Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nineteen Eighty-Four was George Orwell’s last book, written as he was dying of tuberculosis, at age 47. Down and Out in Paris and London was his first book, published when he was just 29, in January of 1933. It is a memoir made up of two parts focusing on the theme of abjection within the two cities. “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty…” Irish writer Dervla Murphy noted that the book still has a “pungent immediacy” because, unlike other middle-class writers who have gone to live among the poor, Orwell “was not ‘playing a game.’ ”
The first part is an account of living in near-destitution in Paris and the experience of casual labor in restaurant kitchens. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from the tramp's perspective, with descriptions of the types of hostel accommodations available and some of the characters to be found living on the margins.
Orwell’s main argument is that both rich and poor are essentially the same, separated only by income. Underneath they are just humans, striving for a happier life. It's the system that has created the means by which the rich can control the poor and keep them in their place.
He has a plain yet profound way of putting down his thoughts about the poor, and how they are perceived by those who are rich and educated. For example, in chapter twenty-two he writes. “..the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?” He’s absolutely right.
Poverty changes a person. You learn to fear the phone, the knock on the door, the colored envelopes in the mailbox or the tiniest indication that something might be wrong with your car. You wake up in the middle of the night feeling like your heart is attempting to escape the life it’s been forced to live by beating its way out of your chest.
However, poverty, in effect, is a legal status. Poverty is not having nothing. Poverty is being legally excluded from having sufficient access to the resources needed to exist. We locked up access to natural resources and let the owner class hold all the keys and exchange them for our labor. We claim to be a nation that values freedom. But freedom is currently the preserve of the rich.
I know a lot of folks like to think that poor people are lazy and incompetent. They like to think they get fired from jobs because they don’t know how to behave, or they’re always late, or they just don’t care. But what people, the rich especially, don’t seem to realize is how unbelievably easy it is to get fired. And a lot of times what gets you fired is that you’re working more than one job.
I recently had a conversation with someone where I explained that some people are so poor, they can't even afford to work. They laughed of course. But I wasn't kidding.
Gas money, child care expenses, and lack of clothing to meet dress code requirements are often barriers to employment for low income individuals. The costs of working are something that go entirely undiscussed. Not recognizing them is like telling someone with bare feet that if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, which is already physically impossible, they can go get a job so they can buy some boots.
This might just be the most contentious proposition, I’ll make here, but it’s also I believe the most true, that it is more demoralizing to work and be poor than to be unemployed and be poor. I have never minded going without when I wasn’t working. It sucks not to be able to find a job, but you expect to be tired and pissed off and to never be able to leave your house when you’re out of work. But working your balls off, begging for more hours, hustling for every penny you can get, and still not being able to cover your electric bill with any regularity, that’s soul-destroying.
You could perhaps make the case that the reason I, and so many others, have brushed up against poverty so many times in our lives, is because we make a lot of poor financial decisions. It would be a weak case, however. Because none of them matter, not in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay something this week or only half of something the next? It’s not like any sacrifices on my part will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It is just not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. I don’t plan long term because if I do I’ll just get my heart broken. You just take what you can get as it comes. It’s the only rational thing to do, really, try to enjoy yourself as much as you can.
But poverty can also teach us lessons about compassion, empathy, wisdom and generosity. The people who’ve experienced it have important things to say. And I’m going to make a big leap here, one that I am very comfortable with: Poor people are, as a rule, a bit more generous. We understand what it might be like to have to beg even if we have never done it ourselves. Which makes poor people by far the most egalitarian. If I ever need help, I’ll ask a poor person long before I would ever condescend to ask a wealthier one, who would in fact, instead of helping, simply preach to me about the virtues of not buying soda or that I should get a second or even a third job. As if having an extra fifty cents or another job is what’s really going to set me free.
Yet, despite all of my frustrations, I am not particularly opposed to capitalism. Most people aren’t, poor ones included. We like the idea that anyone can succeed. What I am opposed to is the sort of capitalism that sucks the life out of a whole bunch of the citizenry and then demands that they do better with whatever they have left.
Who makes it, who gets to be reasonably well off: it seems it's always, in all places, the same people. Or to put it somewhat differently. The people who make it, will make it in all societies, from Pinochet's Chile to Red China to the ancient GDR, right up to our own times. But, honestly, who really cares one bit about a janitor in any place or any time we've seen?
I have read several heartwarming stories recently, written by actual CEOs describing how much they respect their janitors and how their firms’ success is linked to their open-mindedness. These coincidentally published essays seem to have been met by almost universal acclaim by their intended audiences: other CEOs and those aspiring to become CEOs. They have not, however, been acclaimed by actual janitors. Which is partly because janitors don’t usually read management magazines. It’s also because the stories are what gamblers call a “tell.” The articles unwittingly reveal why the self-congratulating authors and their middle-management admirers can’t keep good employees. It’s absolutely true that recognition of employees, at least to the point of knowing who they are, is important to any commercial endeavor. But none of the stories included a sentence like this one: “I made sure his working conditions were appropriate, and that he was earning a living wage.”
The missing sentence is immediately apparent to the janitors of the world, and it’s not just because they think it would be nice to be paid fairly. The truth is that not being paid enough changes everything for the person cashing that check.
I used to be a janitor. I made typical non-union janitor pay, and much of my time, at home and work, was taken up with worrying over covering the rent, and which bill to pay first. Sometimes, I’d come home to our little apartment, and the lights would be shut off due to our inability to pay the bill on time. At one point in our poverty cycle, I even had to borrow money just to buy groceries. Which is embarrassing to admit, that I had to go into debt just to avoid starvation, but there’s just nowhere in this country where $8.00 an hour allows you to have a life.
But this is a manufactured sort of desperation. People are not naturally in a struggle to “find work” to ensure they have food, shelter, and clothing. They are artificially put in this situation by a stratified property rights system that's both unnecessary and contemptible.
Until the late 18th century, poverty in the West was actually considered not only durable but desirable for economic growth. Mercantilism, the dominant economic theory of the early modern period, held that hunger incentivized work and kept wages low. Wards of public charity were jailed and required to work to eat. In the current era, politicians and their publics have continued to demand toil and sweat from the poor. In the 1980s, conservatives wanted to attach work requirements to food stamps. In the 1990s, they wanted to impose work requirements on subsidized-housing programs. Both proposals failed, but the impulse has endured.
Although, Down and Out, doesn’t completely hold together as an exhaustive narrative, it lacks a single guiding story-line, every page does have a tremendous vitality and serves as a vivid record of life at society’s lower depths. It’s a book that shows no fear in telling you what you’re supposed to think.
And yet, fundamentally, it is a book that is almost entirely about money. Or rather the lack of it. And about how, when you never have enough money, it ceases to have any real meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing. And while I try my damnedest to try and hold onto hope while still being a realist, hope, just doesn’t come easily anymore, even in a nation of dreamers and strivers and idealists. What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch to some. But for the rest of us, it is far more likely to be our very lives.


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