Saturday, September 10, 2011

Orwell Can Still Sting

"But because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which 'enlightened' people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class left hate him for this quite as much as his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have international aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue."
- George Orwell, on Rudyard Kipling's middle-class left critics.

About 10 years ago I bought a collection of Rudyard Kipling's poetry, and the essay that this excerpt comes from introduces the collection. I read it then, but didn't internalize it, and only kind of flipped through the collection. For some reason, I woke up yesterday morning with Kipling's famous 'lesser breeds without the law' line in my head, and went looking for it in the collection. Orwell quotes it at the beginning of his essay, citing it as an example of how Kipling's critics misconstrue him. Kipling was a racist and imperialist in Orwell's view, but the poem that this line comes from is really 'a denunciation of power politics, both British and German'.

I'll be toting my Kipling book around with me for awhile, because the above excerpt really turns me on; Orwell's critique of the middle class left is as true in industrialized nations today as it was when he wrote it. All of us liberals--all of us--if we're not putting our 'queer shoulder to wheel', are as honest as vegetarians who still eat marshmallows. And if we aren't the radicals we claim to be, we should--like Kipling--accept the responsibility of being in the 'official class', and replace our Che posters with posters of President Obama. I have never owned a Che poster, because doing so has always seemed really phony to me, and I've never seen the appeal of Che or any leftist cult figures; if you're looking for an icon for progressive leadership in the real world, Obama's your man. You have principle operating through pragmatism. The results aren't as clean as the kind you get from assassinations and guerrilla warfare, but they are more lasting, and more moral. History has shown that change that is brought about by bloodshed ends in bloodshed. The president is working within the system; although the change is slower, it will be easier to sustain, and will become more robust as it grows.

But the middle class leftist isn't for either form of change: they talk like a devotee of Che, but they consider their social obligation fulfilled by attending an occasional rally. They scoff at President Obama, but they're not stepping in to organize better solutions, or run for office themselves. They free themselves of responsibility, yet retain--at least in their own mind--their righteous 'voice in the wilderness' status.

The liberal member of the ruling class--in a global sense, if you are an American (at least for now) you are a member of the ruling class--is responsible for easing all forms of exploitation, while accepting that they benefit from it. The most progressive Americans of all are still western supremacists, and maybe we should be; There are many western values that are superior. And maybe we can't address global exploitation until we address the exploitation that exists in microcosm within our own borders. Income disparities are enormous. Access to essential resources and services are far from universal. The playing field is not level, so competition is not possible. These are considerations we have to make.

Kipling accepted that he benefited from the exploitation of others, and he understood the responsibility that this entailed. His perceived vulgarity lies in the fact that he celebrated his spoils rather than wrung his hands over them. But what's more vulgar? To look at how a factory farm operates and say, 'yes, it's worth the cost, the meat is delicious', or to look at how a factory farm operates and say, 'oh that's, horrible. Can I get mine with extra bacon?'


Brandon said...

I typed too much and have to summarize. Customers vote with their wallets. Companies go out of business or lower their costs. Often their cost chasing creates a middle class in a developting country. Communism has "lost" as even China owns more American debt than any other country. Why would a communist country invest in capitalism? Do as I say, not as I do. Capitalism is so successful, us middle class people have the education to discuss the pros and cons of each system, instead of jumping on a pirate ship or joining a drug cartel.

Lodo Grdzak said...

I don't think you can make the point of how "middle class leftists are satisfied attending a an occasional rally," without actually illustrating or backing that comment up. That's a pretty bold, blanket statement. Perhaps those who lean left in your social circles are demonstrative of your point; and perhaps you are aware of other good examples that document your assertion. But you haven't used them here.

In regards to Obama, I could say the same things about stating your case. Obama is a far-left progressive? Really? What is a far-left progressive? I think you have to define that, then show how Obam's policies fit into the framework; and then finally show how leftists as a whole have sat on the sidelines to really flesh this post out.

This is big subject matter probably worthy of 2-3-4 posts.

Spencer Troxell said...

That's a good critique, Lodo. I will think about writing another post or two to flesh this idea out some more.

I can clear some things up right off the bat, though. I wouldn't call Obama a 'far-left progressive'. I would say that he is a progressive who is working within the system to attain small goals that may appear to be acceptable starting points to liberals farther down the ideological spectrum. But he has chosen a path: rather than opining a system that he's benefiting from, he is working within it to effect change. The only other alternatives are some kind of external resistance.

Regarding my blanket statement: if it doesn't apply to you, don't own it. I certainly know loads of self-professed leftists (myself included in some areas) who rage, rage, rage against the machine, all the while owning every album Rage Against the Machine ever put out. It's silly to complain about the corruption and vulgarity of a system that is sustaining your lifestyle if you're a) unwilling to seriously attempt to change it or b) embrace your status.

Spencer Troxell said...

There are some pretty good comments about this post over at the Daily Kos:

Lodo Grdzak said...

Its a lot to think about.

the elegant ape said...

The long standing fantasy that the United States is a shining example of unfettered market capitalism is a sad hoax.
Since 1950 wall street has been bailed out in one manner or another thirty times.
Pure capitalism exists only at the street level. If you open a shop, garage or restaurant put out more then you earn. You go under. Period.
But if you break that ever critical surface tension and have enough capital to buy a handful of Representatives or two the rules do not apply.
Oil companies next year will receive 8.3 billion in drilling subsides. These companies now bring in profits at a rate never seen on this planet before.
Now are they going to take that 8 billion and drill more oil to bring down the price of gas?
Hmm? I think not. The reason gas is at $3.90 a gallon is because that is the price people will pay before cutting back on their driving. Max profit.
The northern European states(the socialist hells that they are) having higher returns on their investments as well as greater social mobility. US ranks thirtieth).
The middle class where a man could go to work raise three kids, buy a home, save for retirement and with wife not having to work vanished in the post war boom of the fifty's(where union membership was at it's peak)
There is no middle class.
There is only a overclass and under class.
Producers and consumers