August 30, 2015
GW: On Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" - 1

1. On Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" - 1

This is a Nederlog of Sunday August 30, 2015.

This is not a crisis blog.

In part, this is caused by the fact that my computer misbehaved yesterday evening and this morning: Apparently, everything worked, but in fact I was first moved off line every half hour without giving any instructions, and this morning I could not get on line at all. I changed several things, and it works again, but I do not know whether anything I did adressed the cause.

In part, this is also caused by the fact that I did not find any crisis file this morning other than this: "
Is Donald Trump Really a ‘Fascist’?". That is the link but I don't feel like discussing it. [1]

So... do you remember the section GW on Nederlog? Probably not, unless you also read me in 2012 and have a good memory. It abbreviated "Golden Words" (Dutch: "Gevleugelde Woorden"), and it was an attempt to cite some fine quotations and perhaps comment them a little. I started this in 2009, and there were some 25 files or so in it. (Here is a survey. Most titles and links are in English, but since this is from 2009, when I wrote Dutch, the text is in Dutch.)

This file continues the tradition, and I want to quote some from George Orwell's long and interesting essay "Notes on Nationalism" that you will find under the last link, or also here, in a probably more pleasant form, and that you can find on paper in his "The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell", Volume 3.

Also, in part because I had troubles with my computer (that now seems to be working again), this Nederlog is briefer than it would have been otherwise, and
there will follow some other Nederlogs with the same subject.

1. On Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" - 1

Orwell's "
Notes on Nationalism" nearly starts as follows:

(T)here is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word 'nationalism', but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation–that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, AGAINST something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.

Actually, there is a better term for what Orwell in his essay called "nationalism", namely totalitarianism. This gets defined on the Wikipedia as follows:
Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state holds total control over the society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life wherever possible.
I do think this is a better term, but the given definition is political only, and does not refer to the psychological characteristics (Orwell said: "the emotion I am speaking about") associated with totalitarianism, that are peculiar.

Indeed, here is Orwell's attempt to describe it (and "nationalism" is the wrong word):
By 'nationalism' I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled 'good' or 'bad'. But secondly–and this is much more important–I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.

This in fact gives four characteristics to a totalitarian attitude:

(1) it treats blocks of people - often tens of millions of individuals - as if
     the blocks are persons, and not merely persons but typical persons with
characteristics all the members in the group are supposed to satisfy, that
also (often only) comprise ethical judgments, that again are taken to apply
to every member of the group;
(2) it identifies one's self with some totalitarian group, and
(3) it places the totalitarian unit as a Good beyond all other goods and evils, and
(4) it assigns as the primary task of the members of group to serve the group's
     interests, and no other interests.

The first is a logical fallacy, but it is very widespread, especially among less intelligent or less educated persons (and can be seen in quite a few of the outbursts of Archie Bunker). The second likewise is a logical fallacy, that is in part dependent on the first fallacy. The third characteristic hangs together with the first two characteristics, and also makes people who are part of a totalitarian group disregard (and deny) their own and others' individual judgements of good and bad; and the fourth characteristic seems mostly a logical implication of the third characteristic, and again makes members of totalitarian groups disregard or deny any individual's interests they may have that are at variance with the group's interests.

Then again, here is another definition of "totalitarian", which is both political and psychological:

Totalitarian: Ideology or religion that is pretended to have final answers to many important human questions and problems and that is pretended to be thereby justified to persecute persons who do not agree with the ideology or the religion.

This is the usual form that every human ideology assumes - religious, political and otherwise, with science as the almost only partial exception.

The reason for the first property that defines a totalitarian attitude is apparently in part political and in part zoological:

One very important end ideologies and religions serve is to provide a human social group with a set of shared agreed upon supposed truths for the group and supposed ends of the group, and it is simply convenient and also seems to feel pleasant to most humans if these supposed truths and supposed ends simply are taken to hold for everyone, or at least for everyone who has the fundamental decency and human excellence of belonging to Us.

The reason for the second property that defines a totalitarian attitude derives from the first property plus the fact that ideologies and faiths of a social group serve to define and defend the group's territory and practices.

It usually takes the form of forbidding to think or argue critically about the fundamental assumptions of the religion or ideology and of insisting that following the religious or political authorities is morally good and socially rewarding, and that not following the religious or political authorities is morally bad and socially punishable.

One important reason that so many ideologies and faiths take a totalitarian form is probably the social nature of human beings, that makes it natural to maintain the pecking order of a group - who is entitled to what in the group - by correcting, repressing or casting out any member of the group that deviates from the average of the group (unless already a leader). This usually is claimed to happen "in the interest" of the deviating or different individual, and is called scapegoating (at least when goats give in to the same beastly impulse).

Totalitairian ideas and values are very widespread, and usually take the following general form in practice, if not as clearly outspoken:

Our Belief is the Only True Belief and Our Believers are the Only Good People, and everyone who does not believe, or do, or feel, or look like Us is inferior (sinful, bad, damned, bound for hell, fit for a concentration camp, and in any case not a proper well-thinking, decently feeling, morally behaving follower of Our True Belief, and hence certainly not comme il faut).

This is both political (about the ideologies any groups may have - and all more or less explicit and well-defined groups do have some ideology, but this needs not be totalitarian) and psychological, namely what makes an ideology totalitarian are the combined pretenses that the answers the ideology gives are final and incorrigible, and justify the persecution (and the locking up, and usually also the killing) of anyone who does not have the ideology.

Note this definition is a bit different from Orwell's definition, but is related to it, and puts the totalitarian part in the assumption that a specific ideology does provide final and incorrigible answers, which in turn is taken to justify the assumption that anyone who does not agree is bad and deservers persecution.

In fact, totalitarian thinking is explained as a special kind of groupthinking:

Groupthinking: The kind of thinking, feeling, valueing and desiring that keeps human social groups together.

Much of the thinking that goes into groupthinking is totalitarian in principle, and is made up of principles based on wishful thinking of the following kind:

Usually the members of groups are hardly aware that their membership is to a large extent emotionally and intellectually based on principles such as the above, even though it is very easy to see these principles at work in the mental make-up or the behavior of members of other groups - political parties, religious organizations, soccer supporters, but also firms, schools, universities etc., for one way the human animal is social is by actively belonging to groups and by supporting the ideas, ideals, morals and practices that constitute, regulate or support these groups.

Also, it is noteworthy that the above principles involved in most group-thinking are relatively innocuous, and that most groups also practice such principles as

  • Whoever does not belong to Our Group is less good (perfect, humane, religiously or racially proper) than whoever does
  • Whoever opposes Our Group, Our Leaders, Our Ideology or Our Faith is, therefore and thereby, morally or humanly or intellectually inferior
  • Whoever does not conform to the practices and principles current in Our Group is immoral or insane

Most groupthinking involves prejudice of all kinds, and the best excuse for this seems to be that, since human beings are social animals, there is an instinctual motivation to wish to belong to and to support a human group.

For here the first six characteristics, though they are all based on wishful thinking are not (yet) totalitarian (although they probably are partially false), while this
does turn into a totalitarian
ideology when also some or all of the last three principles are assumed to hold for the group and its ideology, for these make other human beings less good, less knowledgeable, and more immoral than the members of one's group, generally simply because they do not (or cannot) belong to one's own (totalitarian) group.

Anyway - there will be more on this subject (that may be defined as: "what is totalitarianism?") at another time, including more quotes of Orwell.


[1] This has several reasons.

One is that I have been many times scolded for a fascist in the University of Amsterdam, without any other cause than that I was for real science, for truth, and for better education, at a time - from 1971-1995 - and a place where real science and truth, at least, were considered little different from fascism by many students (who tended to think of science as a capitalist enterprise, and who mostly denied - from ca. 1980 onwards - that truth exists); in part because my parents and grandparents were far better anti-fascists than almost anyone I know (with a grandfather murdered in a German concentration camp and a father who survived more than 3 years and 9 months of them, as a "political terrorist"); and in part because I saw an interesting relation with an American girl go to pieces in 1969, because I repeatedly explained to her that it was not quite true - in 1969 - that most American cops were "fascist pigs", as she believed.

In brief: there are justified uses of the term and unjustified ones, but most of the uses I have heard (in fact: very many) were both unjustified and uninformed, and were roughly equivalent with "I hate you".

       home - index - summaries - mail