Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rediscovering George Orwell

Since when did we get all indignant over the discomfort of a handful of magnates and tycoons? Obama is now being pilloried as a socialist bent on the destruction of capitalism, and everyone’s got their tea-bags out – and, for what? Well, Obama wants to allow the Bush tax cuts to lapse which will raise the top marginal tax rate of the richest Americans to 39.6% -- about 10 percentage points less than what they paid under most of the Reagan administration, and lots less than what they paid under Nixon or Eisenhower. (Remember those idyllic days of the 50’s when we still had our moral center, gay meant happy and carefree and only white people were ever seen on television and in the movies? And we taxed the richest Americans at a top marginal tax rate of 91%? Sigh.) Meanwhile, the tax rates for the rest of us under Obama’s proposals will be modestly reduced.

So, I’m left still scratching my head: why exactly are people grabbing their torches and pitchforks?

There was a time when people were less sympathetic to the plight of the filthy rich. I recently read a book review (A Fine Rage: George Orwell's revolutions by James Wood) of two newly published collections of essays of George Orwell -- Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays and All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays -- which have been compiled and introduced by author George Packer. You remember Orwell from reading Animal Farm in high school. Apparently, Orwell wrote some slam-bang essays as well, which you didn’t read.

Despite having been hijacked by the Right over the years – he was virulently anti-communist and he really didn’t like pacifists, either – Orwell passionately railed against the privileged ruling classes and hoped that the British class system was on the way to extinction. In the midst of the Second World War he wrote: "This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue."

Orwell wanted above all to see Hitler defeated and saw class differences as a hindrance to the war effort. He believed that great disparities in wealth fanned the flames of discontent among ordinary people and sapped them of patriotic resolve. "The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering's bombing planes."

Plus, he had a generally low opinion of the rich. He called England, "a family with the wrong members in control." He observed that, "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there."

Orwell, of course, had no problem with taxing the rich; the very idea filled him with a sort of sadistic glee. In discussing the hardships of British workers during the war, Orwell had this to say:
The working class will have to suffer terrible things. And they will suffer them, almost indefinitely, provided that they know what they are fighting for. They are not cowards. . . . But they will want some kind of proof that a better life is ahead for themselves and their children. The one sure earnest of that is that when they are taxed and overworked they shall see that the rich are being hit even harder. And if the rich squeal audibly, so much the better. [I added the italics]

Today, income inequality is more pronounced than ever. In real dollars, the American GDP has tripled since 1960. But only the wealthiest have seen any of this increase. In the last two decades alone, the income level of the upper 1% of families has almost tripled but, otherwise, only the income levels of the top 20% of families have significantly increased. Today, the top 20% receive over half the country's income and their share is growing. Wages for the rest of the country have remained stagnant.

The imbalance in wealth is far more dramatic than the imbalance of incomes. The top 1% of the population has more than a third of the country's wealth and the top 5% own almost 60%.

On top of all this, who got us into this economic mess but a bunch of over-indulged investment bankers and mortgage brokers? Where is Orwell when we need him?

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james said...


Great post. I actually have been searching Ebay to buy this four-volume set of Orwell's: It's been argued that Orwell was a much better essayist than he was a fiction writer.

I'm going to just nitpick one of your tiny asides on Orwell- and it's one mainly of tone. Orwell was never hijacked by the right. He was absolutely committed to independent thinking, and his arguments against communism and pacifism are more intellectual than partisan.

He only started railing against pacifism after he continued to hear his contemporaries argue that appeasement was the best way to deal with Hitler, and he wrote his anti-communist tracts in response to those who tried to explain away Stalin's crimes.

His essay on the moral shortcomings of Ghandi's pacifism is far from partisan. It should be required reading in history classes:

Anyway, I agree with your post. The best thing I can say about this tea-party phenomenon is that it's largely a fringe deal.

James R Harvey said...

I'll agree with everyone. I've heard some talk radio before the pirate games and Obama is the greatest thing to ever happen for daytime radio. They get to complain unmercifully—what they do best.

The top income tax rate is 36%? That must be a hold over of "let's simplify the tax code by making less brackets" (Sometimes I just don't know what they are thinking.) It just makes me believe in sin again.

As for Orwell, perhaps he has gotten more junior high school kids interested in reading than any other writer—no small feat, but I hardly think "1984" or "Animal Farm" is first rate literature. I'm glad to hear he is a better essayist than fiction writer.

Big Myk said...

A few comments:

First, while I recognize that it was just a nitpick, I didn't mean to suggest that there was any legitimacy to the right's claim on Orwell. After all, "hijacking" is stealing something that doesn't belong to you. I actually was trying to make the opposite point. I agree, mostly he was an independent thinker.

And yes, all the hand-wringers are fringe people. The talk-show blowhards forget to mention that for all their criticism Obama enjoys an impressive 60% approval rating. But there's so much crazy talk out there, sometimes you end up thinking that it actually represents some kind of real constituency.

Finally, I just amazed at Orwell's insight. Take, for example , the first quote next to his picture above: "Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac." Even though Orwell died in 1950, he's spot on even today. Have we ever been opposed by a rational leader interested in the best interests of his own country. Nope -- Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Kim Jong-il, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mahmud Ahmadinejad are or were all crazy mental cases.

In a sad parody of Orwell, Bush actually said: "Saddam Hussein is a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction." (Hussein was not only homicidal; he had a substance abuse problem.)

Another classic Orwell: One cannot really be a Catholic and grown up.

james said...

My bad Myk- I misread your assertion that Orwell's stances were co-opted by the right, not the man himself. Nitpick withdrawn.