George Orwell was no fool. A lot of people like to think of themselves as victims. A lot less want to think of themselves as persecutors. But somebody has to do the persecuting. After a while, you start to question how so few persecutors always seem to hold sway over so many victims. The holocaust? Hitler and a few top Nazis must have done it alone, with hardly any help. Colonialism? Better kick the Brits out of the Falkland Islands, because self-determination only applies to the children of victims, not the children of a former empire. Global capitalism? We all know the rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer, even if the UN says global poverty is dwindling at a rate never before seen in history. So how does George Orwell explain this uncanny ability of a tiny number of persecutors – be they autocrats, colonialists, or capitalists – to keep on subjugating huge numbers of victims? He explained it with sheep. Stupid, selfish, sheep.
On Animal Farm, the sheep were crucial enablers of persecution. They not only failed to fight against it, they positively supported the persecutors. “Four legs good, two legs bad!” they bleated, at those important moments when real thought and debate was needed, if the free animals were to arrive at good decisions. Somehow we are not supposed to think of the sheep as evil. Their stupidity absolves them of responsibility. But why is that? Nobody believes themselves to be stupid. Nobody considers themselves a sheep. The ‘I’ is never part of the flock. Sheep-ism is something that always happens to other people, in the same way that tomorrow never comes. Freedom entails responsibility, and we do not curtail freedom just to protect stupid people from themselves… or do we? And if we do need to protect stupid people, how do we distinguish the protector, from the persecutor? When is it right to take away freedoms from stupid people, and who decides if it really is for their own good?
We decide to take away our own rights. We, including the sheep. We can decide it through a definitive act, like passing a new law that sets limits on ourselves, or by being apathetic, and allowing our rights to be lost by the actions of others. The sheep are part of that process. Unlike Animal Farm, we cannot use anatomy to determine which of us are sheep. So if evil people serve up intrusive stories about Milly Dowler and Hugh Grant, many agree they should be stopped. Fewer ask why the existing rules to prevent invasion of privacy were not adequately enforced. Fewer still ask who motivated the crime. Who wanted to read stories about Milly Dowler or Hugh Grant? Not me. I have no interest in them, except as examples to be cited here. I would not buy a newspaper to read about either, and would feel no loss if the newspaper was thinner because their stories were omitted. Somebody must have wanted to pay good money to hear about the private lives of others. Where are these nosey sheep? How do they feel about press regulation? Do they feel any responsibility for the harm they encouraged? How do we stop the sheep from causing the same problem in future, because they will keep paying money to encourage crime?
Evil people run banks. We all know that. They leant money for profit. Nobody who borrowed was evil, nobody who owns a bank is evil. Only the bankers, employees of the bank, are evil. We might have thought that owning a thing made you responsible for that thing. I own my car, and I am responsible for it being roadworthy. The owner of a pet retains responsibility, if the pet is allowed to misbehave. The owner of a newspaper is responsible for what the newspaper publishes – many of us seem to believe that. But the owner of a bank seems to have no responsibility for decisions made by the bank’s employees, which includes its management. Why is that? Is it because banks are owned by sheep? Last year, much fuss was made that a third of Barclays shareholders opposed the pay deal given to Barclays management. That means two thirds supported it. Standard Life, the Edinburgh-based pensions firm, supported it. They have 6 million customers, and 1.5 million shareholders. Do we go a bit sheep-ish, when we ask about their responsibility to curb excessive pay? Are some of us investors in banks, but too ignorant, lost in the crowd, one amongst many, too stupid to join the dots, and hence absolved of responsibility?
Evil people dodge taxes. We all know that. Over the course of a decade, tax rules in the UK became progressively more complicated. Printing out the tax rules at the end of the noughties required twice as much paper as was needed only ten years earlier. Who was responsible for making tax rules so complicated that they were full of loopholes and difficult to enforce? Was it the people who ran the government, and who passed the laws that made the rules so complicated? Was it the people who elected the people who ran the government? Or do we prefer to remember history differently? We all like to be guard dogs now, fiercely biting at the heels of any tax avoider. Are we forgetting a time when we were happy to be sheep, blissfully unaware of the crucial role we played in making tax avoidance so easy?
Evil people get elected to parliament, and once there, use their power to indulge their corruption. Some of them just pass bad laws, like the bad tax laws, or the bad privacy laws, or the bad laws to control banks. That creates demand for new laws. Others are such greedy pigs that they literally, and directly, steal from the rest of us. Consider Margaret Moran, former MP for Luton South, who stole thousands through bogus expense claims, and escaped prison because of mental illness. Her party decided she was a fit and proper person, who could be trusted with the extraordinary responsibilities that come with being a law-maker. What happened to the people who selected her as a candidate, who financed her campaigns, who actively supported her? Did these sheep slip away, absolved of any blame because they could not tell she was a greedy corrupt pig? Or do they keep on making important decisions about who is fit to be a law-maker? Of course, we should only blame her party so much. Moran won three elections to parliament. 26,428 people elected her in 1997, 21,719 did so in 2001, and 16,610 in 2005. It was a secret ballot, of course. But why did nobody ask for compensation from the sheep who voted for this pig? Do they feel no moral responsibility to carry most of the burden, just as they would be responsible for their child, or their pet? Should voters be completely excused of any responsibility for their bad decisions?
At a crucial point in his story, Orwell had his sheep bleat a new message: ‘four legs good, two legs better’. The real-life sheep tend to say something much simpler, and it never changes. They say ‘more rules better’. According to them, every problem can be solved with more rules. Rules to stop bankers being greedy. Rules to stop politicians being corrupt. Rules to stop tax avoidance. Rules to stop journalists being nosey. But nobody asks for a rule that would punish sheep for being sheep. Nobody punishes the lazy reader for consuming gossipy tittle-tattle about celebs and the victims of crime. Nobody punishes the lazy shareholder who cares so little about their business that they allow their employees to fleece their company whilst taking wild risks. And nobody punishes lazy, ill-informed and apathetic voters, even when they are the root cause of bad government, and bad rules. Some rules are not properly enforced by government and public servants employed by government. Some rules are so incompetently written, they cannot possibly be enforced. But instead of blaming voters for bad rules, we supposedly should thank them for their efforts, ask them how to improve things, and nod happily when we receive this sage advice: we need lots more of what did not work before. If the previous rules were too complicated, ignored, or just bad rules that made no sense, we should rush headlong into writing many more rules, because that is the only solution we will consider. ‘More rules better’.
The problem with Orwell’s metaphor is that sheep are not just followers. They are also persecutors. They drown out intellect, or sophistication, or anyone daring to hold a contrary view to the majority. They are not just victims, although they are also victims. Sheep are the ultimate muscle of authoritarianism. They enable corruption and they empower evil. Individuals like George Orwell come along once in a century, but his wisdom cannot hold back the sheep, because they do not listen. They are too busy bleating, too busy finding everyone else responsible for everything, to listen. They feel they are not listened to enough, so they bleat more to compensate. The sheep already see the world in black and white. They know what is best, know that everyone who disagrees must have been brainwashed by evil people with an agenda, know that the only way to progress to a perfect society is by imposing more and more rules. That is the mantra of the sheep: more and more and more and more rules, until the rules will set us truly free. Meanwhile, we accumulate so many rules that nobody enforces them any more. Tax rules? The only people who understand them are the people avoiding them. Rules to stop invasion of privacy? The police do not bother to enforce them. Rules to say the NHS should not kill its own patients? Managers treat them as secondary to meeting their targets. And why should public servants enforce the rules? They too are sheep. They only act when there is a rule telling them what to do. ‘More rules better’ is the ultimate rule. It means nobody should want, or expect, to do anything, unless there is already a rule, telling us to do it.
Sometimes individuals need to stand up and speak against the crowd, when the source of evil lies in the many, and not the few. Our society does not need more rules to curb the greedy pigs. We need fewer sheep.
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