From: The Inman Review Volume 1: Fall 2009
Reading Orwell in Inman
Classed tastes and The Road to Wigan Pier
by Jahn Sood
Countless journalists have taken note that the current recession and atmosphere of general despair are reminiscent of the Great Depression; publishers and readers alike have acknowledged the relevance of George Orwell as a political thinker by bringing his essays from the 1930s back into print. So, it hardly seems necessary to draw additional comparisons.
Yet somehow it didn’t seem right to inaugurate this magazine without some mention of my favorite iconoclast and the writer who I associate most with my time in Inman Square. This year between espresso shots and gallons of soup in the kitchen of 1369, I have undertaken the task of reading all of Orwell’s work and have never so closely identified with a journalist.
My reading Orwell in Inman began with Down & Out in Paris & London. Orwell’s protagonist, a young Cambridge graduate, returns to Europe after a stint in the British Imperial Army. He then finds himself in Paris looking for a job and a new experience.
Shortly thereafter, he is robbed and ends up penniless. He then takes a job in the kitchen of a Paris hotel as a plongeur or dishwasher. As I read this, I found myself in another Cambridge, a Tufts graduate, unemployed after sending countless applications into the great expanse of the internet. So I signed up to scrub dishes in the kitchen of the coffeehouse at the end of my street. I found a good friend in Orwell and felt lost in the same underworld of food service and the strange, rigid hierarchy of kitchen employees.
In the angstier winter months, I found myself sweating over Keep the Aspidistra Flying, another early Orwell novel in which Gordon Comstock, a young writer vows never to take a “good job” for fear of conforming to middle class English culture. Instead he takes a job at a lowbrow bookstore and tries in futility to write poetry by night despite starvation, unfulfilled tobacco addiction and the emotional weight of a relationship he can’t understand.
This narrative was nauseatingly familiar as I too had scorned the “money gods” and resolved to expend my efforts on artistic pursuit rather than committing creative suicide by using my education in the expected way. It was a convenient cop out considering the impossible job market this year, but my decision was resolute and philosophically driven nonetheless.
So I found a new companion and a guide to understanding my first full-time job. I continued by rereading the Orwell novels that were assigned in my high school English classes, his political essays that encouraged me to unite with my fellow baristas and take over the coffee shop and Homage to Catalonia, his journalistic account of the Spanish Civil War, where he served on the Republican side and was shot at by fascists.
It was only after this long binge of Orwell’s righteousness and socialism that I discovered The Road to Wigan Pier. I had never heard of this book before my Orwell kick and might not have discovered it were it not for my neurotic urge to do things completely, but there it was, the next on the list and I bit.
A more mature piece of writing than Down & Out and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by 1937 Orwell had learned to be self-aware in his political ranting. He was a socialist, but skeptical of English socialism, a participant in middle-class culture, but wary of the class system and economic inequality. His political convictions, while guttural and idealistic in the earlier works, had started to gel into developed perspectives.
While I find The Road to Wigan Pier one of Orwell’s best works, though little read, my intention is not to give him some good press. After the publication of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, he was not hard up for critical praise. Rather, my purpose is to explain why this was the one that finally broke my fanaticism. The author makes many assertions that seem relevant to my life in Inman and the Obama era United States, but Orwell’s final conclusion makes it clear that I differ with him to a significant extent.
For me, The Road to Wigan Pier became a means for new thinking about what it means to live here and now and I hope this essay will cause reflection, both on Orwell’s work and the current moment in Inman Square. In doing this, I will highlight at least one way that we have not returned to the political climate of the 1930s.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell writes, “It hardly needs pointing out that we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world which hardly anyone is secure, in which it is almost impossible to remain alive.”
In 2009, while few are preoccupied with the impending spread of fascism, we are certainly caught in a time when every headline mentions disaster. Unemployment, bankruptcy and the countless obstacles for a new administration dominate news reports. We are inundated with talk of urgency and desperation.
Twelve years before the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which his fear of big government blossoms, Orwell’s 1937 manifesto insists that the moment of urgency necesitates a movement towards socialism. Our favorite dystopian claims that he lives in a time when socialism is the only alternative to fascism and all socially minded and decent folk who value freedom should turn left.
Orwell then qualifies his statement by criticizing English socialism as it exists in his time. His objective in writing The Road to Wigan Pier is to understand why the ILP (International Labour Party) has not taken hold in Wigan and other industrial towns in Northern England while in rhetoric, the industrial worker is at the heart of socialist change.
His conclusion is that the English version of socialism has existed too long on the fringe. It is too focused on the aesthetic of change, on being alternative, and fails to include either the British middle class or the working classes who would benefit most from revolutionary change.
Orwell rails “vegetarians and teetotallers” for making socialism inaccessible to the majority and thus undermining its goals. He says, “We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.”
He notoriously seeks a revolution that allows every person decent, livable wages and the leisure to drink good tea and read the news on the English countryside, as that was his favorite activity. Not quite the Marx-thumping workers’ revolution that the more extreme envisioned.
Today, we certainly share Orwell’s hope for change. The hope that the recession will make room for a new economic justice makes a frequent appearance within the ever-thinning newspapers, but the type of change that people seek today is a stark contrast to Orwell’s heady revolution. Our systemic change is inseparable from change at the individual level.
While many believe that economic injustice has always made radical change urgent, the greatest potential comes when the status quo is weakened. The children of the wealthy can’t get jobs, the wealthy themselves are out of work, losing in the stock market and losing their understanding of what strategies will lead to success.
For a start, we elected a president on the promise of economic reorganization. Accused of socialist tendencies early in his presidency, Obama is by no means radical. The most compelling push in his rhetoric is for change on the individual level.
While banks and automobile companies have been nationalized, the president is far more likely to mention a ‘year of service’ and the garden at the White House in his speeches. He notably remarks that he seeks a new style of American living. In his Arizona State University commencement address, Obama professed:
“I’m talking about an approach to life — a quality of mind and quality of heart; a willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame; a willingness to question conventional wisdom and rethink old dogmas; a lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige — and a commitment instead to doing what’s meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world.”
This seems a stark contrast to Orwell’s insistence that his English middle-class tastes and ambitions can be maintained while fighting for economic justice.
Orwell writes, “If you are constantly badgering me about my ‘bourgeois ideology,’ if you give me to understand in some subtle way that I am an inferior person because I have never worked with my hands, you will only succeed in antagonizing me. For you are telling me either that I am inherently useless or that I ought to alter myself in some way that is beyond my power. I cannot proletarianise my accent or certain of my tastes and beliefs, and I would not if I could.”
Orwell’s entire concept of English cultural tradition is based on his middle class upbringing. He identifies this early on, both in himself and in his fellow socialists, but he does not instist that it be be undone. Instead, he argues, “It is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born.”
When I first read Orwell’s book, I took it as justification for my enjoyment of The Economist and good espresso so long as I live with minimal savings and consider myself in favor of justice. After all, I’m just a mirror image of Georgie with his New Statesman and Darjeeling seventy years ago. In my case, having been to college, sitting here in a Cambridge café and reading George Orwell, I am bearing a position in the American class system.
Having had some time to reflect, I feel less smug. Living in Inman Square, facing similarly despearate times and the urgency for change it seems impossible to justify maintaining traditional ideas of success or tastes that rely on the oppressive status quo. If I am to consider myself on the side of economic justice today, I must start by revolutionizing of my own consumption patterns. Unlike in Orwell’s time, we have the means to research and scrutinize the companies that produce the products we enjoy.
We live in a cultural setting where vegetarians are no longer on the fringe. In fact it seems that in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Omnivore’s Dilemma is more popular than the Bible. As a community, we are concerned with the origins of the things that we consume, the labor and environmental impact that those products require for production. More and more, we are willing to change our tastes in order to work towards economic justice.
As for his tea, Orwell dedicates an entire book to the ills of English imperial presence in South Asia (Burmese Days). He loathes service in the imperial police, yet his ‘English’ cup of tea is of Indian origin. Orwell seeks economic justice and welcomes the fall of colonialism, but is not willing acknowledge that his cup of tea is justification for the empire itself.
In this Cambridge, we prefer to support the local coffeehouse that uses estate grown and locally roasted coffee beans insisting that even “Fair Trade” certification companies are oppressive as they extract large revenues from coffee plantations that could otherwise spend limited funds on their employees. While we are still fighting for systemic change, economic justice is also seen as the responsibility of consumers.
Orwell’s intention is to make socialism accesible to the widest population, but in doing so he sacrifices the integrity of the movement. He holds onto his role in society—his class, his classed tastes and ingrained in those tastes lie the causes for empire, the perpetuation of the classed system he seeks to alter.
While the urgency for economic change has similarities to the Great Depression era, it seems that change today targets the type of culture Orwell aims to preserve. Self-regulation and education are now seen as essential to the integrity of a political movement.
While I believe it is the government’s responsibility to establish and maintain economic justice, change on the individual level in which our consumption reflects a moral framework seems far more revolutionary. Instead of abandoning the socially liberal parts of the fight for socialism, we have brought the fringe to the mainstream and are working towards economic justice one cup of tea at a time.
While I will forever be a fan of Mr. Orwell’s iconoclastic angst and his emphatic calls for revolution, I am glad to proclaim that a difference between my generation and his is the type of change we seek. My change begins, to pay tribute to another bygone era, with the man in the mirror.
Jahn Sood is a writer and barista hailing from Inman Square, USA. When he is not working either as editor of this magazine or in the kitchen of 1369, he builds large castle-like structures out of old books and newspapers and hides amongst them.