Before Bernie Sanders ever started railing against the “1%” and complaining about having the choice of 23 different deodorants at the supermarket, socialists didn’t always come across as so petty, peevish, and old hat.
The achievements in other realms of socialists such as Oscar Wilde, Helen Keller, and Susan B. Anthony have stood the test of time, often dwarfing the fact that they were socialists in the first place. One socialist in particular—born Eric Arthur Blair— is so universally revered for his moral insights against collectivism that his legacy has become a battleground for partisans. You may know him by the name George Orwell. For years intellectuals have played parlor games to claim Orwell’s legacy for the right or for the left.
Would he have supported the Vietnam War? The Cold War? Did anti-communist novels such as Animal Farm and 1984 signal that Orwell had given up on socialism?
Orwell’s appeal to popular sentiment is seemingly clever, but is a double-edged sword.
As interesting as these debates may be, the record seems clear. Writing in 1946, George Orwell gave an impassioned answer to what motivated his ideas in the essay “Why I Write”:
“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
Though George Orwell played many roles over the course of his life—embattled boarding school student, elephant-shooting imperial policeman, down and out vagrant, revolutionary militia man, journalist, novelist, and more—he was undeniably a democratic socialist.
Orwell on Hayek
Playing the role of book critic in 1944, Orwell—that “Trotskyist with big feet,” as fellow socialist H.G. Wells once called him—reveals his size 13 footprints to be perfectly in step with the populists of today, as he attempts to escape the troubles of socialism by taking refuge in his beloved democracy.
Reflecting upon F.A. Hayek’s call for unfettered capitalist competition in The Road to Serfdom, Orwell writes:
“The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led… the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment...”
Orwell’s appeal to popular sentiment is seemingly clever, but is a double-edged sword. Could it not also be said that the trouble with democratic elections is that somebody wins them? Which is worse for the losers: the free competition of the market or the zero-sum outcomes of democratic elections? Which of the two is more dog-eat-dog?
Word is, democracy has found a new paramour, one Donald J. Trump, and much to her former lovers’ dismay, she insists on parading around with him in public.
That question aside, I forgive Orwell for his ignorance of economics. It is undoubtedly a flaw in his thinking but an understandable one for a devoted democratic socialist writing in 1944. Let us be honest: George Orwell is not read today for his economic insights. No, he is read for his keen moral instincts and his intellectual integrity—what Christopher Hitchens highlights as Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts”—and in his review of The Road to Serfdom, Orwell stays true to form.
Taking Hayek seriously, Orwell is faced with the unpleasant fact that socialism is so often married to and marred by collectivism, saying:
“In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”
Though Orwell’s honesty and instincts should be applauded here, I believe there is still some trouble afoot. Once again, in trying to save socialism, he takes refuge in his beloved democratic ideal. Maybe, he wagers, if socialism is infused with democracy, we can avoid the tyranny of collectivism!
Democracy and Nationalism
But, is democracy truly sufficient to protect socialism from collectivism? Has not democracy always led to an attenuated “us”—in reality a small clique of ruling elites—carrying out their own conceits at the expense of the very people they are meant to represent? Does not democracy often lead to a certain type of collectivism, what Orwell called nationalism?
Ironically enough, Orwell helps provide us with an answer in the very same review. Let us see the rest of the above quote from about “free capitalism” leading to monopoly (emphasis mine):
“...since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.”
Over 70 years have passed since Orwell made this prediction, and it seems he has been proven right. “Popular opinion” has indeed demanded more “State regimentation,” and accordingly, we have drifted closer and closer towards collectivism under the banner of democracy. Thus, though I do not convict Orwell for his ignorance of the “dismal science,” I do find him guilty for his love of democracy.
Love, as much as it may guide us to greatness, can also blind us to the perilous paths we have chosen. And the perils of democracy are more bountiful than that of any femme fatale. Unfortunately, because democracy flatters the vast majority of the human race with the allure of its siren’s song—its chorus constantly promising “the people” that they are naturally fit to rule—many people today are still quite smitten despite the red flags.
These are not flaws of a know-nothing reactionary movement but features of democracy itself.
Yet, this may mean we are simply overdue for a massive heartbreak. As unpleasant facts would have it, 2016 appears destined to go down in history as the year when democracy’s scorned lovers finally call her a harsh mistress. Word is, democracy has found a new paramour, one Donald J. Trump, and much to her former lovers’ dismay, she insists on parading around with him in public.
Take, for instance, the laments of neoconservative, Robert Kagan. In his piece “This is how fascism comes to America”, Kagan claims that Trump:
“...has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms.”
I too take Tocqueville and others philosophers seriously when they warn us of democracy’s perils. But this message, from this author, at this time, delivered with such partisan dishonesty, only serves to destroy all credibility and gravitas. Where was Kagan (or Andrew Sullivan) in all the years leading up to Donald Trump’s rise? Do they really think the movements that backed Barack Obama and George W Bush were friendly to liberty, free of contradictions, and refrained from stoking the "fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities” of the people? Do they not understand that democracy was a danger to liberty long before Donald Trump found success in electoral politics?
Democracy Versus Liberty
As H.L. Mencken wrote in 1925:
“Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and every one knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter. A democratic state may profess to venerate the name, and even pass laws making it officially sacred, but it simply cannot tolerate the thing. In order to keep any coherence in the governmental process, to prevent the wildest anarchy in thought and act, the government must put limits upon the free play of opinion. In part, it can reach that end by mere propaganda, by the bald force of its authority – that is, by making certain doctrines officially infamous. But in part it must resort to force, i.e., to law... At least ninety-five Americans out of every 100 believe that this process is honest and even laudable; it is practically impossible to convince them that there is anything evil in it. In other words, they cannot grasp the concept of liberty.”
Tragically, most detractors of Trump still do not seem to grasp the concept of liberty. Most damn Trump, not because of their differences with him or their love of liberty, but because they see an aspect of themselves in the Donald—their love of power over others.
They only loved democracy in the first place because of its promise of power; they only love democracy when it is theirs to command.
American democracy has not only survived nationalist fevers throughout the nation’s short history; it has often encouraged them at the expense of liberty.
In practice, democracy has never lived up to its ideal. At bottom, democratic elections are not about advancing high ideals or embracing rational decisions made by an enlightened populace. Democratic elections are about winning power. “Mobocracy” is not exclusive to our time or a particular political party. Playing on people's insecurities and fears of "the other" is not exclusive to a particular billionaire. These are not flaws of a know-nothing reactionary movement but features of democracy itself.
As Oscar Wilde (one of the few socialists who does not seek refuge in the democratic ideal) said of democracy in 1891 in his The Soul of Man under Socialism:
“High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say that it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralising.”
Compared to Kagan’s screed, Wilde’s assessment of democracy strikes me as a much more plausible exegesis of the Trump phenomenon: a spirit of revolt after years of the democratic process being cruelly used. But Trump’s revolt, unfortunately, is not in the spirit of Wildean individualism. No, as Pat Buchanan points out, the Trumpian revolt is animated by a resurgence of American nationalism. But it will not kill our democracy by any means. It may even strengthen it. American democracy has not only survived nationalist fevers throughout the nation’s short history; it has often encouraged them at the expense of liberty. When given the choice—since the pith of both democracy and nationalism is the exercise of state power—democracy will usually side with nationalism against liberty for the sake of attaining such power.
The tragedy here then only grows greater when we realize the very people now warning us about the excesses of democracy in the shadow of Trump also helped lay the groundwork for Trump by slowly transforming America from a republic into a social democracy. Elections have consequences. Political parties have consequences. Social and economic policies have consequences. War has consequences. And in all cases, the consequence has been the centralization of power on the Potomac.
George Orwell’s wager appears to have left him and his kind on the losing side. They (but especially Orwell) should have taken Hayek’s claim more seriously, that:
“By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it.”
Democracy, it appears, isn’t the refuge Orwell thought it would be. Maybe, he should have fallen in love with liberty instead.