By Kevin Smokler
November 15th, 2012
Perhaps you’ve heard that 7 states—in the southeast plus Montana— all fifty states have petitions to secede from the United States following President Obama’s re-election victory. Unlike some of the people in these 7 fifty states, maybe you are joyful at the President’s victory, and will be until he invariably falls short of your expectations (he is a human being after all), and leaves you by April thinking “I didn’t want the other guy. But I had hopes for the one I did sign up for. Dreams. Big pretty ones even.”
The petitioners and celebrants I’ve just spoken of are the same people. Or at the very least, neighboring patients in same hospital ward of the mind. Political scientists call it “Year One Thinking,” which I’ll paraphrase as “the delusional perspective that everything has changed after an election/coup/change in political power.”
We are all guilty of it to some degree, any time we begin a sentence with “Everything will be different when ____.” Fill in the blank with “leave this crappy job,” “lose ten pounds,” “break up with this idiot,” or “buy something expensive and pointless.” I know I went “year one” for a moment right after the election. I voted for Obama and wanted to wake up in Oz on Wednesday. On Thursday, I bought an overpriced box to hold my keys and was convinced Everything Will Be Different now that I will never suffer from the worldwide pandemic of Lost Keys.
I’ve pulled out of this nonsense and have a freak reading accident to thank. I’d been straightening a shelf in the bedroom and came across my old copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I’d pulled it down the week prior to look up something unrelated, then stalled getting back to my cleaning duties for about 45 minutes by thumbing through it. And though I had reread Animal Farm not so long ago, I hadn’t remembered much about it beyond the obvious: a tale of power corrupting noble intention. But shadowing Orwell’s “fairy story” is another tale as much about the revolution’s soldiers as its generals, and how generals can only become despots when a population fools itself into thinking the past is gone forever.
If you don’t remember the story of Animal Farm, give yourself a half hour and a slow evening and you’ll have read six chapters without blinking. Animal Farm is told in the same clear, chilly style as Orwell’s essays, a fable of the animals of Manor Farm in the English countryside. Fed up with poor treatment and back-breaking labor, they revolt and drive away their human overseers. The new animal regime, led by the pigs Snowball and Napoleon, establish Seven Commandments of Animalism, each underscoring how animals are different than humans, but equal among each other. But a schism between Napoleon and Snowball leads to Snowball being chased from the farm in what appears to be a coup d’état. As the years pass, the pigs under Napoleon grow fat with privilege; the other animals are worked and starved. The Seven Commandments of Animalism are amended one at a time to benefit the leadership of the pigs until they are reduced to a single devastating maxim.
“ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”
In a little over 100 pages, the pigs who once led the overthrow of human tyrants have become human themselves.
In both his diary and letters to his agent, George Orwell spoke of Animal Farm as an allegory of Stalinist Russia, at the time a World War II ally of Britain. Under its fur and feathers, Orwell’s tale is the story of a revolution gone terribly wrong, which creates a society of fear and repression instead of the utopia fought for and promised. But Orwell—hardly a man short of opinions—was no reliably disappointed lefty. He called himself “a democratic socialist” but was equally critical of left-wing intellectuals, whom he saw as sympathizing with the working class without really wanting to associate with it. In his book Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens notes that the right embraced Orwell for his assault on communism, the left for his hatred for imperialism and centralized power. Hitchens based his own praise on approach rather than ideology—independence of mind, fairness, and a willingness to take his own moral temperature and change his mind.
The difficulty and necessity of changing one’s mind, of pivoting when the situation calls for it, is the quieter, bigger warning of Animal Farm. The “stupidier” animals like the chickens and sheep can only dimly understand the revolution and take their cues from the pigs. Boxer the mule may have substituted his own credo “I will work harder” for “Napoleon is always right,” but continues to labor until he drops. Boxer hasn’t changed even though everything else has. And Clover the mare is Animal Farm‘s institutional memory. But by the sorry end, she is too old, too weak, too far from from the moment of change to comprehend why it did not last. The new world that was supposed to come now largely exists in her memory.
Orwell is careful, though, to not make the animals of Animal Farm docile or beaten down. Just a few pages from the novel’s end, he includes this:
And yet the animals never gave up hope. They were still the only farm in the whole county—in all England!—owned and operated by animals. Not one of them ever ceased to marvel at that. And when they heard the gun booming and saw the green flag fluttering at the masthead, their hearts swelled with imperishable pride and the talk always returned to the heroic old days.
The problem is those “heroic old days” did not produce heroic new ones. New regime never means a completely new beginning. For even after the tyrants are gone, their statues toppled, and the streets alive with celebration, we are still capable of repeating our sins. We are still capable of the same greed, intolerance, and lust for power that we claimed to have banished.
We cannot overthrow our own humanity, Orwell seems to say. Perhaps the unintended irony of Animal Farm is that revolution can change everything except what makes us human.
George Orwell was already respected as a literary critic and political journalist when he published Animal Farm. Animal Farm was an immediate bestseller, which made him well known as a novelist as well. His next (and last) novel, 1984, left him in the mind of high school students everywhere as a crusader against tyranny and a spyglass by which we spot the insidious creep of power. 1984 has left perhaps a larger footprint on our culture by making its terms “doublethink” “Newspeak,” and “Big Brother” part of everyday language. The same cannot be said of Animal Farm, which seems more of an inspirational jumping off point than a directly quoted source. Pink Floyd called their 1976 album Animals in tribute to Animal Farm, but conceived the record as an economic critique of 1970s England, the same economic turmoil that had birthed The Sex Pistols. Pistol contemporaries The Clash used artwork from the novel for a political broadside: its 1979 single “English Civil War,” a rebuke of the far right making their presence known in British politics. A decade later, the American band R.E.M. would use Animal Farm images for its song “Disturbance at the Heron House,” about the absurdities of Ronald Reagan’s America. In 2000, the hip-hop group Dead Prez released “Animal in Man” about how the last thing revolutionaries should bring to a revolution is trust in its leaders.
All fine and honorable children of Orwell’s novel to be sure. But they seem to relieve the farm of any responsibility for the behavior of the pigs. I don’t think that’s what Orwell had in mind.
Novelist Julian Barnes has said that Orwell was at his best when “writing against” something. I’d hate to think of the same restriction applied to a reading of his fiction, that Animal Farm is only more than a fable if we have an ax to grind and a heart full of anger. Yes, it’s difficult not to get angry when reading Orwell’s version of revolution gone wrong—centralized power, stifled dissent, and fear amongst citizens who had fought alongside each other just a short time before. But if the Arab Spring of 2011 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have shown us anything, it’s that toppling a dictator is much easier than cleaning up the mess afterward. Implementing the changes you fought for are even harder.
The mules, goats, chickens, and sheep of Animal Farm trust the pigs they placed in charge. Orwell labels that obedience their fatal mistake. Less loudly, but more relevant for our time, Animal Farm is an argument against assuming change is total. We are still ourselves, even after we have achieved everything we want, still very human and more than a little bit animal. The challenge of change, says Animal Farm, is not how to bring it about, but what we do once we have. And to remember, no matter how we voted on Nov. 6, that a free society means another crack at changing it all again.
About the author: Kevin Smokler (@weegee) is a writer living in San Francisco. This essay appears in expanded form in his new book Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School, due out in February 2013.