Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell, 1933

An Englishman starves in Paris before eventually getting a job as a dishwasher. After following a friend to another restaurant, he can't take the poor conditions anymore and writes to an acquaintance in London for a job. Upon arrival, he discovers that the job won't start for another month, obliging him to return for the duration to life as a homeless guy, this time in his own country.

This is a weird little book. You can't really call it a memoir, because it's fiction, but you also can't really call it a novel, because it's basically plotless. I guess Orwell wanted to paint as accurate a picture as he could of extreme poverty in 1930s Paris and London while leaving himself free to conflate events and characters in a manner forbidden to journalists. This makes Down and Out non-rigorous and therefore pointless more readable than the vast majority of journalism. Orwell's spare prose style does a pretty good job of painting the scenes he sets forth, and his occasional interludes of explicitly commenting on the problem of poverty are interesting and insightful.

One of Orwell's gifts is his ability to point out water to fish — that is, we're all so immersed in our absurd economic system that we don't even notice that it's absurd until someone like Orwell draws our attention to it. Think about it: through a miraculously unlikely series of subatomic blips, we are alive, and after 13.7 billion years of oblivion, we get a few decades before returning to the void. What do we do with our waking hours? Mostly our jobs. Now, if your job is something that you actually want to do with your life, great. But say you wait tables. Your job is not actually necessary — plenty of restaurants, even some really extraordinary ones (such as my personal #1, Di Fara Pizza), allow you to place your order and then pick up your food at the counter. While there are some extremely high-end restaurants whose chief draw is the service, at the overwhelming majority of restaurants counter service would not really detract from the experience. But as Orwell points out, hotels and restaurants are places "where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want."

There was, for instance, no great demand for microwaveable sausages, wrapped in chocolate chip pancakes, on a stick. Someone created them anyway. But evidently there was still not enough demand for them, because every week my mailbox is crammed full of ads for crap like this. They're printed on big sheets of newsprint that get wadded up and stuffed in there — it's really annoying because I have to stand there and sift through it in order to see whether there's any real mail mixed in. No one looks at these things. Some of them get recycled; most end up in the trash. Now, think about that. Think about the lumberjacks who cut down the trees, the workers at the paper mill who turned those trees into newsprint, the graphic designers who laid out the page, the people at the chemical plant who mixed the ink, the printers who ran off tens of thousands of copies, the mail carriers who delivered them to each mailbox, the garbage collectors who picked them up after they had been discarded unread... all of that work was entirely useless. Seriously, you might as well have just cut down the trees and thrown them directly into the landfill. All of the people in this chain were paid for no reason. It would be better for all concerned if they had been paid the same amount to sit around and play Tetris.

But as Orwell observes, we live in a society that will pay people for nothing only so long as there is some sort of toil involved. The down and out have not disappeared; the streets are full of panhandlers and other homeless people. But nowadays the debate over the poorest of the poor has shrunk to question of how to get them jobs and whether tax cuts will create jobs or whether job training is a better way to create jobs and how trade policy affects jobs and who gets the jobs and oh did I mention jobs ps jobs. People are so blinkered that it's really quite wonderful to read Orwell stepping outside the narrow confines of acceptable political discourse to point out that the idea of making work is both perverse and proves that one's pay is orthogonal to one's contribution to the world. "Last month you were standing at a freeway offramp with a cardboard sign. Very bad! Now you're standing at the entrance to a Wal-Mart nodding at the people who walk in. Much better! Here's your paycheck. Don't spend that $400 all in one place. Sincerely, a guy who sits at a desk nodding at people and makes $120,000 a year."

However, there are also some interesting bits that make it clear that Orwell's society and ours do not line up. "Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like negroes and white men." Wow. I don't know what's more jarring, the reminder of European homogeneity or the casual suggestion on the part of this supposed egalitarian that there is some kind of "fundamental difference" between races. In the US race and class are not so easily divorced; indeed, class terminology is often used as code for race. Orwell claims that "the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit" and that no one would know the difference if the two were switched. He says that "since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose" because "the mob is in fact loose now" "in the shape of rich men." But when Orwell says this, he is imagining British dishwashers changing places with British millionaires. That's not how fear of the mob works in the United States. When Bill O'Reilly freaks out about setting the mob loose, he's imagining brown people changing places with white people. And while their character may be the same, their culture is different, and people like O'Reilly who explicitly identify with the "white male Christian power structure" find that prospect terrifying.

I also suspect that personal factors come into play here. Orwell says that "everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows" that they're just like the rich, but that "intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor" and therefore remain ignorant of the essential equality between the classes. But one thing that is clear, both in Down and Out and in the other works of Orwell's that I have read, is that while he was educated, above all else he valued what Patrick Farley termed "the simple, sturdy pleasures of life." A drink at the pub, an earthy story from the fellow sitting next to you, a smoke. (One thing apparent in Down and Out is that the dude was f'ing obsessed with tobacco.) If enjoyment of this stuff is what you're looking for, then yes, you will find it among rich and poor alike. You may well find that despite having gone to Eton you find many kindred spirits among the dishwashers. But if your criteria are different...

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