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Inside the Whale: On the Origin of the Democratic Consensus

by Peter Klein Tuesday, Feb. 04, 2014 at 4:51 AM

In his 1940 short story "Inside the Whale," George Orwell satirizes the focus in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Miller's characters are protected by the fat of the whale and never discuss the challenges and tasks of their historical time. In his poem Is this an apt characterization of our time?


On the Origin of the Democratic Consensus

By Peter Klein

[This article published in January 2014 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The consensus necessary for the smooth functioning of the capitalist system came about behind the backs of the participants, as everybody knows. After stripping off the pre-modern bonds to religion, standing, local customs, origin and gender roles one after the other, people of the modern age are socialized to an unparalleled extent. This socialization does not happen without an unspoken or unconscious consensus. “They do not know it but they do it.” With this often quoted sentence, Marx referred to capitalist socialization as a blind proliferating process.

Still the blindness of the process obviously does not hinder the thinking and planning of the participants. Their ignorance cannot be recognized in a sheepish silence. Quite the contrary! Since time immemorial, the intellectual pole of society responsible for generating consensus-forming terms and slogans has accompanied the socialization process with its commentators. Writers and philosophers provide us with references and information that says more about the different phases of capitalist socialization than the statistical data, for example about the annual steel production with which economists and sociologists extol the so-called progress.


I consider an essay by George Orwell on the English-speaking literature of his time as an excellent example. The essay titled “Inside the Whale” appeared in 1940, in the initial phase of the Second World War. It tells us Orwell’s literary discovery of Henry Miller, an author who in Orwell’s judgment stood in crass contrast to the zeitgeist and conventions. The two books to which Orwell referred, the 1935 Tropic of Cancer and the 1936 Black Spring, were books “with a long-term effect” (p.90. All the page references are from George Orwell, Inside the Whale – Selected Essays I, p.87ff). Even if individual passages are nauseating, Orwell described Tropic of Cancer as “a perfect work… that stays in one’s memory” (p.136). In attempting to explain this permanent effect, Orwell spoke again and again of the atmosphere of ordinariness radiated by Miller’s figures. “His figures are familiar and not only plausible. One feels one has experienced their adventures oneself” (p.91). The milieu in which these figures move is in no way that of normal citizens – it is a strange scene of American bohemians and would-be-artists who fought their way through life with casual jobs and little con games in the Paris of the worldwide economic crisis. Miller succeeded in giving a voice to the simple “man on the street,” Orwell concluded. He succeeded far more “than the most engaged writers” of his time (p.98).

This is clear firstly in the language. “The truth is many average persons, perhaps even the majority, speak and act in this way” (p.92). This is clear secondly in the attitude generally adopted by Miller that Orwell described as an attitude of affirming. Miller discovered he was “happy with himself” (p.95) after years of a life as a lumpen-proletariat, years of hunger, wandering, filth, failure, nights in the open air, disputers with immigration authorities and endless struggles over a little money.”

This “celebration of life,” one could say, is the real obscenity that Orwell traces behind Miller’s sexual permissiveness. This only functioned in that Miller did not give a damn about the great events of time. Middle-class society was in its ascending expanding phase in the time of Walt Whitman, Miller’s kindred spirit. Whitman’s optimistic view of “life,” Orwell said, was in harmony with the zeitgeist. His poems expressed the spirit of the times. “What was really affirmed when one said yes to life in the 1930s? “The era of fear, tyranny and prescribing was underway, not the time of awakening and freedom celebrated by Walt Whitman when the little people of the northern American states bravely marched to war. When I say “Yes” to life in a time like ours, this is a “Yes” to concentration camps, rubber clubs, Hitler and Stalin, bombs, airplanes, preserves, machine guns, coup de etates, purges, slogans, secret prisons, aspirin, Hollywood films and political murders” (p.97).

Miller was the clear target with this passage. Whoever has the classical left-right pattern in mind knows immediately what Miller thought of one without a political position who only worried about his very personal state of being. Orwell, an early defender of the totalitarianism thesis, had a political position. For him the left-right pattern did not function any more. This was already blatant when Stalin was mentioned in the same breath with Hitler. From his perspective, the communist movement in Western Europe had decayed to an instrument of Russian foreign policy and did not have its own existence in the public opinion of the masses. To cover this up, the party papers had to carry out grotesque contortions with every turn of its foreign policy to make it into a creative application of Marxism. Winston Churchill, previously a hated imperialist, was the “naïve boy of the Daily Worker” (p.118) from 1935 when anti-fascism and the People’s Front were declared the “right line.” For Orwell, the communist left decayed to a synonym for ideological inhibition and dishonesty. He could only feel confirmed by the new turn to the Hitler-Stalin pact (August 1939) that made anti-fascism disappear in thin air from one day to the next. “Progress and reaction,” as he summed up the political currents of his time, “have both turned out to be “swindles” (p.135).

However the young writers who were trend-setting in England since the beginning of the 1930s agreed to this “fraud” (Orwell named Auden, Spender and MacNeice). After the previous generation of Eliot and Joyce defined themselves first of all through their artistry and distanced themselves from modern society with its vulgar bustle, the young emphasized positions in this society. “In other words, there was a goal: the younger writers entered into politics” (p.113). Marxism as a universal explanation key for all areas of life became an intellectual fashion. The political know-it-all airs in the books on the Spanish Civil War damaged the literary quality of their products and in no way smoothed the way of leftist writers to the masses (p.98). “The atmosphere of an ideology is always ruinous and corrupting for prose… Good novels do not come from the pen of ideological snoopers or people who live continuously in fear of not being loyal” (p.124f).

On this background, Miller’s ordinariness “unsullied by any concern for the public welfare” (p.134f) had a refreshing effect on Orwell. “It was like hearing a voice, a friendly American voice without talking drivel and without moralizing in the assumption that we are all equal. For a moment one escapes all lies and half-truths and has to deal with familiar human experiences” (p.91). The public sphere is filled with drones of political slogans but nothing penetrates to the daily routine of Miller’s figures. He lets world events be world events and goes to the bistro next door because there is a warm meal there he can afford. Like the biblical Jonah, Miller finds himself “inside the whale” where surrounded by a “t6hick fat layer” he “hardly hears a murmur” of the political storms of time (p.128). This intentional Jonah standpoint is a state of final, unparalleled irresponsibility that ends up in Miller’s “Yes” to life. Orwell regards this turning away from the operative literary code of behavior where “books always contain a positive statement and must be seriously meant and constructive” (p.29) as justified since it is presented with a “sincerity of feeling,” “a sensitiveness for characters and a technical mastery” (p.91) that he misses in the ideologically “pretentious” novels of that time. He gives a voice to the “simple, non-political, non-moral passive persons” with his “turning away from the zoon politikon,” with the turn “to the standpoint of a man who is convinced that global development eludes his control and has hardly any desire to control it” (p.99).


If it is true that Miller with this politically passive attitude is on the side of the majority and paints a realistic picture of the widespread mood in everyday life, then one can see in him the representative of a social consensus. This is a silent unspoken consensus, one must say, because he simply practices his attitude without propagating it just like the everyday person. The great historical perspectives and concepts simply do not concern him. They do not occur in his texts. He is not worried about “getting drunk, talking nonsense, doubts and sexual intercourse” (p.91) or world history. He turns his back on the political confessions of faith – and does this very consciously as Orwell stressed. Orwell met him personally in 1936.

A few years and millions upon millions of deaths later, this turning away also arrived in Germany and in all European countries that were still in the state of ideological excitement in the 1930s. A sudden mental change occurred that was officially certified by postwar sociologists and political scientists who wrote books about the “skeptical generation” and the “age of ideologies” that now first came to an end. If one considers that Henry Miller was really popular in the 1960s and 1970s and was a frequently translated best-selling author, then the idea is not far that he who wanted to know nothing about historical mission and responsibility is marked with this attitude like an historical turn, a change of the general historical situation. The first chirps of a “new age” can be heard with him. Orwell already sensed this new reality. He said a “new literary school” could begin with Miller (p.125) since he had a “symptomatic significance” (p.137). In the year 1940 he was not sure what characterized this.

Where democracy encounters sympathy everywhere today while voter turnout falls and political passivity is trump, it may be easier to classify Miller in the great historical trend. That age beginning with the French Revolution in which the political human sphere could still hear inner faith experiences where there was a political meaning for which living and dying were rewarding obviously came to an end with him. Politics did not reach its end. Rather it was all-pervasive and became the normal social state. The modern everyday person is surrounded on all sides by politics. In all areas of life, he meets the laws and decrees of the state. His whole life is determined by them. The trap snaps shut; Miller seems to say to us. There is no point zapping through the channels. We see how much personal freedom is left to us. This meaning is transported with the picture of the “inside of the whale.” Miller’s restriction to events that take place in the close circle of primary body functions goes out of his way to make this picture seem well-rounded. The space available beyond the pre-fabricated careers and behavioral patters for so-called authentic experience becomes increasingly cramped.

Orwell was certainly right when he saw an “individualist focus” returning with Miller (p.125). However the individualism that is related here goes back to a much higher socialization level than the one that produced the great psychological novels in the 19th century. “Capitalism” in its time was one social group among others. The different mentalities, life perspectives and political concepts that can be ascribed to the social existence of the nobility, bourgeoisie and proletariat had their own reality. They were separated from one another by chasms. The nearest future up to the 1970s looked more like a civil war than a postwar. Orwell’s “simple person” is the product of a later time – a time when capitalism had grown into great industrial aggregates and had spread over the whole world. The different positions and classes of society lost the appearance of being somewhat independent. They became mere functional categories whose coordination and timing to each other made necessary a uniform social structure: unity of law, unity of moral values and unity of mentality. The democratic “state of the whole people” came on the scene – and with it those standardization ideologies that at first stopped at the borders of the respective nation. After two world wars, these borders were crossed. People today are free to participate in the competition around the exercise of any of the economic or administrative functions. However they always remain inside amid all the mobility and permeability of modern society: in the framework of that logic given by capitalism that measures its usefulness by whether the money with which they are paid benefits the growth of the sums of money circulating worldwide. Nothing happens without money aiming at more money.


The real totalitarianism of our time seems reflected in this all-pervasiveness of the exploitation logic. Miller may be one of the first authors who confirmed this socialization state in a literary way. For him, the American, it already represented a foregone conclusion in the 1930s. He did not need to make a big thing out of it. The ideological heyday that drove the transition from the feudal society to the mass society in Europe had no attraction for him. While it is perverse to praise the acceptance of paid labor as an anti-capitalist act on one (Stalinist) side of the political spectrum, it is absurd on the other (Hitlerian) side to inflate the banal fact of a functional social connection into the fetish of a hysterically-invoked “popular community” that fights for its naked biological survival. Here there is nothing to choose. Hitler and Stalin negatively prepared the consensus that was later called “western democracy.” The system after swallowing us prepares a few discomforts for us without these ideological contortions. That is the insight which Miller’s figures illuminate. They practice this insight without knowing anything about it.

Orwell’s problem in judging Miller is that he cannot conflate the age of totalitarianism which he sees looming on the horizon with Miller’s “individualist focus.” The “totalitarian dictatorships,” he said in 1940, made it hardly conceivable that authors like Miller should represent the literary future. Therefore the question is whether the epoch “of laissez-faire capitalism and the liberal-Christian culture” (p.134) – in short the literature of totalitarianism” – took the stage, not only the scattered stragglers of a past epoch. On the other hand, nearly eighty years later, one could say with some justification that totalitarianism is the literary theme with Miller. Unlike its undeveloped predecessors, the real totalitarianism does not need to demand political confessions. The total rule of a certain social system appears when it is objectively accepted and functions automatically and conflict for or against has ended and no longer encounters the governing personnel. Orwell writes that “the literature of totalitarianism… has not yet appeared and is hardly imaginable” (p.135). Such an explicit “emergence” cannot be expected from modern totalitarianism… There is only a single political faith with modern democracy. This form becomes mere background noise not even noticed any more if all persons divested of the social attributes of the pre-modern are in themselves the same social form of the free market actor.

The enforced political conformity of people that has largely succeeded and does not recognize political controversies any more represents a large part of the success attested by the “western social model.” The gigantic campaign of destruction against the natural foundations of our life stylized as success can be charged to the account of the synchronized society. Shrugging the shoulders with which Miller turned away from the political battles of the 1930s may seem striking, bold and highly justified. The cause itself, the socialization process occurring in the slipstream of those battles, in no way deserves this shrugging of shoulders.

Modern productive forces are carried out today in a social context that grasps the whole world – by people legally and mentally captured or spellbound in the form of the isolated, autonomous and personally responsible individual, a situation full of catastrophe that takes the charm of non-conformism from Miller’s “individualist focus.” This is the conformism of our time: the next ideological cliff that we have to overcome on the way to reality.


George Orwell, “Inside the Whale,” 1940

Oxfam Report, Working for the Few: Political Capture and Economic Inequality, 2014

Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. The World Economic Forum has identified economic inequality as a major risk to human progress, impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale.

This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other inequalities – such as those between women and men. Left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of ordinary people.

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