Pigs, Dogs, or Sheep: Who's to Blame in Animal Farm?
On Psychopaths and Their Useful-Idiot NPC Enablers
I was recently rereading Animal Farm by George Orwell, which unfortunately seems to be a useful guide for understanding our times, and I was struck by the question: Whom do you blame for the corruption and tyranny among the farm’s ruling class: the pigs, the dogs, or the sheep?
Are the Pigs to Blame?
Obviously, the pigs are the ones running the farm, so it would be natural to place the blame squarely on their porky shoulders.
After the revolution gives the animals control of the farm, the pigs make many promises about what they intend to do to make the farm work better for everyone, and maybe some of the pigs actually believe those idealistic visions, at least in the early stages of the story.
Animal Farm begins with Old Major, an elderly hog, giving a rousing speech in which he shares his utopian dream of animal equality and freedom. He goes on to set forth simple, straightforward principles to guide their political movement. These principles seem to admit no wiggle room for the pigs to create an arbitrary and unjust system to favor their own interests at the expense of the other animals. Old Major dies before the revolution occurs; maybe if he had lived longer, the story would have turned out differently; but with the founding visionary of their movement gone, it falls to the other pigs to interpret his dream and make it real.
The two leading pigs are Napoleon, modeled after Stalin, and Snowball, modeled after Trotsky. Napoleon’s dishonesty and self-interestedness seem obvious even from the beginning; for example, he is the one who, on the first morning after the revolution, steals all the milk for the pigs’ own use while nobody is looking. Although he is conspicuously absent from the animals’ second great battle with the humans (the “Battle of Cowshed”), he nonetheless later engages in stolen valor by taking credit for bravery and heroism in that fight. Rather than debating his political opponents fairly or evaluating their positions on the merits, Napoleon uses meaningless, but devastatingly effective, propaganda; he incites mobs of sheep to bleat loudly and make it impossible to hear what those debating him are saying; and when all else fails, he uses violence to silence his critics and challengers.
With Snowball, the villainy is less clear. He seems idealistic. Like Old Major, he articulates simple, straightforward rules that would, if followed, have prevented the corrupt and tyrannical rule of Napoleon. Snowball works indefatigably to educate the other animals and make their work more efficient. Yet in spite of his apparently sincere efforts to make the farm better for all the animals, Snowball nevertheless goes along with Napoleon’s designs to commandeer the choicest resources, such as the milk and windfall apples, for the exclusive use of the pigs, thereby undermining his own professed egalitarian values by this selfish agreement. When Napoleon ultimately turns on Snowball and has the dogs chase him from the farm, it is difficult to feel sorry for him. He made his own bed, and now he must lie in it. By enabling Napoleon’s creeping tyranny where it seemed to coincide with his own self-interest, Snowball feeds the very process that culminates in his own unjust persecution and exile.
Another pig, Squealer, is the deputy propagandist for the pigs. Perhaps you could call Squealer a “community organizer.” He adroitly employs various rhetorical devices to bamboozle the other animals into accepting the pigs’ increasingly one-sided position, assuaging their concerns by charm and handwaving (or tail-twirling), followed by more charm and more handwaving. He has no qualms about using his rhetorical gifts in support of Napoleon’s demagoguery.
Squealer has the moral character of a rat, but because he affects an image of stylish sophistication, the other animals find themselves going along with whatever he says, even though they all sometimes sense that he is lying. Perhaps they feel like someone who smiles with such seeming sincerity could never be a bad person, could he? The pigs’ promises are never kept, and the compromises Squealer urges the other animals to make always seem to redound exclusively to the pigs’ benefit; but surely in spite of all that, Squealer would never do anything evil, would he? After all, he claims to be their friend, doesn’t he? And he smiles with such seeming sincerity whenever he calls them “comrades,” that surely they are on the same team, aren’t they? Surely someone so charming would never do anything to betray their trust, would he? And so Squealer is able to convince the other animals to go along with anything, and by degrees, the farm’s working classes willingly partner in their own subjugation and death.
It is easy to blame the pigs for their obvious villainy. But are the pigs really the worst animals on the farm? They are greedy, corrupt, and dishonest, but even if you do not share the pigs’ perspective, you can at least understand it. They are trying to enhance their own prestige, power, and profit. Their naked selfishness is detestable, but it is at least reasonable, at least from their own point of view.
But what about the other animals? Without their willing participation, the pigs would never be able to establish their vicious government. Don’t these other animals share some, or even most, of the blame?
Are the Dogs to Blame?
So what about the regime’s literal attack dogs? They are dictator Napoleon’s thugged-out police force, serving not to enforce the laws against common criminals, but to inflict violence against political dissidents. They do not care about preventing robbery or murder or any other malum in se crimes; in fact, they will gladly steal, kill, and destroy at the behest of the corrupt government. The dogs care only about punishing “thoughtcrime” (to borrow an Orwellian term from a different book).
Dogs are smart. Maybe they’re not as smart or shrewd as pigs, but they should have enough sense to know they are being lied to and used. However, the dogs choose not to ask questions. They never allow even the slightest seed of doubt about the existing sociopolitical order to enter their minds. They fully embrace that order and are probably the truest believers in the pigs’ perverse political philosophy.
The pigs may engage in “doublethink” (another Orwellian term from a different book), because they are smart and self-aware enough to know that the social hierarchy, atop which they sit, is ultimately based on lies; but for the dogs, there is no need for doublethink: they are able to ignore the contradictions that would, if acknowledged, reveal the pigs’ obvious lies.
Are the dogs not to blame for this? Do they believe their leaders’ lies because they lack the ability to discern truth from falsehood, or because they choose not to use that ability? Are they blind, or do they choose to shut their eyes to avoid seeing the truth? Is the dogs’ ignorance an active, or passive, state?
Maybe some people are like the dogs: willing to serve as hired guns for the highest bidder, and willing not to ask any questions about the morality of their assigned missions. In other words, a militarized police force that exists not to protect the rights of the citizens, but to ensure their compliance with tyranny. How does a society guard against that? The American Founding Fathers seem to have designed a system to withstand that phenomenon, with well-crafted separations of powers and checks and balances to keep political authority from being dangerously consolidated under a single person or faction. If tyranny is like a flood, these Constitutional safeguards are like levees and dams. Unfortunately, however, these levees and dams have not been maintained; instead, for the past several decades, elected officials and their donor class have conspired to undermine those safeguards, which are now on the verge of collapse.
Are the Sheep to Blame?
Of all the animals, the sheep are the easiest to despise. And that is probably why nobody would ever admit to being like the sheep.
Perhaps a vicious, power-hungry tyrant could read Animal Farm and bemusedly see himself in the pigs, with their craftiness and political skill. Or maybe a member of a corrupt regime’s secret police, if he reads the scene where Napoleon sics the attack dogs on Snowball, would laugh to himself as he thinks about the violence he has himself inflicted upon critics of the regime he serves. Even if they might not acknowledge this to another person, in their private thoughts, people may identify with the pigs or the dogs. But no one would ever identify himself with the sheep.
No groupthinking idiot schoolchild, having been assigned to read Animal Farm for class, would read about the sheep mindlessly bleating stupid slogans at the behest of demagogues and think, “That’s kind of like me!”
NPCs — or Hylics or Organic Portals, as they may also be known — are not big on self-awareness. They typically present as true believers in whatever the “current thing” is, without ever noticing that today’s current thing completely contradicts last year’s current thing, or that they, themselves, were just as passionate and unquestioning in their support of last year’s current thing as they are about today’s current thing.
Consequently, an NPC would read about the sheep and think badly of them, but only because his teacher told him that this is how he should think. And just like the sheep, he would unquestioningly accept the teacher’s opinion as his own, without ever being aware that he was simply parroting the beliefs that had been given to him second-hand. It would never occur to him that Animal Farm was a mirror and that the object of his scorn was actually his own reflection staring sheepishly back at him.
The sheep in the story are contemptible wretches. They are the useful idiots who loudly and wholeheartedly support the evil regime. They mindlessly repeat its empty slogans. They confuse public discourse by insistently making their voices heard, despite having nothing original or insightful to say; their stupid shouting accomplishes nothing, except to drown out the voices of anyone who might ask questions the ruling class doesn’t like. But their role in confusing and contaminating the public discourse is encouraged at every turn by the regime. Whenever public debate is just on the verge of tipping towards anything really useful, the sheep start bleating, on cue, absurd aphorisms in support of the current thing.
The sheep are obviously flawed creatures, but it doesn’t seem to be anything they can help. They lack the capacity for true personhood. Unlike the dogs, who perhaps could develop a capacity for self-awareness and critical thought but instead choose not to, the sheep really don’t have a choice. They are congenitally incapable of transcending their sheepish nature. You can disparage them and condemn their actions and the role that they so happily play in supporting the pigs’ tyranny, but you can’t really blame them for it. The sheep have no more choice about their role in society than a brick would have about its role in the construction of a wall.
Perhaps the best response to the phenomenon of NPC sheep would be for a society to erect safeguards to mob rule, similar to what the drafters of the U.S. Constitution intended. Sheep are like inert matter: you do not change the course of a river by arguing with the water about how reasonable it would be to flow one way instead of another; you have to channel the water’s flow with things like dams and levees. I don’t know how to reconcile a commitment to Freedom and self-governance with the stubborn reality that a large number of people are unable or flat-out unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and their freedom, that such responsibility is a necessary condition of Liberty, and that such people are, therefore, incapable of self-governance. America’s Founding Fathers seem to have done as good a job as possible designing a political system with bulwarks against mob rule. The decades-long assault on these Constitutional safeguards, often undertaken by self-proclaimed “progressives” in the name of expanding “democracy” by uncoupling freedom from responsibility, have left us less free and more prone to tyranny than ever before in America.
Is Benjamin the Donkey to Blame?
One character stands out like a sore thumb in the story of Animal Farm: Benjamin the Donkey. He generally keeps his own counsel. When asked for his opinions on politics and society, he gives only cryptic replies that never really answer the question. He seems well aware of himself and of what’s really going on in the world around him, but he responds with a cynical indifference. He keeps his head down; he does his work without complaining, but also without displaying any enthusiasm for it; and he seems to live by the assumption that regardless of political developments, Life will pretty much always be the same: a mostly bad experience, full of suffering, stupidity, and sin.
Is Benjamin the Donkey to blame for this? He’s just one guy, so what could he, realistically, have done? In thinking about him, I’m reminded of the paradox presented by Socrates: a person fit to be king would not seek to rule over others; consequently, he would nearly have to be compelled by others to assume the duties and authority of a king. Of course, in a political system where people become leaders by seeking office and by endlessly playing the political games needed to win support from power-brokers and rich donors, as well as the approval of NPC voters (or the “mules” harvesting mail-in ballots from the NPC voters), a Socratic king would hardly seek office in the first place. But what does that do, aside from ensuring that only those who are unfit for political power will ever have it?
I have sometimes joked (only half-joking) that if reincarnation is real, the free-thinkers among us must have done something really terrible the last time around to be reborn into a society governed by psychopaths, who are only 1% or so of the general population but who are practically 100% of the political class. And what allows the psychopaths to rule? All the NPC idiot voters who mindlessly embrace the stupid slogans of the psychopaths’ political campaigns.
Being under the rule of psychopaths and their NPC idiot supporters is analogous to being on the Titanic and realizing the captain and crew are aiming the ship directly at an iceberg; but when you try to call attention to it, the other passengers mostly attack you for questioning “The Science” by which the ship is being navigated and accuse you of spreading misinformation. There are a few people who are like Benjamin the Donkey in the world, but not enough to change the direction of society at large; meanwhile, the NPCs insist that we all just shut up and obey our supposedly wise and beneficent overlords, despite all the evidence showing that our ruling class are criminally insane or worse; so what do you do?
Benjamin the Donkey’s solution was to value his own survival above all else. This is understandable, but such resignation and withdrawal from public life only assures the success of bad actors.
What if Benjamin the Donkey had spoken up at those early meetings when Napoleon and Snowball were arguing? Maybe he would have influenced the debate in a positive way. Maybe he could have formed an alliance with Snowball to oust Napoleon; which while not ideal, would have led to a better outcome for the animals than the tyrannical, corrupt, and self-serving dictatorship of Napoleon. Maybe Benjamin could have made things better for himself and others . . . or . . . maybe Napoleon would have shrewdly struck a deal with Snowball and the other pigs to turn them away from Benjamin. Maybe Napoleon would have done to Benjamin what he ultimately did to all his political opponents: destroy them with brutal violence and terror. Maybe Benjamin was smart enough to see where things were heading, but also smart enough to see that he was powerless to change it and that by speaking out, he would accomplish nothing except to ensure that he came to a violent end.
Is Benjamin the Donkey to blame? In asking that, I also have to ask if I am to blame, and if so, what do I do differently? I don’t really have the answers to that. I’m just a regular guy, with a regular day job, raising regular kids, living in a regular neighborhood, staying busy with all the regular demands of daily life. What can I do? What should I do? What difference will it make? Meanwhile, the society around me is being hemmed in on every side by a well-organized and well-funded global cabal of psychopathic demagogues who seem to have decided that their plans involve the engineered collapse of the American project and the subjugation and death of the American people. We have to do something, but what? What power do we have, and what can we do with that power?
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