Monday, 7 July 2008

Orwell, unemployment and 1984

In his study of Democracy in America, the nineteenth century French political and social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville said that:

“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike…Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power that takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild…After having this successively taken over each member of the community in its powerful grasp, that supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform…The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided. Such power does not destroy, but it does prevent existence; it does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

It is appropriate in this ‘year of the book’ to examine the issues raised by de Tocqueville of dehumanisation and state power in relation to the works of George Orwell[1]. It is my intention to concentrate on these two aspects, which I believe underpin much of Orwell’s thinking and to consider Orwell’s contribution to our perceptions of unemployment and totalitarianism. However, to begin with I will examine Orwell’s place in the tradition of ‘radical earnestness’ that has been the basis of much English social theory since the mid-nineteenth century and arguably earlier.

Orwell and the ‘English tradition’

There is a strand in English social theory of which Orwell is a late exponent that can be traced back to the Levellers and Diggers of the mid-seventeenth century through Rousseau and Paine to the Owenite Socialists of the mid-nineteenth century. Despite the cosmopolitan influences of the last two hundred years, it is very much an ‘English tradition’. This tradition is itself powerful and, though substantial, elusive. It has a conservative element, what may be seen as Tory radicalism, is strong and binding, whose meaning and power of adhesion cannot be traced precisely back to social structure or system of ideas or the relations of production but which has penetrated all these with an unmistakable endurance and presence. T.S. Eliot, especially in his Four Quartets provided the most conveniently compressed expression of this tradition:

“This is the use of memory:

For liberation – not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country

Begins as attachment to our own field of action

And comes to find that action of little importance

Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,

History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.”

It is not enough Eliot says to state the facts of continuity to justify that continuity. It is in the provision of meaning that the justification of continuity and the consequent resistance to change can be found. Continuity provides identity, shape and location devoid of moral precepts: “History may be servitude, History may be freedom”. Meaning brings liberation but not liberation from the past but an almost metamorphic symbiosis of self and history. The past is used to justify the present, not just to explain it. Sir Isaiah Berlin writes of this that: “Most men wander hither and thither, guided and, at times hypnotised by more than one model, which they seldom trouble to make consistent, or even fragments of models which themselves form a part of some none too coherent or firm patterns or pattern. To drag them into the light makes it possible to explain them and sometimes explains them away.”

It is this conservative aspect of the tradition, which people move in and out of almost at will, that Orwell and many of his contemporaries were reacting against. They reasserted the ‘Englishness’ of a tradition that they saw as being corrupted by foreign especially Hegelian influences. They saw this conservative tradition not as ‘liberation’ but ‘serfdom’, elitist not democratic, ossification not dynamism. Above all, they saw it as incapable of dealing with the twin problems of the inter-war period, unemployment and totalitarianism of both left and right. Though the conservative tradition was, as Eliot says, “never indifferent”, it did preach that action was of “little importance”. However, both unemployment and the threat from totalitarianism required action.  Orwell and others redefine the ‘English tradition’. Hey argued that tradition was to culture as personality was to the individual. Orwell reiterated the values of individualism to society: individualism gave fulfilment, freedom, sincerity, honesty, personal dignity, choice, creativity, happiness and rights. This means the right of choice, of self-determination. Orwell wrote in his essay England, your England “The English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the only art that cannot cross frontiers.”

Orwell was born in 1903. His father was in the Indian civil service and Orwell described him as one of “the genteelly impoverished middle class whose like in England was an always faltering effort to maintain a maidservant, the bric-a-brac and the prestige which only the vacant, transplanted Wimbledons of the plains of India made possible”. He went to Eton but as a scholarship boy and joined the Imperial Police at the age of nineteen. In 1946 in Why I Write, Orwell discusses his life in the 1920s and 1930s: “I spent five years in an unsuitable profession in Burma, and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred to authority and made me fully aware for the first time of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.”

It is difficult to know or understand the experiences Orwell was living at this time. The contradiction of an old Etonian imperial police officer becoming first a temporary derelict and then a worker militiaman in Spain is obvious. But to Orwell, it was an individual almost egocentric problem. Many of those who knew him on his visits to Lancashire in the early 1930s when preparing material for what became The Road to Wigan Pier speak of his humourless detachment from other people and his reluctance to commit himself to friendship at any more than a superficial level. It was an isolation that Orwell never really got over. His faith gave him individual revelations that he converted into actions: “The Spanish Civil War and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it”.

Orwell’s ideas on politics and society are best exemplified in essays such as Charles Dickens, Decline of English Murder, Raffles and Miss Blandish and especially in his study of smutty postcards The Art of Donald McGill. These are essays in popular culture in which Orwell identified a sense of national character and a sense of justice. In The Art of Donald McGill, written in 1941 Orwell said: “I never read the proclamations of generals before battles, the speeches of fuhrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties…without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal…Their whole meaning and virtue is their unredeemed lowness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever. The slightest hint of ‘higher’ influence would ruin them utterly. They stand for the worm’s eye view of life”.

Orwell’s outstanding contribution to developing political and social awareness was his assertion of a conception of socialism not based on economic analysis nor on rational social and political organisation but on a specific analysis of English culture and character, on a sense of national character and of the justice owing to the English people. Orwell wrote in 1941 in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius that it was necessary “to try and determine what England is before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening…” To Orwell, the best and essential characteristics were found among the working population. Their culture was in opposition to established ruling-class culture: “in all societies, the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities.”

While the working class may set the standard for change, their role as agents in that change was far more ambiguous. In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 Orwell portrays them as honest, kindly and he frequently uses the word ‘decent’, but they were also adaptable: “Instead of raging against their destiny, they made things tolerable by lowering their standards…Some people hardly seem to realise that such things as decent houses exist and look on bugs and leaking roofs as acts of God; others rail against their landlords bitterly; but all cling desperately to their houses lest worse should befall them”.

Is it here the case of Orwell seeing working-class situations and solutions through middle class eyes? I think not. He argues against the notion “that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums”. There are two beliefs at work here. First, that the people, though deprived of many of the benefits of material culture are the repositories of the true and most truly valuable English culture. In In Defence of English Cooking, he says “If you want, say a good, rich slice of Yorkshire pudding you are more likely to get it in the poorest English home than in a restaurant”. Secondly, even though tolerance of and adaptability to their deprivations was an aspect of popular culture, the people had perceptions of a better way of life. This meant a fairer redistribution of material advantage that Orwell did not see being brought about by middle class political leadership. His hostility to arm-chair socialists was greater than that which he displayed towards the existing ruling class. To him, they were condescending, patronising and presumptuous: “they would never dream of eating their soup nosily or wearing their caps in the house”. The disparity between the mass of the population and the wealthy minority gave his arguments a sharp edge. Again, almost despairingly in The Lion and the Unicorn: “At some point or another you have got to deal with the man who says ‘I should be no worse off under Hitler’. But what answer can you give him – that is, what answer could you expect him to listen to – while common soldiers risk their lives for two and sixpence a day and fat women ride around in Rolls-Royce cars nursing pekineses”.

So how is this impasse resolved? Orwell says that “It is only by a revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean street fighting and red flags, it means a fundamental shift of power”. Salvation comes from within. Leadership had to be the leadership involved in participation, a leadership that involved a negation of everything normally associated with the concept and privileges of leading. 1984 is an indisputable rejection of any attempt to save the people from above by the sole power of the centralised collectivist state. Orwell’s view is a populist one with all the democratic participation that implies.

Orwell and unemployment

Given Orwell’s populist position, how valid was his analysis of unemployment in the 1930s? This decade saw an explosion of documentary literature, journalism and comment. It saw the emergence of Mass Observation using trained observers to collect information and report on all aspects of social behaviour and practice including evidence dealing with social habits such as dress, drinking and leisure activities. The cinema newsreels showed images of deprivation: vivid, poignant and immensely powerful. But Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier was part of that great era of the travelogue literature not about exotic parts of the globe but about the far corners of ‘Darkest England’. The Picture Post, the first documentary picture magazine marked a new step forward in documentary journalism with the salacious, sensational and sordid mixed with serious profiles of social problems including unemployment. It represented the 1930s equivalent of the modern use of television ‘soap operas’ like Eastenders and Coronation Street making valid social comment.

The written word was, however, central. The first sixpenny Penguins were published in 1935, the Left Book Club was founded by Victor Gollancz in 1936 and both brought books about social conditions to a mass market of unprecedented size. Public libraries expanded and, it is likely that the reading habit was more widespread than ever. Cheap editions made people far more aware of living and working conditions. Given that unemployment was the problem of the inter-war years, it is remarkable that government made no real attempt to investigate its social consequences. The furthest it went was to examine the distribution of industrial population in the Barlow Report in 1938 and various reports of the Ministry of Labour on industrial conditions. Almost all the work on social conditions was conducted by voluntary groups or on the initiative of individuals or publishers.

The study of mass unemployment was left to the mainstream of academic inquiry and it was not until the late 1930s that the serious government investigations began to make an appearance. In the interim, a literary genre dealing with the problems of unemployment and depression made its appearance. Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel set in depression-scarred south Lancashire, Ellen Wilkinson’s The Town That Was Murdered about Jarrow and Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier are the most famous. These books formed one horn of a generally left-wing attack on the performance of the National government, the other being on appeasement of the European dictators. It is not surprising that the outpouring of ‘dole literature’ as it was called was not always well received. Arthur Bryant, the historian reserved a fairly stern reception for Orwell’s classic in his preface to an autobiography of G.A. Tomlinson, a coal-miner:

The Road to Wigan Pier…was written by a young man of refined tastes who at some apparent inconvenience to himself had ‘roughed it’ for a few weeks in Wigan and Sheffield. The impression left by the first part of the book is that Wigan and Sheffield are Hell; the corollary, worked out with great skill in the second part, that every decent-hearted man and woman, sooner than allow such conditions to endure a day longer, should at once enrol in the ranks of those who are seeking change by revolutionary means…The weakness of the argument lies in the fact that revolutionary change…involves not only a blood-bath…but the loss of individual freedom of choice and the end of democratic government: the experience of Russia and Spain proves this. But there is an even more fatal weakness in his premises, for though Wigan and Sheffield may genuinely seem Hell to a super-sensitive novelist, they do not seem Hell to the vast majority of people who live there.”

Bryant provides a clear statement of the ‘adaptability of the working-class’; ‘revolution’ in the blood-bath sense was never an option in the 1930s any more than it is today[2]. A comparison of the rhetoric of extremism of both left and right in the 1930s and the actual numerical basis of support for extremism shows the validity of this conclusion.

What ‘dole literature’ did was to add an important dimension to the study of social problems akin, in its impact to the effects on early Victorian society of the ‘social novels’ of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Kingsley. But it reached a much wider audience that the more scientific, and perhaps more impartial studies of the academic investigators and in that sense has done more than any other single source to shape our perceptions of the ‘Hungry Thirties’ or what A.J.P. Taylor called ‘the Devil’s Decade’.  We live in an age of almost instant communication and it is easy to forget that in the 1930s, just as a century earlier, the major barrier to people taking action on behalf of the unemployed and the deprived was sheer ignorance[3]. Unemployment was concentrated geographically in areas of heavy industry and this was, in itself sufficient to disguise the enormity of the unemployment problem. Orwell’s writings on this and what he saw as the evils of rampant fascism both at home and in Spain, helped to bring these problems into the realms of reality and gave them the flesh and blood lacking in official statements. He helped to put unemployment and fascism on the political agenda.

It is interesting that much of the ‘dole literature’ dates from the mid-to late-1930s – Orwell is no exception here – when the worst of the depression was over. It was also the case in the 1840s. Orwell attempted some analysis of this in the 1940s. He concluded that first, it took time to undertake the research; ‘dole literature’ could not be instantly created. Secondly, the thirties opened with unemployment as a social problem and it was not until it was politicised and the alternative Keynesian view took root that anything positive could really be done. The classical economic policy of budgetary control and retrenchment led to popular economic tracts like The Riddle of Unemployment. Government was concerned not with removing the problem of unemployment but only with mitigating its effects through unemployment relief. Orwell was at his most powerful when describing the hated ‘means test’:

“The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks upon families. Old people, sometimes bed-ridden are driven out of their homes by it. An old-aged pensioner, for example, if a widower would normally live with one or other of his children; his weekly ten shillings given towards the household expenses and probably he is not badly cared for. Under the Means Test. He counts as a ‘lodger’ and if he stays at home his children’s dole will be docked. So, perhaps at 70 or 75 years of age, he has been turned out into lodging, handing his pension over to the lodging-house keeper and existing on the verge of starvation…It is happening all over England at this moment, thanks to the Means Test…There is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single and upon men more than women...how the devil is he to fill up his empty days?”

Orwell’s value as an analyst of unemployment lies not in his analysis of its causes of which he says little new or of the totality of people’s experience in the 1930s. J.B. Priestley’s An English Journey gives a far clearer view of the regional nature of unemployment. Orwell only makes one statement in The Road to Wigan Pier about unemployment elsewhere: “In the South, unemployment exists but it is scattered and queerly unobtrusive. There are plenty of rural districts where a man out of work is almost unheard-of and you don’t anywhere see the spectacle of whole blocks of citizens living on the dole.”  It is his perception of the debilitating effects of unemployment and his response to government inaction that is most valuable. Statements like these still have a pronounced impact today. In response to occupation centres, Orwell said: “Keep a man busy mending boots and he is less likely to read the Daily Worker” and “Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone has access to the radio…It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stocking, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate, the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution.”

The social conditions that Orwell described and the existence of poverty and unemployment became the relevant evidence in the political debate that was to have profound consequences for the post-war world. Orwell contributed but one dimension to this debate that was accentuated by the outbreak of war in 1939. His belief in ‘social justice’ was echoed in the Beveridge Report of 1942, in the Butler Education Act of 1944 and in Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order with its arguments for minimum social standards acceptable in a Christian community. The Welfare State was a logical consequence of Orwell’s writing and the present debate on the role of the state in welfare provision makes his ideas doubly important[4]. Seebohm Rowntree concluded his The Human Needs of Labour with the prophetic statement: “I submit that the day is past in which we could afford to compromise between the desires of the few and the needs of the many or to perpetuate conditions in which large masses of the people are unable to secure the bare necessities of mental and physical efficiency.”

Orwell too asserted the ‘needs of the many’ as opposed to the ‘desires of the few’ and nowhere more clearly than in 1984.


[1] This paper was written early in 1984 and given at a conference in Aylesbury in the spring of that year. I have not altered the text though have added footnotes in places by way of revisions or further comment.

[2] Looking back from the perspective of 2003, this was perhaps an overstatement in respect of the ‘anti-revolutions’ of the eastern bloc as communism collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s but an under-statement in relation to the declining revolutionary fervour of the left. ‘New Labour’ is far from revolutionary in its ideology having espoused the language of the ‘market’ as central plank of its ‘reforms’.

[3] This was written before the days of the email and text-message, of video-conferencing and the immense and accessible knowledge-base that is the Web. The major barrier to people taking action today is not sheer ignorance, but deliberate indifference. ‘Live-Aid’ occurred quite soon after I wrote the paper but over twenty years later, we are no closer to solving the problem the ‘Third World’ deprivation or debt. ‘Red-Nose Day’ reminds people graphically of the need for action but familiarity through the media with famine, disease and war has bred an intense indifference among many people to their effects. We live in a ‘balkanised’ world in which ‘nimbyism’ is increasingly the norm.

[4] The debate on the Welfare State under Thatcherism was all about establishing a positive link between the market and health provision, targeting welfare where it was most needed and stigmatising those individuals who failed to live up to their responsibilities. Under New Labour, the debate is all about establishing targets (to give the impression that things really are improving), giving hospitals and by extension patients more freedom (within the market-place), targeting welfare where it is most needed and introducing ‘inducements’ to compel those who are not living up to their social responsibilities to accept them. So little new there then!! Health care is still ‘free at the point of delivery’ which is more than can be said for higher education. The safety-net that Beveridge saw as the basis of any humane society is wearing thin. The arrogance of power means that the ‘desires of the few’ are increasing the dictats that shape the ‘needs of the many’. ‘Spin’ not ‘social justice’ is now the determinant of policy and politics as the ‘art of the possible’ has become ‘the science of the sound-bite’ and the ‘dialogue of the deaf’.

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