Parallels of Authoritarian Populism and George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Analytical Essay

While born and raised in India, the largest democracy of the world, you are taught and supposed to assimilate the Gandhian thoughts on democracy both in words and in practice. You are raised to believe that “good governance is no substitute for self-government” (1). You grow to lean that “means and ends are convertible” (2) and that “permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence” (3). George Orwell’s Animal Farm, on the same analogy, wants you to learn that no ideology, however judicious it seems to be, will deliver if it has to be imposed by force. If you insist, you are authoritarian, no matter how “noblest are the causes” (3) you serve or progressive are the values that drive you.

The autocratic impulse, that Gandhiji warned us of or Orwell through his novella Animal Farm cautioned us of, is seizing the initiative and the space for competitive politics is shirking every minute. This global tide of ‘authoritarian populism’ is reaching into and affecting even the most established democracies like Sweden and Denmark. The populistic authoritarians may have good intentions, as some intellectuals believe, regarding the ends they wish to achieve, but “neither the intentions nor the ends make their political methods any less coercive” (4) because “impure means result in an impure end” (5).

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An allegory of Soviet Russia, the novella Animal Farm cautions us of the lack of morality under the influence of whip of power and wealth. It warns us that even the well-intentioned endeavors can escape the ever-increasing narcissistic, self-centered, power-hungry, and destructive traits of human nature. The novella explores what happens when good intentions capsize, when the fabrics of egalitarianism tatter, when dreams congeal into nightmares or shred through the force of human nature, and when ideals are knotted into pretzels.

“Authoritarianism and populism are not always linked” (6). However, in recent times, due to the growing public discontent over the status quo, the populistic movements have grown tremendously. The shrewd politicians have leveraged this cauldron of discontent to seize power. Once in the office, they in a fashion similar to Napoleon in Animal Farm dismantled the institutions designed to check their authority. The eroding democratic norms “from the Philippines and Cambodia to Hungary and Poland” (6) are the reflection of the destruction of dream ‘idyllic farm’ under autocratic Napoleon.

The populist movements around the world are getting fueled by the leaders who project themselves as the champions of economic welfare, safety, and cultural preferences of the majority against immigrants, refugees, or religious minorities. Though disparate and local, the issues confronting these movements share common features, such as feelings of disenfranchisement, of being alienated, being left out of a global economic boom, and of seeing familiar social orders upended. “The movements, these grievances generated, have spurred anti-immigrant xenophobia—and, in places like Hungary and Greece, even horrifying episodes of political violence—as underlying prejudices are exploited by opportunistic politicians” (6).

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic example of the way opportunistic politicians and the populistic governments have necessitated a common enemy or scapegoat to fight or make others fight against. An enemy provides a soft target to shred personal responsibilities and blame every time something wrong happens. At the beginning of the novel, it is Mr. Jones. However, as the novel progresses and the animals do away with their human enemy, Snowball becomes the enemy. It is the habit of populistic leaders to keep changing the goalpost and truth is a frequent casualty.

The hoax of xenophobia and the welfare of the majority under complex economic and ethnic situations, as discussed earlier, is the favorite hunting ground for populistic authoritarian leaders. Interestingly, In Animal Farm, when Orwell wrote, “All animals are equal; but some animals are more equal than others,” (Orwell 134) he warns us of the dangers of socialism and not that of the ills of “libertarianism or capitalism” (4). He, in a sense, was warning us that “tyranny and privilege would most likely prevail under a banner of welfare and equality” (4), the instruments of modern-day ‘authoritarian populism’.

Fear makes people or animals act in certain ways, they generally don’t want to do. It is, therefore, the foundation of every dictatorial government. Likewise, authoritarianism “deems punishment as an appropriate response when members of the group with which they identify diverse too far from the values authoritarian believe are best for the society”. One can easily identify Trump's threatening of “shutting down media houses” (4) for publishing things contrary to his likings or “penalizing businesses” (4) for not doing what he thinks they should, with Napoléon’s rationing of hens’ food. The state of affairs at Animal Farm highlights the tyranny of the autocratic and dictatorial government and warns us of the consequences of such government.

The problem with ‘populist’ leaders such as Erdoğan, Orbán, López Obrador, Kaczyński, Modi, Putin, or Trump is not that they embrace the policies that can’t be navigated under the familiar terrains of “politics as usual” (7) (as was communalism in the first half of 20th century depicted in the novella Animal Farm). Nor the narrow nationalism, uncouth rhetoric or confrontational style of politics they promote, is a problem. The problem with the electoral successes of authoritarian nationalists is their brand of “populism- a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals” (7).

Firstly, populists reject the basic elements of democratic pluralism. They are anti-pluralist (8) and claim that “they, and they alone, represent the people” (9). Those against them must either be incompetent, corrupt, treasonous, or “the enemies of the people' (9). These political opponents are “specified in various ways: foreigners, the press, minorities, financiers, the ‘1 percent’ or ‘not being us’ to name a few'(9). “Nigel Farage, the then-leader of the Independence Party, for example, predicted ‘a victory for real people’ during the Brexit campaign. Apparently, those who voted against Brexit didn't just lose; they weren't real people, to begin with” (9). Populists seem to have hijacked the very mantle of ‘we the people’.

Legitimate opposition, on the other hand, is the lifeblood of liberal constitutional democracy. Minority dissent, therefore, is an ordinary state of affairs in any democracy that secures freedom of speech among free and equal. Minority, in such democracies, retains the right to politically fight for alternative policies including the replacement of government in power without having to fear repressions, sanctions or otherwise being discriminated against.

In Orwell’s novella, when Animal Farm was established by the animals, it was claimed that all the animals are equal (Orwell 24). However, class and status disparities between animal species emerge in a short span of time. In a sharp similarity, democracy considers all political species as equal players. The power structure that the democratic mandate produces, however, makes all the differences. The winners feel like blessed souls and anything contrary to them is often portrayed as demonic or devilish. Overwhelmed by the public mandate, the so-called democratic rulers leave no stone unturned to drive the opposition away from the political farm as Napoleon drives away Snowball. Snowball, like opposition in populistic authoritarian governments, genuinely works for the good of fellow-animals and devises plans to help them achieve their vision of an egalitarian utopia only to be chased away by Napoleon and his dogs.

Secondly, populists do not believe in procedural legitimacy. In the political thoughts of populists, the people and their leadership are identical and there is nothing between the people and their representatives. The Venezuelan late populist president, for example, put it frankly: 'Chávez is no longer me! Chávez is a people!” (9) Donald Trump, on the other hand, claimed: “I am your voice” (9).

The constitutional procedures and safeguards like the separation of powers, the independence of the press, and the independence of the judiciary are all potential obstacles to the effective implementation of the authentic “will of the people” (9) if they fail to resonate with the authentic will of the people as determined by the leadership. Any election proves itself to have been legitimate, free, and fair.

In a strange similarity with the contemporary authoritarian populistic rulers, the novella explains how Animal Farm was proclaimed a Republic, and it became necessary to elect a President. There was only one candidate. Napoleon, who was elected unanimously. It further highlights how authoritarian ruler gradually changes the commandments to justify his dictatorial rule and the privileges that come along.

Thirdly, any voice of international institutions or participation of non-citizens is a problem for populists. Apparently, it is not a big deal to discredit international law or the voices of international civil society as an unjustified interference by external actors if the foundation of legitimacy is the will of the people.(10) They rather use rhetorical tactics for the legitimacy of their rule, in a fashion similar to that of Napoleon when he hires Mr. Whymper to represent Animal Farm in human society.

Authoritarianism always begins with the advance obedience of the thoughtless and the disorientation of the thoughtful (10). An insight into Animal Farm motivates us to revel against Boxer, the dumb cart-horse within us, who destroys freedom and equality more through his maxims, “Napoleon is always right” and “I will work harder” (Orwell 29) than Napoleon does. It also persuades us to revolt against Benjamin, the cynical donkey within us, who is apathetically insensitive to his surroundings. We, as a leader and/or follower, must have control over our freedom and equality and we must not follow anyone blindly. We must learn that “to the extent that we have confidence in our ability to be happy, or in control of ourselves, regardless of what life throws at us, we are unlikely, to become one of its proponents or pawns.” (4) In the absence of that control authoritarian populism—whether lean left or right—will continue to emerge and subside.

Works Cited:

  1. Tendulkar, DG, Mahatma, Vol. II, p.24
  2. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume V-The Voice of Truth, Young India,26-12-’24, p. 424
  3. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume V-The Voice of Truth, Young India,11-12-’24, p. 406
  4. Authoritarian to the Right of Me, Authoritarians to the Left, FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) Monday, April 10, 2017
  6. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume V-The Voice of Truth, Harijan,13-7-’47,p. 232
  7. The Twin Rise of Populism and Authoritarianism, WPR (World Politics Review) Friday, Aug. 9, 2019

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