Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

From The Week of April 03, 2011

Intellectuals as insightful and as bold as George Orwell are once-in-a-generation luminaries who possess a unique capacity to expose societal injustices ignored by citizens and dismissed by their governments. His most widely read work, Nineteen Eighty-four, is still popular 60 years after its publication because, more than any other book I can think of, it sees through the veneer of authoritarian Communism, utilizing a profound understanding of human nature to accurately predict the means by which humans forced to labor in such a system are spiritually and intellectually destroyed by it. Though The Road to Wigan Pier lacks the searing satire of Nineteen Eighty-four or Animal Farm, the extent to which it investigates and then reveals the inequities in British society gives it a gravitas worthy of his most famous works.

The Road to Wigan Pier is essentially two books connected by the theme of unfairness and injustice in 1930s British society. Part one is a first-hand account of Orwell's investigations into the lives of the industrial working class. He spends significant time lodging in their homes, participating in their rituals, working in their coal mines, and observing the services provided to them. Though he successfully adopts a fairly detached voice throughout this section, the evidence of widespread neglect and poverty, even after all this time, is enough to churn the stomach. Britain runs on coal. It heats their homes, powers their railways, provides electricity to their factories. And yet the extractors of this vital resource persist in the most appalling, back-breaking conditions imaginable. They are compensated so poorly for what is a dangerous and debilitating job that communities never truly form. There are no lovely homes, no leisurely pursuits, no kids sent off to nice colleges. There are just gray towns that live and die on coal extraction, populated by worried wives, men made unhealthy by the mines and a total lack of affordable, sensible housing for their families.

Part two leaves behind these crippling conditions to engage the reader in a debate.What ought to be done about the problems discussed in the first, investigative section? Orwell cleverly argues that socialism is the only sensible solution to such obvious inequities. However, he's fully aware of socialism's poor reputation in England which is why he sets out to draw in the skeptics by lampooning the period's socialist stereotypes: the soft socialist, the pedantic socialist, the vegetarian socialist, the technologically dependent socialist. And then, once he's thoroughly lured in the doubters by sympathizing with them, he concludes with the obvious, that for all its faults, it is the only fair system.

There is no doubt that the dated argument for socialism, in part two, is completely outmatched by the visceral impact of Orwell's time in the mine in part one. His criticism of soft technophiles is hopelessly out of step with the sensibilities of the 21st century mind, gripped by the technological revolution. What's more, Orwell's advocacy for socialism does seem especially ironic coming from one of the 20th century's most famous anti-authoritarians. And yet there's sense here. Orwell left his comfortable, literary world and, for a time, adopted the life of a miner. In doing so, he encountered an inequity so entrenched that the prospect of having it corrected by simple legislation must have seemed ridiculous. Fairness would need a revolution, not a bill in parliament. I sympathize with Mr. Orwell here because I am a classical liberal who struggles to reconcile my small-government libertarianism with a strong desire for societal fairness. I still don't have a satisfactory answer to this dilemma and neither, it seems, did Orwell. Nonetheless, as usual, this did not sway him from speaking out. Surely, in doing so, he helped contribute to the gradual improvement of the plight of industrial workers.

In spite of a weak second half, The Road to Wigan Pier is first-class non-fiction. Yes, the first half is that good. Oh, to have the talents of this greatest of British authors. (4/5 Stars)

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