Economic Populist: Orwell's Catastrophic Gradualism and 0.1% Apologetic

My attention was just brought to this essay by George Orwell (h/t geomoo, "Catastrophic Gradualism".

The essay is reflecting upon a reaction to the work of Arthur Koestler by Mr. Kingsley Martin, but before launching into that exchange, Orwell lays the foundation for what he means by "Catastrophic Gradualism":

At present this theory is most often used to justify the Stalin regime in the USSR, but it obviously could be—and, given appropriate circumstances, would be—used to justify other forms of totalitarianism. It has gained ground as a result of the failure of the Russian Revolution—failure, that is, in the sense that the Revolution has not fulfilled the hopes that it aroused twenty-five years ago. In the name of Socialism the Russian regime has committed almost every crime that can be imagined, but at the same time its evolution is away from Socialism, unless one re-defines that word in terms that no Socialist of 1917 would have accepted. To those who admit these facts, only two courses are open. One is simply to repudiate the whole theory of totalitarianism, which few English intellectuals have the courage to do: the other is to fall back on Catastrophic Gradualism. The formula usually employed is “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” And if one replies, “Yes, but where is the omelette?”, the answer is likely to be: “Oh well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in a moment.”

For someone of my generation, on the trailing edge of the Baby Boomers or the leading edge of Generation X (and those kinds of boundaries are intrinsically ambiguous because generational cohorts are defined by their core rather than by their boundaries), the first reaction is that visiting the past is visiting a different country. Imagining a time and place when such arguments would be used to defend Stalin's Soviet Union is a bit mind boggling. But then, using the essay as a prism to look back with fresh eyes to the current time and place ... maybe not so mind boggling after all.

Equating Henry VIII to Stalin, and the Good to Henry VIII

The clarity of George Orwell's critique of the argument made by Mr. Kingsley Martin, the "on the balance, he has done more good than harm" argument in which Stalin is compared to the consequences of Henry VIII's reforms, whatever one might think of the corruption and destructiveness of Henry VIII's reign, is beyond my abilities to do justice by paraphrasing, so, again, I quote:

Now, Henry VIII has not a very close resemblance to Stalin; Cromwell would provide a better analogy; but, granting Henry VIII the importance given to him by Mr. Martin, where does this argument lead? Henry VIII made possible the rise of Capitalism, which led to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and thence to a cycle of enormous wars, the next of which may well destroy civilization altogether. So, telescoping the process, we can put it like this: “Everything is to be forgiven to Henry VIII, because it was ultimately he who enabled us to blow ourselves to pieces with atomic bombs.” You are led into similar absurdities if you make Stalin responsible for our present condition and the future which appears to lie before us, and at the same time insist that his policies must be supported. ...

And out of the kind of bald apologetic for the indefensible that Mr. Kinsgley Martin was setting forth in 1945, a peculiar theory of history:

... The motives of those English intellectuals who support the Russian dictatorship are, I think, different from what they publicly admit, but it is logical to condone tyranny and massacre if one assumes that progress is inevitable. If each epoch is as a matter of course better than the last, then any crime or any folly that pushes the historical process forward can be justified. Between, roughly, 1750 and 1930 one could be forgiven for imagining that progress of a solid measurable kind was taking place. Latterly, this has become more and more difficult, whence the theory of Catastrophic Gradualism. Crime follows crime, one ruling class replaces another, the Tower of Babel rises and falls, but one mustn’t resist the process—indeed, one must be ready to applaud any piece of scoundrelism that comes off—because in some mystical way, in the sight of God, or perhaps in the sight of Marx, this is Progress. The alternative would be to stop and consider (a) to what extent is history pre-determined? and (b) what is meant by progress?

Those two paragraphs are as much as I will quote directly, as after here the essay comes around again the consideration of the argument in Arthur Koeslter's work that Mr. Martin was attacking. But I do want to consider this style of argument, so that we can be on the lookout for it:

  • To be sure, XYZ has done bad things;
  • But then, additional history followed XYZ;
  • And whether with a bald claim or a deep argument, I will claim that there was something good about some of the following history;
  • And therefore that good in the following history exonerates the bad done by XYZ.

And George Orwell's critique of this line of apologetic is right on point: as surely as there was something that some or many would agree is good in the following history, there is also something that many or most would agree is truly horrible in the following history. So if the good of the following history can be held to exonerate random historical actor XYZ ... then surely by the same token, they stand indicted due to the horrible in the following history.

This is, in the end, the ultimate in cherry picking, since in the end the argument comes down to, "we are used to the way things are today, and because we are used to them, we by and large accept them as 'normal', and even, by dint of habitual familiarity, 'right' ... and so every foul deed that appears to have played a role in leading to the way things are today can use today can be exonerated by the current state of affairs."

Standing on Firm Ground Outside of our Social Institutions

This line of argument is inviting us to fall prey to the very habits of thought and belief that make us social primates, able to engage in collective actions in complex societies. As we repeat habitual behaviors in recognized social settings, and observe the behaviors of others in those settings, we institutionalize that range of behavior, and come to rely upon that range of behavior as a social grammar, which helps us to both coordinate and make sense of living lives that would otherwise present us with a bewildering range of complexity.

But the feeling of "normality" by which we can recognize that somebody is playing by the established rules of the social games does not necessarily make the behavior we are accustomed to in fact right and just behavior.

This can be seen quite clearly when we look at a problem like the climate crisis, where the atmosphere does not, in fact, care what rationalizations we offer nor what distinctions we draw between one form of emission of a Greenhouse Gas and another. The atmosphere works on physical rules, not social ones, and so while coming up with a different way of talking about using the atmosphere as a CO2 dump and experimenting on a massive scale with a geologically unprecedented rate of accumulation of Greenhouse Gases may make a large number of people change the way of viewing it as right or wrong, it does not change the physical consequences of the behavior by one iota.

And the behavior is quite clearly risking catastrophic consequences for our children and grandchildren.

If some outside group of terrorists threatened to impoverish, injure, and kill tens of millions of America's children, the country would be united in a paroxysm of rage against that group of terrorists and determination to see to it that they are incapable of carrying out that threat.

However, it is not an outside group of terrorists that are threatening to impoverish, injure and kill tens of millions of America's children, it is a relatively small handful of incredible wealthy Oil, Coal and Natural Gas billionaires and millionaires. True, they claim to not believe that they are making this threat, but bear in mind that if the outside group of terrorists were pursuing a plan that would have that effect, but denied that they were doing so, we would on the whole entirely disregard those denials.

One major difference is that this relatively small group of incredible wealthy Oil, Coal and Natural Gas billionaires and millionaires are engaged in an inside job, and are playing by the rules of the game that they have, over time, purchased with their wealth.

The most common modern form of the apologetic that George Orwell critiqued in this 1945 essay is, "but consider how they have helped to make the United States the wealthiest country in the world!" That supposed collective wealth of the United States is then the exonerating good consequence of the century of reckless experiment with the climate that a century of Oil, Coal and Natural Gas exploitation has been engaging in.

But just as in 1945 the Atom Bomb was the elephant in the room, quite carefully ignored when making argument regarding the omelettes made by breaking eggs, quite clearly any reckoning of the wealth of the United States is grossly incomplete when we ignore how utterly unsustainable that wealth is.

And we cannot mention how unsustainable that fictitious wealth is without recognizing how unevenly distributed the product of society has become over the past third of a century. In terms of distribution of wealth, we have as a matter of common public policy of both the Democratic and Republican Parties over the past three decades been placing the wealth of the majority of the people of the United States in increasing jeopardy. We have done this through "bipartisan" policies of instituting International Corporate Wealth Grab agreements, through "bipartisan" policies of shifting the tax burden from the corporate sector to middle and working class families, through "bipartisan" policies to put the foxes in charge of the chicken coop, reversing the tight banking regulation policies which prevented Depression-causing levels of financial crisis. After reaping the expected results of those "bipartisan" policies in terms of increasing wealth and income inequality, increasing food insecurity of children, declining economic mobility, we finally in 2008 reaped the consequence of removing protections against Depression-causing levels of financial crisis, which has since been followed by an Economic Depression that we have not yet recovered from.

But ... this is the kicker ... living in sixth year of an Economic Depression, and counting, is still better conditions that we have every reason to expect will be visited on our children and grandchildren over the coming decades as a result of the climate crisis.

In the Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows and seven thin cows, with all of the plenty of the seven good years entirely consumed and laid waste by the seven bad years ... relative to the table we are setting for our children and grandchildren, the Economic Depression we are currently living through is the seven good years. And what we now consider to be a far less fair deal than we had come to expect as our lot as Americans in the fifties, sixties and seventies will in turn look like a golden age, looking back from the 2050's and 2060's.

What we have to set aside to maintain our productive system is part of gross income, but not part of net income. It is not part of what is available to be distributed as wealth, it is what must be counted as consumed in making good the depreciation of the system. And so much if not all of the wealth that is used to exonerate the century of reckless experimentation with our climate by using the atmosphere as a CO2 dump for the combustion of Oil, Coal and Natural Gas is not, in fact, wealth at all. It is uncounted physical depreciation.

And unlike formal tax accounting depreciation, not counting physical depreciation does not, in fact, make it disappear. We can pretend that this is income. We can pretend that we have a wealth society, But the physical reality stands that it is not true. We are, instead, a society eating our seed corn and applauding the abundance of our winter feasts.

Which also puts the inequality of wealth distribution in a different light. If the "net income" of society is being divided unequally, and some relatively small number of billionaires and millionaires get half or more of it, we can argue over how fair that is. But if that "net income" is not in reality income at all, but is uncounted depreciation of our nation's physical wealth, that goes beyond equity among today's society, and passes over into stealing physical wealth from our children and grandchildren.

When we stand outside the symbolism and accepted habits of our current social rules and take a clear look at things from the basis of the actual physical wealth of our nation, we are living in an age of robber barons, stealing from future generations, with the status quo rules existing primarily to organize the collective theft.





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A nearly perfect metaphor

geomoo's picture

We are, instead, a society eating our seed corn and applauding the abundance of our winter feasts.

This makes me think of a couple of songs from Eliza Gilkyson's themed cd, Beautiful World.  I don't find a good version of The Party's Over on line, so here are the lyrics:

the party’s over, we had us a time
everybody got loaded, everybody looked fine
we emptied the coffers of water and wine
the party’s over
we had a good time

we danced on the tables midnight til dawn
til all the time was up and the good stuff gone
the house is a shambles, broken glass in the streets
guttering candles, blood on the sheets

we burned all the kindling, passed the bottle around
watched the last coals dwindling
and the ice melting down
we danced on the tables…

the party’s over, we had a blast
brought in the lawyers to cover our ass
left a note for the children to clean up the mess
the party’s over
it was a big success!
we danced on the tables…

And here is her Unsustainable.   The song begins at 5:20.

Eliza Gilkyson & Rob Jensen "Unsustainable" (concert video 4/4)


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Applying this to thinking to our time

geomoo's picture

This essay is exactly what I was thinking when I read Orwell, that the faulty logic of catastrophic gradualism can be applied to our time wrt many issues.  I'm glad to see you illustrate this with the issue of climate change.


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