Down and Out in Paris and London

There is being down—poor that is—and out, meaning homeless, without “fixed abode,” both of which are common but not pleasant conditions for the majority of humans on earth.

George Orwell was a writer and journalist first; a novelist second. Known most famously for his dystopian novel 1984, which foretells of a future world of fascism and privation, a world that is actually being lived by many today—think modern China, whose streets are full of facial recognition technology. Orwell was born in British India shortly after the turn of the century (1903), and moved with his mother and two younger sisters to England at the age of one. Fearing he would fail at college entry due to his lackluster performance as a student, he began a stint as an Imperial police officer in Burma at the age of eighteen, but returned to England—and soon after, Paris—five years later, to become a writer.

He went to Paris expecting to have work teaching English. When that fell through, he worked intermittently as a dishwasher (a plongeur), and  lived in a hotel filled with other, mostly foreign people from all over Europe. He says:

“The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people-people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour just as money frees people from work…You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life…You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring…And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

After Orwell finally finds work as a plongeur, he returns to London where he speculates on his experience of work, especially the sort of work that is not needed. As he says, there was no need to use so many plates, have so many waiters, so many maids, but the hotels require it to gratify the customer. Similarly today we have such “service” jobs as Walmart greeter, and the soon to be automated jobs like cashier and Lyft/Uber drivers.

He assesses the social need to do work (or lose your status in society) like this:

“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…(the rich) imagine that any liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own liberty. Possibly he does not like his fellow rich very much but he supposes even the vulgarest of them are ..more his kind of people, than the poor.”

And finally “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable.”