By Karl Williams
“The logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle.”
“Except for the few surviving commons, the high roads, the lands of the National Trust, and the sea shore below the high-tide mark, every square inch of England is ‘owned’ by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces. That is literally all that he does, except to draw his income.”
“Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
“If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds.”
The most remarkable aspect of probably the most widely-admired English language essayists of the 20th century is that so little is known of his economic convictions, despite the many volumes of his social and political commentaries.
Orwell believed that socialism led to totalitarianism – indeed, that is the chief message of his 1949 classic, Animal Farm. But he also believed that capitalism led to breadlines and poverty, which combination of beliefs led to that profoundly disturbing view so vividly described in 1984. He also believed that capitalism had strong tendencies towards monopoly and increased concentration, but he was never able to reconcile the best aspects of socialism and capitalism. Orwell had many penetrating insights into politics but had almost nothing to say about economics as it seems he knew practically nothing of Henry George and his proposals – the potted versions of HG commonly available at the time are abominable perversions.
Eric Blair was born in 1903 in Bengal, in the then British colony of India, but was moved to England shortly afterwards where his extraordinary natural intelligence enabled him to ascend from his middle-class background to gain an Eton education, where he was a King’s Scholar. But Eton didn’t suit his anti-authoritarianism, and he left with no real prospect of gaining a university scholarship. With his family’s means being insufficient to pay his tuition, Eric joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in 1921. He resigned and returned to England after 7 years, having grown to hate imperialism and, now writing novels and essays, adopted his pen name of George Orwell.
The University of Life then dealt Orwell some valuable lessons – he lived for several years in poverty, sometimes homeless, sometimes doing itinerant work, before eventually finding work as a schoolteacher until ill health forced him to give this up to work part-time as an assistant in a secondhand bookshop.
Soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. After some harrowing adventures, Orwell returned to England and began supporting himself by writing book reviews until 1940. During World War II he served in various non-combat roles before resigning in 1943 to become literary editor of a left-wing weekly.
But it was in 1944, when he finished his anti-Stalinist allegory Animal Farm, that he achieved great critical and popular success, not to mention the royalties which was the first time in his adult life he’d had a comfortable income. He spent the rest of his life as a journalist and political essayist. He was in and out of hospitals from 1947 to 1950, when he died at the age of 46 from tuberculosis.
It’s hard not to admire Orwell, as much for his sincerity as his literary ability. He was a Seeker on many levels, but it seemed he never really crossed paths with our little brotherhood of geoists. His economics really didn’t contribute much beyond stating the obvious. His quotes reproduced here definitely indicate that he was aware of monstrous injustices of our system of land tenure yet – unaided by the works of Henry George or other geoists – he was never able to grope much closer to the elegant shifting of taxes that would bring together social justice, prosperity and individual liberty. By default, therefore, he classified himself as a democratic socialist.
Much of his politics is no longer relevant, but his commanding style has made so many of his essays and novels absolute classics. He’ll also be remembered for the number of words and phrases he coined – in 1984 alone there have been many which have entered the standard vocabulary, such as “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thought police,” and “newspeak.” It’s just a pity that so prominent a figure wasn’t also known for proclaiming “Pay for what you take, not for what you make”.