Review of *The Road to Wigan Pier*

When I read this quote in the economist, I was reminded of how much George Orwell ‘gets’ today’s problems:

The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread, or if they … ate their carrots raw? Yes it would, but the point is, no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing…

That’s from *The Road to Wigan Pier*, which I proceeded to download onto the K-dog.

Forthwith, my review:

The book is divided into two parts, each of which is interesting today for different reasons.

In the first part, Orwell records time he spent in the industrial north of England. I see this the third act of what I think of as Orwell’s socialist pilgrimage. Acts one and two are described in *Down and Out in Paris and London* wherein Orwell spends time working in progressively more menial jobs in Paris before completely succumbing to unemployment then outright homelessness among the ‘Tramps‘ of southern England.

In the second part of Wigan Pier, however, Orwell makes it clear that his situation is far from pitiable. This section of the book treats us to an analysis of socialism in the context of introspection about Orwell’s personal history.

Orwell was a man of some privilege, if not in upbringing, certainly in pedigree. He describes his family as a members of the “lower upper middle class”, grasping at the status of the rich but with barely the means to adopt its norms.

His early life was one of sacrificing anything that doesn’t directly signal membership in the elite. He had the good fortune to secure scholarships to good schools, else tuition would probably have been financially ruinous. He ultimately winds up at Eton, surely a masterstroke for such a family.

The biographical detail is important because Orwell’s adventures among the poor are deliberately undertaken. He finds himself intrigued by the philosophy of socialism but recognizes the contradiction in the hearts of many socialists:

The typical Socialist is… either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job… with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.

What young Orwell is missing is that Socialism isn’t about helping or even understanding the poor. It’s about signalling compassion for low status people. Remember, poverty and status are distinct, which Orwell understands:

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.

It’s a bit frustrating to read, actually. You know he’s a hairsbreadth away from realizing the sham of it all, but that epiphany is still a few years away for him.

Anyway, for me the most enduring and relevant parts of the book are his descriptions of life in the North.

As a representative story for industrial employment, Orwell gives us coal mining:

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

The whole second chapter is a fascinating description of this business. Here’s another awesome excerpt, concerning the 1-3 mile underground ‘commute’ to the coal face:

Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard day’s work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work.

Ghastly stuff. Orwell then goes on to acknowledge, in a very unsocialist manner, how critical this work is to society:

Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower… even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

As astonishing as the working conditions are, Orwell sees the achievements of the miners as ultimately virtuous; he has a healthy respect for hard work and is in awe of the powers of these men. It’s interesting, then, that he really doesn’t ‘get’ their living conditions:

I have been into appalling houses, houses in which I would not live a week if you paid me, and found that the tenants had been there twenty and thirty years and only hoped they might have the luck to die there.

This reminds me of our tours of the tenements in NYC, where I heard the story of how tenants lobbied furiously against new housing regulations that would force buildings to install certain services (heat and water) in every apartment.

The reason of course was that rents would skyrocket, which they promptly did following the passage of the legislation. The question, of course, was why on earth politicians, pampered and secure in their legislatures, would ever want to overrule their constituents by regulating them into certain ways of life.

The answer is in the tone of Orwell’s description. Time for a little Robin Hanson:

One neglected pattern that stands out to me is that many economically-puzzling regulations and policy inclinations tend to make everyone act like high status folks act, regardless of how appropriate that is for their situation.

Robin concludes that people support such policies because it makes them look/feel good. I’m sympathetic, but I think it doesn’t describe Orwell well.

A more charitable interpretation is that the powerful are partially empathetic. They imagine themselves living as the poor do and, recoiling from the horror of such conditions, feel compelled to end them. What they aren’t doing is properly imagining themselves having a similar personal narrative as the poor, a perspective from which such conditions can be tolerable, even happy. Back to Orwell:

But is it ever possible to be really intimate with the working class? I do not think it is possible… 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.

Unfortunately, Orwell is too blinded by his idealism to see the intellectual direction his experiences are taking him. Equally frustrating, from an ideologue’s point of view, is that Orwell is too honest a journalist to present another version of his experience that would allow him to satisfyingly grind his socialist ax.

He sees what appears to be destitution, but the people themselves are not destitute. This is most evident in the devastating implied critique of social housing in chapter 4.

The price of housing is high in these towns, which the talk of the day chalked up to a lack of supply. Why not build subsidized housing, then, and ‘correct the problem’?

Well, Orwell discovered that people didn’t much like this top-down solution. For lots of reasons.

Most importantly are the first three rules of real estate: location, location, location. Those lured away by the nice new subsidized homes found that they missed living in the inner city. They missed the short commutes to work and they missed the friends, family and social communities.

The other big problem was the constrained freedom. You see, these subsidized houses came with a package of regulations for how to live. Gardens were regulated, pets were regulated, pubs were fewer and further between. You can almost hear the high-status technocrats in London fancying themselves saviors of the poor for forcing them to live ‘like civilized folk’. Disgusting.

But what about the problem of supply? Orwell asked a man living in the slum when the constrained supply of housing became apparent. His amusing reply: “when we were told about it”.

The point, of course, is that it is often a very bad thing for ignorant strangers to judge a culture’s norms and habits wanting and use force to change it.

Orwell would eventually come to understand that the coercion socialist systems require is actually a force for evil, regardless of the rhetoric it’s clothed in.

Ultimately, I came away keenly feeling the contradiction between the purity of socialist theory that Orwell professes to espouse in the second half and the messy Cowenesque ‘facts on the ground’ he describes in the first half. I wonder what Orwell thought of this work in his later years?

I enjoyed this little project. The quote from the economist above was one of dozens of moments where I shook my head at how modern the book sounded.

People really don’t change.

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