Monday, January 18, 2010

Down and Out

Recently I was at a party, all the attendees were tired and my lack of charm (if there is such a thing) precluded me from a bed. I was hoisted upon a futon. The cold of the night infused itself in my bones as I attempted to sleep. Several times I woke from being frigid. When I did manage to sleep I dreamed of others on beds with blankets, content, cozy, and oblivious to my plight. I cried out in my semi-consciousness, angered by my discomfort. A few moments would be spent attempting to warm myself but would give way to the inevitable harshness of cold. Hours went by between slumber and wakefulness, but the chill was always there. Poverty is much the same experience. A constant irritable distress, a feeling of never being in the right place and unable to escape a labyrinth of one's impoverishment.

Orwell in his “Down and Out in Paris and London,” depicts his days in Paris and London as an impoverished lumpen proletariat with unsentimental accuracy. In the first, and more interesting, part he describes his position as a plongeur in various hotels and restaurants. The dishwashing job was precarious, as he would be hired for meager wages and demanded to work to the bone. The job was also contractual, with a contract being made out for a day, a week, or at the longest a month. The long hours and continual days on the job precluded him from living a life outside of work. The moments away from work were spent in the escape of sleep, or in the temporary stupor of drunkenness.

The tales of Orwell's work in restaurants immediately made me recall the excellent booklet put out by, specifically I'm referring to their “Abolish Restaurants” piece, whose lay out is almost as excellent as their pointed critique of the service industry. For instance Orwell points out the ways in which the set up of restaurants pit employees against each other while also making the main emotional qualities of work swing from frantic haste to drudgery.

Hotel work is not particularly hard, but by its nature it comes in rushes and cannot be economised. You cannot, for instance, grill a steak two hours before it is wanted; you have to wait till the last moment, by which time a mass of other work has accumulated, and then do it all together in a frantic haste. The result is that at meal-times everyone is doing two men's work, which is impossible without noise and quarrelling. (p. 75)”

The authors of “Abolish Restaurants” extend the point made by Orwell,

Everyone who works in a restaurant is pushed to work harder and faster. The boss has an interest in getting more work out of the same number of employees or in getting the same amount of work out of fewer employees. … The stress of the rushes gets to everyone in a restaurant. Almost all the workers dip into the wine, whiskey, and tequila when the boss's back is turned. ...When we go to sleep we hope we won't dream about forgetting an order or being yelled at by a boss. (p.22)”

In the second half of the novel Orwell tramps it through England. Following other underclass men from hotel

lodging, to salvation army, to precarious work places, Orwell survives on a daily diet of bread (sometimes with margarine) and tea. What is most interesting about this period is how the tramps themselves imagine themselves as not being fully bottomed out. This is in direct contrast to one of Orwell's popular and striking quotes from the book.

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleausre, are 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. (p.21)”

What is implied here is an acceptance of one's poverty and state of being “down and out.” What actually happens though is both that admission of being truly at the bottom of the barrel and an attempt to separate oneself from that position, namely through creating an identity that is somehow different from one's peers in poverty. For example Orwell's companion Paddy tirades against other tramps, calling them lazy and that pointing out that the other tramps were scum. For Orwell:

It was interesting to see the subtle way in which he disassociated himself from “these here tramps.” He had been on the road six months, but in the sight of God, he seemed to imply, he was not a tramp. I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps. (p. 199)”

Here we see that poverty is not just a material state but also an ideological one. If one is able to separate one's self from the ideological being of poverty perhaps you somehow escape the plight of poverty, or at least the poor would like to think. Of course the material aspects of capital point to something different than the ideological notions of the underclasses.

In tone the novel is similar to Miller's Tropic of Cancer. In Miller's tale of semi-poverty in the 1930s in France, Miller is constantly on the hunt for free food, wages, and alcohol. Of course the hedonistic Miller is oft preoccupied with whoring. An occupation that alludes the characters in London's “Down and Out.” The tramps in london are “condemned to perpetual celibacy.” Orwell points out that women have a commodity that men don't, their sexuality, thus men are more prone to bottoms of unemployment as “...any presentable woman can, in the last resort, attach herself to some man.(p 204)” Women use their sexual bodies to escape the dregs of poverty and “...there is no doubt that women never, or hardly ever, condescend to men who are much poorer than themselves. (p.204).

Along with the voice of Miller, the book also echoes the style of B. Traven's “Death Ship.” In “Death Ship” we see a lumpen proletariat, Gerard Gales, without hope cast onto a death ship. His life consists of constant work and looming death.

While the voice of the novel is common amongst early 20th century writers, we find fewer contemporary writers who write journalistic or realistic fictional characterizations of work. Is it because work no longer bothers us that its drudgery no longer touches popular culture? There are of course movies such as “Office Space,” “Waiting,” and the popular sitcom “The Office” which depict work but they ultimately tie themselves back into the spectacle of modern capitalism.

That said Orwell, himself doesn't do much to punch a hole out of the 20th century for escape. He offers reformist solutions for improving the condition of the lower classes. For the tramp what “is needed is to depauperise him, and this can only be done by finding him work. (p 206)” Orwell goes on to outline a socialist scheme of making boarding houses self sufficient through the labor of the tramps, who instead of roaming would stay put and grow food. Of course the boarding houses would need other assistance, thus Orwell relies on the state to provide the other means. What is needed for the tramps I would argue is not full employment but full lives, and that can not be done with the alienating effects of capitalism. What Orwell does lend us is not a particularly capable solution to the plights of poverty but an accurate description, and a poignant illustration of life under capitalism is always a condemnation.


dawnfurious said...

" The tramps in london are “condemned to perpetual celibacy.” Orwell points out that women have a commodity that men don't, their sexuality, thus men are more prone to bottoms of unemployment as “...any presentable woman can, in the last resort, attach herself to some man.(p 204)” Women use their sexual bodies to escape the dregs of poverty and “...there is no doubt that women never, or hardly ever, condescend to men who are much poorer than themselves. (p.204)."

does all of this make the women more or less poor? i feel it's a double edged sword.

clearly, i do not have first-hand experience of any of this, really, but, as a woman, i wouldn't want to have my "beauty" or my "vagina" added to my "worth."

shane said...

This all reminded me of an observation I made of my office workplace. It is an example of how capitalism infuses itself into a culture.

My work environment encourages everyone to be an asshole. As true as that statement is, I doubt any of my co-workers would agree. Afterall, we all smile and say "good morning", "please", and "thank you." These pleasantries mask the real drive behind our actions and the company's profit.

A workplace, as noted, needs to maximize efficiency with the least amount of employees. Thus, it will always be understaffed in terms of employee workload. This forces the employees to look out for themselves and no one else. The clearest manifestation of this is the passing off of work. When you get to busy but your task needs to get done (or you face reprimand or worse), you simply find someone else, equally loaded with work, to pass it off to. Now they are responsible for a task which they receive no reward for.

I can't think of any description better than asshole for this behavior. It is replicated throughout society on all levels. Fuck profit!