Monday 27 February 2017

What motivates? Orwell on Hitler and HG Wells

What has HG Wells to set against Adolf Hitler - who he calls the ‘screaming little defective in Berlin’?

The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human rights, of anti-totalitarian tendency. Except that Wells is now especially concerned with 'federal world control of air power', it is the same gospel as he has been preaching almost without interruption for the past forty years, always with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious.

What is the use of Wells saying that we need federal world control of the air? The whole question is how we are to get it. What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing.

All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves.

By contrast, Hitler is a criminal lunatic... yet Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.

What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners.

For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, but if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment.

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

The people who say that Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively, the Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously. All that this idea really reflects is the sheltered conditions of English life.

Edited from Wells, Hitler and the World State by George Orwell, published 1941:

Note: Orwell's emphasis on what motivates people to sacrifice is timeless - but easily forgotten in times of peace, prosperity, comfort and diversion.

The modern Western world - for example. Societies like Britain are built on a basis of exactly the bureaucratic 'hedonistic world view' of HG Wells - and consequently we are at the mercy of any and every group who can muster sufficient passions to enable a degree of self-sacrifice and willing endurance of suffering.

Since 1941 the 'Left wing intellectuals' have long-since broken down the 'atavistic emotion of patriotism'. Of course we do not have 'SS men patrolling the streets', but instead we do have middle managers and officials patrolling and monitoring every nook and cranny of our lives - imposing ever more audits, regulations, quality assurance, risk assessments, police checks...especially at work, but increasingly in the home.

We also have the state creating a totalitarian culture of 'informers' - we labour (more than any other labour) to establish and maintain the systems that keep ourselves and each other in-check and subordinated.

Orwell's polemic is a reminder of the fact that politics is simple - or else it is ineffective. It is far easier to demotivate, break down, destroy and induce despair than it is to energise, work and build -- but any motivated creators that resist passivity and surrender will be the ones who prevail.

And this will happen by default - even if the simple motivating ideas are obviously partial, biased and incoherent.

Britain will have religion - one way or another. And that religion will be of the kind that motivates.

But we can choose which religion.  


TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...


If the folk do not choose a religion, a religion will choose them.

Epimetheus said...

I've read this a few times over - this business of motivation is profound. We moderns are prone to think that we are omnipotent in this respect - that we can conjure the internal energy to do anything. This is the premise of pretty much all self-improvement and self-help books. Without this as a given, all the "striver" advice in the world is absolutely useless.

But in practice, motivation it is so much different, and so very obviously different that it's so surprising to only see it now. I suppose we blind ourselves, and we are deliberately blinded by the forces of evil.

It seems that we moderns so often gain our internal energy from the seven sins - for my adulthood, I have relied on ridiculous doses of pride, wrath and lust. And this is not a poetic metaphor - in the absence of these things, energy slags if it isn't sought out from other sources.