"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?'