perceived as a defender of the ruling class, a prospect that doesn’t seem to frighten Shriver. An American emigre ensconced in London, she openly cheers the rights of northern Europeans to defend the cultures that have made their countries so attractive to refugees and immigrants. And she is not made queasy by the link between Europe’s enlightened political culture and its national–let’s just call them ethnic–identities. A character in her 1998 novel The New Republic speaks for her on this point. He is picturing a Turkish quarter of Berlin circa 2000:

And you walk down the street and everyone’s talking Turkish? And it’s hard to find a Pilsner anymore, like, all you can find is, I don’t know, mead, or whatever Turkish people drink. Know what a place like that is called? Turkey. There wouldn’t even be a Germany anymore.

Shriver speaks unapologetically from conservative ground, which she clearly regards as philosophically solid. The liberal defender of universal human rights?–that person was produced by the established powers. This is the unsettling assumption from which her novels spring: in order to achieve human decency, you must first protect your own capacity to empathize, reason and act, and these capacities are outgrowths of political power. As a member of a strong, prosperous society, you might find yourself to the left of Noam Chomsky, but you got there on the backs of the old guard.

big-brother_custom

Big Brother is a very good novel, and of course it would not be one if it merely shadow-boxed the caricature of an ideological battle I’ve indicated so far. The antagonist, Pandora Halfdanarson, is a successful but small-time entrepreneur in small-town Iowa. She believes in hard, thankless work and in the comforts of staying behind the scenes. Her politics is a kind of active passivity: “I didn’t hold many opinions. I didn’t see the point of them. If I opposed the production of non-germinating disease-resistant corn, it would still be sold. I considered most convictions entertainment, their cultivation a vanity, . . . . Refusal to forge views for social consumption made me dull, but I loved being dull. Being of no earthly interest to anyone had been a lifelong goal.”

But one day Pandora becomes of great interest to her older brother, Edison, a jazz pianist who had run away from their LA home to New York at 17. After surprising early success, Edison, now 43, is washed up, short on cash, and turned out of his apartment. And he is morbidly obese. Pandora does not recognize him when she picks him up from the airport. Big Brother tells the story of the soul searching that leads Pandora help Edison and of the heroic effort it costs.

Big Brother is many things. At times it is a fascinating meditation on the phenomenology of eating and satiety. Not only is the pleasure of eating good food somehow elusive despite being undeniable–“more concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself,”–but when you consider how awful much of our food is, the tendency to overeat becomes downright mysterious. Shriver is also concerned to examine the issue of obesity writ large (yes, I said that). As a social problem, morbid obesity is unique to rich societies but increasingly concentrated among their poorer classes. How did that happen?

Shriver repeatedly proves herself capable of moving off the standard conservative line on obesity, which is more or less: You did this to yourself, now deal with it. Early on in the plot, Pandora evinces the conservative’s standard flintiness. Her touchy-feely teenage daughter, Cody, asks if the newly humongous version of Uncle Edison is sick, to which Pandora replies, “According to the latest thinking on the subject, yes.” But later, Shriver’s inner voice softens as she tries to put America’s ambivalence on weight, body image, and diet in perspective. In this passage, surveying the disorienting array of weight-loss diets and the broader, conflicted trends of supersizing, Shriver is worthy of that liberal avatar Kurt Vonnegut. There was such deep confusion on display in the multitudinous ways to lose weight. But also:

You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders, “Big John” toilet seats, 800-pound-rated shower chairs, and “LuvSeats” for couples of size to have sex. You could see it in the popular websites like BigPeopleDating.com, but you could also see it in the prestige designation of size-zero jeans and in the host of Cody’s classmates who’d been hospitalized for starving or throwing up. You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a micro-processor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator, when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries. Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.

And so on.

The cruelest impact of the system that brought pandemic obesity to America is the apathy trap it springs on overeaters. When Pandora sits Edison down for the requisite straight talk about slimming down to avoid an early death, he brings her directly to the crux. Yes, he sees the self-destructive arc of his gluttonous trajectory, and, yes, in an abstract way, he wishes he could be rid of the weight. But, he intimates: “There’s the one little problem of my not giving a shit.” For Edison, overeating is a conscious abandonment of all other priorities, which he re-affirms several times a day, with each meal. Pandora diagnoses, correctly, one thinks, “That was, of course, not one problem, but the problem.”

So Edison stays on in Iowa, and his sister sets out to save him, by way of a demonically severe crash diet. They move in together, the better to effect a full-on intervention. It works, but there’s a major catch. Pandora’s disciplined, meticulous husband Fletcher despises Edison. He lays down conditions for Pandora’s rescue project that build to an ultimatum: leave Edison or face divorce.

The one weakness of Big Brother, for me, is the underdevelopment of Fletcher. Shriver tells us repeatedly that Pandora loves him and that it is, therefore, a hard decision to leave him temporarily to help Edison. But then Shriver does such a better job of showing us all of Fletcher’s unattractive zeal and sanctimony that it is somewhat hard to sympathize with his rather reasonable requests that Pandora try to balance her duties to her family of choice and family of origin. Pandora, he argues, is not just volunteering her goodwill by helping her brother, but the whole family’s. Fletcher provides the pivot on which the novel’s main question turns–To whom do we owe moral obligations, and do our obligations come in gradations? When must a person go all out for someone else, and if marriage is an all-in commitment, can one ever make large sacrifices outside that bond?

Late in the novel, after a stunning twist (SPOILER ALERT upcoming), Pandora reflects on the calculus by which she tried to measure out her obligations to her brother: “I could not have said, ‘I will help you lose weight for three months but not four.’ Once I assumed the role of my brother’s keeper, there would have been no limit, don’t you see? And who’s to say whether such an escapade wouldn’t have ruined my marriage . . . ?”

Shriver’s final summation of the problem is bleak, but honest, one feels. “It is impossible,” she writes, “to gauge what you owe people. Anyone, of course, but especially the blood relation, for as soon as you begin to calculate the amount you’re obliged to give, . . . you’re done for.” By risking entanglement with a self-destructive person, one undermines one’s moral agency, the very basis for moral decision-making. Who is my neighbor? I cannot know.

The story of Pandora’s rescue of Edison turns out to be a fiction within a fiction–an act of liberal imagination within a framework of conservative caution. It did not happen. In “fact,” Pandora met the terms of Fletcher’s ultimatum early in the plot and put Edison on a plane back to New York and ruin. The story she spun in her head about saving Edison was a way of thinking through her options. In the end, her choice to leave Edison to his own devices was guided by statistics and leavened with an existential intuition. The great majority of morbidly obese people who lose large amounts of weight gain it back. That in itself made Edison a bad bet, not worth the risk of losing a good marriage. But there was also this: the achievement of any goal is always followed by a feeling of “what’s next?” Once Edison made it to the Promised Land of mesomorphy, who would define his next horizon? Was Pandora going to hold his hand for the rest of his life? Would this not have been a disappearance of Edison from his own life?

Shriver gives a fair, robust hearing to the liberal orthodoxy that we are here to help others and to see our reflection in them. But she also plumbs a deeper, Conradian mystery of human existence. It has directly to do with hunger, desire and struggle. About hunger, she writes, it may be bad, but “satiety is worse. . . . We are meant to be hungry.”

Here are two other reviews of Big Brother that you might enjoy. As usual, to keep my thoughts fresh, I wrote my review before I read these.

Guardian review

NPR review