Orwell as Public Choice Socialist
By Bryan Caplan
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
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. Indoing 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?” 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”  in Essays 525; Orwell, “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution”  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?”  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”  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”  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.