Home > Market Commentary > George Orwell’s 1942 Essay “Looking Back at the Spanish War” Suggests a Possible Dystopian Future for the U.S.

George Orwell’s 1942 Essay “Looking Back at the Spanish War” Suggests a Possible Dystopian Future for the U.S.

November 1, 2020

George Orwell (best known for the dystopian novel “1984”) went to Spain in the late 1930s to help the Leftists resist the Fascists, where he fought in combat. After a vicious and bloody civil war, the Fascists prevailed. Their victory depended on extensive support from the rising Nazi regime. The Leftists were hopelessly outgunned as Britain, the U.S. and other nations refused to offer meaningful counter support.

There are many similarities to Europe in the 1930s and the situation in which the U.S. currently finds itself, and these are deeply disturbing. I write this essay to counteract the mindset I perceive among liberals that if Democrats prevail in the 2020 election, “the nightmare will be over.” Things will undoubtedly get immediately worse if the Republicans win, but if the Democrats win, I predict that surprisingly little will change, and this will result in tremendous frustration. Republicans will simply use the stacked federal court system to resume McConnell’s strategy against Obama: oppose absolutely everything Democrats try to accomplish.

My aim in writing this essay is to wake people up to the uncomfortable fact that a “cold civil war” has already started, and that there are only two choices once a war begins: fight or surrender. Democrats are going to have to gird themselves for a long, long fight. Orwell recognizes that many individuals are deeply averse to fighting because:

It is an inescapable fact that in order to fight one has to degrade oneself.

I respect many things about former president Obama, but his “when they go low we go high” perspective proved to be ultimately impractical. Obama was abused and disgraced by McConnell in the Merrick Garland matter. I could not respect his decision to simply surrender to McConnell, nor, for that matter, will I ever understand Al Gore’s thinking when he meekly conceded an election that he would have won, had the vote counting continued. Going forward, it will be necessary to embrace Orwell’s admonition that

It is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting.

Democrats need to evolve into fighters, every bit as fierce as the fanatical far right — or it will be game over for U.S. democracy. Even if Trump is defeated in the 2020 election, the fighting is going to go on for a long time. Let’s consider some similarities between today and the late 1930s as described by Orwell:

The only propaganda line open to the Nazis and Fascists was to represent themselves as Christian patriots saving Spain.

And thus our modern-day far right employs a strategy that depicts the left as inhuman radicals from whom the nation must be saved. The well-known talking points are that the left wants to take away God and guns from the working class and capitalism from the high-earning one percenters. Orwell further writes:

Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence. And there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously.

Which leaves Orwell with a feeling we also grapple with today:

It often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.

And, right on cue, the far right has reintroduced the idea of “alternative facts.” Their desire to purge government of scientific expertise is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s observation that

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘science’. There is only ‘German science’, ‘Jewish science’ etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened.

Thus Americans are bombarded with messaging from the Trump administration that there is no coronavirus pandemic, masks don’t help stop the spread, we’re “rounding the corner” even though we have a record number of new cases, climate change isn’t real, and on and on ad nauseum.

Orwell goes on to reflect — incredulously — that in the 1930s Europe had de facto accepted the reintroduction of slavery on the continent when nations passively stood by and allowed the Nazis to round up entire populations and send them to forced labor camps. According to Orwell, the inaction of European powers reveals an important aspect of human nature:

We believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. We don’t grasp its full implications, because in our mystical way we feel that a régime founded on slavery must collapse. But it is worth comparing the duration of the slave empires of antiquity with that of any modern state. Civilizations founded on slavery have lasted for such periods as four thousand years. Those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever.

Democracy, by comparison, remains a short-lived experiment. If the far right manages to thwart representative democracy and steal the 2020 election, will history recall the rage of the Black Lives Matter movement, or that another candidate had the audacity oppose Trump at all? Even as I write this, the Sunday morning liberal media are squawking about how “history will look back on this moment with shame.” Don’t be so sure; as Orwell reflects:

In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you?

Orwell further noted the disappointing fickleness of liberal intellectuals following a defeat:

One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections among the intelligentsia, including some of the left-wing political intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes. They are far-sighted enough to see the odds against them, and moreover they can be bribed.

This further reinforces my belief that Democrats need to condition themselves to a long, uncomfortable struggle.

What conditions allow fascists to win so many hearts and minds? Orwell noted that it is most important for fascists to win over the aristocrats (or in our case, the high-earning one percenters) by inspiring hatred among citizens:

When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys and what-not would in itself be enough to show . . . they are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. The simple intention of those with money or privileges is to cling to them. In essence it was a class war.

And Republicans’ messaging is designed to inspire fear by constantly (and falsely) reminding their followers that liberals want to take away their God, their guns and their capitalist system.

Orwell further points out that it doesn’t matter whether or not you want to be in a war once the conflict has already started:

There is always the temptation to say: ‘One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral’. In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins.

The far right knows this and knows it well; better than the Democrats, I fear. Remember the lessons of McConnell vs. Obama and Bush vs. Gore. Republicans’ conduct may have been despicable, but they won those battles — and they are scarily close to winning again. It is extremely important to remember that, even if the far right loses the 2020 election, they will not slow their efforts to subvert representative democracy and replace it with a pseudo-totalitarian, minority-rule government that answers mainly to white Christians.

In closing, I offer two quotes from Santayana’s “The Life of Reason” (Volume 1, 1905-1906):

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

The far right has no shortage of fanatics, and they are already busy redoubling their efforts. Win or lose, they are going to keep coming. The question is whether or not the left can muster the required staying power to supersede the fanaticism of the far right. This is what it will ultimately take. Over one hundred years ago, immediately following World War I, the poet W.B. Yeats reflected that

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And it’s all happening again, right under our noses. There are no sidelines to stand on. History shows that it’s wrong to think that “it can’t happen here” or that “evil is self-defeating.” Sadly, evil has often prevailed, in antiquity as well as modern times. It is vital for everyone to accept that it will require an extended and often exhausting effort to re-create the type of country (and world) that truly free people want to live in. Without an ironclad commitment, freedom and democracy will continue to be trampled, perhaps irrevocably. Take a deep breath. November 3rd is not the end of anything.

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