The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell)

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier.

Originally planned as a Leftist expose of “capitalist society,” Orwell actually gives us a fine expose of mass-industrial society, whether capitalist or socialist. To whatever degree northern British society was actually capitalist is a question beyond my expertise. Orwell’s remarks, however, show a society essentially at the same level of (non) flourishing as any you would find in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The real enemy is any impersonal system. This goes beyond mere economics, whether socialist or capitalist. Orwell could not have imagined how advanced technology is today (or maybe he could have). His observations are even more relevant.

Orwell explains the psychology of the working poor, and unlike the rest of world socialism, he actually cares about the poor. Unlike today’s socialists, Orwell believes in work. He believes in a welfare state, to be sure, but for him it was a necessary evil. Man did not want to be on the dole. He wanted to work and would cry to God for work. Today’s socialist, by contrast, believes that welfare is of the very essence of the Good.

The first six chapters or so are grim reading. It is England at its ugliest. The next seven chapters turn into a savage critique of modern “bourgeois socialism.” Think of the Starbucks socialist today. This is Orwell at his literary best. He writes,

“I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners.”

He made many socialists uncomfortable with his critique of industrialism. Industrialism had long been the Holy Grail of world communism. The problem, though, is that increases in technology seemed to make work, and by extension man, unnecessary. The more advanced the technology, the less needed for man’s muscle and skill. As a result, anyone who wants to learn a skill will be perceived as anachronistic.

Orwell also saw the connection between poverty and bad diets. Why do most people below the poverty line choose to gorge themselves on junk food, when healthy food is often cheaper? He notes,

“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.

Conclusion

One of socialism’s PR problems was reversed expectations. The early socialist believed that the working man would want to make his working condition better. What actually happened, at least in America, is that the working man became patriotic, largely religious, and violently anti-communist. Socialism was relegated to university professors and social media activists.

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