In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the animals revolt and drive out its owner, farmer Jones. But after that the pigs who take over running the farm gradually become increasingly like the human owners of surrounding farms. They start walking on their hind legs, and wearing clothes, and carrying whips. In the end the other animals on the farm are unable to tell the pigs from the men. And they end up back where they started before the revolution.
The book, published in August 1945, was about the Soviet Union. But it could equally have been about the post-war Britain that had just elected the Labour government of Clement Attlee and its Welfare State, which was Britain’s bloodless version of the Soviet Union. Many industries were nationalised, the National Health Service was inaugurated, education was reformed.
Seventy years later, much has changed. Margaret Thatcher de-nationalised many of the nationalised industries. But the state-run NHS continues, and so do the state schools. But Clement Attlee would have no place in the modern Labour party, because he was an avid pipe-smoker, and in 2006 the Labour government voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in indoor public places. Many of them would like to ban smoking outdoors as well. Most likely nobody at all in the modern Labour party smokes any tobacco any more, except in secret.
Yesterday Dick Puddlecote was reporting how blogger Anna Raccoon, now dying of cancer, was being forbidden even from vaping in the hospice in which she is now confined. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in Clement Attlee’s NHS, in which most of the patients smoked, and most of the doctors as well. But the Labour party has changed, and so have the schools, and so has the NHS. These days the pigs stand on their hind legs, and wear clothes, and carry whips. And they are indistinguishable from any of their authoritarian human predecessors.
Yesterday I was writing about all the petty tyrants that abound these days. I cited the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who’d set out to ban fast food from schools. And the doctors who, not content with banning smoking everywhere, now seem to want to ban alcohol and sugar and salt and fat as well. And the global warming alarmists who want to ban carbon dioxide, and probably carbon as well. And the EU which has gradually mutated from being a family of nations into centralised controlling superstate.
“It’s not a free country any more,” a complete stranger said to me on 1 July 2017, in the watery sunlight of the car park outside the River, where its smokers had just been exiled minutes beforehand. Never a truer word was spoken. And it has become even less free in the past 10 years since the smoking ban. But the Britain of 1945 was a free country, and it became even more free over the next three or four decades. But then it started becoming less free again. More or less everywhere in the world, people seem to becoming less and less free. Usually in small ways, through new pieces of legislation, almost insensibly, slice by slice.
Political Correctness is another creeping form of tyranny. It sets out to control what people can say, and even what they can think. It changes the meanings of words, so that a word like “liberal” now means almost the exact opposite of what it used to mean, in the USA at least.
Back in the 1960s there were lots of liberation movements. Women’s Liberation, for example. Animal Liberation. Gay Liberation. But now we have control movements. Tobacco Control. Climate Control. If freedom ever gets a mention, it’s in the form of its negation, as in “smoke-free” or “fat-free”. Nobody mentions freedom – real freedom – any more. There’s not a single hint of freedom in either of two well known contemporary slogans: Black Lives Matter and Make America Great Again. What does it mean to make something “matter”? What does it mean to make something “great”?
If George Orwell, another avid smoker, were still around, he would have recognised all of it immediately. For nothing has really changed.
All these various revolutions – and the election of the Attlee government in 1945 was a revolution of a sort (it would be called a velvet revolution today) – seem to start out hopefully, even deliriously optimistically, and then gradually turn into dystopian nightmares, and then finally return to more or less exactly where they started, nothing having really changed at all. One tyranny is replaced with… another tyranny.
And perhaps that was always inevitable. Idle Theory is about freedom. Idle time is free time in which people can do what they want. In Idle Theory freedom comes in concrete quantities, measured by clocks. But we are never completely free. Not all our time is free time. The rest of the time we spending working. And we’re usually working for some tyrannical boss, or for some tyrannical general, or some tyrannical dictator, or some tyrannical king. The rest of the time we’re under top down control by somebody or other. But perhaps that’s less a reflection on the character of these various petty tyrants, and more one that is a reflection of the condition of all living things: that they must work to survive. The underlying tyranny relaxes a little sometimes, and we become more free, and intensifies in other times, and we become less free. The mistake that we continually make is to suppose that if we can just overthrow the current king or tyrant or dictator or pope or tsar, we will become absolutely free. But we never do. We always just end up back where we started.