Orwell retrospective

bq. “When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradicitons and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.”

I found this rather famous quote in my disintegrating copy of George Orwell’s _Collected Essays_ this morning. What’s interesting about it now is not its obvious truth, but the way in which the sphere of what Orwell called “politics” has expanded in the -fifty- sixty years since he wrote. The concept of a weekly budget is frightfully old-fashioned. Certainly no journalist could assume, as he does, that his readers will all draw one up. Magical thinking now affects politicians as much as voters — how else is one to interpret Mr Blunkett’s announcement that he has sacrificed his career for the sake of his son? What possible benefit has the son derived from all this? Almost every trend in the advertising-supported media since Orwell wrote can be interpreted as increasing the magical nature of modern thought, to the extent that “reality-based” becomes a term of contempt for those who have no real power.

This makes a problem if one would like to work for reality-based publications, and enlarge, in general, the worls’s stock of reality. What is it that creates a demand for this, rather than magically based pap? Two things I can think of. the exercise of real power, with the consequent possibility of real failure based on your own bad judgement. For most people, this applies only when they are managing their investments. The _Financial Times_ remains a good paper. But it is also true in the ruling classes of an empire, or else they don’t get much to rule for very long. Secondly — don’t all laugh — some kind of religious commitment to the truth. About half the people I have met who really seemed to care about the truth of their statements about the world have been Christians or otherwise religious. That’s a pretty disporoportionate figure.

Looking again, I wonder whether the mediaeval church didn’t have a point when it prohibited usury. Orwell’s touchstone for reality-based enquiry is the simple question “Can I afford to buy this?” — and this is the one question which modern, ad-supported media try to exclude from serious considration.

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1 Response to Orwell retrospective

  1. Rupert says:

    I thought ‘can I afford to buy this’ has long been supplanted (in mainstream economic thinking as well as in polychrome adland) by ‘can I afford to service the debt’, or in the case of politicians ‘can I afford to stretch things this far from reality’. It’s an interesting concept, the economy of accuracy. Capitalism wouldn’t get very far without debt, and modern politics wouldn’t get very far without capitalism, so the transfer of ideas isn’t surprising. The danger is that it’s a feedback cycle, and they saturate. Then the rules stop working.


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