Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Real Orwell

Today's news made me think about George Orwell, something that happens quite frequently because he was so prescient in his clear-eyed analyses of how the world works.  Although many--especially Cold Warriors- have sought to co-opt Orwell for themselves, one of his great attributes is his endless ability to make those who would seek to adopt him for their ism look narrow-minded and foolish.

I thought of Orwell when I read about how a number of European apparel manufacturers have stepped up and provided large funding for efforts to help the Bangladeshi workers left bereft by the fire at the factory where they worked under obviously substandard conditions.  At the same time, our U.S. buyers of the goods made there--Walmart, Sears, and others--have seized on legal fictions to avoid assuming any responsibility, probably advised by the ever-vigilant members of my own legal profession not to give anything lest that be regarded as confessing culpability.

What does Orwell have to do with this?  The next time someone preaches to you about how capitalism is the engine that makes our society work, think about this example of how capitalism takes from the poor to make the rich richer. Orwell was wise to this truth, something he learned from intensive investigation he conducted by going to live with workers in the English town of Wigan. His stay there produced his classic account, The Road to Wigan Pier.

Orwell of course has some credibility because he also demolished the pretensions of those who defend communism and even many brands of socialism in Animal Farm. And he portrayed a dim view of our future under an authoritarian state--it's never quite clear whether it's capitalist or communist, or some approximation--in the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We've all been pleased at the fall of communism almost everywhere, but this earth change blinded us to the evils of capitalism.  So the U.S. is paying now--or at least everyone but the 1% is--for our allowing the capitalists to weaken, if not almost eliminate, labor unions as a counter-pressure. The capitalists support the right-wing economists who emphasize deficits rather than unemployment as the principal economic problem of our time. Only now are we beginning to see how correct Paul Krugman has been in pointing out that austerity was a disaster, again except for the top 1% who profited from it.

But we could have learned all this from Orwell, who's often seen as the preeminent political philosopher of our age.  Capitalism must be regulated in the interests of the greater population who otherwise will be left with nothing.  See how we have permitted corporate America to wreck our pension system and anything resembling a true safety net.

And take note who the villains are in Bangladesh.  The small-time operators who created the conditions for the equivalent of the Triangle fire were in business because the American apparel makers--likely insulated by several corporate shells or layers--wanted to do business with them at the lowest possible cost. Lay the blame where it belongs--with the Walmarts and Tommy Hilfigers and all the famous labels and discount marts that are so beloved by American consumerism.

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