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September 18, 2007


Tessa Berman

Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier presents socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism, one which would eliminate the social and economic inequities of his time. However, Orwell’s suggestion that equalizing education and therefore standards of living would help classes to cohere as a political identity is flawed in that it fails to question the economic innovations which have ingrained class inequality in the first place.
The first of these points, Orwell precludes earlier in the document, denying the commonly held belief “that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums.” Obviously, the coal-miners described in the opening sections of the book would prefer better working conditions, pay, etc., however, the cheap production of coal through the exploitation of this class is specifically what allows other classes to live in relative luxury. For this reason, it is useless and indeed precarious for the working class miner to aspire to the standard of living of the middle class in that it is the miner’s disadvantage which privileges his counterpart.
This is a defining characteristic of the larger economic system which Orwell describes, and makes irrelevant any debate between capitalism and socialism without reconsidering basic principles of production. In Orwell’s opinion, socialism must be fundamentally linked to industrialism in that information and goods must be able to travel long distances quickly. However, the ravages of industrialization are exactly what he notes as being disastrous in the capitalist system. The working and living conditions of the miner and the destruction of the landscape allow for the inexpensive production of coal. Indeed Orwell describes “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil;” and in fact, with the advent of industrial agriculture, coal-mining and similarly extractive processes are what allow for the very plowing of soil. The problem with both systems Orwell describes is their fundamental miscalculation of the human and environmental costs of industry. In this quality, neither system is necessarily preferable as depicted by Orwell, though both suffer from the same ills.

Karina Tregub

Although George Orwell paints a very poignant picture of the horrors of the 1930’s industrialized northern cities of England, he does not provide a concrete roadmap to get from this inhumane capitalism to proper socialism. We have agreed that Orwell sees socialism as a possible but almost unattainable answer to the evils of capitalism. As much as Orwell criticizes the effects of capitalism, these effects cannot be taken out of the context of this time period, and the stage in which capitalism was evolving. I agree with Irina that Orwell should not completely discredit capitalism, treating it as the inhumane force causing the horrible working and living conditions of the coal miners. What he observes is atrocious and dreadful, but this is not an absolute effect of capitalism. Orwell also claims that capitalism retards the development of new machinery, and that socialism necessarily leads to industrial growth and increased productivity. He feels that capitalism cannot bring about development because “any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected.” However, how can an invention bring economic growth without raising profits as well? Immediate profit is a relative term in economic development, and the ability to see long-term profit possibilities is just as important in capitalism as short-term success. Therefore, capitalism should not be completely ambushed as an evil, when it can actually bring a solution, if approached correctly. Economic progress is an important solution for the betterment of the working class. This could be achieved with the creation of institutions, which would help level the income gaps between the working class and the middle class, by providing more social welfare. This is something that happened later on, in the U.S., and it could answer some of the issues that Orwell addresses. It probably would not lead to perfect equality, but looking at some socialist societies during the 1930’s, even in its best form, socialism could also never achieve perfect equality, and often maintained social animosities.
Orwell’s main criticism of socialism is the class hypocrisy and distinction, which is something that cannot be removed. There is no way that class can be erased from the equation, when assessing socialism as a theory and practice. Tomas makes a good argument that class distinctions are inherent in society because they arise from material distinction. In order to get rid of class distinctions, everyone’s material standing would need to be equalized, and in order to do this, rapid economic development must occur. Orwell suggests this, but does not provide an actual solution for achieving it.
Orwell sees socialism as a movement of the bourgeoisie, rather than the working class. Therefore, the working class must be educated enough to fight for their own cause, and understand the doctrines and theories that they are voting for. If these classes understood that their plight results from distinctions inherent in their society, they could pursue socialism, in a form that would uphold working-class ideals, rather than those of the wealthier middle-class. Orwell’s novel, The Road to Wigan Pier, in and of itself, is already a beginning to greater education and understanding for the working classes. It portrays aspects that are otherwise hidden or misinterpreted by the decision makers. Further, it brings their plight to the forefront and forces people to witness the negligence of capitalism and the current economic system in which they live. However, instead of attempting to mold socialism into the answer to these problems faced by the working class, the focus should be on changing capitalism so that it actually works for the working class too, not just the bourgeoisie.

Nathaniel S. Aylard

I think Allison Moore hits the mark in regards to Orwell’s dilemma: ‘he doesn’t provide a road-map’ to Socialism. Everyone in the forum appears to state the main objective for Orwell and hence his ‘dilemma’ is to remove class distinctions somehow either through education, minimum wage, or other similar prescriptions for equitable distribution of wealth (in essence). He needs to make socialism more humane, right? Well, to me that is not the problem; it is the system he proposes. He continually praises the (theoretical) benefits that socialism will bring ; “the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that every-one does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions”. However, does this not seem a bit idealistic? Unfortunately, “fair” can have many differently levels of understanding which rely on the beliefs of the individual. So who is to say, another class-based system will not develop under socialism: if you were a doctor, would you not feel compelled to get or receive your “fair” share of the provisions? And when I say “fair”, would you expect more than the baker down the street (after all, a life is in your hands) or should it be equitable? Moreover, who is to decide what is fair?

Thus, Orwell’s dilemma is the system itself. Maybe he should have tried making the current system more palatable through social reform (ie keeping the goodness of the price-mechanism while trying to correct certain market failures especially in periods of turmoil).

Dave Koken

Orwell's case for the implementation of a fully realized socialist society seems logical. He makes it seem as though no one could possibly want to reject this utopian, yet possible, vision for a world of shared work and reward. Karl Marx thought it was so powerful that it would naturally occur as an inevitable stage of history. Orwell, on the other hand, thinks that the socialist agenda must be brought about by a revolutionary party. But, despite Orwell's urging, I still doubt that a truly socialist society ever could exist and furthermore, don't feel that it is necessary to achieve some of Orwell's primary goals.

Orwell seems most concerned with creating a world where everyone can have a decent existence. He sees socialism as the only answer to this, but I think that the way history has actually unfolded to be the more logical solution to his dilemma.

In order to fix the destructiveness of pure capitalism, almost all advanced democratic, capitalist countries have developed complex systems of social welfare and human rights protection that create a society where a decent living is possible for almost everyone. Though these systems must continue to be developed further to coincide with Orwell's hopes, I believe they are capable of creating a society in which all members within it have guarantees to a general standard of living. So rather than eliminating the capitalist system altogether, it must continue to be adapted to fit the needs of the most needy; all the while maintaining the capitalist incentive system (to some degree) that has proven to be the most successful the world has ever known.

Andrew Epstein

Like Irina I was impressed with the first half of Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier not only because of his extensive knowledge of a working class and in many cases vastly unemployed society, but because of the social implications of Orwell being the narrator of this ragged life. Orwell is a self proclaimed member of the “lower-upper-middle class” who was taught early on to hate the working class in order to differentiate himself from the dregs of society, much like the poor whites hated the freedman of the post Civil War south. Orwell, through fame, climbs to the social elite only to cross back through class lines into the lives of the poor working class and in some cases people living on “the dole” or welfare. He provides a relatively unbiased description of everyday life for these people, specifically miners, and it is the first step in the right direction to a more equal, even socialist society.
Orwell makes socialism as an ideal sound appealing but struggles with selling this concept to a society who is disgusted by the hypocrisy of the common day socialist. It really is not the fault of the socialists themselves but rather a society with stringent class distinctions that call for racism and bigotry. If the socialists of his time continue to alienate the common worker by praising them through words but failing to help them out of fear of falling into their class, the society can not progress. Also, the socialist world is pictured as a “completely mechanized, immensely organized world” and this reliance on machinery can't appeal to a working class who is accustomed to making a living through manual labor. So, the answer as Evan also said, could lie in education. If we could educate the higher classes about the quality of life of the working class, maybe they will want to come to the aid of these people out of human kindness. More likely however, is that a society with equal education would provide an alternative option of employment for a working class who has relied solely on physical labor and paid the price through living conditions.

susanna babos

Like many other students,I found Orwell's analysis vivid and descriptive in part one. The chapters in which he described the life of the coal miners and their working conditions engaged me,even though that I could not really relate to live in such a poverty and horrible conditions (but with his description,I could actually imagine it).I found part one really well written,and straightforward.
Part2 is harder to analyze because it is less straightforward and Orwell poses ideological questions. He asks whether the conditions described in part1 and tolerable or desirable and if not,what can/should be done to improve them?Would socialism be a solution?
According to Orwell,many people misunderstand the causes and doctrines of socialism. These misunderstandings are based mainly on class prejudice (as Adriana has said it too) and failing to focus and understand the most important points,or ideas. It is clear that Orwell advocates socialism, yet he understands it well why many people are figthing socialist doctrines, and as Dave said it,he himself finds it extremely hard to sell socialist ideas to contemporary society which is "disguested of socialism".

Christy Fox

Throughout George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Peir, Orwell describes the atrocities of capitalism through stories of each sort of negative externality created by capitalism. A solution to his problem of protecting/aiding the lower and middle classes is threefold: education, as Evan pointed out, welfare, as Adriana was touching on and regulation. The government or state should be responsible for providing education, funded by taxes, mostly of the upper classes. Furthermore, taxes can supply the welfare state that allows broken or poor families get on their feet again or for the first time. However, Orwell illustrates public animosity towards the idea of living off of someone else's money when he describes the story of the old age pensioners. The reason for the animosity is perception.

This is where education comes in. It is important to educate the people in areas like economics, so they understand the basic idea of how money moves. In this way, the perception of welfare may change to the idea that the money invested into a poor family will one day come back to those investors.

Lastly, the government must regulate industrialization. Protecting workers in factories and mines is the best way to ensure the highest productivity. A safe workplace will increase the people's trust in government and industry, giving them incentives to continuing producing and providing the means for a wealthy state.

In conclusion, government must step in on some levels to ensure that capitalism and it's negative byproducts do not run amuck.

Rowena Tam

Orwell analyzes the current status of England where unemployment and social prejudices are rampant. These two factors are his main argument against the anarchical society. Although Orwell establishes the grounding for his basis, he does not present a direct solution to the problem. I agree with Jason that one of the biggest problems with the capitalist world is class. It is the idea that there is a “natural interaction between the manufacturer's need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives” that perpetuates a desire for the people to maintain this idea of class.

He neatly points out that it is only within the social outcasts that there is “perhaps the nearest thing to a democracy that exists in England.” Within this community, there are no biases based on economical background, but rather a formation of a community due to a current loss of economical amenities. I believe that by pointing out this “small squalid democracy,” Orwell is showing a means for individuals to create a social democratic atmosphere conducive to a prosperous society. The formation of a community free of social and class prejudice is one in which a successful democracy is created.

It is quite evident that even in the US, class prejudices create a greater social and educational divide. The result is a greater divide of economical statuses between classes than there are racial prejudices amongst the same class. The economical divide hinders the creation of a cohesive socialist society, accessible to all individuals.

Beth Dukes

It seems that many previous posters have focused on Orwell’s dilemma in regards to class distinctions. Briefly, I understand this dilemma to be that while many people who are interested in Socialism are a part of the “middle class”, it is this “middle class” that considers itself distinctly different from those of the “lower class”—who socialism aims to help most. Orwell uses the criteria of hygiene to distinguish these imaginary class borders, and I personally could not agree with Allison Moore more, when she pointed out that this distinction is an ideological one. As a Berkeley student and member of the “middle class”, I personally can also relate to Orwell’s experience: “When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob, but no worse than other boys of my own age and class. I suppose there is no place in the world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school”, because I agree that many individuals who are born to this “middle class”, afforded the opportunity to attend good schools and do good work, consider themselves special and a distinctly different species than others.

Andrew, Evan, and others propose that in order to solve this dilemma, one ought to work toward eliminating class distinctions through education of the lower class. While I agree that universal education is one of the most important goals of our time, I think that this might not be the best solution for Orwell’s dilemma for two reasons. First, I think that economic empowerment is far more fundamental in allowing for social and political mobility than education. Orwell himself seems to agree with this when he asserts that “people who have access to a bath will generally use it” in explaining that the distinction between the supposedly-dirty working class and the supposedly-clean middle class is a function of their living conditions. While “education” may be a way to get about economic empowerment, giving a poor farmer in Africa the same type of education that the state of California is giving me seems pretentious and illogical.

My second issue with the solution of education is that, like Orwell writes and Allison points out, the problem is more deep-seated than even these living conditions. Orwell writes: “But the essential thing is that middle-class people believe that the working class are dirty…and, what is worse, that they are some-how inherently dirty.” People distinguish themselves as different and as better than others inherently as a part of their nature. As a result, perhaps the only solution is to work on enlightening those of the upper class and hope to change their ideology, as Julia pointed out. However, I’m not sure if that’s possible in reality, because I believe it is the very thing which makes people feel superior that also makes them interested in Socialism (or politics at all for that matter)—a belief that they are special and are uniquely qualified to shape the world.

Krista Ellis

The dilema of Orwell, that capitalism is broken and inhumane but the alternative of socialism is impractical, centers around the concept of class society in industrialize (or industrializing) nations. In “Road to Wigan Pier” the brutality of industrialization is seen in the deplorable working conditions of the coal miners, of which Orwell reports first hand. Capitalism cannot be allowed to structure society, according to Orwell, because it allows for this sinking of the lower class into inhumane, dangerous, life-threatening, ‘odorous,’ conditions. In Homage to Catalonia, we see how some class distinction is necessary in order to produce a functioning, progressive society. As the case of the army lieutenant illustrates who is trying to drill the new soldiers, but who do not respond to authority; how can there be leadership and order if all men are equally ‘comrades,’?
And, obviously, a society without order is one without success, as the shortages and unprepared-ness of the army prove. In the beginning of ‘Catalonia,’ Orwell thinks the bourgeoisie has left, but months later finds that they have only been hiding and have reemerged. Ultimately, he finds and I agree, classes will always exist because they are a part of human nature. They are not some orderly function of the economy; one of my favorite quotes of Orwell is when he describes himself as “lower, upper, middle class.” Class is not some ranking by income, it is a function of how other’s perceive you. So the dilemma is that Capitalism and its inherent inequality cannot be defeated by communal possessions, rankings and income. So what to solve this dilemma? I agree with Evan and Tomas that education is part of the answer, and with Adriana that Industrialization will help ease the physical burden of the lower class. I believe, as Orwell comes to find, that some hierarchy is necessary, but that if the lower class is elevated to an acceptable standard of living it will push to overall standard of living of the nation and thus provide a more acceptable, prosperous environment.

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