Notes on Orwell and Democratic Socialism

“Make Orwell Fiction Again.” So read t-shirts and hats mimicking Donald Trump’s infamous 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in a not-so-subtle dig at a president who openly styles himself as something of an authoritarian leader. In 1984, Orwell’s famous dystopian novel—sales of which soared in the wake of Trump’s election—surveillance is ubiquitous, truth is malleable and coincides with whatever the Party needs it to be, and the forces of repression are readily deployed to stamp out even the faintest glimmer of dissent. Trump may not exactly be Big Brother (and to the extent that he is, the way has been paved for him by his two immediate predecessors, who created and entrenched the surveillance-deportation-police state that Trump now helms); nevertheless, Trump’s deployment of federal forces in Washington D.C. and Portland to quash protests, his suggestion to postpone the presidential election, and his evident intention to engage in voter suppression during a pandemic by sabotaging the United States Post Office do genuinely raise the specter of incipient Orwellian dystopia.

Photo courtesy of Open Culture.

Trump isn’t the first U.S. president in recent memory to demonstrate an affinity for the Orwellian, of course. The term was widely applied to George W. Bush between 2000 and 2008. It wasn’t just Bush’s dubious claim to being legitimately elected to a first term that earned him his Orwellian reputation. The dystopian moniker acquired its real meaning with the rise of the post-9/11 national security state and the push to make war on Iraq, which involved a startling amount of lies, propaganda, and trampling on individual rights and freedoms in the name national unity. The run-up to the Iraq War, for example, was rife with the sort of duplicitous language Orwell famously deplored. As the philosopher Douglass Kellner remarks, “Bush’s discourse…displayed Orwellian features of [doublethink] where war against Iraq is for peace, the occupation of Iraq is its liberation, destroying its food and water supplies enables ‘humanitarian’ action, and where the murder of countless Iraqis and destruction of the country will produce ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’” With the advent of legislation and organizations like the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, we can also see the logic of doublethink at work: American patriotism and its associations with freedom are called upon to license incursions on privacy and the chilling of thought (the Patriot Act famously allowed individuals’ library records to be examined); the defense of the “homeland” from foreign enemies is predictably used to crack down on domestic protest. Like the antagonistic power blocs of 1984 in which the constant threat of war is mobilized as a means of domestic control, the open-ended War on Terror was invoked to justify suspending civil liberties and the rule of law.

As these examples show, invocations of the “Orwellian” almost invariably refer to the threat of sprawling state power; it is the rise of unaccountable executive authority and an expansion of the apparatus of state surveillance, propaganda, and repression that most readily conjure Orwellian associations. While the reasons for these associations are obvious, they are a gross simplification of what Orwell himself considered the dystopian tendencies of modern society. Orwell saw the baneful effects of power and hierarchy in capitalist societies as well as communist, in interactions between private individuals as well as those between individuals and the state. When we narrowly equate the Orwellian features of contemporary U.S. society with state power, we neglect the authoritarian aspects of so-called civil society to which Orwell himself attributes the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. To appreciate Orwell’s insights, we must reacquaint ourselves with a part of his legacy that has remained obscure: his democratic socialism.

If you only knew about Orwell from ambient cultural references, you could be excused for thinking he was a man of the libertarian right. If one takes 1984 as the canonical statement of Orwell’s political views, for example, then one might easily come away with the impression that there can be no power more oppressive than the state, an inherently totalitarian entity whose growth must be resisted at all costs. An article published last year by the libertarian think tank Foundation for Economic Freedom is a case in point. Aiming to push back against readings of 1984 as primarily a harbinger of the dystopian potential of technology to become a form of ubiquitous surveillance, the author states correctly that Orwell intended 1984 specifically as a warning about the threat of totalitarian Soviet communism; however, she assiduously avoids mentioning Orwell’s many criticisms of capitalism. While she does make passing reference to Orwell as a writer on “the left,” one would never know from the article that he wrote a sympathetic book about socialism and joined with socialists, communists, and anarchists to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, much less that he intended his criticisms of the Soviet Union as necessary for the defense of his own understanding of socialism. The Orwell of anti-communist lore probably wouldn’t have uttered these words, which the Orwell of flesh and blood wrote in his 1946 essay “Why I Write”: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Now that the Soviet Union is a thing of the past, the inadequacies of capitalism are all the more apparent; Orwell’s positive vision of a democratic socialism is all the more timely and urgent.

How did Orwell understand democratic socialism? Although he left behind no systematic elaboration of his political ideas, fruitful hints at what Orwell considered socialism’s main elements are scattered throughout his voluminous writings. One book in which the reader encounters frequent explicit statements on socialism is The Road to Wigan Pier, a work which Orwell published in 1937 as part of the Left Book Club series edited by the socialist intellectual Victor Gallancz. “Socialism,” Orwell says there,

is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Orwell worries, however, that despite its obvious appeal, socialism is not gaining ground while fascism is. He blames this on socialists’ poor communication and off-putting sub-cultural tendencies, which conspire to keep it a marginal force. He famously spends the second part of Road to Wigan Pier railing against socialists and proffering a series of unkind caricatures of them to explain why socialism lacks the appeal he thinks it ought to have. “As with the Christian religion,” Orwell drily remarks, “the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” Orwell was so rude toward socialists that Victor Gallancz was compelled to include a rejoinder as a foreword to the Left Book Club edition of the book. (Gallancz’s foreword remains a salutary antidote to some of Orwell’s more rebarbative caricatures.)

Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier. Photo courtesy of Publishing History. Learn more about the Left Book Club here.

Though opponents of socialism sometimes seize on these passages as support for their own hostility toward socialism, it shouldn’t be supposed that because Orwell attacks socialists, he opposes socialism. To the contrary, to ably expound socialism, he explains, one must get “inside the mind of the ordinary objector to Socialism,” or at least regard them sympathetically, in order to know how to reply. “Therefore, rather paradoxically,” he concludes, “in order to defend Socialism it is necessary to start by attacking it.” Orwell’s objections to socialism ultimately serve to strengthen his case for it by understanding how to better communicate its appeal. It is best to keep the message simple, straightforward, and intuitive rather than elaborately theorized, he concludes. “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night,” writes Orwell, “socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.” Socialism’s underlying ideals are justice and liberty according to Orwell. “Socialism means justice and common decency,” he declares.

While it is possible to take exception to Orwell’s formulations on account of their lack of specificity, the wisdom of his advice is evident in the success with which Bernie Sanders has used similar rhetoric to describe his own brand of democratic socialism. Interspersed with myriad concrete policy proposals, the rhetoric of freedom and common decency has been used by Sanders to great effect: he came within striking distance of the Democratic nomination for president—a hitherto unimaginable feat for an avowed socialist—and helped to galvanize a popular movement on behalf of major social democratic reforms. Where opponents of Medicare for All have wielded the rhetoric of freedom in defense of the private health insurance companies, raising the specter of “big government” encroachment on the individual’s choice, Sanders has effectively countered by appealing to a different vision of freedom in which the production of universal public goods like healthcare would free people from dependence on whatever private benefits their boss does (or doesn’t) happen to provide. Based on a solid foundation of rights to such public goods, individuals would be freer to pursue happiness on their own terms. Although Sanders’ campaign did not ultimately prevail, it popularized support for both specific policies and a broader democratic socialist vision. Sanders’ success suggests that Orwell’s instinct to eschew theoretical jargon and make the case for socialism in terms of widely held values like liberty and justice is probably correct and worth bearing in mind.

As Orwell was concluding The Road to Wigan Pier, he was concerned by fascism’s rapid advance. Indeed, this was one of the reasons he was so critical of socialists; he wanted them to be strong and popular in order to thwart the fascist challenge. In 1936, the most important front in the fight against fascism was in Spain, where an alliance of monarchist and Catholic forces, which soon came to be led by General Francisco Franco, had attempted a coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government, leading to a civil war that pitted Franco and his army against a coalition of republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists. Many of them, like Orwell, came from abroad. Orwell went in association with the British Independent Labor Party and fought with the Party of Marxist Unity (P.O.U.M.). In his book Homage to Catalonia, in which he recounts his experiences fighting fascism, Orwell writes enthusiastically about the spirit of socialist solidarity that pervaded the ranks of the militias:

[T]he Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

In spite of this spirit of camaraderie—or perhaps because of its exuberant independence—his party affiliations got him in trouble with the Stalinists, who wouldn’t tolerate an alternative to Soviet authority among the anti-fascist forces. His near liquidation at the hands of the Stalinist terror—Andres Nin, the leader of the P.O.U.M., was not so lucky—left a deep impression on him, and 1984 and Animal Farm are the product of his encounter with totalitarian Soviet communism. In the larger context of his life, however, they are clear rebukes of the Soviet system in the name of democratic socialism.

A P.O.U.M. postcard. You can learn more about the P.O.U.M. and see more postcards like this one here.

Take Animal Farm, for example, which is widely known as an anti-communist allegory and cautionary tale about the propensity of revolutions to devour their children. While in one respect this is a perfectly accurate interpretation of the story, to describe it in this way is to overlook its central irony, which is that the ultimate crime of the pigs who rule the farm with an iron fist is to become indistinguishable from capitalists. The pigs are bad because they contradict the stated principles of the animals’ rebellion, not because they are true to them. They gradually revise the revolution’s initial reforms to permit themselves to engage in behaviors that had been the reason for rebelling against human rule in the first place, culminating in the absurd proposition that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The pigs violate the spirit of solidarity embodied in “Beasts of England,” the animals’ anthem of revolution, and they finally outlaw the song altogether lest it inspire rebellion against their own oppressive class rule. Eventually, even the name of the farm reverts from Animal Farm to Manor Farm, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs. Indeed, the initial vision of revolution is inspiring and persists among the rank and file animals in spite of its perversion in the hands of the pigs. The silent meditations of Clover, one of the farm’s two carthorses, are representative:

As Clover looked down the hillside her eyes filled with tears. If she could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race. These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them to rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak.

Passages like this suggest that the degeneration of the original values of the revolution into an oppressive order indistinguishable from the status quo ante under Mr. Jones is the real tragedy of the story.

One might still wish to argue that part of Orwell’s lesson is however good the principles of revolutions are in theory, in practice they tend more or less inevitably toward dictatorship, so it is almost categorically better not to aspire to them in the first place. Yet even if the animals’ revolutionary ideology is depicted as ill-fated, human society and its prevailing attitudes are not presented as any more attractive (in the end, they may in fact look worse). The humans appear as selfish, competitive, and authoritarian. Mr. Jones is a drunk who forgets to feed the animals and blasts a shotgun to silence their obstreperous singing. His ouster is the just and predictable result of his behavior. The other humans are concerned to suppress any yearnings for animal self-management on their own farms, by punitive and heavy-handed means if necessary, while also scrambling amongst themselves for bigger shares of the pie. After Jones is ousted, he retreats to the tap room of the Red Lion pub to nurse his wounds. Rather than genuinely caring about his plight, his fellow farmers privately scheme to make his loss their gain: “The other farmers sympathized in principle, but they did not at first give him much help. At heart, each of them was secretly wondering whether he could not somehow turn Jones’s misfortune to his own advantage.” Orwell’s depiction of the humans as ruthless competitors is reminiscent of Marx’s observation that “capitalists are like hostile brothers who divide among themselves the loot of other people’s labor.” Revolution has its risks, but it’s not clear that the status quo is any more desirable.

While Animal Farm is clearly more complex than its interpretation as a simple anti-communist allegory suggests, it is understandable how one might come away from it without realizing the extent of Orwell’s socialist sympathies. To get a firmer grasp of Orwell’s socialist views, it is necessary to read his works more widely than they are usually read. Take, for example, his review of The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s famous warning that anything more substantial than the most minimal welfare state presages the extinction of freedom and individuality altogether.  While Orwell does not dismiss Hayek’s concerns, he finds them one-sided, and he cautions that Hayek “does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” For those accustomed to the libertarian view that tyranny is synonymous with state power, this remark should be eye-opening; as Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, an elemental aspect of socialism’s appeal is the freedom from the boss that it promises. Higher wages and shorter hours mean less time at work under the thumb of another and more time to spend as you like. (The caution against concentrations of private power is all the more relevant today as major tech companies like Facebook control an ever-greater amount of public discourse while they simultaneously conduct mass surveillance.) Ever the pragmatist, Orwell is skeptical of the glories of free competition as described in theory as opposed to how it operates in reality: “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that’s where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.” Indeed, it is just this drift of opinion in the face of market failures—and the directions toward which it can be channeled—that concerns Orwell about capitalism and makes him see the necessity for a democratic form of socialism: “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Communism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.”

Soviet-style communism and capitalism, are, in Orwell’s view, two sides of the same coin. They reside near each other on the extremely unequal end of a continuum of social hierarchy; communism, along with fascism, is a totalitarian reaction to the initial hierarchical set-up of capitalism, in which a small minority controls a disproportionate amount of resources, living extravagantly, while the vast majority exists at the whim of volatile market oscillations, constantly facing the forced choice of work or starvation. Orwell’s proposal for a planned economy combined with freedom of the intellect may be light on details, yet it is not difficult to imagine the type of society he has in mind—it is clearly one in which democratically accountable government policy has a significant role to play in arranging economic activity and institutions so that everyone has enough to live a life of dignity and purpose. The threat of totalitarian communism may have subsided, but capitalism remains as crisis prone as ever, leading to festering resentments which all too often manifest as nationalist rivalries.

One of those who recognized that Orwell’s disdain for authoritarianism and propaganda applied to capitalist societies as well as communist was the philosopher Erich Fromm. As Fromm wrote in his 1961 afterword to 1984, Orwell’s dystopian novel applied not just to Russian and Chinese communism but also to Western societies, who are purveyors of doublethink of their own style. In Western societies, in addition to the central authority of the state, there also exist large private corporations which wield considerable political and economic power. Their decisions, insulated from democratic accountability, affect countless lives, and they engage in the perpetual propaganda campaign known as advertising. As Fromm writes, “We present our society as being one of free initiative, individualism, and idealism, when in reality these are mostly words. We are a centralized managerial industrial society, of an essentially bureaucratic nature, and motivated by materialism which is only slightly mitigated by truly spiritual or religious concerns.”

Although Fromm wrote during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union still existed and the threat of nuclear war between it and the United States seemed an imminent possibility, and we inhabit a post-Cold War world today (or at least so we are told), he still offers valuable insights. After all, we are returning to an era of “great power” competition in which “Communist China” plays a main role. Thanks to the revival of tensions with Russia via the “Russiagate” scandal, any post-Cold War peace dividend we gained has been resolvedly spent, and even the imagery of the Soviet Union has re-emerged as a way of imagining the Russian other. Fromm’s reading of Orwell is a timely reminder to look to our own behavior as well as the behavior of those we deem adversaries. Our society practices many of the same authoritarian tactics we accuse other nations of engaging in, and we support unabashedly authoritarian allies who commit sundry violations of democratic rights and principles. We refuse to acknowledge the authoritarianism and conformity promoted by our own capitalist society, and when it begins to break down under the weight of its own contradictions, we turn to nationalism, projecting our internal tensions onto an external foe.

As Fromm understood, Orwell remains vital because his critique of authoritarianism is so comprehensive that it entails private authoritarianism and concentration of power in addition to the state’s abuses; he understands, moreover, the dynamic set in train by the turbulence of the market, which leads as inexorably toward totalitarian nationalism as toward socialist collectivism. Orwell is reminiscent of Tom Paine: both are plainspoken figures of the left whose emphasis on liberty and democracy has been appropriated by the right and distorted to serve anti-egalitarian purposes by excising the socialist and social democratic sympathies they espoused. Yet both are important precisely because their sense of freedom and democracy is closely connected with their egalitarian economics, which is in turn related to their abhorrence of orthodoxy and nationalist prejudice. Far from being opposed, as they are in the conservative view, freedom and equality, in the view of Orwell and Paine, are mutually reinforcing and ought to belong inalienably to all. When wealth (and thus power) is as unequally distributed as it is in contemporary U.S. society, those without it do not have a meaningful say in how their own lives are run. To honor Orwell’s legacy and heed his warnings, we must continue to struggle for a socialist economic order—one which safeguards freedom from want—while never forgetting that we do so in order to further human freedom in general.  

The Anatomy as Political Economy: Work, Whales, and Rebellion in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Amid calls to reopen the economy as the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, Melville’s novel remains a potent political allegory.

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, the question of when and how the economy will reopen looms ever larger in the public consciousness. On one side, those who object to anti-virus measures—such as masks, quarantines, and curtailment of large gatherings and business activity—argue for the need to reopen. In April, gun-wielding demonstrators called on governors and state legislators to lift quarantines and allow people to return to work, using a mix of civil libertarian rhetoric and appeals to economic necessity. They feel that their freedom is being infringed upon by government mandated shutdowns and masks. Some complain that they need to work to make enough money to pay their bills but are prevented from doing so by the lockdowns—a lament not entirely without justification in the absence of robust income support. Trump, whose electoral success hinges on reopening the economy, was naturally happy to encourage the protestors with tweets calling on them to “liberate” their state capitals.

Meanwhile, the question of liberty is likely viewed differently by essential workers—healthcare workers, grocery store workers, farmworkers, meatpackers, bus drivers, and the myriad others who enable daily life—who must work both to maintain themselves and their families and to provide the services and products on which everyone else depends. Unlike their more affluent white-collar counterparts, they do not have the luxury of working from home, and their irreplaceability is not reflected in their paltry remuneration and lack of workplace protections. As has been widely reported, the situation in meat processing plants is especially dire. Trump, reluctant to invoke the Defense Production Act in order to produce more masks and ventilators, has nevertheless called on the law to keep a steady supply of meat flowing, despite reports of widespread infection in plants where employees are required to work on the line for long stretches in extremely close quarters. This has rightly reminded some of Upton Sinclair’s notorious depiction of the meat industry in The Jungle. While this is indeed an apt comparison, the situation reminded me of a different American novel: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Frontispiece for a 1930 edition of Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Courtesy of False Art, where you can see the rest of Kent’s illustrations.

Moby Dick is many things. Most simply, it is an adventure story in which Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of a Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod, relentlessly pursues a legendary white whale, Moby Dick, who had bitten off Ahab’s leg in an earlier encounter. Hellbent on revenge, Ahab ignores his prudent first officer, Starbuck—who just wants to get on with the business of whaling—leading the ship and crew to their doom. As many a reader of the novel would point out, however (perhaps somewhat ruefully), to describe Moby Dick as merely an adventure story is to overlook at least half the book. Ishmael can barely relate his experiences without launching into excruciatingly detailed descriptions of whales and whaling. This oddly digressive structure is, as the literary critic Northrop Frye observes, the result of the novel’s blending of literary forms, so that “the romantic theme of the hunt expands into the encyclopedic anatomy of the whale.” In Frye’s terms, the literary form of the romance, which is associated with heroic tales, gives way to the anatomy, the type of satire exhibited in works like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (both of which Melville read as he began composing Moby Dick). The romantic adventure story provides Melville with a loose structure on which to rely while through Ishmael he humorously probes all manner of subjects, from philosophical musings on the nature of time and free will, to the importance of the whale’s anatomy to the larger New England economy, to labor relations on board a whaling ship.

One of the hallmarks of the anatomy is the constant subversion of highfalutin philosophical pontification by low humor, which often emphasizes bodily functions. It is Melville’s self-conscious use of such conventions that must be grasped if Moby Dick’s broader satirical ambitions are to be understood. We see these at work from the book’s opening pages. Moby Dick has one of the most famous first lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.” But the fame of the first line overshadows the second, which, by foregrounding work and its pecuniary motivations, immediately undercuts any sense of romantic adventure through its appeal to vulgar economic necessity. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely,” Ishmael recounts, “having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

Ishmael’s desires stem as much from his lack of funds as they do from the ocean’s intoxicating allure. He must go to sea as a sailor rather than as a passenger because “to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.” The novel’s first chapter, “Loomings,” contains further reflections on the labor relations of whaling which solidify its status as an anatomy in Frye’s definition. For example, as Ishmael explains why he prefers to go to sea as a sailor rather than as a passenger, he cites the “wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck.” “For as in this world,” Ishmael continues,

head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way to the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.

Though Ishmael’s invocation of the “Pythagorean maxim” may remind some readers of their high school geometry class, conjuring images of right triangles, Pythagoras’s maxim is distinct from his theorem. As the Norton edition of Moby Dick notes, the maxim recommends avoiding beans because they cause flatulence. The wind from astern, in other words, is a fart. From here, Ishmael deftly pivots to reflecting on the class relations of the crew, musing that on a ship, as in many other affairs, it is the common people that determine the course of things, their leaders’ pretensions notwithstanding. This combination of low bodily humor with a class analysis of whaling ships epitomizes the anatomy’s satirical ambitions.

“I was struck by the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud, Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow.”

This satirical impulse is present throughout the novel’s myriad disquisitions on whale facts. The products of the whale possess commercial value, so the dissection of the whale’s anatomy becomes a kind of political economy (political economy is, as Marx remarks, the “anatomy of civil society”), which is unfolded in the relations of the crew, their division of labor and control on the ship, the nature of their peculiar branch of industry, and the larger social and economic context into which it fits. As Ishmael observes in the novel’s sixth chapter, “The Street,” the opulence of New Bedford, Massachusetts depends upon the labor of the whalers who supply the various products of the whale trade. “Yes, all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans,” Ishmael affirms. “One and all they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” Consistent with the anatomy’s penchant for forcing a confrontation between social decorum and vulgar reality, Moby Dick brings to the surface the latent material facts upon which social appearances depend.

One of these facts is the extreme danger entailed by the whaling enterprise. The perils of life aboard a whaling vessel are the subject of the macabre and sardonic reflections contained in the chapter “The Hyena” in which Ishmael writes his will in order to assuage his anxiety at the constant threat of death, an impulse we see reflected today in the rush by healthcare workers and others to get their affairs in order. As outbreaks of Covid-19 mount in tandem with the nascent reopening of the economy, it is easy to see the appeal of the “desperado philosophy” Ishmael describes in “The Hyena,” which he sums up as, “here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”

The tension between the imperatives of economic and biological survival recur again in a chapter called “The Castaway” in which the young Black cabin boy Pip falls overboard while pursuing a whale, much to the consternation of his mates who must cut the whale free in order to save him. Stubb, another member of the Pequod’s crew, threatens, “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama,” which leads Ishmael to reflect, “Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.” Stubb’s valuation of Pip in market terms indicates just how little Black lives matter in a society that practices the dehumanizing institution of slavery. Ishmael’s ensuing observation about the tendency of money to pervert human relationships should prompt readers to reflect on the historical nexus of slavery and capitalism, the ill effects of which remain potent sources of injustice today.

That the tensions engendered by the whaling enterprise sometimes explode into outright rebellion is evident in the chapter entitled, “The Town Ho’s Story” in which Ishmael recounts a tale he has been told by his crew mate Tashtego about a dramatic mutiny aboard another whaling ship, the Town Ho. In the story, the Town Ho’s overweening second officer, Radney, threatens to strike a sailor named Steelkit with a hammer if he doesn’t sweep the ship’s deck. Steelkit refuses and hits the first officer, leading to a mutiny as Steelkit’s fellow lakemen (so called because they all hail from the Great Lakes) rally to his cause. Steelkit’s comrades eventually betray him after getting locked below decks. But Steelkit gets the last laugh as Radney is devoured by Moby Dick after the Town Ho encounters the great white whale and gives chase. As well as being a story within a story—yet another hallmark of the anatomy genre—“The Town Ho’s Story” vividly illustrates the hierarchies of whaling and the propensity for the abuse of authority to foment rebellion.

If, as is often observed, Moby Dick contains many elements of political allegory—the Pequod is a literal embodiment of the metaphorical ship of state; the frequent references to Leviathan of the Book of Job recall Thomas Hobbes’ political treatise of the same name; Ahab is a tyrant— then perhaps we should heed its warning. Trump is a farcical Ahab, of course, but it would be foolish to underestimate his weird charisma. Like Ahab, who woos the Pequod’s crew by appealing to the transcendent nature of his mission to hunt the great white whale, Trump has shown an ability to channel people’s frustrations into a similarly transcendent myth of lost American greatness. Needless to say, like Ahab’s monomania, Trump’s megalomania will only lead to destruction. Yet defeating him will require more than appealing to the status quo ante. Just as Starbuck’s prosaic admonitions to focus on business as usual fail to compete with the poetic thrill of the chase, Democrats’ invocations of a mythical time before Trump when all was well will fail to elicit the enthusiasm necessary to sweep him out of office. The eruption of protest in the wake of the excruciating killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin indicates the yearning for a more ambitious agenda of deep reforms, and it shows, as Ishmael remarks, that more often than not it is the people who must lead.

“There are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends”: Sinophobia and Global Labor Solidarity from the 1880s to the 2020s

It is quickly becoming commonplace to remark that the Covid-19 pandemic is revealing and sharpening pre-existing social antagonisms in the United States. This is especially evident in the case of anti-Asian racism, which has surged in tandem with the coronavirus. As news of the nascent pandemic spread in January and February, some dubiously blamed the outbreak on Chinese eating habits, implying that cultural differences accounted for its emergence (as if Americans’ own fondness for meat didn’t have serious environmental and global health implications). At the same time, conspiracy theories circulated about the virus’s origins as a bioweapon manufactured in a lab in Wuhan. Sadly, yet predictably, such racist paranoia has resulted in violent assaults on Asian Americans and others perceived to be Chinese, as myriad news outlets have reported.

The immediate background for this surge in hateful rhetoric and behavior is clearly the growing pandemic, which originated in China (though just how the virus made its leap into humans remains far from certain). Trump has added fuel to the fire by referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” To see the rise in Sinophobia as purely the result of Trump’s racist public statements, however, would be to vastly simplify the larger context in which this is all playing out. The ground for this acute manifestation of anti-Chinese hostility has been prepared by years of bellicose posturing, epitomized by Trump’s trade war with China and the China hawks in his administration who prosecute it. This in turn is the product of the broader historical and economic trends which mediate U.S. – China relations. Whereas, beginning in the 1990s, American corporations saw China as an attractive business opportunity, investing considerable capital there because of the plentiful supply of cheap labor, China’s steady growth and development into an advanced economic powerhouse over the ensuing decades turned it into a direct competitor with a United States weakened by decades of lack of investment in manufacturing and public infrastructure. Like Trump seeking to escape responsibility for his flat-footed response to the coronavirus, American elites have been eager to blame China for the declining economic vitality over which they have presided. Instead of reckoning with the consequences of their own policies, they would prefer to blame cheap Chinese labor, China’s unfair industrial and monetary policies, or its theft of American intellectual property. China thus begins to take shape in the public consciousness as a hostile foreign other, directly responsible for Americans’ woes. The spike in anti-Chinese racism in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be understood in this context as only the most recent manifestation of a long-brewing sentiment propagated by opportunistic politicians and media commentators.

In order to understand and contextualize the anti-Asian racism that has emerged alongside the coronavirus, as well as other contemporary manifestations of Sinophobia, many observers have turned to the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, when widespread backlash to Chinese immigration in the U.S. led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Conservative historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has compared Trump to Denis Kearney, an Irish American demagogue who formed the California Workingmen’s Party in the 1870s. Kearney was famous for ending his speeches with the slogan “The Chinese must go!” and he spearheaded an anti-China agitation which culminated in the Exclusion Act. Like Trump, whose pro-worker rhetoric has not translated into pro-worker policy, Kearney cast himself as a friend of the worker even while expressing skepticism about labor unions and their strike tactics, directing workers’ anger toward the ethnic and racial other rather than the boss.

The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?” by George F. Keller, 1878. Courtesy of Illustrating Chinese Exclusion

While Kearney’s fusion of Sinophobia with pro-labor rhetoric garnered popular support, enthusiasm among working-class advocates for the restrictionist agenda he championed was not unanimous. Indeed, while many pro-labor voices leapt on Kearney’s bandwagon, it was not a given that those aligned with the labor movement were opposed to Chinese immigration. Both in the United States and Britain, dissident voices spoke against exclusion and advocated solidarity of the oppressed instead. As the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, it is the task of the critical historian to brush history against the grain and to fan the sparks of hope in the past. In keeping with this sentiment, it would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with those dissident voices whose working-class solidarity transcended national borders rather than remaining confined within parochial national terms because their message continues to resonate amidst today’s recrudescence of nativism .

We catch a glimpse of this internationalist labor solidarity when we look across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain and the pages of The Commonweal, the print organ of the Socialist League. Formed in December of 1884 under the leadership of William Morris, the famed poet and artist most prominently associated with the Arts and Crafts movement; Eleanor Marx (Karl’s youngest daughter); Edward Aveling; and Belfort Bax, the SL emerged from a split with Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. Partly at issue was the latter’s relentless racializing discourse, which included attacks on Chinese immigrants. In 1882, for example, Hyndman had advanced a resolution which claimed that Chinese immigrants would “remain a distinct race wherever they went” and “could swamp us industrially and crowd us out of almost every occupation” (quoted in Virdee, “Socialist antisemitism and its discontents in England, 1884-1898.”) In opposition to the SDF’s nativism, the Socialist League proudly proclaimed its internationalism in its manifesto, which appeared in the first issue of The Commonweal in 1885: “For us neither geographical boundaries, political history, race, nor creed makes rivals or enemies; for us there are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends, whose mutual sympathies are checked or perverted by groups of masters and fleecers whose interest it is to stir up rivalries and hatreds between the dwellers in different lands.”

Masthead of The Commonweal, designed by William Morris

One of the ways The Commonweal expressed its commitment to global working-class solidarity was through its regular reporting on the progress of the international socialist movement. Beginning with The Commonweal’s second issue (“one of the most remarkable issues of any British socialist periodical,” in the words of historian E.P. Thompson), Eleanor Marx penned a column in which she solicited news from comrades across Europe and North America. This was one place in which the SL made clear its attitude toward the question of Chinese labor. Writing in November of 1885, Marx quotes an American correspondent in San Francisco who speaks of “the Chinese question” as “one of [our] greatest difficulties.” “We understand this difficulty in some respects,” Marx replied, “but surely that will be lessened when our American Socialists explain that not the unhappy Chinese but the exploiters who import them are to blame—that the latter not the former should be attacked.” William Morris took up the same theme in the paper the next year, in February of 1886, quoting a letter from an optimistic American comrade who wrote that socialists in San Francisco were refusing to attack the “the Chinaman…our brother-slave” and instead directing their ire toward “the property owners, the employers who make profit out of the Chinese.” In commenting on the letter, Morris reaffirms the importance of internationalism and the necessity of attacking the wage-labor system, not its victims (although it must regrettably be noted that he does not rise above some ugly stereotypes regarding the inability of Chinese immigrants to assimilate to American culture). The attack on living standards personified by Chinese workers, Morris argues, is endemic to the capitalist system as such: “Every working-man is forced by capital into the same false position of contest with every other working-man until he becomes a Socialist, and is conscious of his being naturally the friend of every workman throughout the world,” Morris declares. “It would be miserable indeed in this Chinese matter,” Morris concluded,

if, as too often happens, the instruments should receive the suffering due to those who have used them; who indeed in their turn are but the instruments of the long centuries of oppression which we may surely hope are now drawing to a close. If the American workmen can see this, and abstain, as we may well hope they will, from playing into the hands of their real enemies by attacking their fellow wage-slaves the Chinese, they will deserve well of the Brotherhood of labour, and will show that they understand the motto: WAGE-WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!

And later that same year, in October of 1886, Morris commented,

That American or Australian or English workmen should be shouldered out of the labour market by Chinese or any other workman who can live cheaper than they can is the necessary outcome of the competitive system—of the system which aims at producing profits for the employer and not goods for people to live on.

Although he doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Morris describes a dynamic recognizable today, in which major corporations pit workers around the world against each other in a global race to the bottom. And like many of today’s advocates for global economic justice, Morris calls on workers to unite around a shared agenda to resist this downward pressure rather than split into competing ethno-nationalist blocs.

The Commonweal’s internationalism was not limited to the question of Chinese labor but embraced other labor conflicts in which immigrant labor played a role, particularly those of the Jewish workers in London’s East End. Eleanor Marx, for example, was instrumental in forging connections with Jewish socialists and anarchists. Given the guiding themes of this post, it is perhaps interesting to note that among her collaborators was the playwright Israel Zangwill, whose classic depiction of the American immigrant experience, The Melting Pot, bequeathed an enduring metaphor for one ideal of American cultural assimilation. For his part, Morris lectured at the Berner Street Club, a London hub for radical intellectual discussions in Yiddish, English, and other languages. Evidence of the links forged between the SL and Jewish workers appears in The Commonweal, which published a favorable note on the Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend), edited by Morris Winchewsky. “The grandfather of Jewish socialism,” Winchewsky subsequently immigrated to the U.S. where he collaborated with, among others, Abraham Cahan, the force behind The Jewish Daily Forward. While violent anti-Asian sentiment is clearly one of today’s most pressing racist threats, antisemitism has been a prominent source of concern as well. Indeed, there is even disturbing evidence of their fusion in the radical rightwing imaginary. In light of these trends, the internationalist example of the Socialist League appears all the more prescient.

“International Solidarity of Labour” by Walter Crane, 1889. [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons. Crane’s illustration accompanied Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere in an 1890 edition of The Commonweal.

If Kearney is a forerunner to Trump, then perhaps we should see Eleanor Marx and William Morris as forerunners to the progressive movement which, until he suspended his campaign this month, has coalesced around Bernie Sanders. Sanders has repudiated Trump’s xenophobia and has called for a working-class movement united across cultural and ethnic divisions. It is salutary to recall the example of Morris’s and Marx’s internationalism because despite Sanders’ staunch anti-racist record, going back to his college days when he protested segregation in Chicago, it was by no means guaranteed that he would strike the ambitious internationalist tone that he has. Indeed, he has shown in the past a tendency to talk in problematic ways which give credence to xenophobic assumptions about the threats posed by immigrants and China to the wellbeing of the American worker. For example, he famously described the concept of open borders as “a Koch Brothers idea” intended to lower wages, a comment which struck many as a sop to the nativist notion that immigration causes lower wages. Similarly, with China, and free trade in general, Sanders has appeared at times to countenance a zero-sum conception in which China’s gains are America’s losses, playing into potentially harmful narratives of Chinese economic development in itself constituting an existential threat to Americans. Yet attention to Sanders’ actual words suggests that a class analysis is at the heart of his worldview (perhaps in part because his political commitments grew out of the Jewish socialist culture that figures like Winchewsky helped establish). His record shows that he’s been consistently opposed to draconian immigration policies, and his objections are to the exploitation of immigrant labor, not immigration as such. And on China, he complains that American workers are being forced to compete against workers who don’t have any rights, indicating that he resents not Chinese workers but their exploitation. The Sanders campaign may have ended, but the Vermont senator remains an influential figure, and a robust internationalism is essential to carrying forward his campaign’s progressive vision. Organizations that supported, and indeed helped to shape, Sanders’ internationalist message continue to mount serious campaigns for global solidarity and justice.

Finally, to describe much of the contemporary discourse surrounding China as Sinophobia isn’t to suggest that the Chinese state is beyond reproach. On the contrary, as Chinese labor activists, Uighurs, and the protestors in Hong Kong show, there are legitimate grievances against Beijing, whose authoritarian tactics are notorious. Nevertheless, it’s important to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, lest opportunists and demagogues distort reasonable skepticism of the Chinese state into a dangerous paranoia about a “Yellow Peril,” thereby distracting attention from authoritarianism and injustice here in the U.S. while simultaneously scuttling the possibility of working across borders to take on shared challenges like the current pandemic or global warming. Moreover, it is essential to distinguish between the Chinese state and the Chinese people, a seemingly elementary distinction that is far too often neglected. As Jake Werner and Tobita Chow have recently argued, Chinese and American labor organizers have much to gain by working together against their mutual foes, the corporate behemoths who increasingly dominate the global economy. If we want to reap the benefits of international cooperation, then we would do well to remember the long legacy of global labor solidarity and keep in mind its most compelling formulations, like those of William Morris and Eleanor Marx.

“One God made us”: Epidemics, Social Welfare, and Victorian Social Criticism

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe, observers in the United States have noted its implications for the American healthcare system and the notoriously scanty coverage it provides. On the one hand, there is a question of justice: is it fair that people might suffer just because they can’t afford quality care in a society that doesn’t guarantee health insurance for all? But in addition to the question of justice, there is also the issue of public health. It is becoming more and more common to hear that we are all only as healthy as the least insured among us. From this perspective, guaranteed access to care as a social right represents enlightened self-interest because when sick, contagious people can receive treatment, it helps to protect everyone’s health. This reasoning may help explain why some polls have found a surge in support for Medicare for All, the single-payer health insurance plan associated with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. 

While possessing special urgency on account of the current pandemic, the insight that a right to social services like healthcare confers broad public health benefits is hardly novel. The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle made the same point in the early 1840s. Essayist, translator, novelist, historian, and social critic, Carlyle was a cantankerous Scottish intellectual whose idiosyncratic views in some respects presaged 20th century fascism; however, he also forcefully criticized laissez faire capitalism, inspiring radical reformers who believed in progressive change. In his 1843 book, Past and Present, Carlyle wrote,

One of Dr. Alison’s Scotch facts struck us much. A poor Irish Widow, her husband having died in one of the Lanes of Edinburgh, went forth with her three children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City. At this Charitable Establishment and then at that she was refused; referred from one to the other, helped by none;–till she had exhausted them all; till her strength and heart failed her: she sank down in typhus-fever; died, and infected her Lane with fever, so that ‘seventeen other persons’ died of fever there in consequence. The humane Physician asks thereupon, as with a heart too full for speaking, Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever, and killed seventeen of you!–Very curious. The forlorn Irish Widow applies to her fellow-creatures, as if saying, “Behold I am sinking, bare of help: ye must help me! I am your sister, bone of your bone; one God made us: ye must help me!” They answer, “No; impossible: thou art no sister of ours.” But she proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had man ever to go lower for a proof?

 “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle” by James McNeill Whistler, 1873 [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons

Past and Present exemplifies an influential genre of Victorian literature that is often discussed under the heading of the “Condition of England,” a phrase that Carlyle himself coined in his 1839 pamphlet, Chartism, which examined the deep social causes behind the rise of the Chartist working class movement for universal male suffrage (so called because of its advocacy of the People’s Charter). One of the hallmarks of Condition of England literature is its probing of social questions through engagement with parliamentary bluebooks, government reports, and other forms of expert testimony, such as that of medical doctors, in order to diagnose broader social maladies.

Although Carlyle was fond of invoking fictional personalities to illustrate differences of philosophical temperament—one recurring character in Past and Present is Dryasdust, an uninspired historian whom he borrowed from Sir Walter Scott—the Dr. Alison to whom Carlyle refers in the passage above was very real indeed. Born in 1790, Dr. William Pulteney Alison studied and taught medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he was also the student of noted Scottish Enlightenment thinker Dugald Stewart. His interests stretched beyond the health of the individual, embracing philosophical and sociological themes with which he was convinced matters of health were intertwined. Given this breadth of interest, historian Christopher Hamlin describes Alison as a “medical philosopher” and practitioner of “political medicine” on par with other great Victorian social thinkers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Indeed, the latter cited Alison’s work repeatedly.

Alison’s political and philosophical approach to medical issues is manifest in his 1840 treatise, Observations on the Management of the Poor in Scotland and its Effects on the Health of the Great Towns. In this work Alison discussed the effects of poverty on the prevalence of fever, concluding that Scotland’s lack of legally sanctioned provision for the poor contributed to the spread of disease. “The prevention of a disease may often be in the power of a community, although beyond the power of many of the inhabitants composing that community,” according to Alison. For this reason and others, he took issue with Thomas Malthus, whose influential theory of population inspired those who wanted to do away with poor relief altogether.

Despite living in an age when the miasma theory of disease still held sway with many writers, intellectuals, and public servants, Dr. Alison, and by extension Carlyle, anticipated a modern vision of public health. The Victorians may have a reputation for being repressive and conservative, but this example shows that they also counted plenty of progressives, radicals, and visionaries among their ranks whose insights remain relevant to our lives today.