Best known for his twin masterpieces, Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell penned a shelf of other works that, although often overlooked, include some that are as relevant and insightful as their two far more famous siblings. Orwell’s 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier is undoubtedly among these other works of relevance and insight.
Written for a group of British socialists known as the Left Book Club, the oeuvre is part documentation of the life of Britain’s impoverished working class with particular focus on the dignity and importance of coal miners and part autobiographical account of Orwell overcoming his own class prejudices, united by themes developed throughout regarding the economic commonalities of and social distinctions between Britain’s low-level bourgeoisie and working class, as well as the downside of industrialization and hypocrisy of fashionable socialism.
By Orwell’s account, Britain’s class system at the time, partly based on economic stratification, partly in an unofficial caste system, fostered a seemingly contradictory world in which middle-class bourgeoisie and the working class might experience little difference in income, but drastic differences in their respective places in British society. Yet, even as unemployment and poverty festered and spread, with the middle class eventually “feeling the pinch,” social distinctions, Orwell reported, naturally won out over the narrowing economic gap between classes. Lower-level middle class Brits, despite being working class by any objective economic metric, still chose to identify as bourgeoisie.
Rampant industrialism likely exacerbated these problems as it fundamentally transformed Britain into a machine society, likely to its detriment, according to Orwell’s description. Consequently, these and other factors, Orwell argued, positioned Britain at a crossroads at which the country and its people inevitably would be forced to choose between socialism and fascism.
From his depiction of 1930s British society, it would seem fascism was perhaps going to win out (and perhaps would have if not for later events unbeknownst to Orwell at the time). His prescribed antidote was socialism. Yet, Orwell claimed, the hypocrisy, offensiveness, and buffoonish self-satirizing nature of many socialists tended to drive most normal people away.
Reading The Road to Wigan Pier as an American more than eighty years after its publication, the world Orwell depicts in some ways seems foreign. In many others it is amusingly, if not unsettlingly familiar.
Although not as ingrained as in Britain, the United States maintains its own version of a class system in the form of a superficial yet meaningful distinction between middle class and working class that many Americans yoke to personal character and economic reality.
Nowhere is this more obvious than America’s approach to higher education and the jobs afforded to those with a college degree versus those without. Attaining a degree from a four-year college or university, at least to many members of the American middle class, is seen as something of a sacrament that affirms one’s position in the American middle class. Receiving the sacrament of higher education signals one’s position along with one’s sophistication, respectability, and intelligence. It saves one from the indignity of blue-collar work and the impecunious state with which such work is associated.
Never mind that the quality of higher education, like the education provided in primary and secondary school, has plummeted to the point that education in the US is now a mechanical, assembly-line process and a college degree is little more than a final gold star for middle-class trophy kids who manage to meet the minimum of ever-declining standards. Don’t pay attention to the college graduates who leave school five or six figures in debt and who struggle to find a $40,000 per year office job. To such a middle-class individual and their family, what matters is at least they’re not an electrician. To such a middle-class individual, no job at all may even be better than a blue-collar one.
To provide an illustration, I know a middle-class woman in her sixties with an unemployed adult-stay-at-home-son. In different conversations, she’s casually mentioned having a pair of nephews with their own plumbing business. She’s also noted having a family friend who owns a successful auto body shop. Yet in a recent conversation in which I casually suggested her unemployed adult-stay-at-home-son perhaps reach out to one of these family connections to be trained in one of their trades or even get an entry-level job, her response was what I would have expected if I suggested he try prostitution.
To offer another example, while relating this story to a friend, I was informed that her husband had experienced something similar within his own family. Upon graduating from high school, he, to his mother’s dismay, found a factory job that paid roughly $40,000 per year. Yet, following sufficient nagging and badgering from his mother regarding how such a job was beneath him, he quit, bounced in and out of school for several years, and eventually graduated with a STEM degree that helped him get what amounted to a low-level position at a pharmaceutical company for slightly more money that he can now use to help pay off the student loans he racked up to save his mother the shame of having birthed a factory worker.
Orwell’s scathing depictions of fashionable socialism should also be pretty recognizable for most 21st century Americans. Although most probably can’t recall knowing a “youthful snob-Bolshevik,” those born after 1980 can surely remember spending a number of high school or college afternoons sitting at a Starbucks with a friend wearing a $150 outfit from the Gap or Express, paid for by their parents, who simultaneously boasted of their new Apple gadgets and entrepreneurial plans for after graduation in the same breath in which they condemned the evils of big business and consumerism.
Additionally, it is likely safe to assume that most Americans are probably at least indirectly acquainted with something akin to Orwell’s upwardly mobile career socialist who “has been picked out to fight for his mates” but uses his newfound status as a means to enjoy “a soft job and the chance of ‘bettering’ himself.”
More disquieting though are Orwell’s knowingly futile admonitions against industrialization and the machine society. Orwell spent significant portions of The Road to Wigan Pier ranting about the existential threat posed by the machines. He raved about how machines led to the decay of taste and of their role in disrupting man’s relationship with work and his needs to exert effort and his capacity for self-reliance.
Although he acknowledged machines could be useful, he warned that they also could be habit-forming and dangerous. He denounced their integration into all aspects of life. He condemned the religiosity with which some embraced mechanical progress and how they responded to critiques of the mechanical society as blasphemous. Yet, Orwell also accepted that one could not turn back the clock on progress and that one had no choice but to accept the machine society grudgingly and with suspicion.
Such a fixation may seem anachronistic to the modern reader, as we have been living with the kinds of machines of which Orwell was warning for years. Moreover, most people living today would rather not go back to some kind of agrarian or vaguely Medieval society on the assumption that it would build better character. Orwell even acknowledged this was a hard proposition to sell, as well as one on which even he was not entirely sold.
Yet, if one were to take Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and replace every instance of the words “machine,” “mechanical,” and “industrial” with some form of “computer,” “connected,” or “digital,” the relevant sections would be perfectly updated. Life undoubtedly is much easier with computers, the internet, and cell phones. No one wants to return to the time before these innovations. However, like Orwell’s machines, these innovations are also habit-forming and should be approached with suspicion.
Orwell wrote of how Westerners had developed a preference for that which machines had a mechanical hand in producing, rejecting anything not touched by them as unnatural. The demand for machines and all that they yielded grew. Machines were further integrated into society.
At the same time, Orwell noted, this integration became a matter of instinct. “People invent new machines and improve existing ones almost unconsciously…” he wrote. “Give a Western man a job of work and he immediately begins devising a machine that would do it for him…”
In our own society a similar preference has been developed for computers and anything said to be “digital,” “connected,” or “smart” – or more recently anything said to be gifted with “AI” – as has an instinct to imbue every machine with these qualities. Communicating with someone in real time has become weird in a world with texting and social media.
Having just a desktop and a smartphone as the sole computers in one’s life is seen as odd in a world in which you can also have a smart watch, a smart TV, a connected car, and a virtual home assistant that allows you to control your smart home with the sound of your voice or a touch of your phone.
Owning a dumb unconnected version of a device for which a smart connected alternative exists seems unthinkable. Wanting to own an dumb unconnected version of something is bizarre. The reactions of people who have fully embraced these technologies to those who are wary of them – or even just less enthusiastic about using them – ranges from confusion to a religious impulse to evangelize.
Frequently I find myself having conversations with people who would have struggled 20 years ago to set the timer on their VCR boast of having mastered the user interface of some smart gadget as if they had actually written the code for it. Such people cannot fathom how anyone would choose not to use a similar gizmo, whatever it might be, sometimes with reactions that clearly cross the line into caricature.
Back in 2017 after taking a job as a marketing consultant and video production assistant for an app development company located outside of Chicago and run by a cross between a nerdy Michael Scott and a low-rent Gavin Belson, I recall at my first formal marketing meeting with my then-boss and the rest of the marketing team, he couldn’t comprehend how I felt it was appropriate to take notes with a pen in a notebook and held up the meeting as he needed me to explain to him multiple times that I felt confident in my ability to pull this off. Needless to say I did not last at that company very long.
While later working in a bioinformatics lab run by a man forked from a similar repo as the president of the app development company – although maybe with a mild Rain Man quality – I remember being lectured on topics like how making book and movie choices based on the recommendations of algorithms reduced the risk of using one’s time inefficiently when seeking entertainment and how those who chose not to share their data with large corporations when given the opportunity to do so did society a disservice by denying algorithms the opportunity for further improvement.
Yet, as petty and frivolous as some of this can appear, the trend to live more of one’s life online and smartly connected to everything, like Orwell’s mechanical society, once more, is also dangerous.
Our computers and the digital world are habit-forming – actually in multiple senses of the term. No one today doubts that social media is addictive by design or that its presence in one’s life is detrimental to one’s mental health and capacity for sustained attention. It is also widely acknowledged that words like “smart” and “connected” are simply euphemisms for the uglier term of “surveillance.”
Practically every action or communication performed through a device that is smart or connected is logged by corporations that analyze, store, and share such data, generally with little regulation. Oftentimes, merely being in the presence of such a device may provide corporations personal data that they can do with as they please.
Yet, although people may express some signs of discomfort when forced to confront this reality in the aftermath of some notable incident through which it is revealed that their apps or their virtual home assistant might be misusing their personal information or listening to them a little more than they thought, after a few days to a week, those who even bothered to care generally repress any memory of the fading scandal as they accept the further attrition of their privacy is a small price to pay to the noble tech behemoths that gifted the world the minor conveniences that have since metamorphosed into necessities. Besides, resistance often requires a level of time, money, and knowledge most people simply do not have.
Moreover, most have even come to accept that it is only natural for employers, schools and governments to give in to the same instinct to computerize, digitalize, and operate in a smart and connected manner. Businesses need to digitally monitor employees to maintain productivity. Universities need to digitally monitor students to prevent cheating – and keep them safe, of course.
Governments need to monitor citizens and find AI-driven solutions to prevent welfare fraud – not to mention perform basic functions related to public health, law enforcement, and national security.
For many, living in a state of constant surveillance seems only natural – especially for younger generations that have lived their lives online and have had their every movement since childhood tracked by their parents through their phones to ensure their safety. News of government doing the same, although sometimes with fancier tools like automatic license plate readers and facial recognition, no longer even causes a stir.
Truly interrogating Orwell on what his thoughts would be regarding the seeming analogy of instinct toward the mechanical society he described and the instinct toward the digitally connected one present today is for obvious reasons a futile exercise. Would he have seen the two as comparable? Would he have viewed the loss of one’s ability to communicate and move about without Big Brother’s knowledge as fundamentally worse than the disruption of one’s ability to be self-reliant? Would he have recommended a different attitude towards the smart society than begrudging suspicious acceptance? Or would he have seen the road to Oceania as inevitable?
Although the answers to these questions might not matter, the man who so adeptly prophesied the totalitarian surveillance state also so unknowingly described the instinct towards it, albeit in the context of industrialization and with a fatalistic sigh. Furthermore, if the road to Oceania is inevitable, one would hope this isn’t because any attempt to change the course of fate is felt as too unnatural, inconvenient, or, worst of all, unfashionable.