The Road Past Wigan Pier

A great post from The Belmont Club pointed me to the book The Road to Wigan Pier, a book by George Orwell about the very hard lives of coal miners in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, early in the 20th century.

Orwell was a socialist, and was almost as critical of capitalism as he was of totalitarianism in 1984. Wigan Pier purports to show the failures of capitalism and industrialism, in the heavy price it exacts on people’s lives. This passage is perhaps somewhat emblematic, from chapter 1:

But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are

just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens

and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products

of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the

civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what

industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first

steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under

the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth

century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led

–to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people

creeping round and round them like blackbeetles.

I’d certainly agree that conditions sounded quite horrible during that period for lots of people. But it seems a bit of a failure on a couple of fronts, both in regard to the past and to the future.

With regard to the past, the lives of a large portion of earth’s population have always been horrible. People tend to look on the sufferings of their day as some kind of anomaly, and indeed they frequently are, in the details. The miners of this novel suffer from breathing coal dust; suffer from having to walk large distances in a crouch; suffer from working in an unsafe environment far underground. These things were relatively new labor conditions in the Industrial era, and thus make a poignant novel. But in the broader scope, the real problem the miners faced was poverty (not new), dangerous work (not new), fraudulent employers, miserable living conditions, and few options for anything different in their lives or those of their children (all not new). Farming peasants in the middle ages; hunter-gatherers in tribes on the North American continent; fishermen; sailors; conscript soldiers- you get the point. The majority of mankind has always lived in slavery and always lived in misery.

And with regard to the future, the seeds for the correction of the conditions Orwell described can be seen in his own book. From chapter 2:

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are

now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have

worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that

passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal.

They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now,

if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and

fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of


He is, of course, exactly right. When the rich and powerful of the world needed to enslave others to get what they want and were able to do so, they did. But as the coalminers got more efficient, and people became more wealthy as a result, it was no longer viable to have women dragging buckets of coal by chains around their waists. It was either unsafe, unprofitable, or unpopular. Unsafe is really just another way of saying unprofitable, because all work is unsafe in an absolute sense. The costs, both financially and socially, of having women do that kind of work in the coal mines eventually outweighed the benefits, or they’d still be doing it today. Nobody forced them to do it then; they did it because it was more profitable than not doing it.

Orwell also talks about the fact that one in three miners of his day had access to baths at the mine heads so they could easily wash themselves after shifts. This had not always been the case, but Orwell fails to examine the causes that would lead the mine operators make this sort of thing available to the men. He says the operating costs of those showers was paid by the miners themselves, but there you have it- they have the option, and pay for it. The mine owners themselves must have set the system up in the first place. Why? Because happy workers are more productive workers. Safe workers are more productive workers. This is something the world knows, and mainly because of capitalism.

OK, you caught me. This is a free market screed. Guys like Orwell can complain about the plight of the worker all they want, but as governments got better at enforcing contracts and workers got more productive as the industrial age advanced, they just got richer and their lives got better. They were able to demand better working conditions, more money and regular work. They were able to demand this because their skills and productivity made them valuable, and owners were willing to pay for that value because it earned them profits. Technological advance made it possible to do more with less workers, and this allowed the workers still doing it to make more. Orwell describes the fact that they used a kind of circular saw to chop at the coal instead of just picks and crowbars, which made them far more efficient. The coal miners who still did the work decades after Orwell wrote were furious when Margaret Thatcher put many of them out of work in 1984 and promoted nuclear power and better efficiency in the coal industry- if the jobs were such miserable slavery, why protest when the world moved past the need for them? They had to switch careers, retrain- yes, there was some short-term discomfort, but a more wealthy advanced society produces more jobs in more variety, and so it’s only short-term discomfort.

But then Orwell’s not really much of an economist. He says things like this, from chapter 10:

Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation–an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He

is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.

Good for him for exposing the hypocrisy of your average left-winger, but bad for him for relying on the false dilemma of Empire or global isolationism. England can have its strawberries and cream without ruling India. Just be smart, be productive, and buy them.

The false dilemmas continue, from ch. 13:

We may take it that the return to a simpler, free, less mechanized way of life, however desirable it may be, is not going to happen. This is not fatalism, it is merely acceptance of facts. It is meaningless to oppose Socialism on the ground that you object to the beehive State, for the beehive State is here. The choice is not, as yet, between a human and an inhuman world. It is simply between Socialism and Fascism, which at its very best is Socialism with the virtues left out.

The industrial society, the advanced modern world, is coupled in his mind with a centralized planning state. The idea that a largely unplanned, and yet very modern and sophisticated society could exist is simply not a possibility that Orwell conceived of. But look around you- we have it. It is telling that in 1984, technology is the enemy of freedom, not its friend. But here I am, a comparative nobody, able to express myself and advance my ideas to anyone who cares to listen, solely because of technological progress. We found out about Tianneman Square and the student riots in Iran because of technology.

Perhaps it was amazing to people living in the dark days of the 30’s to imagine that progress was possible (in fact the only way it was possible) if government just got out of the way. The dichotomy is not between Socialism (state planning with a heart) and Fascism (state planning without a heart). It’s ultimately between all forms of planning (which always end up as Fascism) on the one hand, and freedom of every kind, including economic, on the other. That’s the real dilemma, the real choices societies always swing between.

Economic freedom is necessary to any other kind of freedom. Without freedom over my house and car and checkbook and labor, all my other freedoms ultimately are just on paper. The Soviets found this out the hard way, and China’s about to. If you give people freedom of economic decisions, they’ll take freedom in all their other decisions too. On the other hand, if you deny economic freedom, you can give the people religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, anything else you like. None of it will matter.

Orwell seems like a good guy, struggling with tough choices in dark times. But he ultimately remained stuck in the same class snobbery he tried so hard to escape. The poor miners of Wigan Pier could only be rescued by their betters. But history has proven that if you just give those miners freedom, they’ll save themselves.

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