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Orwell, Power-Worship and the ‘Story of America’
‘Power-worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. ... This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end.’
George Orwell, ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’ (1946)
The American as a political animal is moved internally by the unfurling of a story, a slow episodic reveal—what Joe Biden in his inaugural speech called ‘the story of America.’ It’s a story written in invisible ink. Burn after reading. I can’t speak for everyone but it puts me to sleep.
In his 1941 essay ‘Literature and Totalitarianism’, George Orwell wrote that ‘this is not a critical age. It is an age of partisanship and not of detachment.’ Ours isn’t a critical age either, even with a heavy dose of detachment. And though the totalitarianism left and right that Orwell had in mind no longer exists, what’s taken its place also breeds power-worship. Later in the James Burnham essay, Orwell summarises the argument made in The Managerial Revolution (1941):
‘Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of “managers.” These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.’
It sounds an awful lot like 1984 and with good reason. James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians (published in 1944) inspired Orwell’s nightmare vision of an Anglicised Soviet surveillance state. Orwell had a great eye for the psycho-political trajectories of zealots: Burnham became the godfather of a virulent anti-communism whose heirs are the architects of today’s national security apparatus.
While capitalism hasn’t been supplanted by ‘a new kind of planned, centralised society,’ it does bear the watermark of Burnham’s managerialism. James Burnham began as a Trotskyist in the 1920s and went on to become ‘the first neoconservative,’ helping William F. Buckley Jr. to found the right-wing National Review in 1955, which to this day spouts ghoulish bile in defence of unchecked government surveillance. Orwell saw this kind of shadow-state managerialism as an evolution of totalitarian thinking and he was right. After the war the United States created an international parapolitical web comprised of intelligence agencies, businessmen and organised crime. They piled up a lot of bodies in the fight against “communism,” and since the fall of the Soviet Union, against whoever happens to be the supposed bad guy. Domestically, Burnham’s neoconservative heirs boast a legacy that includes the weaponisation of 9/11 to justify the criminal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—arguably the most destabilising global events in living memory—as well as enshrining government overreach into law via the USA PATRIOT Act. It’s not totalitarianism, but it’s not democracy either.
And the ruling class today isn’t dominated by neoconservatives. Six of the ten richest men in the world—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and Larry Page—are liberal techies who founded (or wormed their way into) massive online platforms to overtake the surveillance capacities of what Orwell calls ‘the old capitalist class.’ While companies like Amazon appear to make money providing goods and services online, according to one former executive they merely ‘happen to sell products, but they are a data company.’
With the development of these technologies and our growing dependence on them for almost every aspect of social life, the word ‘totalitarian’ is inaccurate but the word ‘totalising’ is apt. Data increasingly dominates the economic base of our society and ‘managers’ like Bezos and others command legions of it. Just as commodity production makes us alien to the fruits of our labour and to each other, so too does the profusion of data enmesh us in a spectral soup from which there’s no escape except for simply being off-grid and out of touch.
Burnham’s power-worship led him to blame the “liberal” West for its own “demise”—a sort of inverted neoliberal logic in which the powerful, rather than the poor, get what they deserve. That view is captured succinctly in the title of his last significant work: Suicide of the West (1964). Orwell’s ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’ intervenes in a post-war debate spanning political colours, in which many assumed capitalism and liberal democracy lay among the ruins and would be rebuilt in the image of the victors. Opinions differed on who those victors were. Power-worshipping anti-communists saw the continued existence of communism as the moral failing of an effete West.
A world in which ‘Capitalism is doomed and Socialism is a dream,’ where power emanates from a small class of ruthless managers, seemed unavoidable and desirable to thinkers like Burnham. Orwell points to Burnham’s ‘unmistakable relish over the cruelty and wickedness’ of a ruling class wielding naked power. But from the publication of The Machiavellians on, Burnham championed what Orwell describes as nominal ‘democratic habits’—albeit with continued reliance on a productive class akin to slaves. And so it goes.
It’s the worst of both worlds. Workers in advanced democracies wade through a sea of stuff produced by sweatshop workers and mineral miners in the authoritarian developing world. One world is ruled with a stick, the other with a carrot. Totalitarianism tells you what to think. Managerialism is totally unconcerned with thought so long as the till keeps ringing, having what Gramsci calls hegemony and the ‘manufacture of consent’ baked into it. And so our politics concerns itself not so much with domination as with managing perceptions and letting reality take care of itself.
But reality has a habit of showing up uninvited: think of Trump’s election, or Brexit, or coronavirus, or Black Lives Matter, or climate change. It doesn’t disappear just because you manage the narrative. People—even powerful people—make history but not on their own terms. The power-worship in Orwell’s crosshairs was a version of capitalist realism in reverse: a failure to imagine the long life capital would lead and how a different world was possible without being particularly better or horrendously worse. It’s on this point that defenders of capitalism mistakenly claim Orwell as an ally.
The real difference between the nightmare vision of the “Orwellian” and the utterly boring reality is the question of control and its confusion with power. I offer here a practical if not comprehensive definition of the two:
Power is the ability to do what you want because the order of things is crafted in your image.
Control is the ability to maintain the order of things by making others do what you want.
This is where Orwell’s critique remains fresh and useful: power-worshippers assume not only that those in power have it absolutely, but that because the powerful have been in control they will always be in control. The January 6th riot at the Capitol is a case in point: pundits assumed it was a moment of crisis in itself, a threat to order rather than a symptom of existing disorder. Contemporary power-worship lulls us into the sense that the powerful are not already losing control.
Is it scarier to live in a state where your every move is monitored for the slightest deviation from the party line? Or to teeter on a cliff edge with a small band of managers cack-handedly running game while the planet becomes uninhabitable, ensuring our mutual destruction?
There’s quaint comfort in the idea that a closed cabal of powerful men with a master plan operate the world like a machine with cybernetic precision. In this way, both apologists and detractors invoking the bloody carcass of national “greatness” and the stability of the reigning order will it into being.
You might say that, not being a particularly good student of Marx, Orwell gave the managers too much credit. Every dominant class is subject to coercive forces of necessity, even in an organisation of society that favours them. But true to his own critique of hasty thinking the “Orwellian” is a warning, not a prophecy. He could be forgiven for not guessing at Young America’s doddering gerontocracy. If we haven’t descended into Soviet-style ‘newspeak’, ‘doublethink’, ‘2 + 2 = 5’ etc. it isn’t because Joe Biden or Boris Johnson are democratically minded—nor, indeed, because they’ve hatched some devilish scheme that’s yet to unfold. It’s simply because the government is not the seat of power.
All it took was a mutant flu for Keynesian liberals and fiscal conservatives to reach immediate consensus that public utilities urgently needed to be brought under public control and that some degree of deficit spending was an unquestionable good. The necessity of putting two metres of distance between human bodies ground the machinery of capitalism nearly to a halt—that is, except for the bandit billionaires who’ve harvested an estimated $1.1 trillion since the onset of the pandemic like organs from a missing person. Nations’ economies evaporate while the stock markets rally. They’ve captured our very hearts, pumping pure gold, and they did it all while only putting a boot in a precious few faces. The power balance between big data, finance and intelligence is entirely predicated on the (mostly) unencumbered consumer activity of discrete, free-range individuals buying shit on their phones.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson has “apologised” for the 100,000+ deaths the UK has suffered since the onset of the pandemic. The government’s efforts to minimise economic disruption at the expense of disposable human life failed to capitalise on either. Britons are dying at a higher rate than Americans were under Trump—centrists’ living embodiment of gross governmental malpractice—and yet by all calculations the UK will be one of the last countries in Europe to recover economically. It’s not a feature; it’s a flaw. That’s a hard pill to swallow because the belief prevails in every political persuasion that the ruling class—you know, rule.
The Tories are trying, of course, God bless them. The government is pushing through the Covert Human Intelligence Source bill (CHIS), enabling twenty state agencies to recruit children to spy on their parents if they’re suspected of a crime. The bill empowers these spy kids to commit serious crimes in the service of prosecuting their parents—young surrogates of a delirious State that’s willing to rape, torture and murder to uphold our ‘democratic habits.’
Opponents of the bill have described it as “Orwellian.” Meanwhile, Her Majesty’s Government awarded £2bn in ‘crony contracts’ to Tory donors since the onset of the pandemic, fulfilling their true purpose on the shop floor. The manager is there to ensure that the till keeps ringing and every penny is counted.
Politics is a spectator sport. No one expects to take the trophy home and put it on the mantelpiece just because their team won. Winston Smith has been relieved of duty, free to fuck in a tiny room in prole town. No more cutting out offending passages from the news—because no one reads it anymore, they simply read into it what they want to know.
Resisting power-worship is a question of memory, and so memory is a weapon. All that’s asked of us is to forget, to look away, or to linger on those memories that flatter us. After all, we’re the stars of the show and it’s a kind of biopic, a costume drama, history in the shape of a story—or maybe the other way around.
National stories are like Mad Libs: the basic structure is there, you just fill in the blanks. In the beginning was the void and then somebody died to make it whole. It’s hard to tell a story from scratch, especially the story of your country. For one thing, you could never know it all. You are the memory hole. What do you fill that blank with?
In Thesis 141 of Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes the changing perception of history throughout the stages of economic development: from the cyclical passing of feudal time where famous men and events pile one on top of another, coalescing into an ever-present sense of tradition—to a linear industrial time in which progress blasts through the present inexorably into the future, taking all of us with it. The memory of how we got here recedes into the unconscious, a bedtime story too faint to remember. ‘This blind prehistory, a new fatality dominated by no one, is all that the commodity economy democratized.’ Underneath the spreading chestnut tree, I told you and you told me.
You can only tell the real American story in fragments.
It didn’t start as a kingdom or an empire.
It was a colony, and then a living embodiment of the Divine Word: democracy. But like the demos of classical Athens, citizenship came wedded to the ownership of property. It was born from the same logic that colonised it and was baptised in the fire of genocide.
A class of merchants disguised as “fathers”; conquerors clothed as dispossessed migrants of the European Enlightenment, founding a new kind of nation on reasoned principles in which there were no standards of comparison. But at the same time classical. A state of citizens and slaves.
A Roman myth, told in myth-time; the myth of Rome, lumping together its bureaucracy and its military into a grand notion of “civilisation”—moving forward but taking the past with us. It makes conquest a kind of mission, a charitable act. Power-worship becomes an expression of generosity.
Myths are potent because we crave continuity. We want to believe that at least some portion of what was will always be. Someone’s got their hands on the steering wheel, right?
But every civilisation is a cemetery where the tombstones eventually wear away and become illegible. As Debord says: ‘The history which is present in all the depths of society tends to be lost at the surface.’ We learn to feel at home in the ruins, until we’re possessed by a sudden urge to dig.