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George Orwell on Mitt Romney


In his seminal essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” George Orwell paints us a very vivid portrait of wartime England and makes a forceful argument that egregious class differences directly led to the fecklessness that characterized England in the early years of the Second World War.  It seems like a highly specific, specialized polemic—and it is that.  But rereading it recently, I could not help but draw parallels from the aspects of his society that caused Orwell such woe and the facets of American society that today cause my exasperation.  The essay deals much with what Orwell calls “the decay of the ability in the ruling class.”

… it was happening with the speed of a chemical reaction. And yet somehow the ruling class decayed, lost its ability, its daring, finally even its ruthlessness, until a time came when stuffed shirts …could stand out as men of exceptional talent. As for [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air. … Why? What had happened? What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

I hear much duckspeak and bellyfeel nowadays about how the government should be run more like a business.  What with the fretting over the United States debt and unbridled, raging government spending sprees, the clear philosophy among those on the right is that men such as Mitt Romney are in a unique position, knowledgeable as they are in business matters, to steady such a treacherous course.  But the majority of those preaching this tired gospel don’t seem to have a handle on exactly the kind of businessman Mitt Romney was.  Romney was in private equity, not a business that provides an accessible service or produces helpful widgets.  Private equity is for a particular moneyed class of people—persons Orwell described thusly:

The underlying fact was that the whole position of the moneyed class had long ceased to be justifiable. There they sat, at the centre of a vast empire and a world-wide financial network, drawing interest and profits and spending them—on what? It was fair to say that life within the British Empire was in many ways better than life outside it. Still, the Empire was underdeveloped…was full of slums and unemployment. Only half a million people, the people in the country houses, definitely benefited from the existing system. Moreover, the tendency of small businesses to merge together into large ones robbed more and more of the moneyed class of their function and turned them into mere owners, their work being done for them by salaried managers and technicians. For long past there had been in England an entirely functionless class, living on money that was invested they hardly knew where, the ‘idle rich’, the people whose photographs you can look at in the TATLER and the BYSTANDER, always supposing that you want to. The existence of these people was by any standard unjustifiable. They were simply parasites, less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog.

In the United States we have a class of persons that live off investments, and are working—“working,” I should say, noting the clear irony—to ensure that their inordinate amount of the pie grows ever bigger.  These are the people who want a 0% capital gains tax.  It never made much sense to me to untax capital gains but continue the payroll tax; it’s as good as saying that money you actually work for is intrinsically less valuable than money that comes to you from simple disposition of an asset.  Ask yourself: do the majority of Americans accrue money from labor or capital gains?  What do the Americans who derive the majority of their income through capital gains have in common?  These are rhetorical, naturally.

Orwell here makes an interesting point about the directional tendency of businesses.  As capitalistic pursuits increasingly erode the restrictions against monopolic power, it makes sense that companies now merge in ever-increasing numbers.  The further up the totem you are, the less of a functional role you play in the operations of whatever company/subsidiary you oversee.  This is why you hire managers, assistant managers, supervisors, in-house accountants, etc.  Eventually the only real connection you have with your company is the simple privilege of owning it.

These are the people that members of the Republican Party reverently and unthinkingly refer to as “job creators.”  Despite popular Republican sloganeering, a man like Mitt Romney in private equity is unlikely even to think of his ventures in those terms.  Leveraged buyouts for quick resale do not create jobs, unless you count renaming or refilling existing positions—but even then the point of a leveraged buyout is to rapidly shave the fat off a company to increase its value.  When one hears quixotic notions of “turning companies around” and “making them successful,” this is really what is meant.  So when Orwell says these types of businessmen “liv[e] on money that was invested they hardly knew where,” he makes the salient point that, to these private equity fellows, the type of company doesn’t matter.  What the company provides or produces does not matter.  Nor, therefore, do the individual employees.  All that does matter is getting the company profitable so they can sell it again.  It is not good enough now to have a company that provides or produces anything; we now have businesses that buy and sell businesses.

So I am wholly unimpressed with Mitt Romney’s “business experience,” and am not fooled by those who say it qualifies him (or anyone) for executive office.  Neither was Orwell much impressed with these types:

… the old land-owning aristocracy steadily lost power, but instead of disappearing or becoming a fossil they simply intermarried with the merchants, manufacturers and financiers who had replaced them, and soon turned them into accurate copies of themselves. The wealthy shipowner or cotton-miller set up for himself an alibi as a country gentleman, while his sons learned the right mannerisms at public schools which had been designed for just that purpose. England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus. And considering what energy the self-made men possessed, and considering that they were buying their way into a class which at any rate had a tradition of public service, one might have expected that able rulers could be produced in some such way.

The problem is, these “self-made men” increasingly “made themselves” on the backs of other people who did all the actual work for them—or worse yet, after the actual work had already been done.  This is why I cannot understand the mentality of people who say that the government must be run as a business.  What would we consider ordinary citizens as in this “business”—shareholders?  Employees?  A ridiculous combination?  The very people who push this “government as business” nonsense are precisely the sort of people the government would consider extraneous should anyone ever enact such a plan.

Anyway, Orwell saw these useless moneyed aristocrats as particularly self-deluding:

…millions were aware of it. But the British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate. For it was not possible for them to turn themselves into mere bandits, like the American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition…After all, they belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments. They had to FEEL themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was only one escape for them—into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being UNABLE to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.

I may never have read a more perfect description of the current Republican Party in the United States.  Trying to monopolize patriotism through rhetoric instead of deeds, marauding the middle class under the guise of strengthening it, fighting to return America to some nonexistent, idealized version of the past as a way to deny the inevitable progress of society…  Of course, Orwell actually calls out the American well-to-do in the above quotation, but I’m simply drawing parallels.

The main thrust of Orwell’s essay was that the rich upper-class segment of English society was especially worthless in the face of the creeping Nazism and Fascism before World War Two.  Fascism was especially amenable to the very rich so its poisonous influences would not be readily apparent.  He was not arguing that these were bad people, morally repugnant citizens; more so that they were so blinded by their station they became impotent when tenacious aggression was necessary.

Tossed to and fro between their incomes and their principles, it was impossible that men like Chamberlain should do anything but make the worst of both worlds.  One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are MORALLY fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed…That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be. It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.

It really is terrifying how little things have changed generations on.  Some of us are still waiting for our contemporaries to wake up.

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