A few years ago my kids brought a couple of books home from the library and I settled down to read to them. The first one was about a sad donkey – sad because he had long funny ears. They kept catching on barbed wire, tripping him up, getting in his breakfast and generally making the rest of the donkeys bray with laughter. The donkey tried everything: tying them in a knot, turning them inside out, visiting a quack vet, but it was no use. Tears rolled down his face. Then one day along came a lady donkey who just adored long ears. She fell in love with the sad donkey, cheered him up, and soon they were married and lived happily ever after.
The second story was about a goldfish. He was browned off too – bored out of his mind in a garden pond swimming round the same cement gnome every day. So one night he popped into the overflow pipe, down the drain and out to sea in search of adventure. His mum and dad were against it and preferred to stay at home watching Coronation St. The sea turned out a disaster: cold, dark salty and full of miserable crabs. Tears rolled down .the goldfish’s face. Then one day he found himself swimming past the end of a familiar drain. Up he went, along the overflow pipe and pop! back into the old familiar little pond. Mum and Dad were overjoyed, the goldfish never grumbled about boredom again and lived happily ever after.
Two different stories and harmless slabs of plastic in themselves, but it’s amazing when you stop and listen how often the same pattern and the same message get repeated. Your world and your position in it might seem dismal but they’re as good as you’ll get so there’s no point in doing anything about it. If you do try and improve it then either, like the donkey, you’re wasting your time or, like the goldfish, you’ll only make matters worse. So leave things as they are, be grateful for what you’ve got, do as you’re told, and in the end you’ll learn to love it all. P.S. Support your local moderate candidates.
Bosses’ propaganda comes in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to have property developers as heroes and anarcho-syndicalist shop stewards with strong Trotskyite tendencies as villains to get your point across. Often what’s crucial is not who the characters are – who is hero and who is villain, though this may be relevant. More important are the values that the novel or film or TV show acts out or condemns, and how those values relate to our society and the various sections and classes within it.
In short, as Orwell once pointed out, all art is propaganda. He later expanded the remark a bit: “Every artist is a propagandist in the sense that he is trying, directly or indirectly, to impose a vision of life that seems to him desirable.”  It’s impossible to disagree with this. You can’t string two phrases together without your values beginning to come into play. The fact that I’m writing these, particular words and not other ones is the result of all sorts of value judgements going on in the back of my head, selecting, rejecting, ordering, shaping. And this remains true whether you’re writing a poem about Spring or a pamphlet about workers’ control.
If values penetrate what we read and see in this way, then it’s worth stopping to think for a minute about some of the forms those values take. Once you can recognise them, half the battle is won, because you’ve got your own built-in crap detector, able to spot and filter out some of the traditional devices of social control. Here, let’s take just two of the most widespread forms: propaganda directed at children and the propaganda value of happy endings.
Propaganda for children is usually pretty crude. If you’ve forgotten how crude, spend five minutes listening to the mind-smashing, down-on-your-knees religious drivel that gets talked at the average school assembly and you’ll soon remember. Even the games children play are often sabotaged by the prejudices of their elders. So, for example, a well researched television play a couple of years ago called The Death of Adolf Hitler featured Dr Goebbels’s children playing a “Snakes and Ladders” type of game called Get the Jews. The seven year old winner “got” 45,000, to Eva Braun’s applause. Trust the Nazis to poison even the kids’ minds. And yet most of us were brought up on Cowboys and Indians. There’s no getting round the fact that the game re-enacts and celebrates the genocide that was the basis of the American empire. Of course it’s a fantastic game for children in terms of its form: it’s exciting, it’s full of movement, it lets them in imagination remake themselves and their world and so on. But the problem is the content of the game. It’s possible to have others with these same qualities, but the one capitalism overwhelmingly offers and reinforces with comics and films is reducing lots of brown people to pulp or herding them in concentration camps called reservations.
When Walt Disney Inc is not busy making money in this way out of the roots of American imperialism it’s busy cultivating its branches. Disney Landia, a comic published in Chile seven months after the Fascist coup of September 1973, pictures helpless kittens attacked by two vultures called Hegel and Marx. As a farmer drives them off with a shotgun, Jiminy Cricket comments with delight: “Ha! Firearms are the only things these bloody birds are afraid of.”  You’re liable to be sent to prison if you show children pictures of people making love. Show them pictures of people making mincemeat of Commies and Redskins and you’re liable to make a lot of money.
What about happy endings? It was argued earlier that the effect of tragedy is subversive in so far as it presents to us characters we learn to admire and then shows them being nailed up, something that would not happen if their society were just. The device of the happy ending reverses this pattern. We are shown characters with all sorts of problems, but in the end, like the donkey we started with, they manage to find a way around them and live happily ever after. If all problems are surmountable with a bit of luck and effort then clearly no radical changes are necessary.
This sort of structure is very common in the Victorian novel. For example Dickens in Hard Times is very perceptive about some of the human mutilations that nineteenth century capitalism was responsible for. But in the end Dickens, like all good liberals, backs away from the full implications of his own criticisms. Hence organisations like trade unions that try to defend people from those mutilations are presented as the worthless tools of an outside agitator called Slackbridge. A bit of crude juggling and Dickens conjures up a last page soggy not just with pie in the sky but rather with soggy pie for all, right here and now:
But, happy Sissy’s happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death, and the plainest national prosperity figures can show, will be the Writing on the Wall, – she holding this as part of no fantastic vow, or bond, or brotherhood, or sisterhood, or pledge, or covenant, or fancy dress, or fancy fair; but simply as a duty to be done, – did Louisa see these things of herself? These things were to be.
There’s an obvious connection in these two curious sentences between the sheer dishonesty – part wishful thinking, part misrepresentation – of what’s being said and the fantastically crabbed, convoluted, lopsided, twisting and roundabout way it’s being said.
George Bernard Shaw may often have been a fool in his old age but this shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the sharpness of his early plays. In his very first, Widowers’ Houses, written in 1892, he takes a hatchet to the rotten device of the happy ending. Dr Trench the hero wants to marry Sartorius’s daughter Blanche but is horrified to find that the family’s money comes from the extortionate rents of slum tenants. However it’s soon revealed that his own handsome private income comes in fact from interest on a mortgage he holds on some of Sartorius’s slum properties. Sartorius milks his tenants in order to keep up with the monthly payments due to Dr Trench. Collapse of Trench’s stout liberal scruples, which by the end have declined to a few cynical observations as he exits to marriage and happiness ever after with Blanche.
In Victorian novel after Victorian novel – and indeed later in Hollywood film after Hollywood film – the heroine is swept off by the hero in the closing moments to what Orwell once called “a sort of radiant idleness” – independent means, roses round the cottage door and on the children’s cheeks, and a loyal working-class lunatic in the background to cook the meals, wash the floors and provide comic relief when she drops her aitches or the spoons. Shaw is one of the first to ask rude questions about the economic basis of this fairy tale and to point out that it doesn’t happen in a social vacuum. If some people in the end are able to put their feet up for the rest of their lives it’s because some people elsewhere are being screwed to generate the cash.
It’s necessary to be careful at this point or else you can end up arguing that for art to be progressive it has to be bloody miserable, and that anything that gives us half a smile is part of a ruling class plot to convince us that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But it certainly is true that when serious artists have tried to describe a state of genuine happiness – genuine happiness as opposed to limp little bourgeois dreams of sitting about twiddling your thumbs and watching the roses and the savings account grow – they have been forced to present that happiness existing in spite of or outside their particular world.
Shakespeare, for example, knew that in his world, as in King Lear, people tended to get their eyeballs trodden on, so that when he wants his characters to enjoy themselves, to stretch their minds and their emotions and their potentials to the limits, he shifts them into a deliberately unreal place – an enchanted wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Bohemian harvest festival in The Winter’s Tale, a magic island in The Tempest. In this last play the hero Prospero literally waves a magic wand and freezes for the moment all the life-denying forces in violently emerging capitalist society. So it is that his daughter Miranda is able to gaze around in wonder and exclaim:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
In the twentieth century, after another four hundred years of human, social and technical development, it’s central to the socialist case that you don’t need a magic wand any more to catch a glimpse of a brave new world. For the first time it’s something that we really can make together. So we need to see clearly that novels and films that nihilistically deny that possibility or that suggest that life’s better under the Conservatives and so doesn’t need tinkering with are the soft ideological equivalent of the policeman’s truncheon – weapons for keeping people in their places and preserving things as they are.
1. Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol.ii, p.41.
2. Reprinted in Chile Fights, London June-July 1974.
Last updated on 13.8.2001