Politics, hypocrisy and Orwell

18 May 2008

An interesting article by David Runciman on politics and hypocrisy – taken from a forthcoming book – comes to some slightly unexpected conclusions. Here are some extracts:

This obsession with sincerity, and loathing of bogus sentiment, has benefited some politicians and damaged others. George W Bush, Tony Blair, John McCain and Barack Obama have all taken advantage of the premium we place on politicians who seem to be comfortable in their own skin, and with their own values; Al Gore, John Kerry, Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton have all suffered from appearing to hold something back, so that we can never be sure who it is we are dealing with. Brown in particular is paying the price for his inability to come to terms with the new confessional politics. People want to know who he really is, but if what he is really is a cautious and reserved politician who plays the percentages, then the public don’t want to know. So he is forced to tour the daytime-TV sofas trying to show his human side, and ends up revealing only how uncomfortable he is with the politics of self-revelation. His caution and his constant calculation make him look like a man in a mask – the classic hypocrite with something to hide.

But, he argues, there is a ‘necessary hypocisy’ about politics. Journalists who want politics to be ‘better’ than this often use Orwell as a touchstone. Runciman argues that this is a misunderstanding of Orwell:

But using Orwell the anti-hypocrite as a stick to beat up anyone whose political values are not entirely consistent and robust in their defence of freedom is too easy, and it is wrong. Orwell himself was by no means a straightforward anti-hypocrite, and his attitude to hypocrisy is both more interesting, and more complicated, than his present-day champions would have us believe. Orwell does offer us a way out, but only if we stop treating him as someone who can save us from the curse of hypocrisy. Instead, Orwell shows us that the only escape from the most corrosive forms of hypocrisy is to accept that other forms of hypocrisy are unavoidable. He wanted the language of power to be transparent, but that did not mean that he thought either people or the political systems they inhabited should be transparent as well. He also accepted that hypocrisy in politics is invariably preferable to its opposite – an excess of sincerity. There were many forms of politics that Orwell was prepared to countenance in which a kind of double standard, hypocrisy or deliberate concealment was being practised, so long as that concealment had an element of truthfulness about it.

And Orwell’s description of the interplay between democracy and imperialism has a surprisingly modern feel to it, even in an apparently post-imperial age, when one remembers the resource footprint needed to maintain a current western lifestyle (this quote is Orwell, not Runciman):

“It is so easy to be witty about the British Empire. The White Man’s Burden and “Rule Britannia” and Kipling’s novels and Anglo-Indian bores – who could even mention such things without a snigger? . . . That is the attitude of the typical left-winger towards imperialism, and a thoroughly flabby, boneless attitude it is . . . For apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire. Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.”

OK, I’ve adapted an Orwell view to the modern issue of sustainability here. But that requires a form of ‘sustainable hypocrisy’ – as the issue of imperialism did in Orwell’s time.

In a way, it is easy to see what the solution is to this clash of hypocrisies: democracy needs to abandon imperialism, as Orwell was convinced that Britain needed to divest itself of its empire, and to face up to the sacrifices which that would involve. But it is important to recognise that the democracy that abandons imperialism does not abandon hypocrisy: rather, it preserves its own sustainable hypocrisy by ditching the form of power that makes a mockery of it. There is an alternative remedy, of course, which is to abandon hypocrisy altogether. This is what would happen if imperialism jettisoned democracy, rather than the other way around. An imperial order unconstrained by democratic or liberal hypocrisies, in which power can be called by its proper name, in which the sword is always unsheathed because there is never any need to conceal it, is certainly possible… Imperialism without hypocrisy is called fascism, and it is one of the distinguishing marks of fascism, as of other totalitarian regimes, that it does not need to be hypocritical. Totalitarians can afford to be sincere about power.

Runciman also has an interesting take on Orwell’s famous apercu that by the age of fifty ‘every man has the face he deserves’:

This does not mean that we deserve our physical appearance; what it means is that we deserve our mask, the face we choose to show to the world, because having lived with it for so long we can no longer claim that it is merely a façade.

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