On The Road With George Orwell

George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier exactly 60 years ago, in a time not unlike our own. The 50th anniversary fete for Orwell's Animal Farm was marked by his publisher, Harcourt Brace, with a special edition illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Hunter Thompson's old partner in fear and loathing. But as great as Animal Farm is -- and deserving of classic status -- I was struck by how obvious, in the wake of the Soviet collapse (presaged by Orwell's pigs and mules), his fable seems now. The Road to Wigan Pier, however, is far more pertinent to current affairs.Orwell's earlier book just entered its 10th trade paperback printing and, at least in my mind, it possesses as much prophetic truth as his more celebrated work. In Orwell's time, the global Depression had reduced conditions of working people to a deplorably low level. Orwell, the self-described "lower upper middle class" writer, had begun to investigate socialism as a system that might cure humankind's ills, or at least redress some inequities.As usual, Orwell took his investigations to extremes -- an excessiveness that would kill him before the age of 50. He went on the bum. He dressed his lank frame in shabby clothes, hit the road and lived among the coal miners in north England. He wanted a firsthand glimpse of working-class living conditions. He bunked at a boarding house so squalid that "hanging from the ceiling was a heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was so thick that it was like fur." He went down into the coal mines, stooped for hours among mole-like tunnels filled with deadly black dust. He moved in with coal miners' families. A short journalistic assignment turned into an obsession, lasting several months.After the exposure to cold, dust and despair more pronounced than the contemporary, but similar, accounts of the American South by James Agee and Walker Evans (published years later in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), Orwell went to Spain. What he'd seen in the coal mines and housing projects was enough to send him into battle, to fight with a socialist unit against the fascist juggernaut of Franco (backed by Hitler) in the Civil War.Here was a guy who had an Eton education, a niche in the imperial government (he was a cop in Burma), an ability to put words simply and powerfully on paper. Plus, he had a good heart and the best intentions to fight a "class struggle." Yet even he was obsessed by the meaning of class. "It is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born," he concludes at the end of The Road to Wigan Pier, a slap in the face of dogmatic socialists who by then were embracing the totalitarian dictates of the unfathomably evil Josef Stalin.When times get tough, distinctions between classes get blurred. But, as Orwell learned, "as prosperity declines, social anomalies grow commoner. You get more and more public school men touting vacuum cleaners and more and more small shopkeepers driven into the workhouse."Even in the workhouse and among the homeless, class distinctions exist. "Here I am, for instance," wrote Orwell, "with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. 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. And what about the far larger class...the office workers and employees of all kinds? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them sided with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies."Why is this still true, six decades later? The truth nowadays is that when any of us -- forced by circumstances to do without health insurance or bare necessities -- have become destitute or seriously ill, we've been on the road with Orwell. Or, how about those who actually bought into the system and, after putting their shoulder to the wheel for 30 years, were downsized off the highway only years before a promised retirement package was due? And on and on.In short, Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier still runs through all of our neighborhoods. We are all being downsized out of our class affectations. However, instead of responding with bitterness and class and racial enmity, Orwell proposes a more unified approach: "We could do with a little less talk about 'capitalist' and 'proletarian' and a little more about the robbers and the robbed."

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