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No Margin for Error

July 14, 2014

Sure, Fred Hubicki’s paintings are hanging at the library, but discussion must wait. I just read George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier,” and I’m enthusedby how smart and timely it is.

Sure, it’s almost 80 years old, but the social and economic circumstances he decries are still at work. In 1937, the only thing he saw that could change the circumstances of unemployed workers was war. We’re better off than that, I hope.

I think this is a perfect book to read before Picketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” when I can get my hands on it. It’s checked out all the time. I’ll probably read the very beginning, like most people. Some predict it will surpass Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” as the most popular unread book.

“The Road to Wigan Pier” is eminently readable. Orwell is smart, observant. He visits homes in industrial northern England, seeing how people live, and in particular how unemployed—or formerly employed—people live on next to nothing.

Most are on the dole, scraping by (or not) on meager allowances that political forces seek to reduce. The point about “formerly employed” is important. Millions of people were out of work with no prospect ever of working again.

He points out a common misapprehension, of which he himself was guilty, to imagine that there were two million officially unemployed people and every one else was fine. The effect was much larger, and the estimated number of underfed people at the time was ten to twenty million.

Orwell discusses in detail the awful, life-sucking degradations of the “Means Test” and life on the dole. He examines the absurdities and indignities of class society in England and elsewhere in the Empire.

Orwell also goes deep into coal mines to see what a miner’s life is like underground. This part is as surreal as a war story. He states “our civilization is founded on coal … the machines that keep us alive, the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal.”

An underlying theme, made explicit at times, laments the mechanization of society while acknowledging it will never be undone without the suffering and death of most of us, such is our dependence. The world marched “along the road of ‘progress’ with the blind persistence of a column of ants.”

Orwell thought mechanized, industrial civilization made it impossible to live a healthy, optimum human life any longer.

Miners complained that new machines—and speeding up in general—made work more dangerous. More ore was removed before supports were installed, vibrations loosened everything, and noise made it impossible to hear the hints of trouble they formerly heard. They preferred timbers to iron girders for support, because wood failed slowly and popped, hinting at failure. Iron failed suddenly and catastrophically.

It’s the kind of problem that would come to suffuse modern life—no margin for error. We live amidst greater complexity, much of it hidden, that smooths life remarkably, but failures can be more catastrophic. A few big ones instead of many smaller ones.

A single man on the dole was the worst off, since on his allowance “he cannot feed or look after himself properly … so he spends his days loafing in the public library or any other place where he can keep warm.”

Don’t even think of thinking these millions should have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Most had no place even for a vegetable garden. Orwell reveals the systemic failure of all this in a fascinating, witty, open-hearted journey.

It will be familiar; only the scenery is different.

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