The Book of the Conservative Anarchist

February 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

The Road to Wigan Pier (Orwell, George)

“When you contemplate such ugliness as this, there are two questions that strike you. First, is it inevitable? Secondly, does it matter?”
“And finally, is there something one can do about it?”
– George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair’s public handle) is best-known and much acclaimed through the Western world for his savage attacks on Stalinism (Animal Farm) and totalitarianism (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Indeed, in many first world eyes, he was a true-blue Cold War hero, the champion of open society and free speech against the evils of the commune and the commissar. And yet, he had fought the Spanish Civil War shoulder to shoulder with Communists; and two years prior to that, when he was commissioned by the Left Book Club to investigate the effects of the Depression on the working class in the mining districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire (this book being the result), he was known to have impeccable Socialist credentials.

The truth is that George Orwell’s politics were not as straightforward as Left or Right. This, in fact, is the case with most of us, though we may not realize it. Most of us profess, publicly and to our own selves, to believe in what we want to believe in, what we hope we believe in, what we think is noble or fashionable to believe in, and what we think the people we admire believe in. But we may actually believe in something else, something more convenient, something that shows us in a good light – though we may conceal our motives from ourselves. It takes rare intellectual integrity to submit oneself to rigorous interrogation, to cut deep into the prejudices buried in one’s mind by social class, upbringing and economic circumstances, and to scoop out from this slippery mess, one’s true beliefs. This evisceration Orwell performs on himself with the cold, blunt, blade of brutal honesty, and lays bare his heart for our benefit. What we see when we peek inside is perfectly understandable and entirely humane, yet very complex and impossible to label.

People at the End of the Road (Miners in North England, early 20th century - photograph courtesy Wikimedia)

What is so complicated about his politics? Well, here’s a clue: Orwell says he hails from the lower upper middle-class. And here’s another: he describes himself as a cross between a Tory and an anarchist (no, not like a Tea Partyist  – not even remotely). He abhors fascism and militarist nationalism – this much is obvious. And yet, he retains a fierce pride in British tradition and culture. He has nothing but scorn for the moneyed class that lived off dividends and rents and hadn’t indulged in a hard day’s work their entire lives. And yet, he sees only too clearly the inadequacies of British socialism – and of British socialists. In the midst of all this, if there is a single defining characteristic to his politics, it is his deep compassion for the working-class poor, a compassion that extends into empathy and admiration, and eventually, even a slightly pathetic desire to be accepted as one of them.

“I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong; a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being an oppressor yourself…I wanted to submerge myself, get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.”

The working-class are a foreign country (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley): they do things differently there. Orwell, our intrepid ambassador to this alien land, reports that the miners of Sheffield and Wigan live in unspeakable squalor, and that their working conditions are exploitative and unendurable. We (Orwell’s gentle readers) couldn’t survive in such conditions for a week, and yet our comfort, our refined, delicate ways, the survival of our civilization, depends on their spending their lives in this manner. And they are different. They spend their meager resources on different things from the rest of us (“the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesnt.”). The cleanliness of their surroundings is less of a priority for them than it would be for the bourgeousie. Their family values, their sense of camaraderie with their fellow-men, the way they accept their fates, their instinctive grasp of both Socialism and religion without a rigorous theoretical understanding of either, even their warm hospitality and acceptance of strangers in their midst – all of these set them apart from those who consider themselves the social superiors of the working class. Do not presume to judge them according to our conventions and biases, warns Orwell; these people are better than us in many ways, and above all, they ARE us; it is a travesty that the working-class and the toffs should be foreigners to one another, and such a state of affairs would lead to civil war and the triumph of evil dictatorships.

So doesn’t all this make socialism Orwell’s natural ally? Yes, but the biggest problem with socialism is … socialists! They come in two flavors, he says, both unsuitable for purpose:

“On the one hand you have the warm-hearted unthinking Socialist, who only wants to abolish poverty and does not always grasp what this implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual, book-trained Socialist, who understands that it is necessary to throw our present civilization down the sink and is quite willing to do so. And this type is drawn…entirely from the middle class, and from a rootless town-bred middle class at that.”

Neither the well-intentioned but empty-headed sort, nor the dialectic materialism-spouting armchair theorist has any ability to connect with the man on the street. Besides, Orwell thinks Socialism may have gone down the wrong path altogether. Instead of sticking to its primary aims of justice and liberty, it has put forward a soulless mechanized face, encouraged the deification of industrialization, and championed the cause of industrial progress for its own sake. This, to Orwell, is an abomination, because unthinking automation strives to make life complex and soft, whereas in Orwell’s opinion, it should be simple and hard. Although Orwell denies this, he does seem to be nostalgic for some mythical older, golden period when everyone worked hard with his hands, and when everyone was happy.

I can – vaguely – see what he means here, but am not sure such a golden period ever existed, nor that Socialism is the villain here; capitalism and the profit principle has proved equally culpable in the mad greed for endless growth in productivity and industrial efficiency, as Galbraith showed a few years later.

This was possibly the only point in this book where my opinion differed from Orwell’s. In all the rest we spoke as one man. This is not a complete surprise: we come from similar social milieux, Orwell and I, with converging worldviews. Orwell could have been describing my own upbringing when he describes his own:

“I despised anyone who was not describable as a ‘gentleman’, but I also hated the hoggishly rich, especially those who had grown rich too recently. The correct and elegant thing, I felt, was to be of gentle birth but to have no money. This is part of the credo of the lower-upper middle class.”

This paradoxical ideal of shabby genteelness was also the credo of the English-educated, salaried, urban Indian in 1980’s India; small wonder that Orwell’s Road could have led as easily to the coal mines of Dhanbad as to Wigan Pier, or that the book this most closely resembled, in my mind, is P. Sainath’s Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This attitude has changed in today’s India, and it is no longer shameful to aspire to be wealthy, exactly as it had happened in Thatcher’s Britain; and while the argument that it is a change for the better, gains currency with every passing day, it is nevertheless a cause for concern that the roads to Wigan Pier and to Dhanbad are even less taken these days; we have abandoned these roads, and the people who live at the end of them, to their fates; and one fears that the situation has not changed much in these places, since the time Orwell and Sainath visited them.


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