Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Orwell, Obama, and Totalitarianism

Reading many of George Orwell's essays leaves one with the impression that he was an integrated man, that is, his mind was steadfastly anchored to reason and reality. It wasn’t. His prescient essays on totalitarianism may lead one to believe that he was 100% rational and had no chinks in his intellectual armor. He wasn’t, and the chinks are evident.

The most visible chink in Orwell's intellectual armor was his steadfast belief in the beneficent advantages of socialism, while at the same time he detested communism. Communism, he wrote, is but totalitarianism by another name. Totalitarianism, or Communism, embraces the totality of an individual's existence, from what he pays for necessities to his social relationships to what goes on in his mind. Orwell observed this totality in Stalin's Russia, also in Hitler's Nazi Germany, and, to a lesser extent, in Mussolini's Fascist Italy.  

Stalin and Hitler were the inevitable heirs to every wistful vision from time immemorial that men could be organized into benign collectives, communes, or "cooperatives" to corral and control the selfish nature of men to live their own lives for their own reasons. We could begin with the ethics of St. Augustine or Marcus Aurelius, but would need to go back to Plato. Among the minor contributors to the ideal of a collectivist paradise were Auguste Comte and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Along came Karl Marx who distilled all those wishes into a system which reduced individuals into mere insensate atoms of an impersonal evolution towards perfect, stateless, selfless socialism. Or, stateless communism.

Orwell never grasped that his ideal, "stateless socialism," is a contradiction in terms. Socialism cannot be imposed on men except by force. And whether the force compels men to accept socialized medicine, or the redistribution of their private wealth to alleviate state-caused poverty, or mandated florescent light bulbs, or any other altruistic scheme that shackles men together and compels them to become dependent on fiat law and legislated extortion, it must be employed by the agency of a state. A "mixed economy" of economic and even social controls, must, if not opposed and corrected, lead to total regulation and control.

The ideal of a "classless society" might have been reached by undisturbed tribes in the most inaccessible reaches of the Amazon jungle, but even they have their pecking orders. In any industrialized or semi-industrialized society, under socialism, classes emerge defined by how much loot one gang can accumulate, extort, or seize from another. Ayn Rand dramatized the progress from "socialism" to totalitarianism in We the Living and Atlas Shrugged.

What Orwell failed to observe and conclude is that socialism must lead by degrees and stealthy, almost unnoticeable increments to totalitarianism. That totalitarianism could be of the Nazi (National Socialist) or Soviet brand. Socialism introduces the dry rot of expanding controls into an individual's life. Sooner or later the house will collapse on the individual's head, and when he emerges ragged and bruised from the rubble of his rights and liberties, he will find himself in the stark landscape of totalitarianism. Socialism is tyranny without the iconic "leader" or figurehead.

Orwell caricatured Stalin's Communism in his fabulist novel, Animal Farm (1945). As an online student study guide describes the novel and its author's position:

Though people on the right tended to conflate socialism and communism, they are in fact completely different things—one Orwell supported, and the other he abhorred. In fact, as anyone who's read Animal Farm should understand, Orwell saw Soviet-style communism as a profound betrayal of true socialist values.

I have read Animal Farm, am not of the "right," and don’t conflate the two systems. Both Orwell and the study guide are wrong. Socialism and communism are not two "completely different things"; they are the same thing, differing only in the scale of control over an individual. One is partial, one is total. Under socialism, the government takes a large percentage of your income and wealth and you are free to work harder and create more wealth to be extorted from you. Under communism, the government pays you a paltry allowance, you have no wealth, and you work harder where and when the government says.

Stalin did not "betray" socialism or its "true" values. He carried its principles to their logical end. Had it not been Stalin, it would have been someone else.  

However, Orwell's insights into the ends and means of totalitarianism are nearly nonpareil. Alone, and far better than Aldus Huxley and other Western writers who penned dystopian novels (excepting a very few), Orwell established the terms by which anyone for decades has discussed totalitarianism, and especially the suppression of freedom of speech. By anyone, I include anyone on the Left and the Right who advocates wholesale or just a "little bit" of socialism, and also anyone who doesn’t quite fit into that artificial and deceptive political calibration. He established the terms of the issue, and also its lexicon.

What I will focus on here is Orwell's essay, "The Prevention of Literature,"* in which he telegraphs the theme and content of his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in London by Secker & Warburg in June 1949. He wrote the essay for an anti-communist publication, Polemic, in January 1946. He finished the novel in December 1948. It was his last literary effort. He died of tuberculosis in January 1950.

Orwell's statements about totalitarianism can be taken out of his context because they are true statements, not contingent on his prejudices against Stalinism, Nazism, and capitalism.

Here is one instance:

The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.... (p. 258)

Yes, mendacity is integral to totalitarianism. We have had a sample of it in Barack Obama's two administrations. From TARP to Obamacare to Benghazi and now an off-and-on-and-off Syrian intervention, all the country has been fed is a continuing stream of lies, fabrications, and falsehoods. Obama gave away his hand early on when he boasted that his term in office would be the "most transparent" in our history.

On that faux transparency, even liberal journalists are beginning to remove the rose-dyed gauze from their eyes. In March, The Washington Post reminded Obama:

The day after his inauguration, President Obama promised a new era of “openness in government.” “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” he wrote in one of his first memos to federal agencies. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

But the reality has not matched the President's rhetoric.

Reality has never matched Obama's rhetoric. Obama's reality has the ethereal substance of the words that scroll up on his Teleprompters. No, we don’t yet have concentration camps, but we do have the makings of a secret police, and have had them for a while. It has only just been revealed that the NSA can know virtually all we do and say and refer the information to the appropriate authorities if there are grounds to suspect a threat to national security. Such as my writing these words.


A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling class, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened….(p. 259)

This is true. In Soviet Russia, that was the case with Lenin, Stalin and their successors. They were a theocracy whose wisdom and authority were not to be questioned. For example, Leon Trotsky, once hailed as a hero of the Soviet Union, was later declared a pariah because he, too, charged Stalin with "betraying" true socialist values. He was exiled, and later murdered in Mexico on Stalin's orders. 

However, Barack Obama has never portrayed himself as "infallible." He is too much the community organizing pragmatist. His hubris is of a lower order. If one thing fails to advance his socialist agenda, then he will try another and count on the news media to help Americans forget the first attempt ever happened. He has never admitted error. He is literally shameless. His hand-picked press agents inside and outside the White House go into action when he is obliged to back-pedal on issues or fabricate a false aura of success or triumph.


The friends of totalitarianism in this country [in Britain, in addition to America] usually tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, the big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or, on the other hand, that modern physics has proved that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of one's senses is simply vulgar philistinism….(p. 259)

Or, as outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it when pressed for a truth: What difference does it make, the size or enormity of a lie or the bungled rush to dismiss and disguise the truth? Immanuel Kant, who devoted countless brain-cracking paragraphs to proving that absolute truth is unattainable, is an enabler of totalitarianism and its habit of remaking reality to suit the inconvenience or embarrassment of the moment. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Perons, for example, were his un-entertaining apprentice masters of illusion. Add Obama and every single one of his political appointees from Day One of his tenure to the present. They are all cut from the cloth of totalitarianism. Every day one can hear their canine whines of discomfort.


 A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. (p. 259)

And the modern journalist. If "common sense" – or the honest acknowledgement of the evidence of one's senses, and the willingness to say that a rock is a rock and that a man is a crook or a power-luster who is doing one harm – were as ubiquitous as Orwell and other writers assumed, Barack Obama would never have been reelected after his first term. The schizophrenia we are faced with today sits undisturbed in the minds of those who voted and campaigned for him again after the scurrilous opaqueness and venal character of his first term were open to scrutiny by all.

Obama's schizophrenia, however, is not a disability which otherwise would disqualify him from any political office. It is an asset in a political culture which regularly dismisses or derogates "common sense" and rewards him with plaudits and encouragement. "Common sense," to Obama and his choirboys inside and outside of the White House, is merely a symptom of vulgar philistinism, and can be brushed off as class or even racial prejudice.


Totalitarianism…does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. (p. 263)

Obama and his administration have clung to power by force and fraud. Obama's tenure in office is flagrantly and transparently artificial, and its character is permitting the country to creep even closer to totalitarianism. But, we mustn't blame him for everything. The groundwork was laid for him by consecutive presidencies and Congresses going back to the late19th century. He is not squandering an inheritance, but leveraging it in conformance to an agenda to "remake" the country once and for all into a minimum security prison whose inmates are hired out to labor in government-approved and subsidized enterprises. That would make his agenda fascist in means and ends.

Or just as totalitarian as communism.


Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child's Meccano set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (pp. 262-263)

I think that quotation, penned by Orwell long before the term "political correctness" – the  euphemism for liberal, collectivist political orthodoxy, which gained currency in American political writing much to the discomfort of the politically orthodox – succinctly describes the obsequious and fawning nature of modern journalism when the subject is Obama, the welfare state, immigration, Islam, and national security. The term originated, appropriately enough, in debates between socialists and hardline communists and found its way into late 20th century comic books, punditry, and political discussions.  

Finally, here is a potpourri of Orwell's thoughts on the importance of defending freedom of thought and expression:

Some…of the English scientists who speak so enthusiastically of the opportunities enjoyed by scientists in Russia are capable of understanding this [how some Soviet writers surrender their freedom of expression for lump cash bribes]. But their reflection appears to be: "Writers are persecuted in Russia. So what? I am not a writer." They do not see that any attack on intellectual liberty, and on the concept of objective truth, threatens in the long run every department of thought….(p. 268)

So long as physical reality cannot be altogether ignored, so long as two and two have to make four when you are, for example, drawing the blueprint of an aeroplane, the scientist has his function, and can even be allowed a measure of liberty. His awakening will come later, when the totalitarian state is firmly established….(p. 269)

…[I]t is his job to develop some kind of solidarity with his literary colleagues and not regard it as a matter of indifference when writers are silenced or driven to suicide, and newspapers systematically falsified….(p. 269)

At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact – and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial – is, in effect, demanding his own destruction. (p. 269)

And what we are witnessing today – and have been witnessing for the better part of half a century – is the Blob-like progress of statism and totalitarianism in America, aided and abetted by a succession of presidents, Congresses, journalists, and a goodly portion of the American electorate. Totalitarians are not noted for their gratitude. Modern journalists, and many writers in other realms of "imagination" who approve of that direction, are also inviting their own inevitable destruction.

And Steve McQueen isn't here anymore to help them think of a way out.

*George Orwell, "The Prevention of Literature," in All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, Compiled by George Packer.  New York: Mariner-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2008), pp. 253-269.

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