Benjamin the Donkey from Animal Farm, and the limits of political commentary

New Year’s Eve, 2020

Tomorrow Animal Farm and other works by George Orwell come out of copyright in the United Kingdom.

To mark this, and to do something different on this blog on New Year’s Eve, this is a tribute to – and critique – of Benjamin the donkey as a political commentator.

(And, just for the rest of today, the many quotations in this post are ‘fair dealing with a work for the purpose of criticism or review’ under the Copyright etc Act 1988.)

*

Benjamin has qualities which would (or should) make him a great political commentator.

First – and this is key:

Benjamin could read as well as any pig…’

In Animal Farm, the two key textual reveals to the other other animals are because Benjamin can read as well as any pig:

‘”Fools! Fools!” shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. “Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?”‘

And:

‘[Benjamin] read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS’

Benjamin is capable of understanding, and explaining, anything done by those who have sought and obtained political power – it is not for him obscure or forbidden knowledge.

He is not of the political world, but can understand it as well as those who are powerful.

And so he can see and describe what is actually happening:

‘…Benjamin was watching the movements of the men intently. The two with the hammer and the crowbar were drilling a hole near the base of the windmill. Slowly, and with an air almost of amusement, Benjamin nodded his long muzzle.

‘”I thought so,” he said. “Do you not see what they are doing? In another moment they are going to pack blasting powder into that hole.”‘

*

Second, Benjamin is impartial in a hyper-partisan world:

‘Old Benjamin, the donkey, seemed quite unchanged since the Rebellion. […] About the Rebellion and its results he would express no opinion. When asked whether he was not happier now that Jones was gone, he would say only “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey,” and the others had to be content with this cryptic answer.’

And:

‘The animals formed themselves into two factions under the slogan, “Vote for Snowball and the three-day week” and “Vote for Napoleon and the full manger.” Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on–that is, badly.’

And:

‘Only old Benjamin refused to grow enthusiastic about the windmill, though, as usual, he would utter nothing beyond the cryptic remark that donkeys live a long time.’

*

Third, Benjamin has a stock of knowledge and historical perspective:

‘Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse–hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life.’

*

And Benjamin is (for want of a better word) humane and (privately) kind:

‘Nevertheless, without openly admitting it, he was devoted to Boxer; the two of them usually spent their Sundays together in the small paddock beyond the orchard, grazing side by side and never speaking.’

And:

‘…Benjamin urged Boxer to work less hard’.

And:

‘…Benjamin warned [Boxer] to take care of his health’.

And:

‘…Benjamin [laid] down at Boxer’s side, and, without speaking, kept the flies off him with his long tail.’ 

*

So: what more could you want in a political commentator?

Benjamin is worldly yet impartial, and he has historical perspective and a stock of knowledge, and he also is (at least privately) kindly.

But Benjamin fails as a commentator.

His impartiality has hardened into quietism, and he leaves everything too late.

Of course, Benjamin does not actively collaborate with those with political power:

‘He did his work in the same slow obstinate way as he had done it in Jones’s time, never shirking and never volunteering for extra work either.’

But he also does nothing when it would have made a difference to stop abuses of power.

For example, the constant re-wordings of the commandments which culminate in the addition of ‘BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS’ is left to others to read who do not have the donkey’s understanding.

And when Boxer is taken to the glue factory, Benjamin’s late realisation is futile.

His private kindness made no difference to this very public and brutal act of power.

Had Benjamin been engaged from the beginning of the rebellion, the pigs may have got away with less and Boxer would have enjoyed a retirement.

(That is, if Benjamin had not – ahem – disappeared.)

*

T. S. Eliot famously turned-down Animal Farm for publication, writing to George Orwell that all the farm really needed were ‘more public-spirited pigs’.

That is, better conduct and more self-restraint by those who achieve and exercise political power – the essence of Toryism.

But left to themselves, those who achieve and exercise political power will tend to abuse that power – and that is why wiser people than Eliot also want checks and balances.

And one check and balance is an independent media.

A media which is worldly, impartial, and has historical perspective and a stock of knowledge, and which also – if not kindly – is certainly not cruel.

But as the example of Benjamin shows, even these wonderful qualities are not enough, if not constantly applied.

What was perhaps needed on the farm was not ‘more public-spirited pigs’ but a more public-spirited donkey.

*

Yet – this is a question which Orwell does not really address – the animals would also need to have cared if the donkey had told them what was happening in time.

For the experience of Brexit and Trump indicates that even if Benjamin had been more vigilant about abuses of power, many of the animals may not have cared.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

So commentary may not be enough: there is limited point to explaining about lies and abuses of power if people do not care that they are being lied to and power is being abused.

And that is the fundamental challenge of politics in the age of the promised windmills of Trump and Brexit.

But providing commentary is a public good in itself, even if it is not heeded.

And so this blog will carry on into the new year as the work of a public-spirited donkey.

Happy new year to all my readers and followers.

*****

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*****

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37 thoughts on “Benjamin the Donkey from Animal Farm, and the limits of political commentary”

  1. What is most notable about Benjamin is that he’s a dyed – in – the – wool Tory and the socialist author has made him his avatar.
    What Orwell said of Swift )that the follies of progressives had driven him to reaction) was true of himself.

  2. And a very Happy New Year to you too (surely can’t be worse than this one!), and please come back refreshed and ready to give us more of your splendidly incisive analysis.

  3. Glad to hear (!) that the posts will continue since they are always informative and well thought out.

    The role of the media today is more vital than it has ever been yet, sadly, to paraphrase Mr Orwell, “All journalists are created equal, but some are more equal than others”. The news media, with certain noteworthy exceptions, fails to do its proper job of holding politicians to account and instead acts as the agents of some political viewpoints, misrepresenting facts and opinions to the detrement of society – but who should we trust for such a needed reform?

    If I lived in what will always to me “home”, I would feel it my duty to become directly involved in politics – were I to believe myself less capable than Gavin Williamson et al, the only honourable course open to me would be the glass of scotch and the Webley revolver in the library…

    I wish all a happy and healthy 2021 and I vehemently hope that the end of 2020 brings with it the high water mark for populism around the world.

    1. Hello
      Excellent blog and commentary from readership. Having been a floating voter all my adult life (years now) I have recently been been toying with the idea of joining the Labour Party to strengthen the centre ground (lib Dems have no traction in our distorted electoral system which favours historical parties) ….this blog has tipped me to actually do it !

      1. Do it Henry! I was also a floating voter and I joined LME (Labour Movement for Europe) for just £12 a year so that I could vote for Starmer. He’s the only person making gestures towards PR which will help all centre / left leaning parties in the future. We just need all centre / left leaning parties to work together. A tough challenge but public pressure can work. If you do move to Labour, tell the LDs why and say that you will support them again when we get PR. The LDs are very good at data and public opinion so they should take your voting intentions on board. Best wishes.

  4. ”For the experience of Brexit and Trump indicates that even if Benjamin had been more vigilant about abuses of power, many of the animals may not have cared.”
    This is key, I think.
    The architects and aiders of Trump and Brexit have worked out that just enough of us are seemingly indifferent to being lied to.

    1. There is no system of incentives that works against populism

      It seems that it has to simply run it’s course and burn itself out (hopefully not taking the rest of us with it)

  5. “But left to themselves, those who achieve and exercise political power will tend to abuse that power – and that is why wiser people than Eliot also want checks and balances.

    And one check and balance is an independent media.”

    Surely that is why the BBC’s charter is threatened once again

    Although I am horribly disillusioned by the BBC’s failure to understand the false equivalence issue that has led to the rise in extremists being given airtime, I still think the institution needs to be protected

    The problem is clearly that the more airtime these people are given, the more it automatically validates their views: Victoria Gillick, Andrew Wakefield, Nick Griffin, Global Warming deniers

    I was abhorred by Thatcher’s “Oxygen of Publicity” arguments at the time, but I’m starting to think that I was wrong

  6. One thing we’ve learned in the last few years is that, even if the animals had been given access to information about what the pigs were up to, a proportion of them would have cheered, and laughed that the clever pigs had fooled Boxer. As long as it was their team that was doing the lying.

  7. Bravo!

    In our our powerlessness, we retain the duty to keep Truth alive within our crania. To advert for a moment to a different work of George Orwell’s: when the Party directs us to believe that two plus two make five, we remind ourselves, if necessary privately, that two plus two make four. The preservation of truth within the cranium, if necessary for decade upon sickening decade, can sometimes prove the sole way forward. Around here, in Estonia, people got some decades of practice in skull hygiene.

    I would like to add that my workroom, in which I do my cyber, is a former post office of the late, unlamented, Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and that Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn wrote some or much or all of “Arhipelag Gulag” right here in Tartumaa County (although not, admittedly, in this particular corner of Tartumaa County). He choose Tartumaa because he (rightly) considered the locals not predisposed to inform the KGB.

  8. Brilliant commentary! However, surely Benjamin’s kindness and stability are of value in themselves during the time he is exercising them, albeit he doesn’t aid in wrenching power from the Pigs. If more people were like Benjamin, there would be less trouble in the world and indeed, because many people are like Benjamin, daily life for many is in fact quite good. But I do see that the Benjamins are not much use against the push of Nazism or similar. Or are they? Such as this blog.

  9. A commentator can also help simply by keeping the truth alive in a period when so many are resorting to lies, fantasies and obfuscation. Your tweets and blogs – alongside those of other commentators like Chris Grey – have been a beacon of light in a very dark period. So please carry on!

  10. Brilliant post.

    The internet was killing newspapers who resorted to comment with saleable names. Those people however were generalists- they could knock out 500 words without even really believing what they were writing. It was low in fact and high in emotion. One of them became Prime Minister.

    Fact checking and hours of training sitting – for example- in local court reporting became a luxury of the past.

    Headlines rather than content generated clicks,

    ….and here we are.

  11. Thanks for the post. Excellent comment with echoes of Martin Niemoller ‘they came for the socialists…….

    Paul in Ealing – I understand your concerns, but on balance I would prefer they speak and are the subject of good journalist questioning rather than much less effective challenge on social media. I am also mindful that I’m sure the pigs in Animal Farm would be able to agree with you and accept their duty to define extremism……….

    1. On a related note, do you think that political parties that intend to overturn democracy should be able to use the democratic process to do so?

      Sounds like an extreme scenario, until you realise the effect of all the incremental changes that DAG has been warning us about

  12. One wonders what Benjamin would have said to the argument that for some (or arguably most) political situations that by not explicitly challenging and standing against the status quo (eg that some animals more equal than others) he is in effect endorsing the status quo despite him dispassionately explaining what it means.

  13. Delicious, and Bravo! David

    I’ve no doubt you had as much fun writing this as I reading it – I think today’s post adequately explains how we have come to this

    I became, reluctantly, nay depressingly, a glass half full person on June 24th 2016, and absolutely nothing has happened in the subsequent 4 1/2 years to alter that

    Perhaps only a fool would attempt, in the parochially bizarre land we now inhabit after the hardest Brexit this ship of fools could manage, to make predictions, so I say this: Tice and his appalling, hotch potch cohort will cause an earthquake at the next election

    Be careful what you wish for, folks, and Happy New Year

  14. Happy New Year from us.
    We look forward to checking in with you in 2021 which will be much better than the last.

  15. I think it is incumbent on the donkeys to remain amongst their kind and train up new donkeys. It is only by getting to a critical mass of donkeys that the pigs can be brought down.

  16. Boxer is the reason behind the food shortages. He’s enormous, even for a horse. Why so big?

    And did he genuinely injure his hoof, or is it a Bill Gates implant giving him trouble? Why cover it up?

  17. I have been most grateful for your illuminating articles this year. I am now better informed – though still depressed. This one was a delight. Thank-you and best wishes for the New Year.

  18. Great news for the current UK Government that ‘Animal Farm’ will very soon be out of copyright. It will surely reduce costs and risks of developing policy.

    Happy New Year to you too and Thank You for continuing this blog to brighten the near future for all your readers.

  19. This is so very good: so true and so depressing whilst at the same time, uplifting! Please don’t stop commenting!

  20. Don’t be too hard on yourself Mr Green!
    Our current position is largely due to forty years of lazy, vicious tub-thumping by the majority of the ‘independent’ media’ who , together with their Tory helpmates, were happy making money through inciting hatred of immigrants and the EU. Voices such as yours were either ignored or hidden well away from the incendiary front pages – until of course your too late elevation in the Daily Express. Every unnecessary customs form completed, every finance job lost to Europe, every factory closed, every gap in NHS staffing is now on them and the lying shyster in No 10.
    We need your voice and thoughts more than ever, holding every mis-step to account.
    As for Benjamin/Orwell (have just finished Bowker’s biography of Orwell, where he posits that Benjamin is Orwell/Blair’s alter/alter ego) no doubt he would have been pleased to see what the EU has become, for all its faults, depressed at the succession of Napoleons in Russia, and seen through our current Prime Minister and his snivelling sounder of a Cabinet in an instant.
    Happy New Year!

  21. David

    Please do carry on.

    I find these blogs, endlessly informative and stimulating and take my turn to try to inform others.

    The UK doesn’t really feel like Animal Farm at the moment.

    It feels more like the Knacker’s yard.

    PK

  22. A brilliant and entertaining analogy, thank you, Mr Green. As John Sparrow remarked, there need to be many more donkeys trained in order to bring the pigs down. Informative, measured, insightful commentary like yours, and Chris Grey’s among others, should be obligatory reading in schools. Children, it is said, have an innate sense of justice and fairness, and hate being lied to. Training them to carry those attributes into adult life would at least begin the fight back against this monstrous regiment of mendacious clowns. Meanwhile, please keep on analysing and informing us in these dark times; your calm reason provides much solace.

  23. That was a very good review and series of comments. Spot on. The thing I find so troubling is that so much of it is true – shouldn’t I be panicking?

  24. Thank you for your insightful comments and analysis over the last few years. It is truly appreciated. I’m so pleased you are keeping this blog going. Happy New Year to you David. Cannot wait to hear more from you in 2021 and beyond!

  25. Just to say a heartfelt thank you for all you have done over the last few years. Your commentary combines wit and expertise and always challenging in the best way
    Here’s a guid 2021 to Benjamin
    Stay safe

  26. There is an interesting double parenthesis in TS Eliot’s original letter – “what was needed, (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs”. Are we to take that as his own opinion, that he is the “someone”?

    The fact is that all nation states need “more public-spirited pigs”. Systems need to deal with people who are not perfect and might have bad motives. Some nations have constitutional checks and balances that encourage good behaviour among their leaders, or to try to stop bad behaviour having bad effects.

    Others, such as the UK, in principle allow a government elected with a parliamentary majority to do essentially what it wants without significant let or hindrance, until the next election.

    What happens when our “pigs” have insufficient “public spirit”?

    1. That is why we also need public-spirited donkeys, and indeed public-spirited animals generally

  27. “So commentary may not be enough: there is limited point to explaining about lies and abuses of power if people do not care that they are being lied to and power is being abused.”

    For me, Orwell and Huxley go hand-in-hand. Orwell covers the propaganda and rhetoric vs reality. Huxley covers the art of distraction: keep everyone focused on themselves and they won’t know/care what those with power are doing.

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