Monday, October 20, 2008

George Orwell on unemployment

From the Road to Wigan Pier (my emphasis) :

When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing
that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of
being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine
that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work,
those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in
the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that
unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would
probably continue...

That was the attitude towards unemployment in those days: it was a disaster
which happened to you as an individual and for which you were to blame.

When a quarter of a million miners are unemployed, it is part of the
order of things that Alf Smith, a miner living in the back streets of
Newcastle, should be out of work. Alf Smith is merely one of the quarter
million, a statistical unit. But no human being finds it easy to regard
himself as a statistical unit. So long as Bert Jones across the street is
still at work, Alf Smith is bound to feel himself dishonoured and a

But, I think not again--or at least, not so often. That is the real
point: people are ceasing to kick against the pricks. After all, even the
middle classes--yes, even the bridge dubs in the country towns--are
beginning to realize that there is such a thing as unemployment. The 'My
dear, I don't believe in all this nonsense about unemployment. Why, only
last week we wanted a man to weed the garden, and we simply couldn't get
one. They don't want to work, that's all it is!' which you heard at every
decent tea-table five years ago, is growing perceptibly less frequent...

The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they
cannot help. It is not only Alf Smith who is out of work now; Bert Jones is
out of work as well, and both of them have been 'out' for years. It makes a
great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody...

So you have whole populations settling down, as it were, to a lifetime
on the P.A.C. And what I think is admirable, perhaps even hopeful, is that
they have managed to do it without going spiritually to pieces. A working
man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class
person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think
nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in
Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize
that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being.


At 6:21 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you know what the legacy of the 1930s was in the attitudes of the postwar years, including amongst the middle class & the Tories. Are we in for something similar?

At 6:37 pm , Anonymous Wilfrid said...

Until I read Orwell properly I was a conservative- after reading Road to Wigan Pier and Down and out in Paris and London I became a leftwinger.


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