Orwell's struggle may be over

By Ed Kaitz
November 22, 2012

By his own admission George Orwell was a committed socialist. About a year before his death in 1950 Orwell responded to the leftist charge that his recently published novel 1984 represented a direct attack on both socialism and the British Labour Party. Orwell calmed the fears of his progressive friends with the following response:

"My recent novel [1984] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism."

In other words, Orwell tirelessly promoted a kind of socialism that promised "political democracy, social equality, internationalism" and most importantly "freedom of thought and speech." Orwell was under the impression that a "humanized" collectivist society was possible.
Indeed, those of us who have read and thoroughly enjoyed Orwell's Animal Farm1984, and other great books and essays understand that Orwell truly hated despotism. But a more complex portrait of Orwell has to account for Orwell's distaste for what he calls a "particular kind" of economic despotism -- capitalism. Writing in the magazine Politics and Letters in 1948 Orwell said the following:

"Until well-within living memory the forces of the Left in all countries were fighting against a tyranny which appeared to be invincible, and it was easy to assume that if only that particular tyranny -- capitalism -- could be overthrown, Socialism would follow."

What most post-WWII British leftists failed to recognize, said Orwell, was that the material prosperity and rising living standards guaranteed by the socialist representatives in Parliament could not be achieved without continuing the hated policy of British imperialism. Orwell's solution to this dilemma was simple honesty: leftist politicians in power need to be up front with the people and prepare them for "an uncomfortable transition period" the goal of which is a lower standard of living characteristic of what Orwell called "true Socialism at home."
Writing between 1943 and 1945 Orwell was certainly giddy at the prospect of building socialism at home. The war years had, according to Orwell, forced the British people to get by with less, reduced the envy and resentment of class distinctions, and most importantly "habituated [the people] to a planned regimented sort of life in which consumption goods are shared out with reasonable fairness." As Orwell put it:

"What happens in total war is that the acute suffering -- not merely danger and hardship but boredom and homesickness - is pushed on to the armed forces, who may number ten percent of the population, while the rest enjoy a security and a social equality which the never know at other times. Of course there is also the bombing, the break-up of families, anxiety over husbands and sons, overwork and lack of amusements, but these are probably much more tolerable than the haunting dread of unemployment against a backdrop of social competitiveness."

For George Orwell then, bombing, family break-up, and anxiety over the impending death of loved ones is actually more tolerable than the uncertainty and struggle that often accompanies life in the free market. Orwell's perspective here provides a fascinating insight into what partially animates the typical socialist mind, which is a tendency to downplay traditional beliefs in self-reliance, personal struggle, and a strong work ethic.
Orwell's "planned, regimented sort of life" leaves very little room in other words for what theologians and philosophers from ancient times to the present have called individual "soul-making." However, this lack of individuality and diversity makes Orwell's hated centralized and statist "perversions" that much more likely.
Nevertheless, Orwell continued to criticize the lethargic and conservative British public for failing to "imagine anything new" including a secure, state-directed existence. Orwell's frustration mirrored that of fellow socialist intellectual Bertrand Russell, who was fond of charging the typically backward "human race" with an "unwillingness . . . to acquiesce in its own survival." For Orwell and Russell then, choosing socialism translated into choosing national survival over national decline.
In an April 1944 book review for the London Observer, Orwell brought his progressive perspective to bear on F.A. Hayek's recently published The Road to Serfdom. And while Orwell does credit Hayek for outlining the threats to civil liberties that typically accompany collectivist societies, Orwell nevertheless remained highly critical of Hayek:
"[Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, that a return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. . . [S]ince the vast majority of people would rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift toward collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter."
Orwell despised what he called "economic chaos" but for Hayek it was precisely the "blind" nature of an economy practiced without favoritism and underneath formal rules that reflected the refreshingly modern and original nature of justice and in addition provided the very freedom necessary for moral conduct.
Orwell also failed to recognize that "state control" of industry actually tends to produce a more sinister form of inequality than he could have imagined. Indeed, Hayek said in The Road to Serfdom that "inequality is undoubtedly more readily borne, and affects the dignity of the person much less, if it is determined by impersonal forces than when it is due to [state] design."
In his Mirage of Social Justice Hayek pressed the point further: "The great merit of the market order as it has spread during the last two centuries is that it deprived everyone of such power which can be used only in arbitrary fashion. It had indeed brought about the greatest reduction in arbitrary power ever achieved."
In other words, Orwell's biggest mistake may have been failing to appreciate the frightening ability of our so called "competent" government managers to shape society in arbitrary ways that actually produce a more despotic inequality very much detached from any objective basis of morality.
Hayek's point here demands our attention. "The striving for equality by means of a directed economy" said Hayek, "can result only in an officially enforced inequality -- an authoritarian determination of the status of each individual in the new hierarchical order -- and [consequently] most of the humanitarian elements of our morals, the respect for human life, for the weak, and for the individual generally, will disappear."
According to Hayek's argument, the kinds of virtues which "flourish whenever the individualist or commercial type of society prevails" such as kindness, personal modesty, respect for privacy, and a belief in the good intentions of a neighbor are "at the same time eminently social virtues." Once, however, "you admit that the individual is merely the means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society" or the "State" then the objective basis for morality is entirely at an end.
George Orwell may have believed he was advocating "something new," but typical of many leftist intellectuals his was a return to what philosopher Eric Hoffer called the previous "fifty centuries of history" in which the "regimentation and minute regulation" of men was the defining characteristic.
What gave modern America its singular and novel spirit said Hoffer is the "fabulously productive, more or less self-regulating chaos [within which] the masses could show what they could do on their own without masters to push them around."
But for George Orwell, being regimented or pushed around by the state is, in the end, far more preferable than the "tyranny" of free competition. Further, in a 1947 Partisan Review essay Orwell concluded that "capitalism has manifestly no future." What did have a promising future, according to Orwell, was something else entirely: "a powerful Socialist movement might for the first time arise in the United States."
The success of a socialist movement would indicate, as Orwell liked to say, that even Americans could acquiesce in their own survival.
Or, as Orwell said of Winston Smith's embrace of Big Brother at the end of his novel 1984: "everything was all right. The struggle was over."