SPOILER ALERT: Following are some comments written about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, over half a century after its initial publication; I’ll be holding nothing back; you’ve had plenty of time to read the book already…
Because the world of the 20th century was devastated by World War Two (democracies vs totalitarians) and dominated by the following Cold War (capitalism vs state-controlled communism)– Animal Farm‘s allegorical (if I may stretch the strict usage of that word) portrayal of the life-span of a revolution has always been viewed through the lens of that century’s global politics. That’s fair enough. That’s also how it was written to be viewed.
But now, all these decades later, I would like to take a less myopic look at Orwell’s book– a quarter-century past the end of the Cold War, and a time in which practically no one living has any personal memory of the dictatorial regimes of the Axis Powers of World War Two. In other words, I want to contemplate Animal Farm without focusing on its direct application to 20th century totalitarian regimes (such as Italian Fascism or German Nazism) and see if the book still has value for us today.
First off, as I wrote about HERE, the narrative itself is charming, but it doesn’t compare at all favorably to modern books exploring the evils of totalitarian regimes when it comes to character development and emotional charge. All the characters in Animal Farm are one-dimensional– possessing nothing of the rich complexity of someone like Katniss in the Hunger Games. Actually, even the minor characters of an averagely okay modern book are developed better than any of Orwell’s major characters in Animal Farm. And yet, this is not exactly a failure of Orwell’s. He purposely peopled his little book with TYPES, not individuals, types only there to enable him to make his political points. If his characters are boring, shallow, and none-too-bright, we must remember… they ARE all animals, after all (with a few periphery exceptions, including Manor Farm’s original owner and his neighbors). Still, badly drawn characters are badly drawn characters, Mister Orwell.
Comparing plots between Animal Farm and a book like The Hunger Games is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, as the expression goes, for Orwell purposefully set out to write a short, charming, yet dark little fairy tale–not necessarily for young people at all– whereas Suzanne Collins (author of the more recent book) intended a more fleshed-out novel specifically written for teenagers, and I’m guessing she was aware also that it might appeal more to girls than boys (although I –an admitted dude– very much enjoyed the first book in the series). Re-reading Animal Farm, I remember now why I didn’t remember much about the actual plot. The plot, secondary really to Orwell’s aims, grows boring once the charm of the presentation wears thin, and as short as the book is, it is still feels too long. By halfway through, the reader understands most all of the messages Orwell is trying to send. Only, the story is forced to continue limping along during its penultimate fourth so that the author can accomplish the very task he set out to do: show how a revolution born in optimistic expectations of freedom and universal prosperity can– by degrees almost imperceptible– degrade again into tyranny and inequality.
It is almost impossible to write a decent story that starts in the author’s mind with a political or philosophical agenda. Plot and character inevitably become subservient to argument. Orwell’s book is rightly considered a classic merely for almost succeeding in being both a work of political philosophy and an entertaining story. Even Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (a political satire which sprawls across more lands than just Lilliput in the actual book) reads pretty darn tediously today– although no one can deny that the essential concept of an island of tiny humanoids –in terms of its fantastical, surface-riding plot– is pretty cool.
Events in Animal Farm are jumpstarted by the dream of an aged, dying pig named Old Major. The next day, he gathers all the other farm animals around and informs them that he has had a nocturnal vision. “It was a dream of the Earth as it will be when Man has vanished,” he tells them. And, oddly, that is pretty much ALL he tells them about dream. “I cannot describe that dream to you,” he explains. But he does relate to them that, in the dream, the words to an old song came back to him, and he sings that song for them. It is called “Beasts Of England,” and it will become the anthem of the coming Revolution. The song extols the coming days, after the casting-aside of humans, when the fields will shine brighter, the breezes blow sweeter, and the waters sparkle purer.
It is interesting that Orwell chooses to have the impetus for the revolution come from INSPIRATION, from a vision. In this way, Old Major is like a prophet. I think of Muhammad, blessings be upon him, who– owing to no obvious characteristics of specialness of his own– has the inspiration for revolution thrust upon him. Creative ideas– where they come from and how, have always fascinated humankind. Some have credited the creative inspiration to a Muse –a divine, usually feminine creature– who simply gifts these strokes of genius or insight upon her chosen ones. One can invite the Muse, one can make her feel welcome, facilitate her advance, but you cannot compel her– you can never make her release her gift to you. Many an artist, artisan, or creative type will tell you that they have no idea from whence certain inspirations arose. One day– one instant– the thought was just there.
Echoing a certain (human) philosopher of a few centuries earlier, Old Major observes to the other beasts that the life of a farm animal is “miserable, laborious, and short,” and that the root cause of this fact is not some malevolent Nature, but the domination of all the other creatures by Man. Old Major is perplexed and resentful of Man’s rise… “He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals.”
Now, everywhere throughout Animal Farm, when the animals speak of “Man,” we can read their speech on another level as the human underclass speaking of the overclass, of the dominated speaking of their dominators. This overclass, or upperclass, by nature of its privileged position forms also a cohort of EXPLOITERS, exploiting the underclass by absorbing the ample, even overabundant, output produced from the underclass’s compelled labor. Old Major accuses dominating Man of only giving back to the lower class the “bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”
Yes, this is the very essence of Marxian thought, but I want to consider the events in Animal Farm as if Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler were irrelevant. In other words, are these thoughts of any worth to a 21st century man? Do they still carry power, meaning, relevance? I think the answer is obvious. There are still today the “one-percenters,” and then the rest of us. There are still people– and not just captains of industry– who, due to the nature of our economic system– and while the rest of us cup our hands to gather trickling rivulets of goods and services– are able to irrigate unto themselves rivers of reward from the reservoir of wealth the entire society — thanks to the labor of generations of workers– has managed to construct and fill.
It is “crystal clear” to Old Major that “all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings.” The solution seems equally manifest… “Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labor would be our own.” The farm animals must “work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race.” Revolution!
Old Major warns his fellow laborers that the overclass will claim that the underclass needs them, that each class possesses “a common interest,” and that “the prosperity of one is the prosperity of the other.” But this is untrue. The exploiting class is– and only can be– the opponent… Or to put it in the terms of Old Major... “Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.” This statement could be viewed two ways symbolically… 1) that ANYONE in the upperclass is the enemy, and thus can be dealt-with in good conscious as any enemy might be, or that 2) only direct exploiters are the enemy. Under the second interpretation, some of the upperclass could and should be spared, but under the first– they are all complicit and all deserving of whatever revolution-dictated fate befalls them.
The announced law that “whatever goes on two legs is an enemy,” reminds one of Old Major’s prophet status, a Moses of the animal world. In fact, the animal’s will take Old Major’s last speech and extract from it a list of Seven Commandments which every good animal should follow. Old Major’s rule-giving also allows him to fulfill another role: the role of the philosopher who founds a system of thought containing assertions that, over time, take-on a sacrosanct quality to the followers of that system. Again, Karl Marx comes to mind, but also the Church Fathers, or even some of the documents and speeches of nation-builders.
Old Major, continuing to lay down what will become doctrine for the animals, instructs the animals that they must never accept the vices of their exploiters, must never live in their houses, sleep in their beds, or wear their clothes. “All animals are equal,” he declares. And no animal should tyrannize over others.
This last rule, the seventh of what will become the animals’ holy Hectalogue, will be twisted by the future revolutionary elite (the farm’s pigs) and rewritten into what may be the most famous sentence in the book… “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Old Major warns the animals that “in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him.”
This last warning resonates eerily well today. I’m thinking here of how the “War On Terror” made terrorists of all sides, each faction growing accustomed to using threats, torture, and deadly force to achieve their ends. As I’ve written…
We become the thing we fear. We become the thing we fight.
Struggling hard against the dark, we invite the fall of night.
From here, Orwell’s story describes the sad, predictable series of events which follows… The revolution, followed by the co-opting of the revolution by a new group of elites… The inevitable counter-revolution, and the dividing of the revolutionaries into murderous factions… The dashed hopes for liberty and prosperity, and the re-institution of the same ancient tyranny, only with a different face.
Along the way, the same old tools of oppression are used: lies and propaganda, cruel and intimidating displays of force, murders and purges. And, of course, there’s the fear and distraction — so useful to a tyrannizing regime– provided by real or purported enemies– enemies enlarged in the common perception by the skillful use of media until they seem evil incarnate– until their power, scope, and threats appear to present an existential crisis for the nation, itself, and for each and every family in it.
Revolution: It is a tale told often, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing… Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.