Thursday, December 13, 2018

Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier"


A version of this appeared as a journal article in The Independent Review...

George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (WP) is a good read for a number of reasons. (Thanks to Howard Husock for making me aware of this book through his essay in City Journal!) It's interesting as an historical narrative of difficult working-class lives in 1930's England. And its material is political and philosophical—with significant applications to social class and contemporary politics. 
Orwell divides his book into two halves. The first half is a riveting documentary on the immense challenges of life in the 1930's, even in one of the most prosperous countries in the world—for those who worked in difficult occupations on the lower end of the economic spectrum. In particular, Orwell focuses on coal miners and the remarkably onerous conditions in which they worked. Orwell "gives a first-hand account of the life of the working class population of Wigan and elsewhere. "It is a terrible record of evil conditions, foul housing, wretched pay, hopeless unemployment, and the villanies of the Means Test [England's welfare programs]." (xi) In this, WP is akin to a (presumably-more-accurate) version of the Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
The second half describe Orwell’s admiration for socialism and his sense of the public's frequently-poor perception of socialism and socialists. Orwell "looks at Socialists as a whole and finds them (with a few exceptions) a stupid, offensive, and insincere lot." In this, WP is akin to reading a liberal's take on liberals and the plethora of contemporary faux liberals—a la Thomas Frank's contemporary work.
The second half is so pointed in this regard that the "Left Book Club" (which commissioned the work) expressed disappointment with the book and felt a strong need to clarify the book to its club members. The editors' note that the decision to publish Orwell should not be mistaken for full agreement with his conclusions (ix)—a point on which they elaborated for a full page (x). 
Victor Gallancz, writing for the editors, said that he had more than 100 minor critiques of the book (xii). But he deeply appreciated Orwell's narrative and respected his "highly provocative" argument. The editors loved the first half of the book and were willing to tolerate the critiques, polemic, and bomb-throwing in the second half. Gallancz wrote that it had been "a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression." (xi) Perhaps the editors secretly respected and valued the second half of the book—for its efforts to make socialism more palatable to the masses. In any case, we can be thankful that they saw fit to publish Orwell's work.
Note also the context of the book and its times. It was published in 1937, as England was continuing to limp along after its "Great Slump" (their version of our "Great Depression"). England did not endure as many policy errors as America under FDR and his "New Deal". So, the times were not nearly as bleak as in America's continuing "depression". (In the 6th year of FDR's policies, unemployment was still 19%. See: Vedder and Galloway’s Out of Work.) But England's recovery was still tepid and times were tough.
Also, socialism was still ascendant as an ideology, and to many, as an economic system. Gallancz points to the then-apparent "successes" of the Soviet Union's economy with its five-year plans (xviii). This is so difficult to imagine now. But even into the 1980s, there were those who imagined (and wrote economics textbooks saying) that the Soviet Union had a better economy than the U.S.
One final observation before I dig into the details of what Orwell wrote. The man was good with a phrase and colorful in his descriptions, making the book a pleasure to read (even when one has quibbles or complaints with what he has written). For example, in chapter 1’s description of the boarding house where he stayed, "the dust was so thick that it was like fur" (5) and "in the morning, the room stank like a ferret's cage" (6). The owner climbed "the stairs, carrying a full chamber-pot which he gripped with his thumb well over the rim." (12) And on the stench of one town: "If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur, it is because you have begun smelling gas." (106)
Orwell's Observations on "the Working Class"
In Chapters 2-3, Orwell turns from his lodging to the coal miners. He notes the vital importance of coal in his time (or by extension, energy): "In the metabolism of the Western world, the coal miner is second in importance to the man who plows the soil." (21) When I talk about cartels in the classroom, there are only two prominent examples. Both, not coincidentally, are international and natural resources: OPEC and DeBeers. DeBeers is more impressive as a cartel, but OPEC is more important since its sporadic successes have ripple effects across the entire macroeconomy.
Orwell's description of work in the coal mines is sobering. We might have the impression that it's peaceful and bucolic, if we visit when the mine is not in operation (21b). And really, few people want to think about such unpleasantries: "Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above...[not] black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it." (33-34)
The reality of the work is rough. Orwell felt "a pang of envy for their toughness...an almost superhuman job by the standards of an ordinary person...monstrous quantities of coal" while kneeling (22). "The heat...the coal dust...the unending rattle of the conveyor belt" (23). The elevator "cage" to get "400 yards under ground" (24). And then there are the "immense horizontal distances" (25), where one "walks stooping" to get there (26) and this "travelling" is not compensated (29). 
When the miners come up from the pit, their faces are "so pale...due to the foul air” even though it “will wear off presently." (36) He was fascinated by the blue scars on their faces: "The coal dust...enters every cut...forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheese from this cause." (36) Without full "pithead" baths, they could not possibly get clean. Orwell estimates that these were available to only one-third of the miners. "Probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week. It is almost impossible for them to wash all over in their own homes." (37) 
In Chapter 4, Orwell turns to housing. It is "by any ordinary standard not fit for human habitation" (51). And yet "there are no others to be had...[a] housing shortage" (52). Of course, from Econ101, this doesn't make any sense, unless there is profound monopoly power—of the sort that could only be found at this time through government power. But Orwell doesn't provide any evidences of government malfeasance. Instead, the more likely explanation is that the housing was lousy, but what consumers could afford. 
From there, Orwell talks about "Corporation" housing. These seem to have been government-run—what we would call "public housing." (This is ironic since this government effort was labeled "Corporate".) At their worst, the Corporation houses were still "better than the slums they replace...a condemned house" (68). They were nicer, but more expensive—10 shillings vs. a former rent of 6-7 shillings (68). And the Corporation houses had "restrictions" (71). 
In Chapter 5, Orwell turns his sights on "the Means test"—what we would call "welfare programs" for the poor. Orwell was a prophet ahead of his time—at least by American standards. He was disturbed by the system's cold calculations and bureaucracy. It wasn't until the 1980s when "liberals" were bothered by these things in American welfare. (See: Funiciello’s Tyranny of Kindness.)
Orwell was also concerned about the impact of welfare incentives on work (76-77, 81-82) and family formation (79-80). He said that welfare programs "discourage people from marrying" and "break up families". For a short time, Charles Murray was seen as a gadfly in the 1980's for making this case in Losing Ground. But a few years later, his work on welfare policy was mainstream. Led by liberals and conservatives, motivated by scholars such as Murray and Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion), Bill Clinton and a GOP Congress "changed welfare as we know it" (well, sort of) in 1996. 
Orwell takes a few more pokes along the way—at unions (83), government training and make-work programs (83-84), and gambling through the "Football Pools" (85, 89). He claims that "a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity" and so many people are "underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio" (89-90) It's difficult to make heads or tails of these two claims—how the market could provide luxuries for the same price as common goods or outside of an Obama-phone-like radio initiative, why so many people would have radios but not food.
Orwell on Class Differences
Orwell covers two important topics in the second half of the book. The first is his lengthy discussion of class and pseudo-class differences. In the contemporary American context, I've often argued that racial differences are overstated; class differences are underestimated; and that the latter are probably greater than the former. Orwell doesn't talk about race much, but he certainly sees and explores massive class differences in 1930's England. 
Let me give you a full dose of Orwell's description of the boarding house and its owners, the Brookers (17): 
On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole. In the end, Mrs. Brooker's self-pitying talk--always the same complaints, over and over, and always ending with the tremulous whine of 'It does seem 'ard, don't it now?'--revolted me even more than her habit of wiping her mouth with bits of newspaper. 
But, in a manner reminiscent of those who discourage today’s liberals and Democrat partisans from ignoring Trump voters (whatever they think of their lives and beliefs), Orwell continues by warning us not to ignore "[these] people" (17): 
It is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us...this is where it all led to—labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long. 
So, learn about them, but don't immerse yourself too much or it may rub off on you. Orwell does encourages his readers to empathize with them as best they can. But understand that it is exceedingly difficult to transcend class differences and there are probably significant limits to the effort (115): 
Is it ever possible to be really intimate with the working class?...I do not think it is possible. But undoubtedly it is easier in the North than it would be in the South to meet working-class people on approximately equal terms. It is fairly easy to live in a miner's house and be accepted as one of the family; with, say, a farm labourer in the Southern counties it probably would be impossible. I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealizing them, but I do know that you can learn a great deal in a working-class home, if only you can get there. The essential point is that your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others which are not necessarily better but are certainly different.
Or later (154-156): 
It is so easy to be on equal terms with social outcasts. But unfortunately you do not solve the class problem by making friends with tramps. At most you get rid of some of your own class-prejudice by doing so...But when you come to the normal working class, the position is totally different. There is no short cut into their midst...It is not [necessarily] a question of dislike or distaste, only of difference, but it is enough to make real intimacy impossible...
Olasky and Peter Cove in Poor No More make the same point about efforts to (really) help the poor. It requires effort and (true) compassion, not just sentimentality and money. Given the difficulties, it's common to find posing and trying to shed guilt by spending money, rather than making the difficult investments of time and energy that would make feasible even the start of a helpful approach (157-158):  
Of course, everyone knows that class-prejudice exists, but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it. Snobbishness is one of those vices which we can discern in everyone else but never in ourselves...We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed. 
And how should we even define "class"? The easiest empirical proxy is income. The next-easiest empirical proxy and the easiest to approximate visually is wealth—or at least, evident wealth. But "class" stands in for education, a variety of social/cultural norms, and a general approach to life. (In his vital book on this topic, Coming Apart, Charles Murray presents data on classes based on income and more. Murray has also done useful work on the “bubbles” in which we live—particularly in the upper classes.)
Orwell provides some estimates of income in contemporary England. But then he quickly moves to professions of the "upper-middle class": "not to any extent commercial, but mainly military, official and professional" (123). In sum, for him: "Which class do I belong to? Economically I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie." (225)
In our day, profession, education, and income also intersect in a Venn diagram of what might constitute "class". And so, for example, the middle-income sociology professor is upper-middle class or even upper class. For those within some of the intersections of the Venn, "you live, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously" (123). Moving toward the outer edges of those intersections, we see people "struggling to live genteel lives on what are virtually working-class incomes...forced into close and, in a sense, intimate contact with the working class..." (124) But this intimate contact is no longer true today—with our diminished sense of neighborliness, low-cost transportation, and easy communication. 
Orwell talks about being a young man and a wannabe reactionary. "I was both a snob and a revolutionary." (140) (The editor refers to Orwell as "at one and the same time, an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual" [xvi]. I'm down that end of the spectrum too, in a group that includes today's anti-anti-Trumpers.) "We retained, basically, the snobbish outlook of our class, we took it for granted that we should continue to draw our dividends or tumble into soft jobs." (139) Orwell says that he grew more aware of this tension over time, but noticed that others were satisfied with platitudes: "Many people, however, imagine that they can abolish class-distinctions without making any uncomfortable change in their own habits and 'ideology'." (162)
Orwell is also brutally frank about his problems with the working class. He starts with a phrase that was popular in his youth but had become too PC to utter at the time of his book: "The lower classes smell." (127) Wow! He continues by describing it as a repulsive physical feeling—and thus, more difficult to get over (128). "They are dirtier" and less likely to have bathrooms (130). He has a "hope that in 100 years, they will be almost as clean as the Japanese" (130)! Then he shares a hilarious story where he was in a position to share a quart of beer with a bunch of herdsmen. He thought he would vomit, but he didn't want to offend them. "You see here how the middle-class squeamishness works both ways." (131) Later, "it was rubbing shoulders with tramps that cured me of it." (131). 
This is reminiscent of Michael Harrington in his classic book on poverty. Harrington argues that the poor are “maimed in body and spirit” (11). On a story about poor African-Americans, Harrington concludes: “The story is funny enough, but at bottom it is made of the same stuff as Amos ‘n’ Andy: the laughing, childlike, pleasure-loving Negro who must be patronized and taken care of like a child…the incident is ultimately one more tragedy within the structure of the ghetto.” And commenting on family structure in the African-American community, Harrington argues that “as a result of this, to take but one consequence of the fact, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of children in the other America never know stability and ‘normal’ affection.” (16)
Orwell closes the chapter by noting that "he is still responding to the training of his childhood, when he was taught to hate, fear, and despise the working class." (136) Perhaps given our lack of proximity these days, there's not much of such "training". Instead, we have apathy and utter unfamiliarity. But I suspect that fear of the unknown—and less opportunity for intersection with those who are different from us—get us to a similar outcome. 
When one looks down on people—and gets involved with them, out of pity, compassion, etc.—it's easy and often correct to question and criticize their choices. This leads to a difficult and uncomfortable question: When are differences a matter of preference and opinion vs. some objective norm? And if you and I differ—and I am convinced that your decision is "wrong"—at what point should I condemn your choices (never the sinner; always the sin!) or even, bring government policy into the fray? 
Orwell plays with this from a few angles. He points to "the squalor of these people's houses" and "the number of children" (60). (He's not nearly as rough in his paternalism as Michael Harrington’s.) Orwell also notes the role of paternalism in foreign affairs: "seen from the outside, the British rule in India appears—indeed, it is—benevolent and necessary...[but it also] an unjustifiable tyranny." (144) And he extends his observations to paternalism and condescension in nationalism and regionalism (111-112).  
Orwell on the Failure of Socialists to Sell Socialism
The second primary topic in part 2 of the book is Orwell's frustration with socialism's failure to spread in the popular imagination—and thus, socialists' failures to make their case effectively. This is also relevant to a common political malady today. 
With the most recent American presidential election, it became patently obvious that most voters are not all that ideological. The Democrats gave us a decidedly illiberal candidate—e.g., with her approach to foreign policy, crony capitalism, "free speech", the "sharing economy", and so on. The Republicans gave us a decidedly un-conservative candidate—at least by any conventional social or economic definition of "conservatism". 
Public Choice economists describe voters as "rationally ignorant and apathetic". Weighing benefits and costs, it's rarely enough for voters to get educated and take action in the political realm. This leads to light investments in a complicated arena. 
The political philosophies that usually emanate from this approach are somewhere between piecemeal and incoherent. Sadly, this limited thought process too often results in rabid partisanship and a strange sort of hubris. The most impressive cases are those who have applied coherent ideas to a particular policy or a narrow set of policies—say, in support of a position on abortion or international trade restrictions. 
In contrast, there are a handful of folks who have thought things out relatively well and have come to embrace a coherent ideology. In broad terms, these people fall into two categories. They typically have high regard for freedom and economic markets—and pessimism about regulation and political markets. Or they are pessimistic about markets and individual choices—and have high regard for the actions of the State. The former are libertarians or Libertarians; the latter are "Progressives" or Statists. 
Those who have invested enough to reach these conclusions often have difficulty in understanding why others don't think the same as they do—why they don't see the "obvious" problems or solutions that they envision. More broadly, the advocates don't understand why laypeople don't spend much time thinking about these things. (Jonathan Haidt's research on this is fascinating.)
Given the contemporary problems for those in every class (remember this was the 1930s), Orwell remarks casually that "everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else." (171) 
But "Socialism is not establishing itself...[it is] visibly going back...with so much in its favor—the idea of Socialism is less widely accepted than its was ten years ago. "This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda." (171) And/or socialism "has about it something inherently distasteful" (172).
Orwell puts himself in the position of Devil's Advocate to empathize with why people are not impressed by socialism and socialists. (In this, along the lines of Haidt's research, he's doing something that is rare/difficult for many self-styled liberals—at least of the modern, American sort.) While engaged in this exercise, he notes that socialism "is a theory confined entirely to the middle class" (173); it is plagued by a "prevalence of cranks" (174). 
Orwell's example is hilarious, even to a contemporary mind (174-175): 
For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcass; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity. 
On "cranks", Orwell's observation seems to apply nicely to “Progressives” and the Libertarian party. In his context, "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." (174) For Libertarians, you get James Weeks dancing, an assortment of single-issue folks (who are always somewhere between focused and obsessed), and those who “get it” but can't explain it well and come off as...well, interesting. Or think about the LP's three top presidential candidates in 2016: Johnson, Peterson, and McAfee—each admirable in his own way, but not exactly gifted at reaching the mainstream of American society. 
Continuing his Devil's Advocate critique, Orwell cites "the ugly fact that most middle-class Socialists, while theoretically pining for a classless society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige." (175) He also notes the rarity of laypeople having any sort of coherent sense of political economy (176-178). As a result, "it is only the 'educated' [orthodox] man...who knows how to be a bigot...The creed is never found in its pure form in a genuine proletarian." (178) 
And so, "the ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business." (182) Again, we see this sort of thing among the purists in the Libertarian party. And there is a place for purity—but at what expense? 
And what motivates the entire enterprise for the ardent socialist? Orwell observes:
Sometimes I look at a Socialist--the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. (178-179)
What an ironic angle! Orwell argues that it's not love of others, but a personal desire for order, that motivates the socialist. This connects nicely to the fundamentalism one finds from ideologues, even from "liberals"—from orderly thinking (a la Chesterton's "maniac") to believing in government's ability to instill order and the desirability of such an end. Then, Orwell throws another haymaker:
Poverty and, what is more, the habits of mind created by poverty, are something to be abolished from above, by violence if necessary; perhaps even preferably by violence. Hence his worship of 'great' men and appetite for dictatorships...revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders...Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred--a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacua hatred--against the exploiters. Hence the grand old Socialist sport of denouncing the bourgeoisie. It is strange how easily almost any Socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or by adoption, he himself invariably belongs. (179-180)
Another problem for socialism’s popularity: Its supposed success is driven by artificial, government-induced mechanization, with "five-year plans" in search of progress, organization, and efficiency (188-194, 201). For one thing, it's not at all clear that government can accomplish these goals. But Orwell points to another angle: If successful, the things replaced will be anachronisms. Capitalism has the same problem when people recognize it: the good news for consumers and "markets" (of technological advance and increased competition) is also bad news for producers (firms and workers). But Orwell notes that socialism is unattractive to the extent that people perceive it as cold and sterile “progress”.
The bottom line here for Orwell is nicely put at the end of Chapter 12 (p. 216): 
We have reached a stage when the very word 'Socialism' calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. 
Orwell is a good read for those interested in politics—particularly for those who don't understand why people don't embrace their views. In our days of political hostility, cultural sensitivity, and faux tolerance, we need more empathy and humility—and Orwell can help readers increase both by a notch. 

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