Dystopian Reality or Dystopian Fiction?

Meghan Hollis
Jun 19 · 13 min read

Reading Animal Farm in the Time of Trump

Photo by Andre Ouellet on Unsplash

Recently, I re-read Animal Farm by George Orwell. It turned into much more than that quick and easy read that I had intended. Dystopian fiction becomes dystopian reality in our current socio-political environment. There are several things I took away from this reading of the book that I had not thought about before. Reading the book today was much different from the last time I read the book.


Labor as the Reason for Life

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

When work becomes the driving force behind our life, particularly our day-to-day lived experience, this can have negative consequences. If we are “living to work” are we truly living? Is that quality of life? Particularly with the indentured servitude that results from being buried under student loan debt that you struggle to pay off, work can become more than something to pay the bills and most people do not end up in jobs that are fulfilling or that they enjoy.

Another moment in the book that really registered with me was when they discussed the animals’ ability to retire:

“She was two years past the retiring age, but in fact no animal had ever actually retired.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

This resonated with me as I feel that I will never be able to retire but will work until I die of old age. I am sure others of my generation likely feel the same way. We are controlled by our student loan debt and have a variety of other challenges that have developed as a result of the trajectory of the economy over the last thirty or forty years. We are preparing to pay for our kids’ college tuition and still paying on our own student loan debt at the same time — wanting to make sure that our children do not fall into the same financial trap that we fell into. Save for retirement? How can you do that when you are paying off student loan debt and paying your kids’ college tuition while saving and hoping to one day own a house or a car that does not break down every five days? In these circumstances, retirement often seems like a pipe dream.

Some of us went into public service hoping for the assistance of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program — taking far lower wages than we would make elsewhere with the hope of simultaneously getting out from under our student loan debt and having the opportunity to work in meaningful jobs that allowed us to give back to society. Those dreams are currently in question as a result of the threat of the Department of Education cancelling that program or not approving people when they submit their paperwork for forgiveness.

Indeed, the shattering of our ideals about living a meaningful life where we worked meaningful jobs and could work toward the American Dream has made many in my generation cynical and a bit jaded. We were told one thing when we were young, and we are being fed another story as adults. Success means overwork, working more than others around you, and being more overwhelmed and stressed than those around you:

“But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

We are told to embrace minimalistic living in tiny houses that we will never be able to afford to own while living in a “hard work” and tough love culture. We earn our sick time and our vacation time but use too much of that earned time off and your workplace questions your abuse of the time off that you have earned. Overwork culture dominates in a world where we are told to work hard and earn the things we want while being exposed to excessive consumerism despite counter-messages about work-life balance that we can never hope to achieve if we want to be perceived as serious workers. Bring up work-life balance to an earlier generation and you are likely to get an eyeroll or a comment about having work-life balance when you earn your retirement.

Indeed, we have been sold the message (or at least they have attempted to sell it to us) that with hard work we will earn the American Dream. We will have a nice house/place to live, no debt, be able to travel the world with the languages they made us learn in high school and college and have work-life balance. The reality is that the 1 percent has grown richer and richer as the middle- and lower-classes have grown relatively poorer and poorer. We may have a relatively low unemployment rate at the moment, but that rate does not unpack people who have left the workforce and why or the challenge of underemployment.

“Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer — except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Complain about these circumstances and you are whining. Our elders tell us to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, stop complaining, and work harder. Our work is killing us. Our quality of life is diminishing. Access to raises and other rewards for hard work is difficult at best, and we may not have a future characterized by Social Security, affordable health insurance, and retirement to look forward to. In short, we are working ourselves into misery and an early grave.


Tyranny

“Is it not crystal clear, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings?”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Shortly after the human tyrants are overthrown and run off of the farm, someone takes their place. Indeed, there is always someone waiting in the wings to fill the power void. Initially, they solicit the input of the other animals as decisions are made on the farm through ratification by majority vote:

“It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Ultimately, we explore the reality that power corrupts. Once someone or a group gets a taste of power the decisions that they make are called into question. Are they making decisions based on the greater good of the society? Based on their political base? Based on the financiers of their political campaigns? Based on the financial kickbacks they get or that are provided to their families as a result of those decisions? Based on personal perspective despite the needs of wider society? Some combination of these?

Suddenly, we end up with two classes of people: the workers and the “supervisors”:

“The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Access to elite education and “superior knowledge” makes the pigs more fit to run the farm than any other group. This raises questions around education and intelligence versus manipulation, power, and control. When Orwell speaks of superior knowledge, does he mean education and true intellect, or is this referencing the ability to control others through cleverness and manipulation? Is knowledge being used for good or for evil? What is the place of education in society? This is a topic that I will turn to in more detail in a moment.

Finally, we see the slow slide from government by the people and for the people with chosen representatives making decisions in a transparent and open forum to government conducted mostly behind closed doors with little or no transparency:

“In the future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself. These would meet in private and afterwards communicate their decisions to the others.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

In this environment we are expected to believe what we are told and trust our government to do what is best for us. Instead, we are subjected to government spin doctors and propaganda. We can no longer trust the media as it is owned by the corporations and serves corporate interests rather than the traditional journalistic quest for truth and ideals of integrity and honesty. Again, power corrupts completely.


Propaganda

“All that year the animals worked like slaves. But they were happy in their work; they grudged no effort or sacrifice, well aware that everything that they did was for the benefit of themselves and those of their kind who would come after them, and not for a pack of idle, thieving human beings.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Take pride in your work. Work hard. Work smarter not harder (but still work hard). You are working for yourself. Look at how others have it, at least you live in the “Land of the Free”. We are fed propaganda in every aspect of our lives. With respect to work, we are told that someone else has it worse. We are fed the goals of overwork where the ability to brag about working long hours and being the first to arrive and last to leave the workplace has become an overarching goal. Forget being home in time to cook a healthy meal for your family, there is fast food on the way home. Live a life of convenience so that you can work more, work harder, earn more, have more. It makes me think of some of the episodes of Black Mirror.

All of this work-related propaganda emerges in coordination with government propaganda. They slowly shift the bar while spinning the incremental shifts they are making and cloaking them in public well-being. In the interim, we are blissfully unaware of the slow slide into tyranny and away from the democratic republic that was the dream of our forefathers:

“He assured them that the resolution against engaging in trade and using money had never been passed, or even suggested. It was pure imagination probably traceable in the beginning to lies circulated by Snowball.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Indeed, we have become so cynical that many people just don’t even turn on the news or read the newspaper today. Why would you when the news media is saturated with ever moving targets in the 24-hour live news cycle? Who can keep up? The spin zone of the Internet further complicates the search for truth and meaning.

Additionally, no one ever takes responsibility for what is happening. Indeed, the powers-that-be always search for someone else to blame for their failures and difficulties. If the people rise up and question what they are doing, they find a political adversary to blame:

“Whenever anything went wrong it became usual to attribute it to Snowball.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Whether it is blaming Obama for Russian interference and collusion in our elections, uniting people by threatening to throw political adversaries in jail for crimes that hours and hours of testimony and hearings have revealed did not rise to the level of criminal activities (perhaps stupidity, but not criminality — if stupidity were criminal, most of us would be in jail or prison), or blaming the minority party for legislation being stalled (when the majority could pass something), no one is willing to take responsibility for the things that are happening in our time. Just once, I would like to see one brave soul step forward and say “Yes, my party did this. We are destroying society. I can’t do this anymore.” There is no accountability, no responsibility, and we live in a world of constant “blame someone else” -itis.

The spin doctors hired to control messaging in the government, in corporations, in the news media, and beyond are manipulating truth. Indeed, it is no longer clear what is truth, what is fact, what is fiction, and what is reality. We really see this represented in Animal Farm:

“Muriel read the Commandment for her. It ran ‘No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.’”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

They are slowly altering the laws while trying to convince society that it has always been this way. They are shifting the boundaries, shifting the truth, and it makes it challenging to discuss what is “truth”? Indeed, the spin doctors and public spokespersons use tricky language and manipulation to play with the meaning of truth:

“Squealer always spoke of it as a ‘readjustment,’ never as a ‘reduction’”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

This blurring of lines and boundaries and shifting meaning of “truth” highlights just how much we have shifted to a postmodern society. Truth is fluid, increased globalization creates additional challenges, and meaning is constantly in flux.


Rights

Orwell also highlights how rights are applied differentially. Some people have more access to the law than others (as highlighted in the work of Donald Black and other sociology of law scholars). Orwell touches on rights and equality:

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

He also touches on how our rights with respect to employment slowly shift over time:

“He believed that he was right in saying that the lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the county.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

This also highlights how access to rights in the work world is often limited to the higher classes. Your rights on the job depend on your status in society.


Education

“The reading and writing classes, however, were a great success. By the autumn almost every animal on the farm was literate in some degree.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

There are challenges in governmental entities and power-elites structuring educational systems. The idea expressed in Animal Farmis that they educate just enough to manipulate but not enough for the masses to understand that they are being manipulated.

“The animals listened first to Napoleon, then to Snowball, and could not make up their minds which was right; indeed, they always found themselves in agreement with the one who was speaking at the moment.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Ultimately, taking ownership of your education and trying to learn on your own beyond the educational system of the power structure becomes an act of rebellion. In the type of socio-political environment set up in Animal Farm, the simple acts of reading and learning become acts of rebellion against the political and economic structures that are in place. In this instance, we are not talking about formal schooling and education. Instead, we refer to self-education through reading and studying on your own.


Inability to Act or React Until it is Too Late

“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…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, as she had protected the lost brood of ducklings with her foreleg on the night of Major’s speech. Instead — she did not know why — they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”

— George Orwell, Animal Farm

The changes were slow. The slow changes combined with the use of propaganda and spin-doctoring of news created a condition where the residents of Animal Farm did not recognize the threats to their rights and liberties until it was too late. We can see this in the slow shifts in our society today. The attacks on fair and unbiased reporting and journalism (calling it fake news), the slow shifts in taking away rights (particularly rights of women and non-Whites), and the slow creep to housing immigrants in internment camps is particularly concerning. The movements that seemed to have so much power in responding to these challenges initially have lost steam. It seems that people are just tired of fighting, or people are not going to start fighting back until it is too late.


Ultimately, Animal Farm raises the question: What does it mean to be free? Does it mean simply ridding yourself of a tyrant? What happens when a new dictator rises up to take their place? The challenges of power and control are highlighted as are the challenges in perception with the slow erosion of rights. Reading this book in current socio-political times was a different experience that caused me to reflect on our current situation. I do not have solutions, but I do have more questions. Read it. You might be sorry, but you also might start thinking about your current socio-political environment in a new way.

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Meghan Hollis

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Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

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