Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is still relevant. Living in a free and democratic country makes it all too facile to ignore the fact that millions of people and vast parts of our planet continue to be ruled with tyranny and repression. Contemplate the violent dictatorial thug Napoleon in “Animal Farm” and modern variants similar to this “terror of mankind” spring to mind. “Animal Farm” is not only a stinging dissection of communism as Orwell himself was a socialist. It was a call for democratic socialism. Crucially, Orwell was a democrat before he was a socialist. No matter where your political allegiances lie, it is paramount to remember that this is all they are. All opinions deserve an equal hearing and, collectively, we should decide what the best of them is. Sounds simple. However, we have become complacent about upholding these values which has created fertile ground for dictatorships to flourish. For example, there is an increasing amount of data that even millennials in free societies do not view democracy as a prerequisite anymore.
At the outset of Animal Farm there is a vote on whether or not the rats should be considered comrades. The animals listen to the words of Old Major when he remarks that “all animals are equal”. Christopher Hitchens believes that Old Major represents Karl Marx and the comparison is accurate, with Marx’s ideal of equality becoming distorted by Lenin and Stalin and their infamous “dictatorship of the proletariat”. At the meeting, the principles of free expression and speaking out are encouraged. It is a fledgling democracy. Snowball and Napoleon quickly crack down on any dissenting voices to enforce their own rule. In time, the animals are told that they are not allowed to vote because they are not smart enough. Napoleon decides to speak for them. This remains the problem with speaking for a specific economic class. It can only be done by forcing the other classes to bend, undemocratically, to the will of a dictator or communist party which always has the same violent result. Democracy must come first.
Perhaps the country at the forefront of the fight for democratic rights in 2017 is Hong Kong. China is trying to bully them into submitting to their “One China” policy, but many of the seven million strong population in Hong Kong are trying to cling onto their voting rights, which has resulted in physical fights breaking out in some Hong Kong courts. The most populous country on our planet is ruled by repression. If our job is to, as Sagan said, “preserve and cherish the pale blue dot”, then the political situation in China should give us pause for thought about our global progress. How is it that approximately one in every six human beings on planet Earth is ruled by a system where the people do not have a say in how their society is governed?
Russia is the largest landmass on earth, covering one sixth of our planet. Until Putin – a slicker, fitter, more media savvy, moderate version of Napoleon – took power in 1999, it seemed as if Russia would democratise. Unfortunately he eroded most, if not all, of the burgeoning democratic elements that he inherited from Yeltsin.
Consider the use of the word “comrade”. At the outset, it is a symbol of the equality that Old Major thought should exist on the farm before Napoleon bans the word altogether. Language becomes weaponised. Modern day China routinely bans words that it does not like. When China declared herself as a Republic in 1912, there was no official language. Strangely, it took until the year 2000 for Mandarin to be declared the legitimate one. Whilst sensible on a macro level, it has been used to subdue other languages. In fact, languages cannot even be referred to as such, and communist party officials insist that alternatives to Mandarin be referred to as “dialects”. For example, sixty million people speak Cantonese, which cannot now be referred to as a language. There was an outcry when people in areas that spoke Cantonese discovered that their local news would no longer be read out in their native tongue. There was no comeback for people to disagree with this, and vote Xi and his cronies out at the ballot box. That is why the Chinese government regularly resorts to using force to implement its policies.
The song sung by the animals, “Beast Of Burden”, is eventually censored before it transmogrifies into “Comrades Of Napoleon”, underscoring how language is used as ammunition in the battle to quash free thought. The Muslim district of Uyghur in Eastern China speaks its own language, Turkic. China is trying to constrain this whilst also inhumanely clamping down on the Turkic way of life. Moreover, the Chinese communist party is also trying to deny the Uyghur Muslims their right to religious freedoms.
In June 2011, the UN declared internet access a human right. China has banned vast swatches of the internet. I had to use a VPN to get basic access to sites like Google when I visited in 2016. The VPN slowed down the connectivity so much that it made using the internet pointless. Furthermore, the Chinese government are in the process of removing VPN’s from their Apple store in a further attempt to restrict access. This is one area in which the West can stand up for openness and freedom and Apple should insist on keeping VPN’s available in their App Store no matter how much pressure the Chinese government tries to exert. China also banned applications that measure the levels of air pollution. The hotel I stayed in had a book about current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. There have been many conflicting reports on what the correct level of sales for this book were, with the Chinese state claiming vastly higher numbers than what western retailers reported. Xi Jinping’s book is called “The Governance Of China” and it is an example of how propaganda has matured. There are lots of pictures of Xi in school, Xi in college and Xi working hard. It is an odd read with lots of different speeches and interviews by Xi lovingly reproduced that portray him as some sort of quasi Confucius-style deity. Supposedly Zuckerberg instructed his team to read it ahead of a recent trip to pitch Facebook to the Chinese market. The crucial question is, why are the Chinese people not allowed to use Facebook? Why have the ruling Chinese communist party decided this for the Chinese people?
Bashar Al-Assad in Syria also personifies how Orwell’s “fierce looking boar” has modernised. You never see Bashar not looking suitably dapper. To glance at him, you would never think that he has the blood of 400,000 Syrian people on his hands. When the Revolution in Syria began, the protestors changed the lyrics of the popular song “God, Syria, Bashar” to “God, Syria, Freedom” in an interesting inverse case where the people began to militarise the language of the regime to further their own desire to be free. If a society is truly free then language does not need to be controlled on any side. This is why dissenting voices are so essential. Once we stop this in any way, we allow language to be used as a means to a political end. This does not mean that free societies are automatically off the hook. It remains a battle here too. A quick look at the fates of Snowden and Assange highlights the extent to which the mainstream do not allow voices that highlight their own hypocrisy. It is a constant battle but at least in free, democratic societies there is less of an uphill struggle. In Ireland, Irish News and Media has exerted such a large corporate stranglehold that the World Press Freedoms Report reduced our ranking because it viewed it as a threat to openness and transparency. However, a quick look at the bottom ranked countries on their report will show that there is a strong correlation between countries that are run by dictators and diminished press freedoms.
In Russia, Microsoft’s “LinkedIn” company was banned. What a grave danger it must pose. Vladimir Putin is in some sense the best example of how oppressors like Napoleon have adapted to the early twenty-first century. As Kasparov notes, Putin managed to convince many Russians that he was democratically elected by being pictured with leaders of western countries. Putin remains the grandmaster of modern propaganda. He tricks people by employing a factory of people to disseminate false information, thereby undermining free societies. The results continue to be stunningly successful. By undermining democracies, people believe that democratic systems of governance are not that important. When Russia TV and his army of bots deceive large numbers of people that there is not that much difference between a dictatorship and a democracy, it legitimises autocracy in the eyes of many.
When the results of free and fair elections return unwelcome results, by this I mean when a fascist or communist dictator is voted into power then democracy has to be questioned. Despite this, it remains the only option we have. Churchill, no moral role model himself, was correct when he observed that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Robert Conquest, in his excellent “The Dragons Of Expectations”, pointed out how democracies since ancient Greece have voted against the interest of their own people. Yet there is no alternative. The critical point is to ensure that democracies are robust enough to expel tyrants if they are voted in. Easier said than done. Worryingly, the only viable political system that we have is under attack like never before. We need to keep trying to push for increased democratisation and political liberties in free and closed societies.