Not long after Donald Trump became President of the United States, there was a massive increase in sales of 1984. The George Orwell dystopia received a boost after Kellyanne Conway uttered the phrase “alternative facts” in a TV interview. Everywhere you looked, people were turning to social media to make sure the world knew that they knew how Orwellian it was. That’s the great thing about social media. Thousands of people are having the same original thought at the same time. Just think about what Orwell would have made of Twitter. But I digress. The point is, it seemed that everyone had suddenly decided that we were living in a time that was just as awful as the one Orwell had imagined. In the same way that people had started to see the world as mimicking Gilead, we were suddenly living in a version of Airstrip One. It’s a fun idea but, let’s be honest, it’s total bollocks.
The thing about dystopian literature is that it is too far removed from reality. There is always something about those worlds that just doesn’t ring true. That’s because they take a realistic idea and exaggerate it to get their point across. To say that Donald Trump was the equivalent of Big Brother showed a great deal of sensationalism and a complete lack of awareness of the world around them. I’m not saying life was good or that there weren’t comparisons to be made because they were. It’s just you can’t even begin to compare Donald Trump to the evil that George Orwell imagined. For one thing, repeatedly using the phrase “fake news” isn’t the same as suppressing the media. We’ve seen that opposition to Trump hasn’t gone away. Look at the viewing figures for late-night TV shows. Stephen Colbert alone is successfully fighting the good fight.
No, as much as the vast majority of social media commentators like to be melodramatic, we can’t use 1984 as a symbol of modern times. That doesn’t mean Orwell doesn’t have anything for us though. We just need to look elsewhere. Maybe even back in time. When I reread Animal Farm last week, it was difficult not to see the major similarities with life in the UK right now. I know, that also sounds like sensationalism but think about it. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are clever. Okay, I suspect that Boris Johnson on his own isn’t clever but he knows to follow his advisor. If we take Cummings to be Napoleon and Johnson to be Squealer, then it becomes easier to see our society become a little more like the farm.
Brexit has been the major defining moment in UK politics in recent years. Let’s be honest, it was probably one of the biggest votes in the history of our democracy and we’ve got a long history. How did it happen? Because a large group of ignored and unappreciated people decided to fight the system that they believed was oppressing them. Their lives had been made miserable because of severe austerity cuts. They needed someone to blame and the Tory government couldn’t let that be them. So, they turned the EU and immigrants into the bad guys. They made them the drunken farmer who wouldn’t feed them or care for the working-class people of Britain. Of course, when Boris started snorting about freedom and taking back control, the people decided to rise up. They’d been left with no other choice.
When you look at Vote Leave, you see a large group of people spouting the same catchphrases over and over. Much like the sheep in the novella who repeat the words “four legs good, two legs bad”, people advocating in favour of Brexit would endlessly utter the same words. You can’t argue with them because all they are capable of saying is “Brexit means Brexit” or “Remoaner”. These were the people who would just repeat everything that Johnson, Cummings, or Nigel Farage told them. The people that the Conservatives know they can continue to count on as long as they keep using these phrases over and over again. The Conservatives don’t even need to try with these people because they just want to be told what to think. They were a huge part of the referendum result and the 2019 election.
Then you have the people who are just too trustworthy. The people who, like Boxer, just want a better life and believe that the government have their best interests at heart. They are the people who have been struggling with all of the Tory cuts and need someone to blame. The people who think that politicians know better than they do. The people who believe Johnson when he tells them that the EU is the reason the UK has so many problems. Just like Boxer, these people believe that Johnson “is always right”. More recently you’ll have seen them arguing with people saying that the Prime Minister handled the Covid-19 pandemic badly. The people who believe he is doing all the right things for the country even though over 40,000 people have died. The people who refuse to believe the evidence that shows how ineffectual BJ has been. All they know is, “[Boris] is always right”.
And it’s Boxer who ends up in the worst position in the novel. He’s the one who gets fucked over the most. He believes in Animal Farm more than anyone and devotes his life to building it. He works harder than anyone else and is always pushing himself to the limit. He collapses from exhaustion just before he reaches retirement age but having done his job. Does he get the happy retirement he always dreamt of? No. He gets sent to the glue factory so the pigs can get pissed on whiskey. Boxer is the everyday worker who spends their entire life toiling and getting nowhere. The people who will never own their own home or earn much more than minimum wage. The people who scrimp and save every day but are barely able to get by. These are the people that are aiding the lavish lifestyle of greedy politicians and their billionaire donors.
So, let’s talk about those pigs for a second. Boris Johnson has got much further in his political career than he really deserved. He is neither intelligent enough nor gives a shit about the people of Britain. Instead, he is interested in power, money, and connections. How did he get to where he is? By acting the fool. He’s carefully crafted an image that makes him seem relatable and down-to-Earth. The silly clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing. The guy you could have gone down the pub with. People see him as non-threatening and on the same level. But he never has been and he’s never had your interests at heart. Just like Napoleon, the Prime Minister can tell the people what they want to hear whilst changing the rules to suit him.
He uses other people as scapegoats to hide his awful behaviour. Jeremy Corbyn could easily be a stand-in for Snowball (although that suggests I credited Corbyn’s leadership qualities way more than I actually did). Johnson uses public displays to his advantage. In the same way that Napoleon used parades and gunfire to distract the animals, Johnson has taken part in rituals like clapping for the NHS and sweeping up after a flood. He knows how to create good PR for himself so he can hide in plain sight. He uses the media to his advantage and makes sure to only let the public see the side of him they need to see. He will come up with an utterly ridiculous hobby like painting wine boxes to look like buses just so it’s the first thing you see if you Google “Boris Johnson” and “buses”. He is rewriting history in the same way that Napoleon did with the Battle of the Cowshed.
Thanks to Johnson and Dominic Cummings, we are now living in a society where we really can’t trust what we are being told. Our vision is being obscured with countless smokescreens and distractions. The Tory party were having some issues so the Prime Minister announces he’s about to have a baby. Was this timing just coincidental? As if. Look at all of the ridiculous daily briefings that took place during the pandemic. Every day a new representative would be wheeled out to skim over facts and ignore the science. We were lied to about the number of tests that were being done and about the number of deaths. We were told confusing and often contradictory facts about how to stay safe. How is this any different to any of the times Squealer got up in front of the rest of the animals?
And if you needed any more proof, just look at Cummings himself. The man broke his own lockdown rules on two occasions, put countless people in danger, and refused to apologise. He got away with it and, no matter how hard they were pushed, the government refused to listen to the public. If ever you needed a real-life example of “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” then it’s the current Conservative party. So, forget 1984, the book we all need to be reading at a time like this is Animal Farm. It shows us more than anything that we are falling into the same political traps as people have fallen into before. We’re told that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Our current political climate shows us that nobody learnt a damn thing from their history lessons.
Don’t end up like Boxer.
4 thoughts on “Bookish Post – Orwell good, Tory bad: why you should reread Animal Farm in 2020”
This is one of the favorite books of all times. Loved your analysis with the present situation.
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Thanks! It’s definitely one of my favourite reads. I much prefer it 1984.