The most striking achievement of the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is that, unlike other jihadist groups, ISIS actually ruled a piece of territory, a caliphate meant to unite all Muslims under Koranic law.
Its brutal, iconic founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took his name from his boyhood home, Warrick tells us, Zarqa–a “gritty” industrial town in northern Jordan. His formative experience was in Jordan’s largest prison, al-Jafr, in the burning southern desert.
ISIS might never have come into being had Zarqawi not found refuge in 2002 in a highly unusual place, the Zagros mountains of northern Iraq, nestled among two groups of people who had little love for jihadists–the predominantly secular Kurds and the Shi’ite Iranians, just across the border to the east.
ISIS arose in the “Sunni Triangle,” a restive area west of Baghdad, home to Saddam Hussein’s familial tribe; it made its caliphate’s capital in Raqqa, Syria; and in a stunning blow, it conquered Mosul, Iraq, a city of more than a million people, in one day. At its height, ISIS’s caliphate comprised an area larger than Israel and Lebanon combined, as Warrick reports.
In 2014 and 2015, foreign ISIS volunteers streamed into northern Syria through Turkey in such numbers that Turkey’s southern Hatay Province became infamous as an ISIS way station. Camouflage-clad jihadists openly shopped for combat gear in local military surplus stores.
Given this profusion of geography, how, I wonder, did a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about ISIS come to feature only a single, highly impressionistic map? The story of ISIS is its meteoric rise from secretive terrorist group hiding in safe houses to a functioning army capable of openly controlling territory (and eventually losing it–a part of its history that postdates Warrick’s book).
In most ways Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is highly commendable. In fact, I don’t even mind that it undeservedly won the Pulitzer, because the story Warrick tells is one that needs wider awareness. If the Pulitzer gave it a push, good. After years of thick books and studies on post-9/11 terrorism and endless analyses of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a presumably weary public still needs to know that our entanglement with Sunni jihadism is not over.
Indeed this is the source of my discontent with the lack of detailed maps in Black Flags. The fact that I knew the places Warrick was describing without looking at a map was a constant reminder that his book seemed to have been written for people like me, with enough background to take in the narrative at speed. It should have been pitched to an audience that hadn’t yet come to grips with the ways 9/11, the Iraq war, the Arab Spring, and the Syrian civil war shaped ISIS in all its unique specificity.
Or maybe I’m over-emphasizing this weakness. A friend of mine who fought against ISIS’s forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq, read Black Flags recently as someone who knew the objective facts up close but wanted a big-picture interpretation of what it all meant. Experts, soldiers and the general public alike have been left to wonder whether the “global war on terrorism” begun 20 years ago has come to an end. Black Flags keeps that question front and center even though it does not–cannot–answer it.
Another weakness of the book, which my friend drew out, is the strong impression it gives of a journalist who rushed out a gripping story that should have been more deeply reported. Many developments that clearly called out for deep primary sources were instead given thin washes of secondary source material. Indeed many of the pivotal events described in Black Flags are simply recontextualized quotations from the memoirs of, among others, King Abdullah of Jordan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And even where the experiences described are intimately reported, there is a disappointing poverty of on-the-scene sources. The descriptions of ISIS’s brutal Sharia enforcement regime, which included horrific public punishments including crucifixions, come from a single witness. Warrick also underexploits the vast trough of information that ISIS published about itself. Not that this material should be taken as reliable narration of ISIS’s history, but the fact that Warrick makes only one glancing reference to Dabiq, ostensibly the caliphate’s newspaper of record, belies a rush to publish. Half the story of ISIS was its own edifice of grand delusion, which deserved a closer look.
All that said, Black Flags is nonetheless a very good book that deserves to be read. It moves fast and keeps the narrative crisp. It’s possible that Warrick judged wisely when he (or his editors) decided to keep it short, at 316 pages. It could have been a better book with 200 more pages, I believe. But what do I know? The more people who read Black Flags the better, and maybe they wouldn’t want to read a “better” book.
Orwell is renowned for his “plain,” “direct” style of writing, a reputation he occasionally buttressed with acts of self-promotion. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he called for political writing to be fresh, clear and to the point. In another essay, “Why I Write,” he opined, “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane.”
Good advice if you can take it. Sentence for sentence, Orwell took his own advice pretty well. When it came to broader matters of theme and message, though, his record is mixed.
The picture Orwell paints with the image of a windowpane is one of the writer doing her job by looking the objective truth full in the face and recording what she sees. The plain facts are out there, shining straight in. But the light that shone through Orwell’s windowpane often came through at an angle, and it often refracted into unexpected quadrants and created new hues. Orwell didn’t just write about what was right in front of his nose, despite suggesting pretty forcefully that this is what writers should do.
The fact is, many of Orwell’s best essays are masterpieces of misdirection, especially the ones from early in World War II. They are not at all about what they purport to be about.
Between April 1940 and February 1942, Orwell wrote several pieces with tepid-looking titles, which were nominally about (1) an obscure English aristocrat who mourned the fading power of poetry, (2) an erratic, little known attack by Tolstoy on Shakespeare, and (3) an appreciation of smutty postcards. These abstract ideas were wafting from the mind of a man who was dying to be in the action–shooting Nazis, filling sandbags, or passing buckets of water hand over hand to dowse the flames of the Blitz. “It makes me writhe to be writing book reviews etc. at such a time,” he wrote in his diary in June 1940, “and even angers me that such time-wasting should still be permitted.” But there he was, stuck at his desk: Orwell was in a weird place.
As early as September 1939, Orwell wanted above all to be useful to English society. He knew that England would soon be fighting an existential war against Nazi Germany. He tried and tried to get into the Army, into the Home Guard, into a government agency of some sort. He wanted to physically resist fascism, as he had done in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. But he was too sick with tuberculosis for the Army and too politically suspect for a government agency. For a full year before he finally became a sergeant in the Home Guard and then a BBC radio commentator, all Orwell could do was sit at home and write. He hated this waste of his time: It makes me writhe. Although he still found thinking about literature intrinsically pleasant, as he told friends, bookish flights of fancy seemed meaningless with the war going on.
But literature was the the thing Orwell knew, so, as he waited, for weeks and then months, he stuck to it. Little surprise that when he bent his mind to books, the words that came out of his typewriter were actually about fighting fascism. Literature was just the windowpane through which he saw that fight.
The reason I’m writing this essay is that Orwell’s choice of titles in this period can easily put off a whole class of potential readers, yet the essays behind those unhelpful titles are immensely valuable. People who have only read Animal Farm or 1984 are missing a huge part of the thought of the 20th century’s most important English-speaking polemicist if they don’t read a good-sized sample of these lesser known pieces.
So, hands up–who would like to read Orwell’s April 1940 review of Personal Record 1928-1939 by Julian Green? Julian who? My point exactly. We feel hardly a tickle of interest when Orwell indicates in the first sentence that Mr. Green’s reflections on poetry are lofty but “commonplace.” Green, we learn, has exquisite, “almost effeminate” literary sensitivity; he is old fashioned, a relic of a dying age in which “simply to preserve your aesthetic integrity seemed a sufficient return for living on inherited money.” He’s not only an aristocrat; he’s an aesthete.
But not just any aesthete. Unusually, Green knows he is obsolete as a social type. This is what catches Orwell’s eye.
The world is changing in ways that will render poets and the things they value useless, Green records in his diary. Hitler is not just killing people; he is warping the very possibility of European civilization by destroying the place that beauty and leisure occupy in a developed society. But Green stands up and mounts the only kind of protest he is capable of. Orwell writes of him, he “is far too intelligent to imagine that his way of life or his scheme of values will last forever. . . But what is attractive in this diary is its complete impenitence, its refusal to move with the times. It is the diary of a civilised man who realises that barbarism is bound to triumph, but who is unable to stop being civilised.”
The recalcitrant will to resist mind-killing brute force is the animating spirit of Winston Smith in 1984. Like Julian Green, Smith can see that a system of powers is rising that will crush him, but he cannot help living as a free man until it does so. He is unable to stop being free. That is the human spirit, distilled.
Orwell actually wrote two essays on Tolstoy’s weird attack on Shakespeare, one in May 1941, and a longer, better-known one in March 1947.
The gist of Orwell’s first essay is that Tolstoy called Shakespeare “one of the worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen.” His plays were unserious, incoherent plagiarisms of nonsensical tales, railed Tolstoy. The assault was personal. Tolstoy seemed angered by Shakespeare’s continuing popularity. The only way to explain Shakespeare’s appeal, Tolstoy said, was by reference to an arcane conspiracy theory positing that a cabal of 19th century German critics had somehow conned all of literary society into believing that Shakespeare was a genius rather than a fraud.
Orwell actually grants Tolstoy some of his particular criticisms, essentially agreeing that Shakespeare’s mind was “a jumble, a rag bag . . . he had no world view.” And, yes, Shakespeare’s plays were full of extraneous interjections, gaudy bangles and non-sequiturs. But Tolstoy had, according to Orwell, drawn all the wrong conclusions from this mess. Obviously, no small, secretive group of plotters could account for the fact that people still, in 1940, loved hearing Shakespeare. “One must conclude,” wrote Orwell, “that there is something good–something durable–in Shakespeare which millions of ordinary people can appreciate, though Tolstoy happened to be unable to do so.”
In 1984 Winston Smith believes, with a kind of religious faith, that the will of the ordinary people is the only force capable of defeating Big Brother’s totalitarianism. And he believes this despite being part of a very different kind of movement–what he thinks is a secretive resistance group driven by a specialized economic theory. The working class in 1984 evince almost no intellectual spark, but Smith believes in them nonetheless.
Orwell, too, ultimately trusted the masses over the experts to save civilization despite the fact that–like Smith–he advocated for a political view rooted in (leftist) expertise. The masses may be ignorant and even bigoted at their worst, Orwell thought, but their sense of common decency could not be dismissed as mere bourgeois sentimentality. If Britain wished to win the war, the masses’ sense of decency would have to be cultivated, he thought.
Where does Shakespeare fit in again? Just as it was ridiculous to think that ordinary Englishmen would troop in to watch Henry IV year after year because of some machinations of a clutch of scheming critics, it was equally witless to believe that expertise would win out over–or was in some sense better than–what people actually believed. Common decency was durable, and it had to be taken seriously as a political force.
Orwell continued to revere Tolstoy even after eviscerating his strange attack on Shakespeare. He is forever balancing two sides of an argument like that.
In fact, Orwell thought all of life was a balancing act. You would not know this is the main point of his essay “The Art of Donald McGill” until you got pretty close to its end. Indeed, unless you’re into the minutiae of British cultural history you would probably, like me, have no idea who Donald McGill even was. It turns out he drew jokey, semi-pornographic postcards, often featuring women who were plus-sized in all the right places. A short way into the essay you’re thinking it’s going to be about censorship–a wartime concern of Orwell’s–and the conceptual line between smut and erotica. But that’s not it.
As usual, Orwell goes to a much more interesting place than the well-trodden ground. Even the most idealistic moralist, Orwell says, has two sides: the official self (whom Orwell dubs Don Quixote), who always tries to do the right thing, even at risk to his own well-being, and the unofficial self, or Sancho Panza, “a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin.” He occasionally drinks too much and enjoys “soft beds, no work, . . . and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures.” We all have this side to us–the side that would keep, as Orwell did, a few of McGill’s postcards lying around and feel no need to conceal them from polite company.
Bracing stuff, but still Orwell is not quite saying anything new. What he says next, though, is revolutionary–that decent people should be able to admit the existence of their inner Sancho Panza with no loss of moral seriousness. “On the whole, human beings want to be good,” Orwell writes, “but not too good and not quite all the time.” There is a “worldwide conspiracy,” he goes on, to pretend that the unofficial self does not exist. This conspiracy, this determination to lie to oneself about oneself all the time, is what needs to go.
Had Orwell lived till 1990, to see the end of Stalinist communism, the spectacle would not have surprised him. And not because of the economics of globalism or other “inevitable” historical forces, but because Stalinism required deep, wholesale dishonesty from each citizen about what human beings are, and that dishonesty was unsustainable. Decade upon decade real Russian and Czech and Polish people had to pretend to believe in homo sovieticus, a perfectible prototype of human being that always and everywhere put the needs of the state first. But they knew this was a delusion; they were just ordinary people, with foibles and private lives of their own.
What Orwell hints at in “The Art of Donald McGill” is that no system can survive if it forbids privacy, which necessarily entails moral fallibility. In a democracy, the individual must have and safeguard a private self capable of ordering its own scheme of moral priorities. Our ability to distinguish between acceptable lapses and prohibited transgressions without having a code of law imposed on us forcibly from above is the mark of free and equal human beings.
Clearly there is a single theme running through these obscurely-titled essays. (I could multiply examples beyond three, but better, I think to leave them to you to discover, if you wish.) Any idealistic conception of what people ought to be–poets, play-goers, moralists and so forth–must be rooted in what people actually are. Even though Orwell was capable of holding very low opinions of human nature–the most formative book he read was Gulliver’s Travels–he was at the end of the day an optimist. He believed that people were, by some natural inclination to congregate and cooperate, capable of a minimum level of decency and that was enough to carry off a program of liberal democracy. It was an idea that eventually got him out of a weird place.
“There is such a doubt about the continuity of civilisation as can hardly have existed for hundreds of years,” George Orwell wrote in January 1941. The Blitz was raging at the time, but he didn’t mean simply that Britain was at risk of being conquered by Hitler’s bombers.
In 1940 and 1941 Orwell was gripped by the idea that civilization was going through an epochal change that was, if you can imagine it, bigger than the eventual military outcome of the war. He felt that human life was being transformed right under everyone’s noses, and the emerging form of society would be unrecognizable to anyone stuck in the present. “Everything is cracking and collapsing,” he wrote in a book review.
Not everything Orwell predicted about the coming changes came true, at least not precisely, but the things Orwell got right were truly astounding.
He saw that the nature of work was changing fundamentally; managers and technicians would rise to dominate the new economy. Class differences would be eroded by something that didn’t have a name yet but which Orwell noticed and would come to be called mass culture–the fact that everyone, rich, poor and middle class alike, dressed more or less the same, saw the same movies, heard the same radio programs, and increasingly went to the same kinds of schools. Orwell also saw that all big governments, even democratic ones, would have the necessary communications technology to constantly manipulate their citizens’ perceptions, attitudes and even behavior. For centuries, citizens had to be cowed into conformity; now they would be led amicably by the nose.
What I want to do today, though, is not to discuss how right Orwell was about the epochal changes of his time. Rather, what I want to do is channel his mood as he braced for the coming upheavals. Because, increasingly I sense what Orwell did in 1940 and 1941: everything is cracking and collapsing. Things are happening that are transforming society right under our noses, and some of these spring from the same seismic trends Orwell saw coming.
First, the usefulness of billions of human beings is being obliterated before our eyes, as the nature of work evolves under the influence of science and technology even faster than in Orwell’s day. As recently as the year of my birth, any human in a developed society could aspire to the kind of working life that would earn him his keep, help society, and possibly even engage his mind. Increasingly, though, the labor outputs of smart machines, foreign wage-slaves and a handful of managers are displacing almost every kind of decent, constructive work we might have once expected to do. If you’re brainy, algorithms will do your job; brawny, and a machine probably already does it. The cascading effects of automation, specialization and offshoring are creating what the historian Yuval Noah Harari calls a rising “useless class.” The masses will soon be left without a meaningful contribution to make to society. What will we do?
I am greatly distressed by this trend. As a general rule, I get about as distressed by things as a sack of potatoes sitting slightly upright, sipping a glass of whisky. In a moment I’ll come to the reasons why I believe any thinking person should be terrified by the advent of large-scale human uselessness. But first let me explain its existential horror for me in particular.
The only saving grace we humans have is love. It makes the price of mortality payable. As Orwell put it, “one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Love might not be all you need, but it is the one thing you need to make life worth living. I don’t mean to get all Aristotelian about this, but if we analyze the concept of love down to its elements, one of these is the capacity to wish another person well. This sounds trivial, but it is not. Just before my father died, several years ago, he said he took comfort in the fact that he could see the fruition of his work as a parent in his children’s ability to go on without him. He thought we would be all right, and he was able to wish us well. He could not have formed these thoughts, I believe, without a reasonably clear idea of what the world would look like in the near future.
To wish one’s remaining children well requires an implicit act of imagination. The departing parent must not just have confidence in his children’s internal abilities, but must also be able to conjure up a vision of a world in which they have a reasonable chance of using those abilities to flourish. This used to be easy; children did much the same things their parents did in a world that remained the same. There was never a reason to question what kind of “ecosystem” the next generation of children would continue their life struggles.
But in 1941, Orwell noticed that children would presently grow up having to develop skills for a fundamentally different world–skills that were nothing like the ones that all Englishmen up to that point had acquired. Of this new competitive ecosystem, Orwell wrote:
It is a civilisation in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilisation belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.
The children of 1941 would be “technological natives,” to adapt a phrase from today. They would be significantly different from their parents, as Orwell foresaw, but not radically so. An England of technocrats and with fuzzier class differences could still be recognizably English, if just barely.
The children of today we call digital natives. I won’t attempt to characterize them; I’d just end up sounding uncool. But it is precisely the inadequacy of my descriptive powers that points to the source of my anxiety. Civilization is poised for such a disruption that I cannot even imagine the coming forms of life in which I will eventually try to wish my children well. And this failure of imagination is more or less where my own private anxieties overlap with the larger structural breakdowns that Harari and other thinkers like him foresee.
Much of this has to do with work. The world of work is changing drastically, and I feel about these changes the way did Orwell in 1940. It’s not that I’m predicting a dramatic break, but more like I’m realizing the very things we are doing today constitute that break. The leading waves of the revolution of uselessness (and a related phenomenon–pointless struggle) are already upon us.
I am no specialist in the economics of labor, so I will limit myself to a few blindingly obvious ways in which work life has changed during living memory and in which it continues to change today. One indisputable fact is that the “managerial revolution” proclaimed by James Burnham in his eponymous 1941 book has intensified into a form of technical specialization that now defines the domain of meaningful work. The most remunerative and meaningful jobs today all involve using office technology to solve intellectual or organizational problems. If that kind of work does not appeal to you, you are relegated to a second-class job or worse.
There are increasingly many of these to go around–pointless, unpleasant, and poorly paid jobs, which used to make up a small penumbra of the labor market. Today they make up the bulk of what we politely call the service industry. A handful of highly readable books can give you a useful view of this blighted landscape. Start with David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, in which he lays bare the decrepit futility of “lifestyle coach,” wedding planner, and all manner of consultantships. These jobs and their ilk all involve work that is utterly unrequired by humanity but in whose utility the employee pretends to believe. They are often well paid. This fundamental, widespread dishonesty corrupts the human soul. Bullshit jobs also waste time and resources on a massive scale.
Bullshit jobs are not to be confused with shit jobs, such as dishwasher or highway worker. Shit jobs are highly necessary but poorly paid. Many American workers who used to make their living doing one moderately shitty job now must string together several shit jobs. It hasn’t always been this way. If you graduated with a high school degree or acquired its rough equivalent in knowledge between 1776 and 1960, our country held out the prospect of dignified, meaningful work. It might be hard, and occasionally shitty around the edges, but it would enable you to make do on your own terms. Today, if “all” the education you want is a high school diploma, the odds are you will end up with one or more shit jobs for a long period of time and possibly all of your working life.
Whoever maintains that any hardworking American can earn a secure living through grit and determination simply does not grasp elementary statistics. There are thousands upon thousands of shit jobs out there. Society does not functions without them being done, and people will be driven by necessity to do them. Increasingly, workers who are not phenomenally lucky (as I have been–more in a moment) will be sorted into this sector with the force of gravity.
But you can still do your own thing by taking on a gig job, right? In the age of Uber, Fiver, and DoorDash, why would any freedom-loving American ever again punch a timecard or go to a meeting? For a withering expose of how this kind of work deprives ordinary people of rights, power and security, read Sarah Kesslar’s 2018 book (whose title says it all) Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work.
The prelude to the gig trend was the discovery by employers in the decades leading up to the 1980s that they could parse whole jobs into part-time ones and leave out the benefits and much of what used to be called workers’ rights. Louis Hyman’s 2018 book Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary describes this descent into planned impoverishment and job insecurity. It is now okay in America for a working mom to have to string together enough part-time work at Target, Taco Bell and Grub Hub to feed her kids. Since the job market, like all free markets, is supposed to project a perfect reflection reality, we are meant to shrug our shoulders and accept that the vandalized, fractured nature of work is “just the way things are.” It is not. We created it.
The allure (to the employer) of downgrading all jobs to informal, poorly paid piece work has also created a new opportunity to wring the last ounce of labor value out of the old, even as they are dying. Jessica Bruder’s 2017 Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century describes how senior citizens today must migrate around America’s hinterland chasing shit jobs in factory farms and Amazon warehouses because they cannot afford to retire, or even buy or rent homes in which to retire. Add to the Taco Bell moms I mentioned in the paragraph above a new sub-class of immiserated wage slaves: older people who are openly being worked to death by the rich in the clear light of day.
This sketch of work life in the 21st century has been a bit longer than I intended, but then again, work is the focal point of our lives. For good or ill, it makes up a huge part of the life-long struggle that gives us meaning and identity. Orwell was obsessed with it because he saw that changing work conditions would transform English society, making it into something wholly new. The puffed-up, useless aristocrats who were regarded as permanent features of society were actually part of a dying breed.
Let me pause here to state the obvious. As my children survey the field of careers they might try to take up, they will have to contend with the very antagonistic structural trends I’ve been describing: a nightmare job market whose distortions are authored by a tiny elite who present them (disingenuously) as objective reality. If my kids use their brains to get on the upside of these trends, their horizons could open on to relatively comfortable but meaningless work lives, in which most cognitive labor is done by machines and a tiny technological elite. More and more shit jobs will be performed by poor people far away. The American middle class in 2020 could be as done for as Orwell’s aristocrats in 1940.
I would know. I’m in the middle of the middle class, and–believe me–I keep my ear to the tracks.
As a humanities major with no saleable work skills, I am also part of a dying breed–the last of the bureaucrats able to parlay my soft credentials into hard, meaningful work and a handsome income. On current trends, though, millions of Americans whose qualifications outmatch mine will soon be relegated to the desolation of gig work, shit jobs, and other, as-yet unimagined forms of wage slavery. A lucky few will find well paid but meaningless bullshit jobs created in the entrepreneurial wake of the audacious scientific-technical elite. You know–project managers.
In his vexation of 1940 and 1941, Orwell mentioned a strange thing several times–his fear that novels would cease to be written, at least until the threat of fascism had been defeated. Indeed he feared the whole human endeavor of creative art was at risk. The Nazis, he believed, sought to kill the very idea of human freedom and equality, which is essential for art, especially literature. But Orwell had confidence that Nazism, as strong as it was, would ultimately be defeated. Art–and humanity–would survive.
It is not so clear that the forces that are draining the possibility of meaning from human life in the 21st century can be defeated by the things that gave Orwell hope–human bravery, selflessness, common sense and solidarity. There are two main reasons to be pessimistic.
One is that the scientific advances enabling our proliferation of technology are increasingly recondite. Common sense cannot come to grips with them, and bravery may be too crude a virtue to stand up to them. The mechanisms that promise to carry technology over the horizon of human intelligibility are genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR). Artificial intelligence weaves through all three disciplines and forms the basis of the last. Learning, doing machines will shape our future. The .01 percent of the world’s smartest people will wind them up and see where they go.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will have to be exceedingly brief: GNR technologies will enable machines, some smaller than molecules, to re-assemble the building blocks of physical reality. In “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” a 2000 essay widely read by geeks but, tragically, ignored by everyone else, computer scientist Bill Joy explained why GNR constituted such an unprecedented threat–because it is a suite of technologies designed to act autonomously. It self-replicates. Yes, it will in the strictest sense do what “we” (that .01 percent) tell it to, but given GNR’s complexity, our instructions to it could trigger sequences of events we can neither stop nor control. Let one genetically engineered plant with enhanced photosynthesis slip into the biosphere and it could out-compete (kill) every other plant species on earth. Create the “friendliest” of AIs and it could still be driven by unanticipatable logic chains to exterminate all of humanity or expropriate all our resources, which would amount to the same thing. And so on.
Summarizing this class of threats, Joy sounds more like a tent-revival preacher than a computer scientist:
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.
If Joy’s invocation of evil and “extreme individuals” sounds overblown, try this on for size: what if the overlords of the technologies poised to bring GNR threats online are not cold, titanic geniuses but just nihilistic tech bros honing their “hacker ethic” and chasing fat stacks of venture capital? Do you feel better? The clique of technology gurus who are presently assembling all the world’s useful artifacts–from emergency rooms to power plants to the locks on our front doors–into an “internet of things” literally do not care if the future they are inventing connects coherently to a past. This is the second reason I feel pessimistic about the near future. Nazism had a point, and Orwell was confident that decent, liberal people would sense its evil and resist it. Other than moving fast and breaking things, today’s technologists have no point. They just want to invent cool stuff, stuff we want. There may be an enemy lurking in their formless digital fantasyland, but we cannot recognize it.
At the very least, we should face up to how fragile of our world has been made by uploading its critical parts online, even while we race ahead toward the datafication of everything. See Nicole Perloth’s brand new This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race for a terrifying primer on this subject.
In If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, historian Jill Lepore details the underappreciated rise of data science and the pioneering company that first tried using it to shape human behavior and attitudes. This grand idea was dreamed up by a group of flawed but idealistic East Coast white liberals who wanted to improve American society in the 1960s. But the “best minds” of today who are carrying their project on “are [instead] thinking about how to make people click ads,” as one Facebook employee related in 2011. Celebrating “anarchy as a measure of . . . creativity,” the leading designers of the technosphere, like Mark Zuckerberg, seem to take pride in blanking out the past. But is this the best path to the future?
As incongruent as it sounds, the ingenious elite who are shaping our information ecosystem today are self-consciously anti-intellectual. To a great extent, they scorn the study of anything other than computing and communications technologies. In If Then, Lepore writes,
In twenty-first-century Silicon Valley, the meaninglessness of the past and the uselessness of history became articles of faith, gleefully performed arrogance. “The only thing that matters is the future,” said the Google and Uber self-driving car designer Anthony Levandowski in 2018. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess–the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.
Without putting too subtle a Heideggerian point on this statement of anti-human principle, let me sketch the main difference between having a “tomorrow” and having a “future.” Tomorrow is a blank slate, no more than the sun’s rising once more; it can herald anything, including the howling desolation of a civilization that has nullified itself, like the one Levandowski seems to invite. Having a future, though, is inextricably linked to having a past. One of the hopes that kept Orwell going in 1941 as the bombs fell on London was that plain, ordinary patriotism would be put to good use, and the English would summon enough unity to beat Hitler. They would look to their past, flawed and exploitative as it was, and imagine a future worth fighting for.
At the moment, I am too flummoxed to envision a coherent future. Twenty years after his essay, Bill Joy is still right that there are too few people (“extreme individuals”) in charge of it. He may also be right that its ghastly shape might have already been determined in the hidden codes of GNR technologies as they were emerging in the 1990s and 2000s without any regulatory supervision.
In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, as Yuval Noah Harari describes the wide-open possibilities of human life in the late 21st century, he comes back again and again to a central theme–the acceleration of change. Humans of the future will have to be flexible and resilient on an unprecedented scale. They will constantly have to educate and re-educate themselves and train for new jobs. Even the smart, talented and driven may have to plan to have two, three or more careers. It sounds exhausting. It sounds disorienting.
Or, if most of their work is done for them, they may have to learn to create meaning from permanent leisure. This sounds demoralizing.
I do not know if evolution has fitted us with the stores of resilience and creativity we will need to cope with such unrelenting change. But try we will. Humans are programmed to struggle. And as Orwell saw, the instinct that drives us on no matter what is the struggle to connect the future to the past. That’s why he believed England would win the war. But I cannot see my version of what Orwell saw. I cannot see the future in which humanity wins the war against inhumanity. It doesn’t mean that future isn’t out there: it just means that I have no way of picturing it. I need to be capable of what my father was at the last, of wishing my children well. But I cannot see their future world, the world in which they will try to thrive. I can only hope they will be able to.
You could get the impression that I spend most of my time actively demoralized by failures of the human spirit. It’s true I have more words of scorn than praise for my fellow man in this journal, and I occasionally find myself wearing an Edith Sitwell scowl of icy contempt at the outrages we humans visit on our meager stores of reason and decency. Every time a Marjorie Taylor Greene-type quacks out an assault on the very idea of human intelligence, Sitwell’s visage hovers into my mind’s eye to implore on our behalf: Must we endure these things?
It’s pretty rich that I even call myself an optimist. I suppose I’m an optimist in the same way Paul was a Christian: I know without doubt it’s what I’m called to be, even if I never feel like I’m quite up to the mark.
Anyway, as I explained about the title of my blog WAY back when, I do not consider myself wiser, braver or more optimistic than the average Joe. But, inspired by my hero George Orwell, I do feel called to develop those virtues through writing. They are indispensable for leading a serious, fulfilling life.
The quotation, “wiser, braver, more optimistic,” is from Orwell of course. In an inconsequential 1946 essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” Orwell is explaining why he prefers the Indian variety of tea over Chinese. The Chinese stuff, although it is not to be despised, has “not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.” Orwell’s preferred cup is a question of caffeine buzz. I like that. Let us not scorn chemical assistance as we beautify our souls, it says to me.
I thought today I would talk through the meaning of Orwell’s landmark 1940 essay “Inside the Whale.” The reason I chose this text is because it is widely regarded as one of Orwell’s most pessimistic. It’s also unusually difficult reading for an Orwell essay, wandering in uncharacteristic loops rather than coming straight to the point. Since my own brand of gloominess is directly informed by Orwell’s, it will be worthwhile to try to work out what was really going on in his head at this dark hour.
So, “Inside the Whale” is a longish essay that doesn’t seem at first like it’s going to pack a political wallop. Orwell simply asks why Henry Miller’s scandalous 1935 novel Tropic of Cancer stood out so starkly from the rest of 1930s English-language literature. One reason, he says, was Miller’s acceptance of existence in its fullness–from the mundane, even tawdry muck of the street to the transcendence of the heavens. The novel ends with Miller impoverished and battered by life but serenely watching the Seine flow by. Orwell hears the confident strains of Whitman rising from Miller’s musical writing. He almost equates Miller with Whitman in a kind of American optimism. But then,
Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, [Orwell wrote], but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality, and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth century America, men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure Communism. . . . Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without boot-licking.
Ah, those were the days. But today it is 1940 Europe; Hitler and Mussolini are on the march, France has capitulated, and Stalin, it turns out, has cut a secret deal to leave Hitler alone. The English people are on food rations and expecting to be bombed any day. “Unlike Whitman,” Orwell writes, “we live in a shrinking world. The ‘democratic vistas’ have ended in barbed wire.”
At the end of “Inside the Whale,” we see it is not simply the prospect of defeat by the Axis that worries Orwell. He thinks war threatens to ruin the English even if they win. The manufactured sense of national unity required to beat Hitler and stand up to Stalin will undermine freedom and prosperity, Orwell believes. This is because England, like the rest of the “democratic” west, will have to construct a totalizing scheme of propaganda that substitutes oligarchy for real democracy and teaches the masses to love their masters. Already, then, we see the darkest theme of 1984 stirring in Orwell’s mind.
The development that pushed Orwell into full-blown pessimism was that his fellow socialists were getting blindly and enthusiastically behind the war with Germany. Orwell thought they should back the war tactically but still keep their powder dry for a socialist revolution that would take down Britain’s own fascist appendage, its colonial regime. As recently as 1939 Orwell told a friend in a letter that they should prepare then, before the government stepped up surveillance, to “start organising for illegal anti-war activities.” He wanted to set up a secret press.
Why was Orwell on such a knife edge? Why, at this moment of national existential crisis, could he not get fully behind the war against fascism? Because he saw that, just over the horizon, governments including his own would have the means to get the people to believe lies all the time, even in peacetime. This was a threshold from which there was no coming back, he thought. Bleakly, he wrote,
Until recently, the full implications of [the fascist challenge] were not foreseen, because it was generally imagined that Socialism could preserve and even enlarge the atmosphere of liberalism. It is now beginning to be realised how false this idea was. Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships–an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.
This was the nadir of Orwell’s interior life before (or during) the war. While he would, in a few years, go on to tout his own “power of facing unpleasant facts,” no liberal could be blamed in early 1940, he said, for wishing to stay enveloped in the womb-like protection of the legendary whale’s belly, impervious to storms raging outside. (Much of the middle part of the essay wanders around this theme, arguing in an uncharacteristically desultory way that all of English literature since 1930 had contributed to this complacence.)
For a brief moment, Orwell gives in to the welcoming blindness of the whale’s belly, writing, “At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people. It is for this reason that I think the passive, non-cooperative attitude implied in Henry Miller’s work is justified.”
Orwell was spectacularly wrong in his predictions about the war. He wrote in “Inside the Whale” that “It will either last several years and tear western civilisation to pieces or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war that will do the job once and for all.” World War Two set the standard for conclusive endings, and it resulted in a stable world order that jumpstarted new prosperity and broadened the realm of liberal democracy. It may be too early to say what the ultimate fate of “western civilization” is, but Orwell was certainly wrong about it being destroyed in the near term.
But later, Orwell would write about sticking to his dire pronouncements even after the war in 1984 that his prophecies were were warnings, not predictions. It’s up to us, he wrote, to make sure they do not become predictions. It is in this paradox that my optimism merges with Orwell’s: there is no sense telling decent people that very bad things are afoot if you have no reason to believe they can act to avoid or reverse the worst outcomes. Political pessimism, done right, is really optimism for the thinking person.
In real life, there was no need for Orwell’s long-contemplated socialist revolution in Britain. Britain would actually vote–not fight–after the war for a system of social democracy that would erase many of the most durable structures of economic injustice Orwell (and the British people) had known. Indeed most of Europe would unite behind an unprecedented scheme, not of nationalist propaganda, but mutual pacification and cooperation. And who knows–if Orwell hadn’t been willing to be wrong about his most dire political warnings, Europe’s leaders might not have dared to form the world’s first bloc of social democracy. That is something to inspire the optimist in all of us.
He spent a large part of it flat on his back in Morocco, recuperating from a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. He didn’t believe in the medical theory that put him there, saying in a letter that the idea of certain climates being “good for you . . .[was] a racket run by tourist agencies and local doctors.”
Furthermore, he found Morocco boring. It was hot and dry, of course, but even the politics of the place proved arid. The French were stodgy colonial overseers who had little trouble managing the Arabs. The Arabs, Orwell thought, lacked the political development for mounting a rebellion. “There is no sign of an anti-French movement,” he reported.
Worst of all, though, Orwell couldn’t even write most of the time–he was that weak. Since publishing his first book in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had kept up the inhuman pace of writing one book each year, also churning out a steady flow of book reviews and the occasional essay. He also fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and wrote a book about it. Oh, yes, he had a honeymoon of a year that year with his newlywed wife Eileen. She was smart, pretty and well suited to him. They were in love, and when they fled war-torn Spain, it was with the police “snapping at their heels.”
So maybe after a year like that, 1938 was bound to be a comedown.
So it certainly seemed to be. Orwell wrote to a friend in November of that year, “What with all this illness I’ve decided to count 1938 as a blank year and sort of cross it off the calendar.”
I think we’ve all had years like that. But take heart. You can never really be sure what is surging below the surface when your sea appears to be at a dead calm.
This was certainly the case for Orwell. Not only was there more moving on the surface of Orwell’s life than he let on, 1938 was the year that his boldest ideas began to take shape at the back of his mind. It was a hinge year–he consciously became a political writer and began to intuit the vastness of the threat totalitarianism posed to democracy.
In a short, forceful essay in June, Orwell announced that he had joined the International Labor Party, a socialist group but one that strictly abjured Stalinism. As a movement that was truly for the people, not a communist cabal or the moneyed interests, Orwell believed socialism alone could provide the kind of governance that “in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech” and thus protect his ability to write. But one can’t just cheer on the good guys, he said:
In so far as I have struggled against the system, it has been mainly by writing books which I hoped would influence the reading public. I shall continue to do that, of course, but at a moment like the present, writing books is not enough. The tempo of events is quickening; the dangers which once seemed a generation distant are staring us in the face. One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.
No sooner had Orwell become a card-carrying party man (in June), his lung hemorrhage happened (in July), and he could neither write nor organize. He would be treated for two months in a sanitorium in Kent followed by six months’ recuperation in Morocco. The doctors ordered him to rest.
Your emotions don’t stop working when you’re laid out flat and unable to do your work, of course. For Orwell, it was precisely an emotional shift in 1938 that would change the shape and color of his thought for the rest of his life.
Orwell had always been, in a searching kind of way, an ironic, dyspeptic, occasionally bitter man. But in 1938, he found his fury. With one European democracy after another caving in to the rising threat of fascist Germany, Orwell worried in a September 1938 letter that the coming war might damage the book publishing industry. This appeared to be a narrow, professional concern, but there was more to it. Orwell was alarmed by a broader threat posed by fascism, to the kind of decent, reflective life that democracy makes possible. The kind of society where good books are written, and read. That could all just disappear.
Some of Orwell’s fellow leftists seemed to relish the coming disturbance of the peace: they actively wanted war over ordinary life. Orwell felt more cautious, though, writing:
But I personally do see a lot of things that I want to do and continue doing for another thirty years or so, and the idea that I’ve got to abandon them and either be bumped off or depart to some filthy concentration camp just infuriates me. Eileen and I have decided that if war does come the best thing will be to just stay alive and thus add to the number of sane people.
Even in a personal letter, where the author is expected to show his cards, I think it is revelatory that Orwell speaks so openly of his fear and anger. I have read all of Orwell’s surviving letters, and none of them predating this one expresses this sharp an emotion. He’s not just horrified by the prospect of being killed or interred (and he means by his fellow Englishmen, who will have turned fascist); he is infuriated.
One of the reasons Orwell felt himself to be on such a knife-edge of history was that his novel-writing, although only inching along, was starting to illuminate the full shape of the beast Europe was contending with. In December 1938 he wrote to a friend that he was eager to finish his draft novel, Coming Up For Air. Well, Orwell was always eager to finish his next book, but he was also consistently self-deprecating about its quality, usually dubbing it a failure before it even hit the presses. This time, though, he was excited, writing to his friend, that his germinating book “suddenly revealed to me a big subject which I’d never really touched before and haven’t time to work out properly now.”
George Bolling, the novels’ antagonist, felt war coming. So did everyone else in England. But it was the concomitant seismic shift in world politics that alarmed and demoralized Bolling (and Orwell, of course). Contending with fascism on a world scale was going to do as-yet unknown harm to the culture of democracy. One night Bolling attends a noisy political rally where the speaker says, like it or not, England would have to fight fire with fire when it came to German fascism. The only option was ruin and capitualtion. Bolling reflects:
But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen. Or isn’t it?
With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was not just a big idea Orwell was starting to evolve in Morocco in 1938. It was the big idea, the one that would make him Orwell. Once large governments start using advanced technology and the instruments of mass culture to control their nations, they could glimpse the possibility of becoming permanent regimes. If you can get the people to believe anything, you can rule forever. This is the glowing nuclear core of political power in the twentieth century.
In a review of Bertrand Russell’s 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, Orwell again evokes a collective downward political movement, toward deeps that would submerge and immobilize the human spirit. He is criticizing Russell’s “pious hope” that, bad as Hitler seems, all tyrannies have come and gone, and Hitler’s will too. Orwell writes:
Underlying this is the idea that common sense always wins in the end. And yet the peculiar horror of the present moment is that we cannot be sure that this is so. It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organised lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not already coming into existence?
I generally dislike the device of asking “What would the long-gone notable X say” about this or that current affair. It militates against fresh thinking. But I must admit that I couldn’t get Orwell out of my head on January 6th while watching the MAGA insurrectionists attack police officers with the staffs of Blue Live Matter flags. Anyone can say two plus two equals five when the Leader orders them to: these people were acting it out with their very bodies–they were fighting like hell to show they believed it.
This is a new turn, which not even Orwell anticipated. With all due respect to those harmed by the MAGA cult’s violence, the violence itself is not MAGA’s most horrifying feature. It is how easily replicable the cult’s basis of power–the collective lie–is. When Orwell was just coming to grips with the outlines of dictatorial power in 1938, he was right to observe that strongmen relied on “huge systems of organised lying” imposed from the top-down. Today, though, those systems are self-organizing, bottom up. Orwell wrote in the passage above that the subjects of totalitarianism were at a disadvantage because their rulers still believed in facts, but now there has been a slave revolt of sorts that upsets this truth. The people are outpacing their rulers in the frenzy to make and believe in increasingly outrageous lies. See the small but hateful presence of a MAGA-Q-Anon caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those are the people.
While Orwell didn’t exactly see this disaster coming in 1938, once again, he intuited the conditions that would make it possible. In one of his last writings that year–a book review about the USSR–he again raised a warning that, for the first time in history dictators could contemplate staying in power forever. He expanded:
In the past every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted, because of “human nature”, which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that “human nature” is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. . . . Mass suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not yet know how successful it will be.
The really horrifying turn of the twentieth century was the prospect, first realized in Soviet Russia, that a government could bring its people to believe, with all their being, in obvious untruths. The unprecedented part, of course, was not the forceful propagation of untruths. In his book review, Orwell points out that the Inquisition had already done that. What was new was the idea that an authoritarian regime could create a mass constituency that was culturally encoded to believe its lies, with vigor. As elementary genetics tells us, once you create a new variant of a species, its genes are as good a candidate as any others to compete for survival. The desire to believe in lies, although it appears grotesque, can propagate itself; has propagated itself. These genes expressed themselves in a flash of hideous strength on January 6th at the seat of our government. Now they are in the seat of our government.
Orwell saw the roots of all this in 1938. It was not a year for crossing off the calendar after all.
Amanda Gorman’s transfixing recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s inauguration was a literary triumph.
If you only have five and a half free minutes, please watch Gorman’s performance rather than read my attempt to praise it. Here is a link.
But if you can indulge me, I’d like describe how Gorman’s poem struck me. It was a crowning, radiant moment in American literature.
First, “The Hill We Climb” is clearly and powerfully of a piece with Walt Whitman. The hill Gorman has us struggling up is carpeted with Whitman’s leaves of grass. And just as Whitman’s cycle of nature poems was written to unite a wounded, fracturing country, Gorman’s calls us to a “glade,” where our “bruised” nation can draw new strength and “strive to forge a union of purpose.”
Also like Whitman, Gorman casts her gaze fondly over our whole landscape, to “every known nook of our nation,” and hears a hymn rising from all over the land, from “the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states [and] the sun-baked South.” She has us striding out boldly, called to energetic action, but, like Whitman’s Americans, most at peace in the the pastoral, where scripture says “everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Second, Gorman’s patriotism in “The Hill We Climb” is searing, and it is uniquely African American. I do not mean it is like “ordinary” patriotism but with a Black twist: I mean it has a depth and quality that can only be voiced by the descendants of slaves. When Gorman’s poem searches for the meaning of the American origin story, we might easily think she will find it–justifiably–in 1619, with the arrival of the first ships bearing slaves to Virginia. There is much to be said, after all, for the recent argument that 1776 was not our nation’s founding moment.
But no. Gorman indicates the unfinished project of our country started exactly where the school books say it did, in 1776–in “the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.”
This remarkable appeal to the Founders’ revolution by a daughter of those most brutalized by the system the Founders perpetuated is the truest form of patriotism. It is harrowed by doubt, tempered by fire, but all the more magnificent because of the severity of the tests it has passed.
In “The Fire Next Time,” one of the greatest essays in American letters, James Baldwin argued eloquently that if we Americans are to “achieve our country,” we will do so by advancing the revolution begun in Boston. And he drew this conclusion in full knowledge of how miserably we had failed to fulfill our national purpose up to that point (in 1963). For many Americans, patriotism is an untroubled, warm love of country. But Baldwin reveals that informed patriotism starts in a very cold place:
The American Negro [he wrote] has the great advantage of never having believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, . . . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.
But Baldwin held true to the American vision.
So does Gorman. When she exhorts us to continue the work of our revolution, she speaks from the same place as Baldwin. And Baldwin was speaking from the same place as Frederick Douglass. They all make the impassioned argument that, even knowing the worst there is to know about our history, it is still our original vision of liberty, justice and equality that we must strive for. It is not time to abandon our project and try something easier. We must achieve our country
Finally, Gorman’s use of a rapping meter to deliver her poem was artistically superb and historically significant. Jazz, gospel, and the blues are often said to be the most original American art forms. The fact that they have their roots in the historical experience of racial oppression gives them a moral vividness lacking in all other folk art. Gorman’s rapping delivery, albeit subtle, tapped into this vividness and reminded us that the experience of racial oppression continues to stimulate the most original art forms on the American scene. Whitman heard America singing; so did Amanda Gorman, even as she was singing to us.
Orwell is such a fixed star in the universe of political writers, we can easily forget how meandering a path he took to reach his mature views. It was only in middle age after fighting the forces of fascism and being menaced by fellow leftists in the Spanish Civil War that his principles as a social democrat clearly came together. For several years as a young man he had held such an odd mixture of traditional and libertarian beliefs he called himself a “Tory anarchist.” (“Hippie Reaganite” might give American ears a sense of the disconnect.)
Still, the social democrat was there in outline all along. When you go back to Orwell’s first writings and read them in order–as I am doing this year–the component artifacts of his mature position are evident and intact even in the beginning. They need very little sifting or piecing together.
In April 1931 Orwell published his first political essay, “The Spike.” It was actually an article of what we would today call “immersion journalism,” in which he posed as a tramp and stayed a weekend in a public shelter (called “spikes” at the time). The experience Orwell describes is austere and humiliating. Together with his fellow tramps, he was stripped down to his rags of underclothing, medically screened–ostensibly for smallpox–and locked inside a barn-like building with bare concrete floors. The men received only hard bread, margarine and weak tea for their sustenance. They washed up twenty to a single washbasin.
Although Orwell’s general description of the spike’s misery is memorable, it was one particular tramp who caught his attention. The tramp in question seemed a cut above the 40-odd others, described as “mentally blank” and intellectually unable to grasp their plight. But Orwell’s tramp knew what was wrong: a carpenter, he had lost his tools to a small financial crisis and fell out of work. “It’s idiotic,” he reflected: “six months at the public charge for want of three pounds’ worth of tools.”
This passage points directly to the social democratic principle that welfare should relieve specific shortfalls. It need not be wasteful or even generous if it is smart. Restore that destitute carpenter’s tools today, and relieve the public of paying his room and board indefinitely. What Orwell was witnessing in the spike was a general approach to palliating poverty and homelessness so lacking in thought that it perpetuated the very conditions it was supposed to address. This was basically the same world Dickens inhabited, in which poor houses were kept up as a means of warehousing the poor but with no conception of other kinds of interventions that might break the cycle of poverty. It was almost as if the rich wanted the poor to always be with them.
Orwell’s next essay, “A Hanging,” was published in August 1931. In it he illustrated a far weightier principle of social democracy: that the state must waive its right to kill where it can humanely incapacitate instead. There should be no death penalty. Today we know of several abstract arguments against the death penalty. To me, the most compelling one is based in the error rate of capital convictions. Actual cases of mistakes tell us innocents have been executed; statistics tell us this injustice will continue as long as the death penalty exists.
For Orwell, though, the most compelling “argument” against the death penalty is simply that he is radically pro-life. He cannot, metaphysically, make sense of humans deliberately snuffing out the lives of other humans who are completely under their control.
In the scene Orwell recalls in “A Hanging,” he is a young colonial police officer in Burma. As his detail force-marches a condemned prisoner toward the gallows, the man adjusts his stride to avoid stepping in a puddle. That moment burst upon Orwell’s conscience like lightning. He recalls:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.
Orwell would go on for nearly twenty years speaking and speaking of the wrongs men do to one another, but the wrongness of capital punishment he found unspeakable. All social democrats, indeed all decent human beings, share this belief in the limits of justice–that our system may go up to the point of incapacitating a known criminal, but we dare not take their lives as long as we are in full control of our senses, reasons and actions.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we are taught as children. And it’s good advice. Much great literature and moral theorizing tells us, very sensibly, that we must look inside people’s hearts and minds to understand what’s going on on the surface.
George Orwell looked as deeply into the human mind as anyone, at least when it came to politics. He admired many of his critics and ideological enemies and thought their beliefs should be given careful, deliberate consideration. But he also believed there are times when you go with your gut–when you can see evil right in front of your nose.
Take goose-stepping. In a 1940 essay, “England, Your England,” Orwell observed:
One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim.
Sometimes the evil you can perceive aesthetically is not so clear cut, but it is still there. Charles Dickens, Orwell wrote, was constantly hitting out against a wickedness he couldn’t quite define. Of his more prosecutorial novels, Orwell wrote, “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face’.”
His own camp did not escape this kind of criticism. When Orwell insulted certain English socialists as “juice-drinking sandal-wearers,” he was not merely indulging his own in-born conservative attitude. He knew that his fellow leftists’ ostentatious weirdness would put off the great majority of working people they needed on their side if they were ever going to win elections. Orwell firmly believed that to most of the working class, “a crank meant a Socialist, and a Socialist meant a crank.”
But here Orwell was basically just saying, don’t look silly if you have a serious point to make.
Back to the evil that can be directly apprehended in surface appearances. From the first time I watched the video of Donald Trump clomping across Lafayette Square to hold an upside-down Bible aloft in front of St. John’s Church, I thought not only was it a naked, sacrilegious abuse of power, but also that its ugliness was part of its essence. It was the hideous core of Trumpism saying to all its opponents, “Yes, I’m ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me.”
When Orwell wrote down the very first political lesson he learned, he still went by his birth name, Eric Blair. The lesson was this: It is often illegal to be somewhere, and since poor people have less choice over where they happen to be at any given time, it is most often they who lack a legal right just to stand, sit, or lie around. The police move them on, to the next place it will be illegal for them to be.
The 17-year old Blair had been travelling by train. Beckoned by an acquaintance waving from a village station, he got off, was delayed, and was, as it turned out, left behind. There were no more trains that day. Even later in life, when he became known as George Orwell, Blair never had much money in his pocket. That day, he records, he had seven and a half pence, or about $5. It was enough to pay for dinner or a bed at the local Y but not both. It was August, so he decided to buy food and skip the shelter.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote that once he had bought his dinner, he sought out a palace to sleep rough, “finally [coming] to anchor in a corner field” near some garden plots.
As dogs began to bark nearby, Blair worried that, “people frequently got fourteen days for sleeping in someone else’s field & ‘having no visible means of support’.” And that described him to a T. He was illegally occupying the only place he could be, given his options.
I mention this episode for a few reasons. First, in the huge shadow of Orwell’s later, more formidable writings, it is often forgotten that his first political inklings were very simple ones about the plight of the poor. This was the very first one.
Second, like so many of Orwell’s small, offhand observations–such as calling London’s plutocrats the “one percent” in 1943–this one would grow into its own weighty branch of political discourse. It applies directly to refugees and asylum seekers. (Our whole approach to the southern U.S. border, for example, is to shrink the space in which potential refugees have standing to plea their cases. We are doing our damndest to make it illegal for them to be anywhere.) The whole edifice of the Jim Crow South rested on the legal power to use poverty as a stand-in for race and therefore a pretext for racial oppression. It kept Blacks in “their” place, which was almost nowhere. Southern whites simply made it illegal for the poor to be anywhere they might try to exercise a human right. Then all they had to do was apply the law.
Third, Blair’s letter highlights why it is not, as is often alleged, hypocritical for privileged members of society to acquaint themselves with the plights of others. Yeah, of course he got on a train the next day and just went home. When Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London and then, a few years later, The Road to Wigan Pier, he caught the full force of the standard reactionary critique of this kind of thing: that comfortable do-gooders posing as the poor are merely dabbling in others’ suffering, something that is in poor taste and morally dishonest. A white, middle-class student, like Orwell sleeping in the field, can at any time remove himself to the comforts of home. They can never know the full extent of what it means to be poor.
To which the rest of Orwell’s writings would say: Yes, that is absolutely the point. Only those who can return to the comforts of home can approach the halls of power, where injustices are redressed. Were an activist to transform himself to a poor person, he would an unremarkable instance of the injustice he opposed. Orwell saw, many decades before the idea of a “social justice warrior,” that the allies of the oppressed must come from the privileged class, and they will always look awkward doing their jobs. But their jobs must be done.