I’ve always heard people hype Animal Farm up, but when I recall those instances, no one has ever pointed out what was so interesting about it. However, having read 1984, I was definitely expecting some kind of story that represents society going awfully bad. After all, George Orwell is known for that!
My general expectations were correct, but in terms of the raw story, I was kind of surprised with the turn it took. If there’s one quote that really hit me, it was this:
Besides, in those days they had been slaves and now they were free, and that made all the difference, as Squealer did not fail to point out
Needless to say, spoilers alerts~
When the story set out, we find out there’s a farm called the Manor Farm that has a bunch of animals in it (cats, pigs, dogs, horses, sheep, etc). For a while, all these animals have been pretending to be docile, but Old Major—an old pig—changes that by inspiring the animals that they will have a revolution. Later on Old Major dies of old age, and the animals quickly decide to revolt and take over the farm. They succeed, and after the revolutions, they decide to now own the farm and vow to have a much better production than the humans who used to own them. They renamed the farm: Animal Farm.
Unsurprisingly, they divide up the work according to each one’s ability, and they have a pretty relax set up where different animals only work for as long as they can handle. They also join around the idea that “two legs bad, four legs good”, and all of this amount to them actually beating the humans in terms of production.
The interesting part was that outside the pigs, none of the other animals had the intelligence to read. So, the pigs took on the administrative role for the farm. What goes terribly wrong her is that the pigs take advantage of the power afforded in this role to make their lives better, brainwash every other animals that it’s for the better cause of everyone, and turn them into willing slaves. Their condition worsened to a point that was worse than when they were under the humans’ reign, yet they fail to recognize this due to pigs’ brainwashing. It just slowly turned into a dictatorship with public punishments and constant fear. So, what turned out to be a well intentioned revolution devolved into a dictatorship that was worse than before, and ironically all the animals bought into the lies the pigs made up.
Moral of the Story
I have been listening to Real Dictators podcast, and what the pigs essentially did was exactly what Joseph Stalin did back then to the population (or what Kim Jong-il did). In fact, I believe this book was written as a satire to the Russian Revolution (as it says in the book cover). What’s so difficult about this is that it’s hard to say, when did things go wrong?
I struggle to find an answer to that question. However, what I can make up is that there were a couple of flaws in terms of how the system was set up from the beginning, and ultimately this story speaks to the greedy incentives that we all as humans have and that we should be watching out for. The major flaws in the system that Animal Farm had revolved around the following:
- Education & Intelligence
- Heavily Concentrated Power
Education & Intelligence
One major flaw, one that would be very difficult to fix easily, was that at the start of the revolution, one group was already more intelligent than every other group—significantly so.
I don’t know what made pigs more intelligent, but they just were. Other animals couldn’t recite the alphabet while pigs could read. In this case, pigs had two choices: continue to become more intelligent or figure out a way to educate the other animals and improve their situations. They chose the former because they were selfish and greedy.
In a way, all the other animals were at the mercy of pigs, and it’s very difficult for them to argue against them, such as when the pigs kept making arguments along the lines of “oh we have to sleep indoor and eat more food because we really need the energy in order to better manage this farm. It’s tough work that you probably wouldn’t understand. Surely, you don’t want the humans to come back do you?” Some animals had doubts when they heard this, but they had no way of rebuking because they just couldn’t even process it, so they just went along.
Thankfully, the same is not the case with humans. There’s no one race that is smarter than the other, or there’s no physical attribute that directly determines intelligence. And even if there were, the difference would not be significant enough to cause the kind of damage that it caused in Animal Farm. Still, lack of education (which I see as a process through which one gains intelligence) can have the same effect. This actually manifested itself in one of the books I read and wrote about previously: Educated by Tara Westover. So, we need to be careful about this.
Another major flaw that Animal Farm had was that not many animals had enough foresight to see that things were going to go terribly wrong for them. In fact, many of them still didn’t even at the end of the book. Sadly, this is compounded by the lack of education.
The thing is, had the animals been able to read, they would have had access to the same kinds of books that the pigs had access to. This would have prompted them to read about this kind of concentration of power and realize that it was wrong. Some of them might even have realized that education would be a necessary component of the new society that they were trying to build. Sadly, this didn’t happen.
In a similar fashion, I believe that this actually happen with us humans way too often. We’re often not prepared. I learned from a partner at my work that “luck happens to those who are prepared”, and I believe this is extremely true. In a similar way thought, misfortune happens to those who are unprepared, and the truth is, no one is ever fully prepared for what life will throw at them. Nevertheless, some people are more prepared than others, that that is exactly what makes the difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t.
On a major scale though, the lack of preparation and foresight is what can cause a dictatorship to emerge, and those who can be prepared enough to recognize it early can help prevent it—especially when they are in a position of power.
Thankfully, there is one way that we can all prevent this, and it’s by reading more!
Heavily Concentrated Power
Finally, the last major flaw in the Animal Farm system is that they had heavily concentrated power. You would have thought that things made sense at the start. After all, different animals had different abilities. The horses were strong, the chicken could lay eggs which could then be sold, and the pigs could handle the kind of intellectual heavy work that the farm needed.
The problem was: only one kind of animal was doing one kind of job. In this case, only the pigs did the administrative role. This wouldn’t have been that big of a problem except for the fact that the administrative role held the most influence for the everyday lives of the farm, and that caused everything to get awry.
In a way, this followed from the lack of education and the lack of foresight. The pigs very early on realized how much better off they could have it better by choosing the administrative role, and they did. Then, all their flaws (greed, selfishness, etc) caused them to take advantage of every other animals.
Similarly, I believe us humans should be careful to watch for the concentration of power in the hands of a group that is overall not enough like the rest of the humans because that all the more incentivizes that group to take advantage of the rest.
I’d love to have a discussion about what’s the best way to prevent Animal Farm from happening to us in real life. There are multiple solutions that can be done. However, I believe that the solution needs to be system oriented.
Humans are naturally flawed. All humans have an ounce, if not more, of selfishness, greed, jealousy, etc. In a way, all humans have an ounce, if not more, of “pig”-like behavior (the behavior of that the pigs exhibited in Animal Farm). We would all be better off if we could purge all humans of that kind of behavior… if only we could. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we can definitely make major improvements in that. For instance, just watching Immigration Nation on Netflix will make you more compassionate and understanding of other people’s struggles.
Still, I believe that a system that makes it hard for people to be greedy and selfish will naturally change the human behaviors because humans are always motivated by incentives, and a system that prevents that kind of “pig”-like behavior in the majority of people would be successful. I believe the way to go about it is to divide power as much as possible. I don’t agree with everything that Vaush says in this video (a proponent of a very specific kind of “socialism”), but I like that he made two distinctions in that video that are key to such a system:
- People confuse money and power, and rightly so because often the more money you have, the more power you have. However, money isn’t necessarily power. To quote Cersei Lanister from Game of Thrones, “Power is Power”. So, a better system is one that equalize power as much as possible (not necessarily by equalizing money or not necessarily to the expense of preventing people from earning as much money as they desire).
- The difference between elastic goods vs. inelastic goods can be used as a framework for defining the extent to which a good should fall under the public ownership. A Gucci bag is very elastic: the higher the cost, the less people are willing to buy it, and at a certain point no one would be willing to buy it. Water is very inelastic: no matter how high the cost, no one would decide not to buy it because without water you’d die. Therefore, Gucci can be completely private, but water probably shouldn’t. In this way, I believe that the power that one should have to influence access to inelastic goods should be spread as much as possible.
That above would be my proposed framework if we could just wave a magic wang to prevent Animal Farm. However, this type of solution talks about the end state, and it’s another story to change a system that has already gone awry. My thoughts there aren’t as clear, and we badly need solutions for that kind of situation too.
Anyways, What are your thoughts on all of this?