Review of “Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism” by Alex Woloch


I’m not much on book reviews that say basically I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

But: I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

In Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism, published in 2016 by Harvard University Press, Alex Woloch uses the tools of literary theory to dissect and examine George Orwell’s supposedly straightforward writing style. Woloch unearths a range of unexpected caveats and nuances behind Orwell’s famous dictum that good prose should be clear and simple, “like a window pane.”

Rather than shining a light straight through a window pane on to plain truths, Orwell’s prose actually contorts itself around the deeply complicated “sheer activity of writing,” according to Woloch’s analysis. You may have thought Orwell simply faced unpleasant truths head-on, but, beneath the surface of Orwell’s plain prose, Woloch espies opaque-seeming currents and describes them like this: “Conceptualizing exploitation entails persistently converging on the actual experience of singular persons stuck in oppressive structure; the ramifications of the structure (unlike the structure itself) cannot be fully articulated.”


But if you think this is the point where I start to parody Woloch–and more generally literary theory–it is not. Despite my conservative attitude about truth, facts, and rationality, I read Woloch’s newfangled book with an open mind and found a great deal of pleasure in many of his insights. If your favorite paintings were Renoir’s large canvases and an art critic invited you to come close and pore slowly over their details with him, would you hold back because you thought you saw something shifty in the critic’s eyes?

There is a wonderful chapter on Orwell’s first collection of essays published as a book, Inside the Whale. In it, Woloch makes some surprisingly accessible points about Orwell’s use of a “threshold effect” to describe the tension of being simultaneously inside and outside an abstract problem. This threshold is where a critical writer always exists, trying to gain access to something in the world but from the domain of her own private interiority.

Literary theory often seizes on a very close reading of short phrases or even individual words to make a larger claim. (See the entire 36-page first chapter on Orwell’s use of “quite bare” in “A Hanging.”) This maneuver can seem maddeningly trivial, because who cares about a single word being repeated throughout a longish text: that happens all the time. Or it can seem like a facile trick, because any competent wordsmith can combine small units of language to mean almost anything they wish.

But by the end of the chapter on Inside the Whale, I believed that Woloch actually had something interesting to say about the structure of Orwell’s writing. The odd thing about Inside the Whale is that it comprises only three essays (“Charles Dickens,” “Boys’ Weeklies,” and “Inside the Whale,” the last entry an extended consideration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), and Orwell takes no pains whatsoever to say why he has grouped them together. Woloch actually does a convincing job citing some of Orwell’s recurring phrasing (yes, very plain and ordinary seeming) to argue that the thing that unifies the three essays is Orwell’s structural invocation of the “social horizon,” the boundary between class differences. Orwell doesn’t just say there are class differences in capitalist England: he uses form to dramatize how he thinks about those differences.

So much for such subtleties. Or Orwell is full of them, but I have a suspicion that most Orwell enthusiasts come to the man for the plain meaning of his texts and not for a paisley pattern of literary theoretical details. Still, if you find yourself, as I do, wanting to take in everything written about Orwell, Or Orwell surrenders up a number of more concrete, perhaps more satisfying observations. (We wanted to get up close to the canvas with that art critic for a reason, right?)

That chapter on Inside the Whale? In it Woloch mentions a letter in which Orwell said he wanted to write more “semi-sociological” essays like the three in that collection. And then, almost as an aside, Woloch suggests that Orwell may have casually invented what we now call cultural studies. And this seems true. All three essays, especially “Boys’ Weeklies,” explore the social meaning of popular texts, keeping their pure literary value as a side issue. The instinct of the literary critic is to dwell on the good, the true, and the beautiful, but here we have Orwell pointing out that it might be more socially revealing to pay attention to the actual texts that people buy and read no matter how commercial, ordinary, crass, or transgressive. I daresay I would not have been invited to a graduate philosophy seminar about “The Simpsons” in 1994 had Orwell not blazed a trail in the direction of cultural studies in 1940.

As a writer, Orwell has been “ritualized” and frozen in place as a kind of “figure through which two warring entities–two modes of reading–seek to obliterate each other,” Woloch claims. Indeed Orwell has become so paradigmatic in the contest between “na├»ve empiricism” (the idea that the world is knowable through plain old observation) and Critical Theory (the idea that our “observations” of the world are always mediated through cant, self-interest, delusion and, above all, ideology) that Orwell is “not just positioned on one side of the theoretical line, [but] has been invoked to structure the boundary itself.”

I think Orwell would like that: he structures the left-right boundary himself. Why not? He once labeled himself a Tory anarchist, a contradiction in basic attitudes if there ever was one. A committed socialist who wanted to smash and recast the very foundations of society, Orwell also disliked anyone who came across as too out of step with societal norms, notably gays, yogis, vegetarians, and men who wore tight shorts or hiked in groups.

So Orwell himself poses a dilemma about thinking and writing and being in the world. He is a kind of living paradox. In one of his most memorable observations, Orwell says that all socialists (like himself) hope for a world that has been expunged of war, famine, dirt, disease, and fear. But then he pauses to ask if there is anyone who actually wants to live in such a utopia? There would be no struggle, which sanctifies life for the leftist. Woloch answers this question for Orwell by quoting at length from his 1943 essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?”:

[. . .] I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.

Amen. If socialists cannot be happy, let us hope they can keep striving to be.


Is the Useless Class Coming Sooner Than We Think?


In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a flurry of news reporting recently on the astonishing writing capabilities of new artificial intelligence (AI) applications. I haven’t tested one yet, but you can give one of these apps a writing prompt and some basic parameters, and it will produce a stylish and effective text that meets your specifications to a T.

A trick that no journalist seems able to resist these days is to insert a passage into their article written by the AI they are writing about. And the insertion is seamless; it reads as if the author wrote it herself.

In this fairly typical article from the Atlantic Monthly, we learn that lawyers are already using a leading AI app, ChatGPT, to produce legal briefs. And why wouldn’t they?–“ChatGPT passes the torts and evidence sections of the Multistate Bar Examination,” we also learn.

Robo-lawyers, anyone?

But there is much more to consider. If AI can craft an effective legal brief, AI can understand and adjudicate one too. So then we have: Robo-judges, Robo-juries.

Today, I would like to resist my usual urge to plod through a topic and tell you at distressing length how I think Orwell would judge it an offense on the human spirit. Instead I simply ask you: How big a deal do you think this is?

(Image: Smarthistory)

The ability to generate narratives around which groups of humans can be organized and rallied (to do absolutely anything, from underwriting home loans to pursuing happiness to killing millions other people) is the core skill of being human.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari has been arguing for the last several years that knowledge workers will soon follow the path of blue collar workers in being displaced by machines. The literate class has long been able to avoid thinking about the implications of AI-level automation because there was such a clear difference between what we do–manipulate abstract symbols–and what blue collar workers do–manipulate material things. We may have thought, fleetingly, it was a pity that factory workers were having it tough keeping up with machines, but I doubt many of us actually cared all that much. It wasn’t our problem.

But now it is.

Harari believes we are almost all of us destined to join what he calls the useless class, something completely alien in our history. Humans struggle, strive, create, accomplish. What will we do when machines can (and do) concoct the narratives that goad, instruct and inspire us in our highest ambitions? You might not need to lift boxes or sew zippers into jeans to feel human, but by god you need to do something that serves a higher purpose. What will it be? We can’t all create newer, better AIs–they will do that for themselves soon enough.

So I stop uncharacteristically short and ask for your thoughts. What does it mean that AI can now, instantaneously, write better than 99 percent of us? Is the useless class being created right in front of our noses? Are we in it yet?

Reflections on “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer


Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” is deeply surreal, even by Kafka’s mind-bending standards.

This is the story’s mise en scene: an unnamed military officer in an unnamed tropical colony is demonstrating the operation of a killing machine. He is about to use it to execute a prisoner. The machine does its work over the course of 12 hours, slowly inscribing the text of the traduced law onto the condemned man’s torso, with ever deeper needle punctures.

Kafka’s machine does a job that many civilized people agree needs to be done–eliminating capital criminals–but why must it be done by means so cruel and bizarre?

With slight adjustments, this was the question I was asking myself as I read in Peter Singer’s classic 1975 book Animal Liberation* how beef cattle are slaughtered. Hanging upside down from a conveyor belt ten feet off the floor, the cattle approach the killing line. They are required by law to be alive during this process. They are supposed to be unconscious, but–mistakes are made, mechanisms falter, especially under the pressure of haste, and–sometimes the cattle are awake and aware. What happens then?

The animal, upside down, with ruptured joints and often a broken leg, twists frantically in pain and terror, so that it must be gripped by the neck or have a clamp inserted in its nostrils to enable the slaughterer to kill the animal with a single stroke, . . . .

The strange thing is, it is laws promoting humane slaughter and food purity that result in this nightmare scene of unrestrained sadism. The Food and Drug Act of 1906 requires that slaughtered animals not fall into the blood of other slaughtered animals; other laws protect the faith-based traditions that say food animals must be “healthy and moving” when killed. Taken together, the law, Singer points out, turns what is supposed to be an efficient if not quite benign method of slaughter into “a grotesque travesty of any humane intentions that may have once lain behind it.”

(Image: Animal Welfare Institute)

There are many philosophers with greater name recognition than Peter Singer–Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche. But unlike Singer, none of philosophy’s stars founded real-life social movements. Singer has. Go ahead and Google ‘Animal Liberation Front’.

None of philosophy’s pantheon had such immediate and profound life-changing effects on their contemporary world as Singer has. Granted, this is mostly because Singers’ old-fogey predecessors didn’t even try, but that is kind of the point. Singer is alone among his peers in imagining the philosopher’s role to be a doer, not just a thinker. (If you want to throw out Marx as a challenge to this claim–don’t even. How many years did he spend in his London living room writing Das Kapital? And how many years did he spend on the barricades? Marx may have written that the job of philosophy is to change the world and not just describe it, but that’s all he did: write.) Singer believes that the purpose of ethics is to reduce harm done to any sentient being, right here and right now. Therefore his measure of success is not book sales, not endowed professorships; it is not debate-winning arguments at conferences; it is his power to cause more and more people to adopt values that demand the reduction of harm to other sentient beings.

By this measure, Singer has been the most successful philosopher in history. Though he would not claim personal credit for the whole scope of animal rights work accomplished since 1975, it is fair to say that the movement Singer created has (a) changed laws in many countries curtailing and regulating scientific experimentation (much of it pointlessly cruel) on animals; (b) created powerful civil society groups that protect animals from harm, including PETA and the SPCA; (c) exposed the massive waste and cruelty of factory farming, which has led to significant, if far from complete, reduction of harm to food animals; (d) inspired the decision by millions to stop regarding animals’ interests as morally negligible, and, more or less concomitant with this; (e) inspired millions to stop consuming animals or animal products; and (f) informed the widespread realization that using animals for food is disastrously inefficient and globally unsustainable. There is simply not enough Earth to support animal farming on a scale that would provide meat to even a fraction of humans who might desire it. Even providing meat to the tiny fraction who can presently afford it in “Western” quantities is scorching the Earth. People should know that they are not just fiddling but feasting as they actively turn our earthly paradise into a hell.

Pardon me. I am breaking one of Singer’s most important rules. The economic and environmental disaster of meat-eating is so pressing that we proponents of animal liberation cannot afford the kind of pious dudgeon I just worked myself into. It puts others off and–the last 15 years of history notwithstanding–the purpose of rational argumentation is not to incapacitate one’s opponents with outrage. It is to make the world a better place by changing minds.

Weird as it seems, Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” is actually a straightforward piece of consciousness-raising literature. There’s a reason the action takes place in a colony. Because in a republic, as Cesare Beccaria first argued in 1764, the state has no right to deprive its citizens of their lives, else it is no republic. Killing by the state may only be done in territories where violent subjugation is the definitive method of governance. (Orwell expresses the sentiment behind this argument simply and powerfully in his 1931 essay “A Hanging.” I recommend it.)

There’s also a reason why the colony and the executioner go unnamed in Kafka’s story. In an “enlightened” society, outrages on morality can only be sustained if they are easily ignored. They must be hidden. They must happen off-stage, done by non-persons in non-places. Before Singer wrote Animal Liberation–in particular the 60-page long chapter “Down on the Factory Farm”–citizens of our liberal democracy might have plausibly pleaded ignorance to the mass-scale harms done to our food animals and the environment by factory farming. But now the institutionalized slaughter has been unmasked, and our citizens need not even be literate to know this. Because of the success of Singer’s writing, the practices of factory farming have been reported on by scores of journalists and documentary filmmakers.

One of the purposes of “In the Penal Colony” was to jolt the polite, educated Europeans who read short stories into asking what kinds of moral travesties were being carried out in their “interest” in the real world. (For an idea of the extent of these, see Adam Hochshcild’s 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.)

At one time, mass ignorance of factory farming and other instances of cruelty to animals was excusable. It was all so well hidden. But like Kafka, Singer unmasked the cruelty, brought it right before our eyes for inspection.

Orwell told his contemporaries the uncomfortable truth that “ordinary” middle-class English prosperity was rooted in the colonial system of violent subjugation. Only the enslaver’s whip could produce sugar cheaply enough to provide it to all of England’s clerks, shop-keepers and other workers at an affordable price. Singer tells us a similar uncomfortable truth: the the ordinary practice of meat-eating depends for its viability on a vast system of cruel tyranny and organized coverup. Make meat less cruel, and you price it out of practically everyone’s reach. The system, with its bizarre killing machines (and countless other outrages), is what turns out the ordinary, plastic-wrapped pound of ground beef that you (may) consider your due as an ordinary consumer in a developed country. But read Animal Liberation and see if it does not upset this view by noting your role in this system–where you stand with respect to the killing line, with its Kafkaesque upside-down conveyor belts of “healthy and moving” beef cattle. A heavily moneyed system of propaganda has been set up to prevent you from knowing these things. But, again, read Singer. See if he doesn’t make you want to rebel. See if he doesn’t help you reject the idea that people with money can tell you what to think.


* I read the 2009 updated edition.