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?”‘
‘[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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘…Benjamin urged Boxer to work less hard’.
‘…Benjamin warned [Boxer] to take care of his health’.
‘…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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