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The Road to Chappaqua

eye on the news

The Road to Chappaqua

Orwell’s advice for the Democrats November 29, 2016
Politics and law

In her instantly notorious “basket of deplorables” speech, Hillary Clinton characterized half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” That statement got all the press. Nearly unreported on, however, was Clinton’s expression of sympathy for “the other basket.” These Trump voters, she said, “feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures.” This basket, she went on, contains “people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” George Orwell would have recognized Clinton’s combination of concern for, and discomfort with, the working class. The British novelist and critic captured it memorably in 1937’s The Road to Wigan Pier, a short book that should be required reading for the Democratic Party in 2017. 

The genesis of the The Road to Wigan Pier was a commission Orwell received from the Left Book Club, a publishing group founded by the prominent British socialist Victor Gollancz. As part of the Left Book Club’s mission to use literature and popular culture to build a case for socialism, Gollancz asked Orwell to live among—and write about—the coal miners, millworkers, and unemployed laborers of the greater Manchester area. (Wigan Pier itself was a wharf on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal). The first half of the resulting book did exactly what the Left Book Club wanted. In the powerful prose style he had honed previously in Burmese Days and Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell detailed the physical tolls of working in a coal mine: “Every miner has blue scars on his nose and forehead and will carry them to his death. The coal dust of which the air underground is full enters every cut, and then the skin grows over it and forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is.” Orwell also managed to capture the misery of older men, who, unable to do the physical work of mining, were reduced to selling newspapers on the streets: “The newspapers engage poor desperate wretches, out-of-work clerks and commercial travelers and the like who for a while make frantic efforts and keep their sales up to the minimum; then, as the deadly work wears them down they are sacked and fresh men taken on.” Housing conditions in Wigan reminded him of “the filthy kennels in which I have seen Indian coolies living in Burma.”

Orwell was at the time an avowed socialist, hardly an apologist for capitalism and free markets. Yet, in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier—the part Democrats should read—Orwell abandoned the Left Book Club’s script, outlining with candor and originality the awkward dilemma of the contemporary Left. That is, how to advocate on behalf of a working class that you find deplorable? Orwell described the “lower-upper-middle class” socialist thusly:

He idealizes the proletariat, but it is remarkable how little his habits resemble theirs . . . he still habitually associates with his own class;  he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who thinks him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, pictures, music, ballet are still recognizably bourgeois tastes; most significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class.

The bourgeois Left not only has different cultural tastes than the working classes; it disapproves of blue-collar tastes as well: “It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.”

We see such disdain for blue-collar taste in our own modern American culture. Indeed, to many on the left, Donald Trump symbolizes bad taste. Snobbishness about food, country music, clothing, NASCAR, or “guns and religion” is as casual as it is accepted in the better ZIP codes of New York and Los Angeles. Orwell, to say the least, had the Left’s number, in ways we still recognize today: “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.”

Orwell’s advice for the Left was to begin by acknowledging its snobbery. He also felt strongly that redistribution—the dole—was an insufficient response to unemployment, or to the mechanization of work that he presciently saw coming to Wigan. Orwell had expected to see poverty as something affecting “tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes.” The poverty he found was more widespread—and more  significant. “I knew nothing about working-class conditions,” he confessed. “I had read the unemployment figures but I had no notion of what they implied; above all, I did not know the essential fact that ‘respectable’ poverty is always the worst. The frightful doom of a decent working man suddenly thrown on the streets after a lifetime of steady work, his agonized struggles against economic laws he does not understand, the disintegration of families, the corroding sense of shame—all this was outside the range of my experience.” Life, he wrote, “has to be lived in terms of effort.”

The working class, in other words, needs to work. No party that claims to represent the interests of the working class can afford to forget that.

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