Following the 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump, there has been a great deal of political and societal worry within American borders and abroad. Censorship, fake news, naturalism, ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric – the societal discourse has voiced concern for the Republican party’s actions and the impending dystopia that is supposedly lurking around the corner. For this reason, people have been searching for well-known works of art that portray the current political climate and can be used to motivate and collectivize people into thoughtful action. That work, which has been written about by the likes of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, is George Orwell’s 1984.
I will go off of the assumption that most people have read 1984, whether in High School or on their own, as I don’t want to delve into the summary of the novel or its themes and motifs – double think, Hate Week, Thoughtcrime, the Ministry of Love, and so on. While I do believe that some of the themes and ideas presented by Orwell are applicable to the current administration’s actions and usage of words (think “Alternative facts,” the brandishing of political opponents, as well as general hypocrisy of the party), I do believe that we are speaking too much about this one novel of Orwell’s.
Orwell wrote a decent amount of political work and social commentaries over the course of his career (think of Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia). One of Orwell’s works that I believe is equally poignant in regards to the current American political struggle, as well as our attempts to understand how we politically ended up where we are, is his 1937 work The Road to Wigan Pier.
Commissioned by the Left Book Club when Socialism was faltering and Fascism was on the rise across Europe, Orwell set out across the industrial towns of England to understand why class differences still survived in a time when the means for their destruction existed, as well as investigating why Socialism was failing both practically and intellectually when no other morally political options existed (so he believed).
The work is split into three succinct sections: the first consisting of Orwell’s travels into the proletariat “industrial towns,” documenting the horrors of working life, the squalid nature of living conditions for tenants, as well as the utter hopelessness present in a state forsaken by mass unemployment. Although Orwell is disgusted at times by the means in which these people live, he understands that much of their lifestyles are not due to them or their natural characteristics, rather the conditions in which the government has imposed upon them and their kin.
The second section sees Orwell moving away from a documentary of the industrial towns of Britain and onto a more autobiographical work, exploring the biases and prejudices that he carried from his intellectual, upper-middle class upbringing. The importance through this section is that Orwell conveys how easy it for people to fall prey to these class distinctions. Setting himself as a symbol of the middle class, he examines the ways in which he was raised and how they fostered this deplorable image of the lower classes – that the lower classes stunk, had no care for their being, were uneducated because they had no interest in educating themselves, and that they were good for manual labor only and little else. The conditions of the system, as Orwell promulgates, is that which creates this systemic issue: that the lower classes are disenfranchised and stigmatized as both political objects and humans.
Then there is the third and final section of the book: the rhetoric for the present failure of Socialism. While some might argue that this section is outdated, written in a different time and with a different perspective, I believe that its message, when applied to the current state of American politics, is incredibly poignant. Orwell begins by exploring the simple characteristic failures of the Socialist movement, along with what had caused the then rise of Fascism across Europe. In his belief, much of Socialism’s failures stem from wealthy intellectual socialists taking part in Socialist dialogue without working towards or wanting a Socialist state.
Orwell is rather inflammatory in his critiques and stereotyped descriptions of these so-called socialists, referring to them as “fine specimens of the thin-skinned, tear-in-the-eye, pre-war humanitarian(s),” their attitudes as “soggy half-baked insincerity,” their conversations consisting of “cocksure Marx-quoting,” and that they are likely either a “youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and have been converted to Roman Catholocism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.” He continues on, at another point stating that when the mere words “Socialism” or “Communism” are uttered, that drawn towards them are swaths of “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” He is being a provocateur for the sake of being one, but Orwell is hitting on an important point with these seditious remarks – that the middle-class socialists of his time were socialists either because it was in vogue at the time, or that they were out of touch with the lower classes, unwilling to shed their privilege and wealth to destroy the class divisions that they were equally conforming to and propagating.
He expands upon, desecrating hypocritical, upper-class, intellectual writers, laughing at the “old Socialist sport” of denouncing the bourgeoisie (one that they tend to belong to, by birth or adoption), denigrating the appropriations of civilizations long-gone, defaming the lovers of modernization and sterilized production, belittling those that romanticize the manual laborers and non-intellectuals of society, slandering those Socialists who belittle non-Socialist middle-class persons either for their political leanings or for not shedding their class status, and most importantly, decrying those who enjoy the benefits that class divisions have provided them while criticizing those very divisions and ultimately, and hypocritically, doing little to disrupt the societal power and significance that comes with them.
Orwell takes all of these middle-class and upper-class socialist’s practical and ideological falters as reasons for the rise of European Fascism during the 1930s, stating, “If you are constantly bullying me about my “bourgeois ideology,” if you give me to understand that in some subtle way I am an inferior person because I have never worked with my hands, you will only succeed in antagonizing me.” He sees that the persons exploited within the lower and middle classes are pushed away from Socialism for the intellectual, bourgeois cultists that largely represent the party, creating a vast danger in which large sections of these exploited classes will make “sudden and violent swings to the Right” in sheer spite of these political purists.
The importance of this work in the current political climate of America is fostered in the reasoning as to why Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States and not Hillary Clinton. Following the election, a number of books and articles were released that provided an attempt to understand the rural White experience, exploring why these people felt disenfranchised enough as to make them vote for Trump. Many of the answers provided by these writers believed that their frustrations came from the political doctrine being forced upon them, the shipping of industrial American jobs overseas, and that the effects of globalization had left rural communities feeling forgotten and unwanted. While I agree with some of these points, I believe that Orwell’s commentary on the failures of 1930s Socialism are pertinent to the failures that lead to the Democratic Party’s loss during the most recent election, that their was an unwillingness or disinterest in focusing on the primary issue at hand: class consciousness.
Rather than Socialism vs. Fascism, the 2016 election cycle saw more discourse regarding a battle of Liberalism vs. Conservatism. Similar to Orwell’s commentary on snobbish, intellectualized middle-class Socialists, there are obvious parallels to the liberals of today. The failures of liberals in this election cycle has been that of a failure to recognize the legitimacy of Trump’s constituency. It is clear that this failure hurt the Democrats leading up to the election, and it is a failure to recognize other political thought that continues to hurt the party to this day.
Similar to Orwell’s portrayal of Socialists and their treatment of non-intellectual Socialists, non-proletarians, and Fascists, the Liberal narrative of Trump’s constituency as collectively racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. is convenient, simple-minded, and reductive. Much like Socialism’s deprecation of Capitalism and Fascism, turning them into sects of villainy, liberals attitude towards Conservatism was one that allowed them to create their own sense of Right, Equality, and Justice, all the while ignoring their own party’s blatant hypocrisy and innate flaws.
By romanticizing their cause, their sense of Right, while expressing a deep outrage and disbelief for Trump’s coalition, liberals equally ignored the appeal that Trump’s campaign had for a large part of the American population – alienating those that felt either disenfranchised or forgotten by the American government, or simply the Democratic Party.
While the Democratic Party and Liberalism were focusing on villainizing the Republican Party at large, Trump was running a campaign built principally on class. I am not saying that Trump’s campaign was politically or humanely better than Clinton’s, since it managed to channel rhetoric and feelings intertwined with white nationalism, but it was a campaign that chiefly appealed to class consciousness that the Democratic Party was not able to forge. This class consciousness that Trump harbored was equally channeled in Bernie Sanders campaign but was was absent in the campaign of Hillary Clinton – a fundamental failure of the DNC for their collusion in deciding the party’s electoral candidate.
Class unification was important since it allowed Trump to construct a base of constituents from areas that largely felt misrepresented, now giving them a meaningful voice in the election. Similar to Orwell’s commentary on middle-class Socialists pushing other exploited persons towards Fascism, many Trump voters took a similar route – voting for Trump out of protest in response to the rhetoric of the Clinton campaign. Due to the Democratic Party’s shortcomings – their misuse of political propaganda, their meddling in selection of their party’s electoral candidate, looking past the majority of exploited classes, and Clinton’s disinterest in class consciousness – led to the election of Trump.
These sentiments in criticizing the Democratic Party and liberals is not meant to overlook the issues of Trump’s rhetoric, morals, beliefs, hypocrisy, current political actions as President, etc. There are inherent issues that he and his cabinet present, whether they are problems involving race relations, misunderstanding or blatant disbelief in gender politics, disinterest in climate data, inferior political experience and education in regards to elected positions, and defacing, demonizing, and stereotyping legitimate, practicing religions, and Trump has certainly given a voice to much of these problems. However, solely criticizing this and not the shortcomings of the Left would be shortsighted, continuing to sabotage the Left’s chances for future political action.
Where we currently stand, much like Orwell’s opinion in regards to the Socialists of his time, is that massive reform is needed if political revolution is to come. The current state of affairs in America and the election of Trump, similar to Orwell’s witness to the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, is far more complicated than most liberals have currently presented. Much of the issues arise not from the degeneracy of the people of the opposing party, but from liberals inability to either shed their personal privilege to create collective class equality or be willing to engage in thoughtful discourse so to understand the opposition rather than villainizing them.
Similar to Orwell’s forewarning, to neglect the issues at hand would desecrate any chance for bipartisan political upheaval, along with the continuation of the rise of the Right. To appropriately shift the direction of the Democratic Party, radicalization must take place so those peoples of the exploited classes may unite, all the while shifting from empty, intellectual rhetoric that provides less social change and more of a self-felicitating exaltation of progressiveness. Otherwise, the complications of Liberalism and the Democratic Party will continue while the national state of affairs will continue uncontested.