Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Book: George Orwell, Animal Farm (Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Inc., 1946)

Why: A thought-provoking tale that works on many different levels, Animal Farm is as relevant now as when it was first published at the onset of the Cold War.

A colleague recently brought to my attention a real gap in my liberal arts education. He had read Animal Farm three times before his formal education came to an end. I thought I had read the book (and I certainly have read and am a fan of Nineteen Eighty-Four, by the same author), but nothing was familiar when I cracked open the well-worn paperback he lent me (cover price 75¢!) and began reading. As I continued to read, I realized that this is a book anyone who lives in a democratic republic should read at least once in his or her life.

It doesn’t focus on economics or entrepreneurship, though the economy is a critical element to the story. Nor are the lessons to be drawn from the book narrowly focused on economic morals. Eric Blair, a/k/a George Orwell, was actually a socialist, so it comes as some surprise that the book really isn’t a capitalism-bashing tale, and perhaps that is one of its real strengths. 

Of course, given Orwell’s background, this also isn’t a treatise on the importance of entrepreneurship to society or the economy (although it did make me wonder whether “all entrepreneurs are equal” or some are “more equal than others,” but I’ll save that thought for another day).

You can analyze this parable on any number of levels and in various contexts (the most obvious being that this is a simplified overview of the history of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century), but for those of us living in the post-9/11 world there are still lessons to be learned.

Sure, Orwell is ridiculing totalitarian states. But, if you read a bit more closely, you can also discern a subtle warning about the insidious threat posed by apathy in a democratic society. After all, it doesn’t take much to move the sheep from “Four legs good, two legs bad” to “Four legs good, two legs better.”

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