In the spring of 1928, aged about 24, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) moved to Paris, a city in which the cost of living was very low. He tried to earn a living by writing and giving English lessons, but it hardly paid. He was then stripped of his possessions and money by “a little trollop he’d picked up in a café” leaving him with very little cash. His parents back home in England were spared the knowledge of his predicament, possibly due to his concern for their middle class sensibilities. He could have returned home to Southwold, but having previously chosen to leave a career in the Imperial Indian Police in Burma, that was not an attractive path. He had little option but to work in the foul kitchens of the Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli. His final impecunious 10 weeks in Paris provided the material for his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, the first draft of which was completed in 1930. This was no journalist’s assignment, research or a gimmick.
The following are observations on poverty in the early chapter of the book and reveal something of the life he led.
“…it is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty….you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first…the shifts it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.
You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty…you dare not admit it, you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual.
You discover what it is like to be hungry…everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles…a snivelling self pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.
You discover the boredom…you discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs…
…but you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future…
And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. 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”.
(Chapter 3, Down and Out in Paris and London 1933)
Squalor, boredom, secrecy, hunger, future discounting and relief from anxiety were the key features, for Orwell, of poverty. In 1930 in Paris there was no system of welfare benefits to fall back on. In London , the casual wards (‘The Spikes’) provided some refuge, although the conditions were far from salubrious. Orwell went hungry, and at times had absolutely no money. One lack, which was sorely felt, was that of tobacco, something he again experienced on the front line in Spain when he later joined the POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) in the civil war in Catalonia. The privations in the front line caused by the conditions and the absolute lack of resources for the militia was another form of poverty.
“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter…they were important in that order” (Homage to Catalonia 1938, p23).
Winter in the Catalan trenches, Spring in Paris, but in this list we can note the reduction of human need to Maslow’s base of his hierachy of need. Apart from the ‘enemy’ in Spain the similarity is of course there to see. Orwell in both books mentions the centrality of tobacco, and of course of alcohol, in daily life.
It might be tempting to dismiss Orwell’s observations as belonging to another age and therefore of little relevance to the experience of poverty today in modern Welfare States. That I think would be a mistake. The psychosocial sequelae of poverty remain the same; what it does to self, self esteem and the setting of priorities.
The ‘secrecy’, the ‘dare not admit it’, alludes to what Erving Goffman called ‘passing’ in his theory of Stigma. People with a stigma try to ‘pass’ as normal to avoid oppressive acts.
Poverty was and is a stigmatising condition. Orwell tells of sitting in parks in Paris but being very aware of the distaste expressed by women particularly, towards him.
A source of stigma, for Goffman, arises out of an actual or perceived ‘character blemish’. Another source is membership of a ‘tribe’. Poverty provides both sources. Currently, many believe the poor to be at fault for their poverty due to their poor moral choices and character weaknesses. The Moral Underclass Discourse emphasises that the fault lies within the individual. The poor may also be seen as members of a ‘tribe’ who live apart from the deserving and hard working families; they are the chavs, the skivers, the welfare scroungers.
Poverty can be a discrediting stigma as it might have an outward appearance, or it could also be a discreditable stigma as an internal invisible ‘mark’ known only to the poor themselves. It can, of course, be a felt stigma and an enacted stigma as society exercises certain sanctions and behaviours towards the poor. Family members and friends of those on hard times may feel courtesy stigma on their behalf.
Thus, as a highly stigmatising condition, those who today are in poverty may wish to hide away or use ‘maladaptive coping mechanisms’ such as smoking, drinking or drug taking. Orwell’s continual descriptions of the need for and centrality of tobacco illustrates this point. Many today would see tobacco as a dangerous luxury. His fixation with food illustrates the shifting of priorities, and the collapse of time to orientate to the present. Future discounting might explain why the dangers of smoking and the future threats to health just do not impact on present behaviour. It also clearly illustrates is the exercise of one’s personal agency being highly mediated by (and mediating) the culture and the social structures one lives in. It may seem to today’s sensibilities that tobacco use would or should be resisted if poor. However, Orwell makes it plain to see how one’s psychological state gets reduced and focused in both time and space. His ‘annihilation of the future’ and ‘boredom’ are telling. It might explain why we make what seems to be irrational decisions in the face of hardship. Orwell of course would have a way out, but if one believes that the future is set, the discounting of the future to deal with the present may be a highly rational strategy.
The fear of poverty disappearing, because one is actually poor, is another seemingly irrational mind set. But if the dogs have turned up you at least know you can sink no lower. There is no such thing as status anxiety, or keeping up with the Jones’. The ‘psychosocial comparison’ thesis of poor health outcomes no longer applies to you because the fear of being compared and of comparing has been assuaged by the surety of the lowliness of status. What is left is survival today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes.
Before we thus rush to judgment on the choices the poor make, or provide theories of why there is poverty based on individual failure, Orwell’s exposition provides a window into their world and might make us think twice.