What Orwell Warned Us About: Author Dennis Glover on the Enduring Power of Animal Farm
A deep dive into Animal Farm’s complex relationship to contemporary politics.
Dennis Glover quite literally wrote the book on George Orwell - two, to be exact. In his book Orwell’s Australia, he detailed the ways in which Orwell’s contemporary relevance was growing, rather than diminishing. In his latest book, The Last Man in Europe, Glover takes his Orwell scholarship to the next level and details how the writer created the iconic novel 1984. Part historical drama, part biography and part social critique, the book places Orwell’s writing in a fascinating new context and reinvigorates his writing for the modern day.
Ahead of our one-man production of Animal Farm, we sat down to chat to Glover about Orwell’s work and what it can teach us about the world right now.
Orwell’s writing, particularly his political allegories like Animal Farm, are almost evergreen in their relevance to contemporary politics. As someone who has spent so much time with Orwell and his work, what is it about his writing that keeps us coming back to it?
The thing that keeps people coming back to Orwell is the timelessness of his themes, especially his grand theme: the revolution betrayed. Orwell returned from fighting for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War in an angry mood. He had not only seen close friends killed by the communists who were supposedly their allies, but they had tried to kill him too. This is the theme of his extraordinary book The Homage to Catalonia. But Homage flopped, selling only around 500 copies. He was adamant his message about the brave worker’s revolution and its betrayal by the communists must reach a wider audience. The result was Animal Farm. (And eventually Nineteen Eighty-Four — in some ways, Animal Farm is the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four.) The idea came to him when he was living in a small Hertfordshire village called Wallington in 1938–40. If you stand at the gate of the cottage where he lived and look forty yards down the street you will see a barn called “The Great Barn” with a name sign on it: “Manor Farm”. And at night from his bedroom he could hear the pigs squealing and the ducks quacking and sheep baaa-ing. His imagination was unleashed.
This is what makes Orwell’s story so timeless: there will always be revolutions and they will always be betrayed. Orwell wants mankind, like the animals, to learn the big lesson of all revolutions: not that they should never happen, but that once they inevitably turn bad, the new masters must be overthrown and replaced by new ones. Can a brotherhood of man, or a fellowship of animals, really exist in this world? That’s what he wanted to believe. It’s what I want to believe. It’s what we all want to believe, isn’t it?
In your book Orwell’s Australia you make an argument that Orwell’s relevance is growing in Australian politics rather than diminishing. How/ why is that happening?
Orwell’s relevance to Australia and the world right now is obvious. In his time he called the re-writing of history and the alteration of the truth “doublethink”; today it is called “fake news”. Instead of “Newspeak” we have the managerial gobbledygook pumped out by government and commercial public relations machines. Everywhere there are meaningless statistics and half-truths, our language is debased, nasty ideologies contend for our souls, and we have lost the art of thinking in simple moral terms.
I think if he were alive today, Orwell would see dangerous echoes of the nasty, ideological, populist politics of the 1930s, with their screeching politicians, widening inequalities and concentration camps. Manus Island and Nauru, with their East Asian inmates, vilified in order to whip up fear and hatred, and keep people voting for the Party, would be immediately recognisable to him.
The only path is Orwell’s: insist on the truth, always. Eschew jargon and insist on clarity of language. Never let the liars get away with it.
Orwell is understood as a critic of fascism, but he was also a powerful critic on everyone on all sides of politics (and also just… anyone he met, it seems). How does a text like Animal Farm critique people on all sides of Australian politics as it currently stands?
In Animal Farm there emerges a new, closed political class that literally puts its snouts in the trough, betraying its promises and the hopes and dreams of the animals. Many today see Australian politicians — indeed, all politicians across the world — as forming a separate caste that cares only about itself, bends the rules when it likes, and treats people like fools. This breeds cynicism and disdain for our democratic processes and manifests itself in ugly populist alternatives like Hansonism and Trumpism. This is dangerous for our democracy. The coming election is looking apocalyptic for the Coalition. Our hope is that all parties will come out of that election chastened over their recent behaviour and determined to regain the public’s respect.
More than anything Orwell spoke about the manipulation of truth and how this feeds into corruption and oppression. He also expanded in his essay Politics and the English Language where he spoke about how the decimation of language feeds into an inability to resist or understand political manipulation. How do you see our relationship with truth and language as particularly Orwellian?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Big Brother says 2+2=5, then 2+2=5 — the truth has become whatever our leaders say it is. What does this mean for us? If the truth is relative, the danger is (1) that we will divide into separate tribes who see the world according to alternative realities, and (2) leaders will convince people they are making them richer and freer when the opposite is true. This sounds very much like what has already happened in the USA, where a massive and seemingly unbridgeable divide exists between blue collar and educated Americans, and where a billionaire like Trump, whose policies favour the rich, has managed to convince large sections of the working class that he is their friend and the Democrats are their enemy. Sadly, this sort of extreme culture war politics is already reached Australia and is getting worse. The only path is Orwell’s: insist on the truth, always. Eschew jargon and insist on clarity of language. Never let the liars get away with it.
What can Orwell teach us about making positive change?
As he lay dying in his tuberculosis sanatorium, Orwell, thinking his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four was being misinterpreted, dictated its actual message to his publisher Fred Warburg. He said that a nightmare world like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen if we let it. “Don’t let it happen,” he said, “it depends on you.” And that in some ways is the message to us. Throughout his life Orwell and the heroes he wrote about — Winston and Julia, Old Major, Snowball, Boxer, Muriel and Benjamin — fought for a better world, then fought against the people who were betraying it — even though it meant sacrificing their lives. Orwell did this too, by fighting fascism in Spain and by continuing to write his political essays and novels even though he was dying, painfully, of TB. His doctors told him to stop, but he refused. He was so determined to get his warning across to the people that he put his own life on the line. His message: You make positive change by refusing to believe lies and by fighting against injustice.
Continual revolutions push freedom forward.