Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)


Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?


We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

—- —- —-

* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.