On donkeys and democracy

When one mentions George Orwell, most people immediately think of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But a few years earlier Orwell had written another little book, a novella titled Animal Farm.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is undoubtedly Orwell’s master work, with it’s terrifying depiction of a society where every citizen is watched so closely that even talking in your sleep can get you arrested and where the rulers are so confident in their power that they entertain themselves by allowing individuals the illusion of freedom and rebellion, only so that breaking them later is that much more devastating.  It is a warning of where we can end up if we sit back and let those in power have too much.

Animal Farm 1954 DVD cover
Cover of the 1954 animated film

But more significant in my eyes is Orwell’s little fairy tale, as he called it, for Animal Farm shows us just how easily society can reach that state.  Animal Farm, for those of you who’ve never read it, is a fable about a bunch of farm animals who rebel against their human master, run him off the farm, and start working the land for themselves.

The pigs, who take control by virtue of being the smartest, gradually take more and more for themselves until the other animals, too ignorant to realise what’s going on, are worse off than they were under the rule of man.

Animal Farm is also a thinly veiled allegory for the rise of Communism in Russia, with characters representing Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, among others.

I’ve been helping out with extra classes on Animal Farm at my old school.  Teaching this novel (which despite it’s historical parallels is actually quite universal in application) is always a fun experience in an election year, and this year I especially thought of the character, Benjamin.  Benjamin is a donkey.  Orwell describes him as follows:

Benjamin was the oldest animal on the farm, and the worst tempered.  He seldom talked, and when he did, it was usually to make some cynical remark – for instance, he would say that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would sooner have had no tail and no flies.  Alone among the animals on the farm he never laughed.  If asked why, he would say that he saw nothing to laugh at.

And later, when the pigs start teaching the other animals to read:

Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty.  So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading.

Benjamin represents, not a specific person, but a section of society, those people who have become cynical and apathetic over time.  The people who don’t watch the news because it’s only negative, who don’t get excited about new developments because it’s going to come to nothing anyway, the people who don’t vote in elections because their vote isn’t going to make a difference.

What those people don’t realise, and what I saw very clearly with our latest elections, is that their vote (or lack thereof) makes quite a significant difference.

In the South African national elections last week 18,6 million people voted.  The ruling party, with 11,4 million votes, won with a majority of 62%.  Okay.  No surprises there.

Now consider that there are 25,3 million people on the voter’s roll.  That means only 73% of registered voters made their mark and there are 6,7 million possible votes that were never made.  Consider if those 6,7 million people voted for the ruling party.  They would have won with an overwhelming majority of 72%.  Had all those people voted against the ruling party they would have had only 45% and would have been forced to form a coalition government.  The numbers change even more if you consider that while voter turnout based on registered voters was 73%, actual voter participation based on the eligible population is closer to 56% (which, shockingly, is more or less on par with the rest of the world, excluding those countries with compulsory voting).

Sure, in reality those 6,7 million votes would have been split between support and opposition of government, but I hope it brings across the point that those votes could have made a difference, thus proving the cynics wrong.

Animal Farm 1954 Boxer and Benjamin
Benjamin and Boxer from the 1954 film

Is this really a problem?  Consider what happened in Animal Farm.  Benjamin was smarter than the other animals.  He was the oldest and had the others’ respect.  He was aware of what the pigs were doing and had he spoken out he would have been able to unite the others against the pigs and set things right.  But he remained silent, because what’s the point of speaking out?

One day Benjamin’s only friend, Boxer the cart horse, was injured.  The pigs sent for a vet, promising the hardest worker on the farm the best medical care money can buy.  A wagon arrived, and Benjamin read the sign.  They were sending Boxer to the horse slaughterer.  He spoke out in an attempt to save his friend, but it was already too late.  Boxer no longer had the strength to break free and the pigs had grown so strong no other animal dared resist them.

Had Benjamin spoken out earlier, how different that story would have been.

3 thoughts on “On donkeys and democracy

  1. We are getting into the lead-up to an election here in NZ, in September. Already the dirt that every politician has saved up about every other one is being trucked out. Today it involved a race-horse owned by one of them which had apparently lost every race and then been sold, or something, but which hadn’t been declared – I think…I really wasn’t paying attention. I got sick of the circus about 28 milliseconds after it started. But it’s important to vote – and an absolute privilege to be in a democracy. As you say, the alternative is Orwell’s animal farm…


    1. I also did not pay much attention to the campaigning over here. The respective parties’ and politicians’ behaviour over the past five years are much more telling than whatever they said or did during campaign season. In the end I voted for a party whose leader had proven himself trustworthy, even if his party had no chance of winning the election due to some internal struggles the past few years. Good luck ignoring the circus your side. Do you guys have compulsory voting, or is it just in Australia?


      1. We’re obliged by law to register for the electoral roll, but voting itself is entirely optional. Turnouts are usually pretty good for the national elections, dismal for local body voting.


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