By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Man is the only creature that consumes without producing’ is a quotation from George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm: a book that is both beast fable and allegory for Soviet Communism. But Orwell’s aim in Animal Farm was to show how the ideals informing the Russian Revolution of 1917 had become corrupted through greed and division, and ‘Man is the only creature that consumes without producing’ forms part of a key speech near the beginning of the novella which expresses those initial ideals.
The novella opens with an old pig, named Major, addressing his fellow animals on Manor Farm. Major criticises Mr Jones, the farmer who owns Manor Farm, because he controls the animals, takes their produce (the hens’ eggs, the cows’ milk), but gives them little in return. Major tells the other animals that man, who walks on two feet unlike the animals who walk on four, is their enemy:
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin. You cows that I see before me, how many thousands of gallons of milk have you given during this last year? And what has happened to that milk which should have been breeding up sturdy calves? Every drop of it has gone down the throats of our enemies.
Note how Old Major’s speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric: he begins with a readily graspable statement (‘Man is the only creature that consumes without producing’), a self-evident truth, if you will, before proceeding to give examples which corroborate his argument (unlike hens, man does not lay eggs; unlike horses, he does not pull the plough through the fields).
Yet someone – despite his lack of usefulness – man is ‘lord of all the animals’. Major’s repetition of the collective ‘Our’ (‘Our labour … our dung’) unites the animals against their human overlord.
He then moves to rhetorical questions (‘how many thousands of gallons of milk’ – countless, too many to put a figure to), answering his own question about the milk that the cows have produced. Man – who has now subtly gone from mere ‘lord’ to the animals’ active ‘enemies’ – has consumed it all.
Of course, ‘man’ here is an allegorical representation for the aristocratic classes of the old Russian empire: the tsar and tsarina and their family, and the other wealthy noblemen and women who never have to labour in the fields or down the mines. Although they consume – wine, fine food, coal for heating their vast mansions and country estates – they do not produce.
Orwell was always alive to this idea of consumption versus production. In his masterly essay on Charles Dickens, for instance, he writes:
It is not merely a coincidence that Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food. He was a Cockney, and London is the centre of the earth in rather the same sense that the belly is the centre of the body. It is a city of consumers, of people who are deeply civilized but not primarily useful. A thing that strikes one when one looks below the surface of Dickens’s books is that, as nineteenth-century novelists go, he is rather ignorant. He knows very little about the way things really happen.
Although we cannot equate Dickens and his fellow Londoners with the Russian ruling classes, Old Major’s speech – when analysed alongside this passage from Orwell’s critical study of Dickens – shows how ‘consumption versus production’ was a key part of Orwell’s political and economic thinking.
Old Major continues with his rhetorical use of questions to the specific animals, as he highlights the labour and production that would be impossible without them, before pointing out to Clover the horse that the foals she gave birth to have been taken from her and sold off for profit:
And you hens, how many eggs have you laid in this last year, and how many of those eggs ever hatched into chickens? The rest have all gone to market to bring in money for Jones and his men. And you, Clover, where are those four foals you bore, who should have been the support and pleasure of your old age? Each was sold at a year old – you will never see one of them again. In return for your four confinements and all your labour in the fields, what have you ever had except your bare rations and a stall?
Old Major’s speech succeeds in uniting the animals, as Lenin – whom Major partly represents, along with Karl Marx, in Orwell’s allegory – brought the working classes of Russia together against their decadent aristocratic overlords. They sing a rousing song in favour of animals, ‘Beasts of England’.
Old Major dies a few days later, but the other animals have been inspired by his message. Two pigs in particular, Snowball and Napoleon, rouse the other animals to take action against Mr Jones and seize the farm for themselves. But as we discuss in our analysis of the novel, the new system which replaces the old proves itself to be just as corrupt and unjust.