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


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.


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