Bryan Caplan  

Orwell as Public Choice Socialist

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There really ought to be a paper on George Orwell and Public Choice.  Thanks to Loyola University senior Michael Makovi, there finally is.  He's done a great job - "George Orwell as Public Choice Economist," forthcoming in The American Economist, is history of thought you can really sink your teeth into.  Here are some highlights.

George Orwell is famous for his two final fictions, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. These two works are sometimes understood to defend capitalism against socialism. But as Orwell was a committed socialist, this could not have been his intention. Orwell's criticisms were directed not against socialism per se but against the Soviet Union and similarly totalitarian regimes. Instead, these fictions were intended as Public Choice-style investigations into which political systems furnished suitable incentive structures to prevent the abuse of power.
Fleshed-out version:

Although Orwell certainly was distrustful of individuals and suspected them of being liable to abuse their power, he was also interested, as we shall see, in what political institutions might affect their liability to abuse their power. While Orwell's skepticism of political power and his fear of individual abuse of that power are significantly consistent with Public Choice, in fact Orwell's concerns went much further. Therefore Orwell was not only a skeptic of political power but he was also concerned with political institutions and their incentive structures, and thus a practitioner of Public Choice economics.

In this way, through the Public Choice interpretation of Orwell, we may reconcile the sensibility and straightforwardness of the conservative interpretation of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as having been written to oppose socialism, with the actual fact that Orwell was a socialist. For after all, Orwell was and always remained an advocate of democratic socialism and he could not have been a critic of collectivism per se. At the same time, the conservative interpretation seems so sensible and appears to so readily agree with the texts precisely because it is not altogether wrong. Orwell was not opposed to socialism per se as the conservative interpretation suggests, but he was opposed to a particular kind of socialism, viz. any form of socialism which turned totalitarian because it neglected to provide suitable political institutions to mitigate the abuse of power. The conservative interpretation of Orwell's fictions as anti-socialist thus carries an important kernel of truth. Therefore, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were not intended as criticisms of the abstract economics of collectivism in theory, but rather of the political dynamics of "decayed communism," non-democratic forms of collectivism in practice. Though these two fictions have many differences - Animal Farm being an allegorical beast fable about the very recent past, Nineteen-Eighty Four a relatively realistic dystopian novel set in the future - it is this polemical intention which they share in common. The Public Choice interpretation of Orwell helps us understand that Orwell was opposed to a particular form of socialism -the totalitarian kind - and why. In doing so, this interpretation allows us to square the sensibility of the conservative anti-socialist interpretation with the fact that Orwell was a socialist.

Orwell was totally a socialist:

Orwell thought that "Capitalism, as such, has no room in it for any human relationship; it has no law except that profits must always be made" ("Will Freedom Die with Capitalism?"[1941] 1683). Similarly, in "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (1941), which he wrote during World War II, Orwell defined "economic liberty" as "the right to exploit others for profit" (Essays 294). Furthermore, discussing Britain's ability to wage a defensive war, he continued,

What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism - that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit - does not work. It cannot deliver the goods. (Ibid. 315; emphasis in original)

In the same essay, Orwell came to the conclusion that

Laissez-faire capitalism is dead. The choice lies between the kind of collective society that Hitler will set up and the kind that can arise if he is defeated. (Ibid. 344)


But if Orwell was a socialist, the question remains, why? What about socialism appealed to him? Thankfully, Orwell tells us in his autobiographical "Preface to the Ukranian Edition of Animal Farm" (1947):

I became pro-Socialist more out of a disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society. (Essays 1211)

Thus, we should not expect that Orwell necessarily read widely in economics, and certainly it seems that even if he had, this was not what influenced him towards socialism. Instead, it appears that what Orwell rejected more than anything else was any hierarchy or inequality which he perceived to be socially unnecessary (Orwell, "Review of The Machiavellians by James Burnham" [1944] in Essays 525; Orwell, "James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution" [1946] in Essays 1070; cf. Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four in Complete Novels 1100). So Orwell was a socialist because he was an egalitarian. Indeed, according to Richard White, he was what Marxians would disdainfully call a "utopian" socialist, a socialist inspired by ethical and moral views, determined to institute socialism for the sake of social justice, whereas Marxists would consider socialism to be an amoral historical inevitability (White, "George Orwell: Socialism and Utopia").
Unlike most contemporary socialists, however, Orwell abhorred intellectual victory by definition.  He freely admitted that Nazism, like Communism, was socialist:

Orwell even argued that by virtue of their undemocratic and collectivist nature, Nazi fascism and Soviet communism were essentially the same thing, a fact which he accused his fellow socialists of failing to appreciate:

[T]ill very recently it remained the official theory of the Left that Nazism was "just capitalism." . . . Since nazism was not what any Western European meant by socialism, clearly it must be capitalism. . . . Otherwise they [the Left] would have had to admit that nazism did avoid the contradictions of capitalism, that it was a kind of socialism, though a non-democratic kind. And that would have meant admitting that "common ownership of the means of production" is not a sufficient objective, that by merely altering the structure of society you improve nothing. . . . Nazism can be defined as oligarchical collectivism. . . . It seems fairly certain that something of the same kind is occurring in Soviet Russia; the similarity of the two regimes has been growing more and more obvious for the last six years. ("Will Freedom Die With Capitalism?" [1941] 1684; emphasis in original)

Thus, Orwell's experiences in Spain convinced him not that socialism was a false ideal, but that the Soviet Union and the Communists had betrayed that ideal. Orwell "was a socialist but, ever since Spain, an anti-Stalinist socialist and his hostility to Communism was a pervasive feature of his political writing" (Newsinger, Orwell's Politics 97). He thought that "Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force" (Orwell, "Spilling the Spanish Beans" [1937] 67), working against socialism. He became inspired to expose their duplicity and conniving, and he related the theme of the Soviet betrayal of the cause of socialism with the totalitarian rewriting of the past:

The Communist movement in Western Europe began as a movement for the violent overthrow of capitalism, and degenerated within a few years into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. ("Inside the Whale" [1940] in Essays 233f., quoted in Newsinger, Orwell's Politics 113)

He furthermore referred to "Russian Communism . . . [as] a form of Socialism that makes mental honesty impossible" (Orwell, "Inside the Whale" 235), and so Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were written not as defections from socialism, but as attempts to redeem true socialism from the betrayal of the Communists.
Some amusing ridicule by Makovi:
One would defend the conservative interpretation of Orwell's fictions as anti-socialist by arguing that Orwell was no longer a socialist anymore when he wrote them. And it would be difficult to refute the claim that Orwell had a change of heart prior to writing his last two major works for the same reason that it is difficult to challenge a claim that someone had made a deathbed recantation or confession.
My main suggestion for improvement: Makovi should have heavily emphasized the parallels between Orwell's 1984 and the late great Gordon Tullock's work on dictatorship and revolution.  Listen to Tullock speak:
Another obvious area for empirical investigation concerns the expectations of the revolutionaries. My impression is that they generally expect to have a good position in the new state which is to be established by the revolution. Further, my impression is that the leaders of revolutions continuously encourage their followers in such views. In other words, they hold out private gains to them. It is certainly true that those people that I have known who have talked in terms of revolutionary activity have always fairly obviously thought that they themselves would have a good position in the "new Jerusalem." Normally, of course, it is necessary to do a little careful questioning of them to bring out this point. They will normally begin by telling you that they favor the revolution solely because it is right, virtuous, and preordained by history.
Now hear the words of O'Brien in 1984:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were- cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.
P.S. I'm writing an all-new dystopian role-playing game for Capla-Con 2015, June 20-21 - and you're invited!  Join the Facebook group for details.

P.P.S. Makovi's paper was written under the direction of Prof. William T. Cotton in his honors English literature course, "George Orwell and the Disasters of the 20th Century" at Loyola University, New Orleans.

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Indeed, great idea to look at Orwell from a public choice perspective.

But im somewhat annoyed by the black and white 'you are either with socialism/capitalism or against it' attitude.

after all, Orwell was and always remained an advocate of democratic socialism and he could not have been a critic of collectivism per se.

Wrong. Orwell was the archetype equal-opportunity offender and critic. He criticized socialism without hesitation, because he wanted to see socialism succeed in the long run; but not the totalitarian incarnations which had popped up in the 20th century. Is that really so incomprehensible?

And to his credit, he was pretty aware of the systematic incentives that make these kind of coercive systems fail, in his later years, and acutely aware of the fact that no one in their right minds would trade 1950's London with 1950's Moscow. Much unlike every other capitalist-skepticus of his time.

Grant Gould writes:

I think "public choice" is a bit of a stretch. Orwell's concern was, simply, democracy.

A clear indication is in how the socialists of the time reacted to Orwell. Road to Wigan Pier was roundly anathemized even by its own publishers initially because of its criticism of the socialist political program as unconcerned with democracy. And of course the Communists made their views of him clear in Spain.

Orwell's view was always that democracy and socialism were compatible, and indeed necessarily linked: Either without the other would tend fascist. A large measure of his writing can be read as pleas to socialists to embrace democracy and to refashion the socialist view of social progress from an emphasis on revolution to an emphasis on straightforward democratic political action. This entailed freeing socialism from its intellectualist/elitist and "cranky" roots and focusing on its material promises of (what he saw as) common-sense justice.

Orwell in my view is best read as a persistent critic of the means and approaches of socialism: He correctly identified that the socialist ascendency he desired could not be obtained by the revolutionary and intellectual socialist parties then existing. And sure enough: Socialism's ascent in Europe post-Orwell has entirely been through labor and social-democratic parties, and not at all through the communists.

cassander writes:

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Lee Waaks writes:

For those interested, here is a link to a review essay of Christopher Hitchens' book, Why Orwell Matters, by David Ramsay Steele, which examines Orwell's political beliefs in detail.

Thucydides writes:

Orwell's blind spot was that he didn't recognize that the pursuit of socialist ends sooner or later requires the kind of oppression he opposed. He would have done well to have read Hayek.

robbbbbb writes:

I would be interested to hear more about your dystopian RPG. Is it more free-form? Live-action? Tabletop based? How is it set up and run? And what relationship does it bear to the classic dystopian RPG Paranoia?

I have a gaming group that goes off for a weekend away every year in June, and we're always looking for interesting, new, and possibly experimental RPGs to run. I ran a LARP last year, and wrote another this year. I'm always looking for new material, and would be interested to hear your comments on what you're working on. (If you can write it without blowing up what you're working on!)

David R. Henderson writes:

Orwell's blind spot was that he didn't recognize that the pursuit of socialist ends sooner or later requires the kind of oppression he opposed. He would have done well to have read Hayek.
Orwell did read Hayek and found his The Road to Serfdom persuasive. Read Orwell’s review of Hayek. I think it will convince you that your first statement is incorrect.

IVV writes:

Why would people, if given the opportunity to design political institutions, choose a socialist system that cannot be exploited, given that the designers are clearly in the best position to take the gains from those exploits?

E. Harding writes:

"We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it."
-Except Gorbachov. Perhaps Yeltsin.

Buoyant Chilly writes:

Orwell leaned Nazi, according to his unauthorized biographer whose tell all exposed the truth about this world renowned author, journalist and soldier.

Fred Anderson writes:

Re: "We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it."
Two other examples; George Washington and one of his inspirations, Cincinnatus.
Or perhaps it's not so rare after all; good parenting would seem to require something similar. (Although it's an uncomfortable fit to equate becoming a parent and seizing power.)

Miguel Madeira writes:

I confess that I don't understand the people who made a "conservative" reading of "Animal Farm" and "1984" - if, in the case of "1984", there is indeed a possibility of a conservative or libertarian intrepretation, in the case of "Animal Farm" the quasi-trotskyist line seems almost obvious (Snowball is clearly the less evil of the "ruling elite" - pigs and humans - characters).

Michael Makovi writes:

Miguel Madeira,

*Both* pigs are evil. I quote Stephen J. Greenblatt, "Orwell as Satirist", in Raymond Williams (ed.) George Orwell: A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 109:

"A growing rivalry between Snowball and Napoleon is decisively decided by Napoleon's vicious hounds, who drive Snowball off the farm. Laurence Brander sees Snowball as a symbol of 'altruism, the essential social virtue' and his expulsion as the defeat of his 'altruistic laws for giving warmth, food, and comfort to all the animals.' This is very touching, but unfortunately, there is no indication that Snowball is any less corrupt or power-mad than Napoleon. Indeed, it is remarked, concerning the appropriation of the milk and apples, that 'All the pigs were in full agreement on this point, even Snowball and Napoleon' (p. 30)."

It is because *all* the pigs are evil, that one could think Animal Farm condemns socialism per se, and not just Stalin. I think that reading is wrong, but it isn't absurd.

It would be interesting to see if there are any essays by Orwell explicitly criticizing Trotsky in the same or similar terms as Stalin. I haven't looked, and there are 50 volumes of Orwell writings. Thank God for indices.

Mm writes:

E Harding- what makes you think either Gorby or Yeltsin intended to voluntary relinquished power? The best example is Geo Washington- to the great surprise of the King of England("if he were to do that he would bt the greatest man of his age").

Mm writes:

E Harding- what makes you think either Gorby or Yeltsin intended to voluntary relinquished power? The best example is Geo Washington- to the great surprise of the King of England("if he were to do that he would bt the greatest man of his age").

David Friedman writes:

I think Makovi, if you have correctly describes his position, overstates Orwell's optimism about the possibility of socialism that didn't go bad. He should read (if he hasn't) Orwell's review of _Road to Serfdom_ and a book on the other side by Zilliacus. The guts of the review is that each author thinks the others' system will lead to very bad result and his system is the only alternative.

Orwell's conclusion (by memory not verbatim):

It is a sobering thought that they may both be right.

I think his view, at least in his later years, was that capitalism could not work well and he hoped socialism could but was by no means sure it could.

Floccina writes:

Does the Tullock quote apply to PPACA supporters who are now shocked and angered because they are paying more for health insurance and having bigger deductibles? I was in an online debate about the PPACA and I was surprised by these folks being the greatest detractors of the PPACA. They though universal coverage would cover them at no cost to them. They are middle-class people who seem to think that they are poor and cannot afford the payments. They were the foot solders for the PPACA but feel that they got nothing.

lrC writes:

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Michael Makovi writes:

David Friedman, I do cite Orwell's review of Hayek. But I read Orwell as more optimistic than you, relying mostly on Orwell's letter to Henson, where he portrays his intent in writing 1984 as optimistic. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that many of the critical scholars debate just how pessimistic - or not - Orwell was. Opinions abound.

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