Burnham and Orwell

“Make Orwell fiction again!” became something of a meme during the Trump administration years. But for my sins (and unending reading pleasure!) I continue to dive into The Orwell Reader (Harcourt Brace 1956, 1984) swimming amidst the currents of his excerpted wit, insight and contrarian cantankerousness. We still need Orwell (and writers like him), pointing out corruption, bad faith, dissembling. My books are certainly very different–no talking farm animals, no aspidastra, no collectivist state, but the main characters are driven by their reaction to anti-democratic forces that try to chip away at and siphon off power. And while the conspirators in the #FaithlessElector series aren’t jack-booted thugs (yet), they are self-dealing elites who have coopted and corrupted politicians.

Recently in The Orwell Reader, I re-read Orwell’s cogent, withering critique of James Burnham’s work, The Managerial Revolution (1941). Orwell is dismayed that Burnham appears to want the militaristic state he describes as coming into being. Indeed, Orwell notes that, in Burnham’s 1941 edition, Burnham seems to be on the side of Nazi Germany. What struck me as I re-read Orwells’s point-by-point critique was that Burnam’s “managerialism” forms the intellectual scaffolding for the oligarchic collectivist state at the heart of 1984.

A bureaucratic collectivist state, like the one Burnham described as (hopefully?) coming into being in the 1940’s, “owns the means of production, while the surplus or profit is distributed among an elite party bureaucracy, rather than among the working class. Also, most importantly, it is the bureaucracy—not the workers, or the people in general—which controls the economy and the state. Thus, the system is not truly socialist, but it is not capitalist either.” [from Wikipedia]

In 1984, Orwell saw something in the lies, crimes and lack of accountability in Stalin’s, Hitler’s and Franco’s state capitalism—whatever they called it themselves—that looked like what Burnham described. Their regimes were about naked power, and in that pursuit they were prepared to subvert reality to their own purposes.

Many readers of the Faithless Elector series, (Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers) took the thrillers as a thematic repudiation of Trump. That’s true in a way, but Trump wasn’t even the Republican candidate for president when Faithless was published in March of 2016. The genesis for Faithless is far older than that. Rather, the background from which these books sprung existed long before Trump, and remains with us now.

We’re still living in the times depicted in Faithless and the other books, and we were living in it long before Trump barged onto the scene. What surprises readers of the Faithless Elector series (and this isn’t much of a spoiler) is that NEITHER of the major parties is orchestrating the plot. Rather, it is those who are parasitic on the parties that work the levers behind the scenes and buy useful idiots who believe they will reap the benefit.

Like housework, the job of democracy is never done, either because by its nature it’s messy and chaotic, or because power-hungry forces see a chance to supplant and usurp our role to hold our leaders accountable and to determine our own futures. I think of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui:
“Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men! Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

# # #

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, Bastard Verdict (out 18-May-2023), is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. Bastard Verdict is available to reviewers through NetGalley

His current, work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

His most recent short fiction is below. The first is available for online reading.

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.

“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

One thought on “Burnham and Orwell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.