Are We Still Reading Animal Farm?

The point of the allegory is clear: communism is no answer to the inequities and economic difficulties of the workers because those who benefit will be those who rule, not everyone else.
on Feb 25, 2019 · 21 comments

Animal Farm, an allegorical novel by George Orwell, was one of several speculative stories upon which I cut my teeth. At some point I want to discuss the other speculative stories as a body, what they taught me, how they affected my thinking. Not today.

In part this article will be a political rant. I don’t usually talk much about my political views, especially on a team blog where my thoughts might inaccurately be taken as the thoughts of Spec Faith. They aren’t. None of our articles represent anyone but ourselves, though we all do hold a faith statement in common. And we do all love speculative fiction.

Which brings me to Animal Farm. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure this book was required reading in school when I was growing up. The allegory is an animal revolution that mirrors the Communist Revolution.

In the story, the animals take over control of the farm where they live and work, and drive off the humans. But as years pass the animal leadership does some shady things: they alter history, lie about the cause of disasters, cover up killings, change the laws upon which the revolution was founded. In the end, the pigs, who are the inner circle making all the decisions, look and act so much like humans, the other animals can’t tell them apart.

The point of the allegory is clear: communism is no answer to the inequities and economic difficulties of the workers because those who benefit will be those who rule, not everyone else.

All through the cold war, that idea seemed to come true in the news headlines of the day. Cruelty, economic chaos, restricted individual freedoms, lies, coverups—these were all common place in the communist world. That is, whenever the Iron Curtain could be cracked. All we needed, really, were the accounts of people being shot trying to leave communist Berlin. If communism worked so well, why did they have to stop people from fleeing?

And why were the Soviet-made cars such shoddy workmanship? Why was the Soviet economy in such shambles? Why was there a notable lack of initiative?

When at last the Soviet Union crumbled and capitalism came out of hiding in the black market, socialism seemed defeated. Certainly I and others who cut our teeth on Animal Farm, as well as other dystopian novels that denigrated Big Government, along with government-controlled economics, assumed socialism was dead in the water. It had a fleeting moment in history in which the concept of equality proved to be little more than a shifting of wealth and power from one group to another.

More recently Venezuela has served as another example of socialism’s failure:

The current situation is the worst economic crisis in Venezuela’s history[7] and among the worst crises experienced in the Americas,[8][9] with hyperinflation, soaring hunger, disease, crime and death rates, and massive emigration from the country.[10] Observers and economists have stated that the crisis is not the result of a conflict or natural disaster but the consequences of socialist policies (“Crisis in Venezuela”)

Imagine my surprise, then, at the rise in popularity here in the US of political figures who take the mantle of socialism upon their shoulders. One such individual recently has received a lot of attention for supporting a “Green New Deal.”

The idea behind the proposed changes to our society is two-fold. One, the plan is to do away with carbon energy sources and mandate renewable energy within ten years. Ten years! Let that sink in a bit. The other part of the plan is a make-over of our economy. A change from capitalism to socialism, essentially, with the government guaranteeing everyone a job if they want one.

So, back to Animal Farm. Does no one read the book any more?

I think most people can see that greedy entrepreneurs have a lion’s share of the wealth in the US and other capitalist countries. Some have gained their wealth by corrupt and unfair practices (lots of history of such in the late nineteenth century; other examples more recently in the banking industry). Others gained their wealth by innovation and developing better ideas for doing business.

Most Americans are not in the highest tax bracket, however. We do our best to provide a comfortable living, and largely we do so by hard work. But it’s clear the system isn’t “equitable.” I mean, the star baseball player gets $30 million dollars for ten years while teachers strike to get a 6% raise.

But is the answer to the inequity to be found in an Animal Farm take over?

In many ways, George Orwell was prophetic in his little book. After all, he wrote long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he saw the ways the lofty goals of socialism affected the people in Russia and how it changed the country and the people who led it. He saw the “pigs” become like “men”—the socialist leaders become like capitalists. The only difference for the chickens and the plow horse and the dogs was who they worked for.

Animal Farm in no way glorifies capitalism, but it makes a strong allegorical case against communism.

Young people would know this if they read the book, so I’m wondering, does anyone still read Animal Farm?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it was assigned reading at a few high schools in my area at least. I remember one of my friends talking about the book (she seemed to like it), and it kind of came across like she read it for an assignment. I know she also read Tarzan for a school assignment and liked it. That would have been around a decade ago, I believe.

    It’s kind of on my tbr pile, though I don’t know when I’ll get to it. I will say there’s lot of reasons why people might not take the novel’s message to heart, though. One of which being that it doesn’t feel like what is happening right now, and people have a hard time feeling like their good intentions could ever go awry. There are also different forms of socialism, so people probably feel like everything will automatically be fine so long as they don’t promote the ‘bad’ forms of socialism.

    Really, though, practically everything has unforseen consequences, both good and bad. And anyone can become a problem, regardless of which beliefs they hold (or pretend to hold). People need to constantly (and honestly) evaluate themselves if they want to make sure they aren’t going to be destructive down the road. (And even then they might evaluate themselves wrong).

    The WAY people do things matters, too. Capitalism itself is mostly fine, but the way people might go about using capitalist concepts (or even just existing in a capitalist society) is often wrong. The same thing happens with socialist cultures.

    I think one thing people are doing now is thinking/feeling ‘if only we start going socialist, so many problems would just disappear.’, which isn’t necessarily true. People really need to monitor their ‘if only’ feelings more.

    Also, socialism itself doesn’t bring equality. People feel like it does, because they think it’ll make the rich ‘give their fair share’, but in reality, there is still always going to be some measure of inequality, especially between the government and its people. Socialism carries a large risk of making that effect even worse. Socialism tends to make people rely on the government more and more, and that will seem fine at first, until maybe a tyrant takes control, or some cruddy policy that everyone hates goes into effect.

    • notleia says:

      Except there’s a lot of ways for socialist ideas to improve society, like public utilities and transit, social security to not make people work till theyre dead or, potentially, basic effin healthcare to not make people work till theyre dead before they’re eligible for SS.

      I read an article somewhere (will hunt up on request) discussing whether sustainable agriculture was even possible inside a capitalist system. Big Agribusiness is already a bunch of diminishing returns that relies on human trafficking and slave labor.

      But it’s not either-or. We can totally cherry-pick the good parts of both, like most of the world does.

      • Steve Smith says:

        I don’t think Social Security is considered socialism because if you don’t pay into it you don’t get any money. It’s not an “entitlement.” It’s more of an enforced retirement savings. But “Medicare for everyone” is socialism.

        • notleia says:

          Medicare for everyone would actually save money in the long run. Access to preventative care cuts down on expensive procedures later. But the bigger difference is that healthcare in America is stupidly, inflatedly expensive compared to everywhere else and the kind of negotiation that Medicare would be able to do would reduce costs that way.

          Bonus unsolicited article that I found interesting about low-tech medical solutions but the bias against using them in the States:

          • notleia says:

            Bonus unsolicited rhetorical question: Should medicine actually be a for-profit industry?

            • I think that question is at the heart of the issue of health care. I mean, should somebody get rich off the needs of someone else? Once upon a time, doctors were people sacrificing for the needs of others. Now they’re too often part of an unwieldy bureaucratic machine. I love my neighborhood nonprofit hospital which does not turn anyone away. That’s the way it should be, I think. Not based on the government, notice


          • So, basically, it’s less about the need to socialize it, but instead to negotiate certain things and be willing to accept medical proceedures that might be useful even if they’re low tech?

            • notleia says:

              There isn’t really a mechanism in place now to make negotiation a feasible option. Insurance agencies do some negotiation, but they don’t have the reach necessary — or the motivation — to decrease them as drastically as needed to come close to similar prices as places that do have socialized/nationalized healthcare (IIRC, Germany has worked with non-profit insurances to do their subsidized(?) healthcare stuff).

              • Al Twain says:

                Socialism is great, in a christian society, where everyone always puts God first and gives all of themselves into serving everyone else.
                Sadly, outside of that perfection–which no one on this earth has–, it goes terribly wrong. The lazy decide they don’t need to do anything ‘government will give them everything’, and ‘they don’t get to keep what they earned anyway’. Those in charge of the money often keep more than their fair share.
                Individuality starts to collapse because of laws on what can be purchased and what can’t…
                Even without that, even if every single member of the government was completely selfless and dedicated to draining all of their lives for those they are trying to serve, all the laws that they would need to include to make sure no one was jibed, all the paperwork, and just trying to have enough to eat themselves, would impede the perfection of socialism.
                In my humble opinion, we all need to stop looking at people in tight spots and thinking, ‘if only government would solve that problem.’ We as ambassadors for another kingdom need to go and give everything we have, encouraging others by our love to do the same.

              • Toklaham Veruzia says:

                I doubt that a government-run healthcare program could lower prices either. After all, ‘free’ healthcare (or free anything) means healthcare paid for by someone else, in this case, by taxpayers. The government has no incentive to lower prices, as those using the system have no choice but to pay for it.

          • Toklaham Veruzia says:

            From reading that article, I see that many of the obstacles preventing these low-tech solutions from being used in American hospitals could be removed with less government regulation, not more. The two big reasons preventing the use of the balloons that stop uterine bleeding (they have to get approved by the FDA, and hospitals get bigger reimbursements for using more expensive equipment) are both provided by the government.

      • I was actually thinking about bringing up mixed market economies, but then you sort of did in your last sentence 😛

        I don’t mind looking around, evaluating, and bringing in things that work(though there are some things that aren’t exactly the best even if they ‘work’). I just think that an economy should lean more toward capitalism, and a lot of the things you support just don’t quite sit well with me (Automatic minimum income for everyone? Sorry, no.)

        As for stuff like agriculture, one thing that people don’t understand is that, in many ways, business is supposed to be about innovation. People actually probably CAN figure out ways to grow food more sustainably in a capitalist society, they just need to change their approach. There would actually probably be some instances where companies would be highly motivated to do things more sustainably because it would save them money by wasting less of their resources, etc.

        It’d probably actually be better if agriculture partly took the form of people growing things on their own as well, though. Not to the point where they completely replace commercial farming, but maybe enough to help supplement it or cut down on their food bill a bit. Unfortunately that’s stopped being a social norm, and that’s something we should probably encourage people to change. And that might actually be more sustainable, too, since individual gardeners aren’t necessarily having to drive back and forth to tend the garden every day, run heavy machinery, etc.

        • notleia says:

          You’d think they’d be interested in a little self-preservation, but evidence of that is lacking. There’s actually more evidence that hardcore capitalistic institutions attract more narcissistic bungholes and libertarians (but I repeat myself) who don’t give a rip about anything but themselves and the money they can stuff in their offshore accounts.

          • It depends, actually. Looking back on history, though, I’ve been extremely impressed by how far business has come in such a short amount of time. Business owners actually ARE learning to be better. Sheesh, even the current business classes I’ve been taking talk a lot about ethics, societal responsibility, etc., including newer business models that are designed to benefit the world even just within their daily operations.

            It’s really easy to get caught up in the frustrations of our current society, when we should actually be looking at the amazing amount of progress we’ve already made and continue along that thread. I personally intend to be a half way decent capitalist, and get other people to do the same, at least.

            • notleia says:

              I’d be more sanguine about it if there were more effective ways holding corporations to a better standard. But even just enforcing existing laws, like OSHA, gets iffy in poor counties/states where they’re more desperate to cater to the source of money, like where Amazon chooses to open their latest warehouses.

              Unions were an effective method, but they’ve become undermined and hamstrung on purpose over the last half-century or so. There’s tons of people (like me) who can’t even get benefits because the company purposefully keeps us at part-time. This is why stuff like Medicare-for-all has gotten such momentum in the first place, because corporations have ignored and are ignoring those implicit social contracts.

              • Some of the things people do end up cutting their own throat in that regard. Taking unions, for instance, there’s economic concepts such as them being able to choose between obtaining employment for most/all their members, or negotiating for higher wages at the expense of some people losing their jobs.

                Not to say that unions are bad, but obviously there are consequences to everything. The government could charge in there and say that companies can’t fire people after a union inspired raise in wages, but then that means companies increase the risk of failing if they can’t adjust wages and the number of employees according to its financial needs. And, obviously if a business failed for those reasons, it’d be bad for everyone at that company since ALL the employees would lose their jobs, rather than just a few.

                Some regulation needs to be there, obviously, but one reason I’d advocate more for a change in business tactics/attitudes/etc is that it would actually solve some of the issues you were talking about. Creating a situation where people WANT to do the right thing is usually more effective than a situation where people are forced. Forcing people takes time and resources that could be used elsewhere, and obviously when people are forced they are more likely to try and get around the rules that are in place.

                There are also some situations where employees can be selfish and not fully understand situations, though. Some of this is more an issue with smaller businesses than huge ones, but some employees might think they’re better workers than they actually are(and thus assume they deserve a huge raise when they don’t). There are also selfish/irresponsible things they do that cost companies money(some office workers play on the internet when they’re supposed to be working, which in many cases reduces productivity, uses up bandwidth, and increases the risk of infecting the office computers, which is both a security issue and financial problem.)

  2. Travis Perry says:

    Animal Farm is not required reading in pretty much any school. Not anymore.

    And anyway, I think the story really is pretty Soviet Union specific. Sure, it has lessons that apply to other Communist countries, but the pig Napoleon clearly is Josef Stalin…who was not in fact the only reason Communism had problems…but you might think from Animal Farm that Communism really would have worked if Napoleon hadn’t taken over…

  3. notleia says:

    It’s on a list of classics, and it has a better chance of being chosen since it’s short. 😛 I read it in late middle school to early high school.

    George Orwell (well, Eric Blair) was actually a democratic socialist, like Green New Deal poster child AOC (obvs I <3333 her). He was quite the SJW of his time. He would be more likely to categorize Russia-as-was or Venezula as banana republics. Russia-as-now is more of a mob-boss oligarchy. They're both heavily dependent on the oil industry, and so the easy way to take control of the country is to take control of the single biggest money-maker.

    For your classic anti-capitalist lit written by Americans, theres Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, or pretty much all of Frank Norris, who focused on farmers rather than factory workers, and who is also depressing and kiiinda racist. YMMV

What do you think?