The nature of man is a tricky thing – much more complex and fickle than we often like to think. Throughout our evolution, humans have tried a number of societal and governmental structures, some with great success and others with tremendous failures. Some have led to near-miracles while others came to disastrous results. Some succeed in certain cultures and communities but fail in others. The one constant that has proven true in every society, in every group of people and at nearly every turn is that no man is immune to greed or corruption.
Animal Farm is George Orwell’s simplistic tale of corruption in a communistic community. Rather than be ruled by the human dictator who owns the farm, the animals who work it pull together to overthrow him and ban him from the farm. They agree on a system built around equality, around shared work for shared rewards. Without one specified leader, they agree to live and work side-by-side, none anymore powerful or wealthy than the rest. And so it goes for a short while. But soon a couple of the smarter animals (pigs, of course) notice that things could work more smoothly and with greater benefit to the farm with a few changes. Each pig presents his plan to the group and lets them reach a consensus. Majority rules. Harmony is achieved but short-lived. Before long, one of the pigs realizes he can manipulate the more gullible animals by villainizing the pig who opposes him. Once his opponent is banned from the farm, he becomes a kind of dictator, all the while changing his rhetoric to suit his own selfish agenda. Many of the animals cannot read and are easily fooled. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the structure of North Korea’s current government and the propaganda spewed upon its poor citizens. I think this book was written for a Young Adult audience, which makes for a somewhat simplified narrative, but its lesson loses none of its poignancy or relevance.
With any political piece, it’s easy for the narrative to become preachy. A writer has to be careful to let the point make itself in the unfolding of the story, something Orwell did with grace. At no point while reading Animal Farm (or his more complex political novel, the iconic 1984) did I feel he was forcing his personal views upon me. I’ve read that he was an advocate for socialism; in his life, he warned of the dangerous potential outcomes of both communism and capitalism. No doubt, anyone who’s paid even the smallest attention to the goings-on of the world within the last 50 years would agree that communism simply doesn’t work. It has always amazed me how the most basic definition of communism sounds perfectly fair and idealistic and yet, there has never been a society capable of maintaining it without corruption. This speaks more to the nature of humanity than it does to the philosophy itself but that hardly matters. For all practical matters, communism with regards to the human race has by and large been a failure. Orwell gracefully lays out the causes for that in this book. And one could argue that many of capitalism’s negative effects (an excessively uneven distribution of wealth leading to the disappearance of the middle-class via the expansive gap between the rich and poor, the working class being forced to work more and harder for less reward, and greed corrupting the free market, to name a few) as described in Orwell’s 1984 have recently come to fruition.
Regardless of his political views, any reader with even a slightly open mind will find meaning in Orwell’s work. His storytelling isn’t pushy. It isn’t preachy or obvious. He was a master of language who artfully crafted stories that depict the corruptible nature of man. Ultimately, the take-away message from both 1984 and Animal Farm isn’t that one societal structure is good or bad, but that any and all forms must answer to the people they govern through some form of regulation or system of checks and balances. Orwell warns that any governing body is only as honest as the people who make it up. I think we can all agree with that.