George Orwell and Useless Work


“I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.” George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, p. 119

In the extraordinary memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell masterly describes what it is like to be poor. He tells us how he came to be in a situation of extreme poverty; he is living in Paris teaching English and is suddenly left without students. By a series of steps, he describes how he gradually becomes penniless and hungry, and the different feelings experienced through this new reality that takes over all aspects of his life.

In his first encounter with poverty, when there is no work, and hardly any money, he says: “You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty, the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing.” (p.19) Soon after that, he discovers “the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that in annihilates the future… When you have three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till to-morrow, and you cannot think further than that.” (p.20).

Orwell describes to perfection how a person in this situation lives, day to day, concerned only with survival. Where will he get money to pay the rent? (He lived in a small dirty hotel room). Where will he get money to eat tomorrow? Can he get by on bread? (He gets by on bread and margarine). Orwell’s description illustrates perfectly the reason why, still today, the poor are accused of being lazy and not being able to plan for the future. When a person lives hand to mouth, the future vanishes, and there is no more to work for than to the constant immediate requirements of survival.

In the book, after several days without eating and walking for miles daily with his Russian friend Boris looking for work, Orwell finally gets a job as a plongeur. A plongeur is a person employed to wash dishes and carry out other menial tasks in a restaurant or hotel in Paris. A plongeur was the lowest in the ladder of hotel workers, besides doing the dishes, he does anything else that needs doing in the kitchen. He describes the catacombs of the hotel where the plongeur spends his time as the nastiest, dirtiest, darkest and most hellish place imaginable. The catacombs hardly ever under 110 degrees. A plongeur is also continuously insulted, being in the lower ranks of the hotel workers and he works for about 12 hours a day, which was considered a pretty good schedule since many lowly workers at the time routinely worked 14 to 16 hour days. Even in these conditions, Orwell says, after being hungry, and now being able to eat regularly at the hotel, it was relatively easy to get used to the life of a plongeur. His days are full of activity, sleep is a luxury, and there was no free time to speak off except on the one day off, inevitably spent drinking at the cheapest possible bodega, since there was no extra income or energy to do anything else.

Orwell describes this life brilliantly: “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack.” (p. 116). These kinds of jobs, unfortunately, are still quite common 100 years later. Workers still have long hours, minimum wage is not enough to pull a person out of poverty. According to a Kairos center report, in 2015, 45 million people in the USA were living below the poverty line and additional 97.3 million living on low income, twice above the poverty line. On the other hand, 1% of the population in the USA owns 43% of the wealth. Worldwide, low wages are a persistent problem as well. Inequality and poverty are still very much an issue today as they were for Orwell and there are many doing jobs similar or equivalent of what he did as a plongeur.

In the book, Orwell asks, what’s the purpose of working under those conditions? Is there any value on doing the work a plongeur does? He acknowledges that the plongeur is proud of his work, his pride being based on the idea that “he can stand” the terrible job and living conditions given to him, and keep going. But, Orwell asks, is the plongeur really participating in creating something worth while? The answer is, no. The restaurants and hotels in Paris, with the sanitary and work conditions he describes vividly and to great detail, all have the same purpose, use the cheapest possible products and sell them at the highest possible prices. They create what he calls, “false luxuries”, and he says: “Smartness, as it is called, means in effect, merely the staff work more and the customers pay more; no one benefits except the proprietor, who will presently buy himself a striped villa at Deauville.” (p.118)

Villa at Deauville.

So the pride that the lower waged workers feel, is misguided. It is a last grasp at dignity from men and women that have been trapped in a fruitless life of slavery for the benefit of the patron, so he can buy his villa by the ocean. Why do workers accept these conditions? Orwell’s answer is clear: “They are trapped in a routine that makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.” (p.116)

And why do they not have leisure to think? Because the patrons make sure to make them work as hard as possible so there is not one free moment or respite of the business of survival for them to even think about other solutions for their lives. The bosses very often consider that the poorer employees are “such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.” (p.116).

On the other hand, the educated classes, having very often no direct experience of the reality of the poor, also tend to believe that there is a certain mental incapacity that leads the lower waged workers to not be able to do any better than what they are doing. But Orwell, having had direct experience of what it is like to be poor and the types of work the poor have to suffer, tells us the truth of the matter: poor people are no different from rich people. Orwell writes: “Fear of the mob is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between the rich and the poor. But in reality there is no such difference. The mass of the rich and the poor is differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.” (p.120)

It is truly depressing that 100 years after Down and Out in Paris and London, we still have millions of people in those same situations and low income workers are on the rise. Furthermore, many still believe that the poor are somehow to blame for being poor. On the other hand, poor people still think that there is some sort of honor in a hard days work, even if all their work is doing is lining up the pockets of some patron or other. People still think that there is some radical difference between the rich and the poor that explains their different standings in life. Finally, both the rich and the educated will still fight tooth and nail against any idea that gives the poor some leisure and freedom (as seem by the many attacks on ideas like Universal Basic Income, for instance). Social Security was an attempt to deal with situations of extreme poverty, but it is still keeping people in the poverty trap. But there is no reason to be afraid of the mob, we are the mob, all of us. We are really all in this together.

George Orwell is still relevant today, hopefully someday our children will read Down and Out in Paris and London and smile thinking of how foolish and ridiculous life was then. Unfortunately, we cannot say that yet.

George Orwell

Please see also my essays, Basic Income as Seed Funding for Humanity, We are Keynes’ Grandchildren, Harper Lee: Success, Creativity and Basic Income and Hillary Clinton and Basic Income.

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