George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

And who is working class these days?

Working class – who is working class these days? The numbers of Americans defining themselves as middle class are in decline: 48% now consider themselves lower or working class. There are similar shifting sentiments in the UK.

And where do the old values of social liberalism (for a definition of social liberalism see * below) and social justice fit within this changing spectrum?

In both the USA and UK a new identity (nation, race, interest group) politics is taking hold. At the expense of both a more liberal outlook, and ‘the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England’. (David Marquand)

Taking Labour first, what the old Left hasn’t accepted is that the working-class solidarity of old, which has inspired the Labour movement for 150 years, is gone forever. And that could include Marquand’s ‘more conservative Labourism’. Left-intellectual radicalism and working-class aspirations no longer gell as once they did. Grinding poverty is no more, the old Marxist underpinning likewise, and there’s an alienation, a boredom and increasingly an hostility toward the political process.

And intellectuals, never too popular in the UK, are out of fashion as never before.

The popular instinct, as the Brexit result revealed, is to hold on to what we have. Immigration, globalisation, new technologies, the old politics, all are suspect. There’s support for renationalising the railways, but not for wider state intervention.

Maybe the Corbynite left will convince us otherwise, but I think they’re simply out of tune with the popular will.

So too social liberals – they’re also out of tune with broad sections of the population, who only see government indifference to unwanted changes in their lives – housing shortages, pressures on services, regional development, immigration.

It’s addressing these issues, rather than an overtly radical political prospectus, that will win people back to a liberal agenda.

Likewise, this should be Labour’s policy focus. Radical at heart, but pragmatic in practice. Unless you’re happy in the wilderness.

*Wikipedia has a helpful definition of social liberalism: Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

Workers or shirkers

There was a BBC2 programme on ‘workers or shirkers’ last night, exploring a division which dates back to Victorian times (and earlier), to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

Ian Hislop (and it came over very much as his programme) provided some interesting background detail, taking us back to the 1830s and Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which established the Victorian workhouse. We had Chadwick’s categorisation of the population from worker to able-bodied vagabond (I don’t have access here to the exact categories), all very utilitarian, but it was often brutal in its effects, and stigmatised poverty. Hislop of course doesn’t stigmatise but he fails in his programme to get to grips with what being an outsider in society entails. A wiser programme might have used that word – those destined to be ‘outside’ the mainstream – the unemployed, the handicapped, the uneducated, the illiterate – people from broken homes, with no parental role models, in reduced circumstances, people losing jobs in towns where there are no jobs available or only the most menial. The poor – and, too often, the elderly.

The very use of the word ‘shirkers’ is playing the tabloid’s game. Likewise using George Osborne’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: Osborne’s imaginary worker, setting off to work seeing the ‘closed blinds of [his] next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The polarity is totally wrong. Yes, there is a category of able-bodied worker who chooses not to work when there are good opportunities for them to do so – the press parades them when it can find them.

My own experience (not least of education) suggests that it’s de-industrialisation, the switch from industry to services, available jobs now being of a fundamentally different kind, and in different locations, which lies at the heart of the problem. In Victorian times the surge to the cities brought problems of poverty on a massive scale. Today it’s the re-location of industry away from existing cities and towns, not least in the north of England, and the growth of new industries, especially service industries, in very different areas, which has brought new problems. Urban poverty has always been with us, and too easily becomes institutionalised. What we’re not faced with, contrary to what some would have us believe, is a wild and wilful recalcitrance.

If you’re ‘working class’, probably with a rented home, little by way of savings, limited education – when you’re world goes wrong you have nothing to fall back on. Maybe there’s a job sweeping streets, or loading shelves, paying little – much less than in a previous job. If you’re ‘middle class’, educated, home-owner, with friends and relations who may be able to help – you’re sheltered from the worst. And – if you’re lazy, don’t feel inclined to work too hard, or to get on too far in life,  it doesn’t really matter. Your circumstances will be reduced, but there will be no-one out there pointing a finger at you.

We’re back – and I’ve argued this many times – to compassion, and at the heart of compassion lies understanding. Hislop never once mentioned compassion, and never once tried to understand, to get inside the mind, the reality, of being an outsider.

That simple polarity – you’re a worker, or you’re a shirker. Hislop ended his programme by repeating it and pronouncing, ‘I’m with the workers.’ As he claimed most people are when presented with that false division. And that division has of course become the stock-in-trade of the press. Forty years ago we accepted and were proud of the welfare state and we had moved a long way from that Victorian divide. But it’s now back, and it’s pretty brutal, and where once the BBC might have been expected to show some neutrality – and indeed recognise the plight of society’s outsiders, it’s no longer fashionable to do – or maybe, and simply, the BBC no longer dares to show a heart of its sleeves.

And finally – Hislop made no mention at all of the extraordinary population growth in the early 19th century, consequent upon the industrial revolution, and the major problems faced by cities such as Manchester. See Alison Light’s Common Ground for the situation in Cheltenham. The Poor Law Amendment Act was a response to a perceived and real emergency. We have no such excuse in our own times.

Yes, there is a continuing discussion to be had about whether or not austerity has gone too far, and payments of some benefits have increased to an extraordinary degree in recent years. There are issues to be addressed but the worker-shirker divide is entirely the wrong context.