Life in Interesting Times: What Orwell Can (and Can’t) Teach Us
In conversation with John Reed on Fascism and the Neo-Liberal Oligarchy
American writer John Reed caused a bit of a stir back in 2002 with his novel Snowball’s Chance (originally published by Roof Books, then reissued by Melville House in 2012), a parody sequel to George Orwell’s Animal Farm written immediately after and in response to the events of September 11, 2001. Reed’s book brought a lawsuit from the Orwell estate and condemnation from the likes of Christopher Hitchens but also a good amount of praise; Alexander Cockburn wrote the foreword to the book. The novel begins with the old guard pigs dying out and before any troublesome vacuum of power can develop, lo and behold, Snowball returns, and he brings with him state-supported capitalism (along with an advisor named Thomas, from the intellectual class of goats). More than a parody of Orwell’s work, Snowball’s Chance is a cutting satire of American capitalism, exceptionalism, foreign policy, and interventionism. Playing by Orwell’s rules, Reed gives us our own farm fable, and while the prose might be beautiful, it’s still not pretty. In light of the recent election, I reached out to John to revisit his now classic work and find out what he thinks about these, our interesting times.
Jordan Rothacker: You’ve talked and written a lot about Animal Farm. One of the things you emphasize is that it is a book for a particular time (as far as Orwell was concerned) and that although that time was extended across decades of Cold War propaganda, there isn’t much context to the book now beyond the historical. Would you agree that other works by Orwell—namely 1984 and Homage to Catalonia—might be most relevant for us today?
John Reed: I think the argument of 1984 has been put forth in culture in very much the same way as Animal Farm: revolutions will fail. And it was put forth in the same context, i.e. the Cold War, and by the same people, i.e. the British Secret Service and the CIA. Homage to Catalonia was the first book that really drew me to Orwell [because of] his ability to see the enemy in human terms.
Jordan Rothacker: I reread Homage to Catalonia a few months ago. My first experience with fascism was in 1984, I was seven and living in Spain. Even though Franco had been dead for nine years, if you even said his name around my family in Cantabria, someone was likely to flip a table over in disgust. This led to knowledge of fascism being part of my upbringing, but many others did not have that experience—apparently, there has been a surge of Googling the term. Has Orwell helped your understanding of fascism? Can his work help all of ours generally?
John Reed: I have mixed feelings about Orwell and the Right. His disgust with Russia was more than justified, and the threat at the end of WWII was seemingly real. Did Orwell need to cooperate quite so enthusiastically? Hand over lists and howl the party line? Did he understand what he was doing? Would he have been another kind of champion in ten years time? Animal Farm was such a dose of poison, and yet Orwell is still a Leftist icon. Do you realize that quite a few Marxists are in the upper echelons of global corporations? It’s because they understand the system.
Jordan Rothacker: Of course, there are many who can rationalize pushing capitalism to the point where it naturally resolves into the next phase of history, communism. My worry is about what an upset this election was for so many pollsters and pundits who didn’t seem to gauge the deep dissatisfaction so many in this country have with the status quo, to the point where they are ready to turn to anyone who will make them feel heard and to ignore and excuse so much of his rhetoric.
John Reed: I’m afraid it will only get worse. There’s a census in 2020, and with the Republicans in power, additional gerrymandering is inevitable.
Jordan Rothacker: In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell gives a middle chapter trying to explain the intricacies of the political situation of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In it, he writes, “This meant that Franco had against him not only the working class but also various sections of the liberal bourgeoisie—the very people who are the supporters of Fascism when it appears in a more modern form.” In light of all the problems with neoliberalism, this line held some contemporary resonance for me. Of course, Franco ultimately won—with no small thanks to infighting between liberals and the left; and the left and other shades of the left—and Trump won the election. Snowball’s Chance shows a progression of state-sponsored capitalism toward a dangerous authoritarianism masked by that capitalism. What relationship do you see between fascism and capitalism?
John Reed: Well, it could be that’s a relationship that’s strengthening. I tend to see our political parties in these terms: both parties are primarily concerned with protecting rich people from their own greed, but the democrats are a little more active about it. Basically, both parties are dedicated to the well-being of the rich, who should be shielded from the threats of culture and capitalism. If this were capitalism, by the way, the companies that collapsed in 2008 would no longer exist. Today, we’d see more competition, and a stronger economic base, but we would also have seen a major shift, and decentralization, of power, which is exactly what both parties are charged with preventing.
Jordan Rothacker: In a Rumpus interview from this past June, you said that 9/11 was the end of the Cold War “because the paradigm fell apart.” Would you say a new Cold War begins at this point? Can you expand on this statement?
John Reed: Yes, we’re in the new paradigm. As much as I loathe Trump, he doesn’t like the new paradigm either. At least internationally. He’d prefer isolationism, which is not something he’ll be able to advance in slightest. This idea that we can export our power structure, and by so doing expand our economic dominance, is central to corporate strategy. I do suppose on the domestic front, Trump fits in rather precisely. When I talked to the BBC about this in 2002, I was pressed to define our current global system, and I called it Oligarchic. And then when pressed again, I’m afraid all I did was repeat myself. I still think back on that instant and consider myself a stammering idiot. And I still don’t know what else to call it. I suppose it’s not quite feudal. Yet.
Jordan Rothacker: That Believer magazine piece you did was a reprint (with annotations by you) of something originally written by Orwell, specifically, his essay “Freedom of the Press,” a proposed preface to Animal Farm from 1945. Did you get any flack from the Orwell estate from that or had they already given up on you?
John Reed: Ha, no problems with that. The Believer‘s lawyer of course fretted—but that Orwell essay has been reproduced on the internet literally tens of millions of times, and there’s no clear copyright. Also, my essay is a bit of a trick. I elided Orwell’s original to about 1,500 words—from I seem to remember 4,500 words—and my footnotes, which were the real essay, I believe tallied at about 3,500 words. So, I mean really, it’s just an answer to Orwell.
Jordan Rothacker: In that piece, one of your footnotes (#8) references how Orwell “struggled with the cartography of complacency.” You proceed to reference his essay, “Notes on Nationalism” and bring both together to examine our 21st-century state of denial. What role do you see this all playing in the recent election, especially in relation to the current buzz about fake news sites?
John Reed: I think it’s worse than complacency. We’re now very proactive about living in denial.
Jordan Rothacker: Are we in the Orwellian territory of 1984? Are we asking for doublespeak because it confirms what we already know and thus makes us feel comfortable and validated at the same time?
John Reed: News was once presumed to be objective, meaning it was an objective presentation of something that actually happened. News, in current media, is now a mandate of the Fox measure “fair and balanced,” which is to say two sides of the argument will be presented with equal weight, even if one of the two sides has no basis in fact.
Jordan Rothacker: Snowball’s Chance is directly a response to 9/11, and in being so is also a response to capitalism, neoliberalism, and US foreign policy. Surprisingly, not that many books of American literary fiction tackle these topics (or many that get any attention). Why do you think that is?
John Reed: Big presses are populated with editors and the like who are serious, political people; that said, big presses are firmly within the mega-corporate structure. The corporations who sell you books also sell oil, and weapons, and whatever particular Homo sapiens nightmare you care to summon. Is there a systematic censorship of more political works? I personally tend to doubt it. Is there, within the culture of a big corporation, a corporate acculturation? Of course. And the media and distribution models that sell books are no less acculturated. Are there books that slip through the cracks? Yes. Do literary authors have specific areas in which they’re more political or acute? Yes. Given that most of us, in our daily lives, are by necessity political hypocrites (we simply cannot afford our own environmentalism and compassion), I would press people to find what is political, what is transformative, in the things they already love. And if there is nothing, to look harder.
Jordan Rothacker: Specifically dealing with the George W. Bush presidency, what significant literary or other artistic reactions have you found solace in? There was such an artistic response to the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War, but has there been anything comparable to the Bush years?
John Reed: I would love to see a foam puppet of George Bush. Well, a better one. A perfect Muppet version. I’d also love to own one of his paintings. Either a dog painting or a veteran portrait. Mister President, I would be much obliged, and would be happy to trade a catalogue essay for a small work.
Jordan Rothacker: I’m also pretty intrigued by his paintings. Do you find his art to be a response to his presidency? What I find most intriguing about the paintings is how little they seem to say.
John Reed: I’ve always thought that GWB would one day wake up and say, “What have I done?” There’s no reason for me to think that, I suppose, but I do.
Jordan Rothacker: One of the problems several critics have had with Animal Farm, yourself included, is that in focusing so specifically on an anti-Stalinist agenda, it creates a pessimistic view of revolutions in general. I believe Orwell himself lamented this. Looking at our current situation, what kind of revolution do you think Orwell would still see as possible and most practical?
John Reed: You’re right about Orwell’s dissatisfaction with that read of Animal Farm, but he was complicit in putting the novel forward in that context. The work was massively translated and distributed by the British Foreign Office, which was working in tandem with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the CIA in promoting a Western outlook. I think that Orwell believed he could ultimately undo that presentation of Animal Farm, as well as a similar interpretation of 1984. But unfortunately, he made that bed then died in it. My completely subjective guess on where Orwell would have turned his attentions next: the environmental movement, especially as it took shape in the 1960s and 70s.
Jordan Rothacker: I had wanted to ask you if you were an Orwell scholar before writing Snowball’s Chance, but after some research I read that a lot of your Orwell knowledge came after the book to support, defend, and expand your arguments and position. It is funny that a book you churned out in a three-week burst of impassioned creativity has led to you now being a go-to-guy on Orwell (hence me and our discussion). Is this as amusing to you?
John Reed: It is indeed. But also fitting, I think. You know, in public school, I read Animal Farm over and over again—it was presented to me in the context of the Cold War; in fact, I would read the book and be shown the CIA animation for explanation—and it’s only fitting, and to be expected, that a child would then try use the propaganda against the propagandists.
Jordan Rothacker: I just want to get something straight: Hitchens debated you on BBC (with you over the phone) and called you a “Bin Ladenist” because of your book and then mentioned in passing that he hadn’t read it?
John Reed: Yes, that’s right. He did read it later, and in his defense, the book had just come out. I was shocked, however, how many people reviewed and discussed that book without reading it. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive The Boston Globe for publishing Cathy Young’s appraisal, which concluded that I was blaming the victim of terrorism, and casually disclosed that reading the book was not a part of her reviewing process. That ilk of reviewing has become much more common now, of course, but it belongs in the internet’s jetstream of garbage, not in the columns of a major newspaper.
Jordan Rothacker: There is a really stupid English expression, often seen as a curse, “may you live in interesting times” that I’ve always taken to mean “may you finally pay attention,” since of course, what times aren’t interesting? Can you generalize on your take about our interesting times?
John Reed: I do have a sense that we’re reaching some kind of breaking point that is totally outside of the technological advancement we associate with the future. The anger that so many people feel is general, but also a direct result of an economic system that no longer bothers to project paternalism. The stuff you pay for doesn’t work and your time is of no value. The level of daily thievery, whether from the financial sector or the marketplace, is far higher than I’ve experienced thus far in my lifetime. The problem is due, in part, to the lack of accountability; internet entities are often beyond regulation. But that lack of accountability is also what makes individual anger so imminent, and so applicable.