Saturday, July 26, 2008
Last will and testament posted by Richard SeymourIt has been said that 'Orwell's Victory' was the late Christopher Hitchens' last decent book before he went fully over to the dark side. It does a decent enough job of defending Orwell from some unfair critics, defends Orwell's anti-imperialism (albeit he doesn't linger on the support for the Palestinians, almost unique among European left-wingers at the time), shows that his insight into 'totalitarianism' in part derived from his experience of the colonial labyrinth, and contains some judicious criticisms of Orwell's prose where necessary. It also has an embarrassingly poor section, seeking to defend Orwell's notion of linguistic transparency against the 'postmodernists', in which he barely sets a foot right (apparently, postmodernism is 'in essence' the proposition that nothing will ever happen again for the first time). There is a dubious defense of a conception of Englishness and bourgeois values such as 'decency'. But what is worse than embarrassing and actually a little sickening is the psychologising about the urge to dominate and be dominated. At the end of chapter 8, Hitchens has this to say:
With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilized and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivised release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it. There will always be Trotskys and Goldsteins and even Winston Smiths, but it must be clearly understood that the odds are overwhelmingly against them, and that as with Camus's rebel, the crowd will yell with joy to see them dragged to the scaffold. This long and steady look into the void was Orwell's apotheosis of 'the power of facing'. (pp 169-70)
I raise this passage because it concentrates in a few sentences a number of themes prized by 'antitotalitarians'. (Hitchens places Orwell alongside that bunch, including Koestler and Silone, which would actually seem vaguely insulting, since Silone was a police informer and Koestler a supporter of Zionist terror, who jokingly referred to himself as a 'colonial'). From the BHLs to the Kanan Makiyas, this posited instinct for cruelty and evil is a mainstay of 'liberal antitotalitarianism'. Nick Cohen's inchoate attempt to 'explain' what he insists is inexplicable (said 'totalitarianism') rests on a mish-mash of pseudo-psychoanalytical motifs - the will to obey, group solidarity, etc. The Cold War psychology of Maslow and the pre-Cold War psychologisms of John Spargo are drawn from the same well. And, of course, the fear of the masses, and the exaltation of Camus and his lone rebel, is commonplace with this crowd. It's a pleasing, self-serving fiction for the soi-disant contrarian, but one already dismantled by Alistair Macintyre. All of which is just to indicate that this flight from serious left-wing politics to individualised moralising about 'integrity' and so on was already much in evidence before the fat Englishman had his meltdown post-9/11.