Saturday 1 February 2020

Brexit Lions and Unicorns

Orwell's essay "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" reads today as very old-fashioned and jingoistic. And yet, like all great artists, Orwell accesses something of the nature of life  - both at the time he was writing ("As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.") which we are seeing reflected back at us in a rather unedifying way with Brexit.

Much that he identified in 1941 is still true.
"There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four."
Except that of course this inequality has been exported to many other countries. But what about "patriotism" which his essay is really about? What does that mean?

It seems that patriotism is very problematic and confusing. It is uncomfortably close to the "nationalism" or "populism" (what does that mean?) that we see among the Brexiteers or the Trump supporters. Orwell's point is to say that despite the differences between the rich and the poor, or the different nations of the UK (I would like to think he would apply this across our multicultural society today) a country can be united if it feels its "home" to be under threat. I doubt this is a "national" instinct but a human one - we see it in extraordinary human acts of courage and compassion in the wake of terrorist atrocities (for example) the world over. Can we explain it? No - but to "explain" it as a "national characteristic" is both tempting and facile - that's where jingoism comes from.

Where does the "threat" which mobilises everyone come from? Orwell is very clear that it is not among the individual "highly civilised human beings" who are trying to kill him.
"Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."
I imagine whether one might say this about some members of ISIS. So much depends on what we consider to be "civilised".

But it's not fanatics who scare us: "What English people of nearly all classes loathe from the bottom of their hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash of boots.". It's the aristocracy who, in Europe adopted the goose-step as their "ritual dance" - and his point that it is hard to imagine a Hitler in the UK relies on the fact that "Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army." Orwell argued that we needed socialism to counter the aristocratic swagger which leads to people like Hitler. What he called elsewhere the "arrogance of superiority".

Today in Europe we don't see military officials swaggering in uniform, although the police often now carry guns. But there is still the swagger of authority everywhere - and I think this really lies at the heart of the Tory Brexit which has just taken place. Orwell may be right in what unites rich and poor being authoritarianism - it absolutely fits the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings and others. But there is no goose-stepping, and all that the Brexiteers complain of is "Brussels bureaucrats". That's a funny kind of goose-step!

But it may be one nonetheless. This is goose-step in the techno age. It is the goose-step of free-market capitalism, technologically-driven oppression, surveillance and artificially-imposed austerity. We are all marching to its beat, and most of us - the losers - hate it.

We know, deep down, that the likes of Johnson, Trump and Farage are really the commanders of this robot dance which so many detest. And we know that they know that declaring hatred for it on the one hand, and ramping-it up on the other is the game. But we are caught - because you cannot call them out without denying that the uniting hatred of authority is fundamentally true. It's a massive double-bind.

So how do we get out of this mess? Orwell's answer was socialism - and in many respects he knew that the founding of the NHS and welfare state was inevitable after the war. It's taken over 70 years to re-impose the goose-step in the techno age in a far more complex and uncertain form where it drives everything, distorting that early socialist ideal to move to its beat.

One of the striking things about the EU and Brexit, Westminster and the election, is that everyone has taken it so seriously. Perhaps we shouldn't take any of this seriously. Perhaps the game is to get us to take seriously things which aren't at all serious. It's like the population who is afraid to laugh at its army. If we don't take our parliaments - whether national or international - seriously, what are they? They are - it all is - irrelevant. Now look at how hard the media - the press, the national broadcasters, the social media companies - are trying to convince us that this isn't irrelevant!

That's the mark of swaggering authority - to persuade the people that what is irrelevant is the most important thing in the world. It's a con. 

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