Book review: Animal Farm & its relevance in today’s world

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Animal Farm is a novel written by George Orwell and published in 1945. Orwell grew up in British ruled- India and later in his life moved back to Europe. He was always fond of reading and writing and he was once quoted saying ‘what I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art’.

Orwell wrote mostly about the surrounding political scenarios in Europe during the World War era and one of his most famous works, which have lived on till today is Animal Farm, an allegorical novel expressing his hatred of totalitarianism by discussing the developments of the Russian revolution. He wrote this novel to describe the problems and issues arising in a communist regime.

He was always fond of reading and writing and he was once quoted saying ‘what I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art’.

However, the problems and challenges faced by the animals in this novel are felt not only by those who are under a totalitarian regime, but in fact it is the universal struggle of all middle classes, be it in a democratic, capitalist, a monarchy or any other type of system of governance. The way or ruling of all these different systems might defer but what remains constant is the suffering and exploitation of the middle class and those lowest in the hierarchy of power.

The backdrop of the story is set in a small farm in England, called Manor Farm, which is run by the often-drunk Mr. Jones. The animals on the farm were leading ordinary animal lives until one night, a pig named Old Major gathered the animals together and gave them a speech where he claimed that all their problems were caused by humans. Old Major gives a very sentimental speech which manages to get all the animals riled up and ignites a fighting spirit in them. Old Major dies soon after, but two pigs named Snowball and Napoleon adapt his ideas and call it the philosophy of Animalism.

A few months later, the animals get their chance to revolt against Mr. Jones and his men, where the animals obtain victory. Snowball writes down the governing rules of the farm, which they call the 7 commandments. These commandments are supposed to be followed by every animal on the farm in order to main peace and order. However, as time goes by, the pigs misuse their powers more and more. They begin thinking they are better than the other animals. Over time, the commandments are changed, according to the needs and wants of Napoleon, who became the one in command after banishing Snowball over false accusations that he was having secret deals with humans.

Although it seems like everything is going smoothly, the pigs had already been elevating themselves above the rest of the animals by assuming leadership positions rather than labouring physically. Hardworking animals, like Boxer the horse, prefer working really hard and blindly believe whatever Napoleon tells them. In the end, eventually the pigs become so powerful that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. The ordinary animals’ lives are just the same as they were under the rule of Mr. Jones, with the only difference that they were now being dominated by their own kind, rather than a human.

The ordinary animals’ lives are just the same as they were under the rule of Mr. Jones, with the only difference that they were now being dominated by their own kind, rather than a human.

One of the central themes of the novel Animal Farm is “totalitarianism”. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, totalitarianism is defined as a political system in which those in power have complete control and do not allow anyone to oppose them. In essence, it is a form of government where the state tends to control every facet of life, from economics and politics to each individual’s ideas and beliefs. Different totalitarian states have different justifications for their rule, but Animal Farm suggests that all totalitarian regimes are fundamentally the same, where those in power care only about maintaining their power and they do so by oppressing the lower, weaker classes.

The way Napoleon, Stalin, and other leaders, fictional and real, achieve these totalitarian states is by controlling every aspect of life in their state. In the novel Animal Farm, we see the implementation of the 7 commandments which at the beginning were equal and fair for all animals. However, as time went by, Napoleon and the pigs slowly started changing each of the commandments to what would suit them best.

For instance, the fourth commandment which previously stated that no animal shall sleep in a bed but later on it was the pigs themselves who started sleeping in Mr. Jones bed. Squealer reassured the other animals that the commandment was actually against the bed sheets and not the bed itself. Squealer further explained to the animals that the pigs were doing the hard job of governing the farm and therefore, they needed a comfortable place to sleep in. The animals being uneducated and naïve, believed in the goodness of Napoleon, Squealer and all the other pigs. Since most of the animals were not very clever and could not read or write, they put their whole trust and faith in Napoleon, Squealer and the 7 commandments. Napoleon and the pigs took advantage of this gullibility of the animals by constantly changing the commandments to serve their own purposes.

As the world experiences a technological transformation, the future of totalitarianism will perhaps look less like how it used to during the Nazi regime, and instead be a little more discreet. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already enabling authoritarianism in some countries, for instance, in terms of surveillance.

Historically, surveillance required hundreds of thousands of people, where 1 in every 100 citizens in East Germany was an informant, but now this can be done by technology. In the United States, the National Security Agency collected millions of American call and text records before they stopped domestic surveillance in 2019, while 18 out of the 20 most surveilled cities in the world are located in China. In 2019, billionaire investor Peter Thiel claimed that AI was “literally communist” and he pointed out that AI allows a centralized power to monitor citizens and know more about them than they know about themselves.

Big tech companies today collect vast amounts of data on people’s behaviour, while machine-learning algorithms use this data to calculate not just what a person would likely do, but they also attempt to use all this data to construct a virtual version of people, enabling these machines to predict, essentially, who a person is. When a person uses Facebook, the website actively collects data from other platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp in order to present the user with information or advertisements that would most likely interest him or her. From a person’s Facebook likes, AI can predict our religious and political views, personality, intelligence and happiness. With every bit of new information that we feed to the system, the system is only getting more accurate at predicting who we are and many researchers believe that there will soon come a time where a machine knows a person better than he knows himself. Whether this is a good thing or bad, time is yet to tell.

Big tech companies today collect vast amounts of data on people’s behaviour, while machine-learning algorithms use this data to calculate not just what a person would likely do, but they also attempt to use all this data to construct a virtual version of people, enabling these machines to predict, essentially, who a person is.

Although the novel Animal Farm has presented its readers with a very clear picture in regard to the problems faced by those in a communist regime and in fact, as seen through the various examples cited, the problems faced by the animals on Manor Farm are faced by citizens of almost every country, no matter if the system of governance is a democracy, monarchy or a totalitarian regime.

However, Orwell fails to give any kind of suggestion or solution to remedy the problems faced due to such governance. Throughout the novel, he is seen to be criticizing the communist way of governance, but there is no hint of a solution to avoid such instances from taking place.

Today, we see a similar dual-standard of the law, where the rich and powerful are not subject to the same rules that the ordinary working class has to deal with. As aptly described by Montesquieu about 250 years ago;

“There are two sorts of corruptions; one when the people do not observe the laws; the other when they are corrupted by the laws: an incurable evil, because it is in the very remedy itself.”

With these words the French philosopher highlighted one of the most disturbing problems of contemporary law-making, which is that the law itself can be the cause of crime. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” This is what power does to people (in this case even animals). The powerful do everything they can to try to stay in power and enjoy benefits, all while convincing the ordinary people that whatever they are doing is for the good of the community and not merely themselves.

Photo: Writers Digest

 

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