On fetishizing useless AND boring forms of wage-slavery

Mike Ballard swillsqueal at yahoo.com.au
Wed Feb 5 10:56:08 MST 2003

This is from Down and Out in Paris and London by
George Orwell.


Is a PLONGEUR'S work really necessary to civilization?
We have a feeling that it must be 'honest' work,
because it is hard and disagreeable, and we have made
a sort of fetish of manual work. We see a man cutting
down a tree, and we make sure that he is filling a
social need, just because he uses his muscles; it does
not occur to us that he may only be cutting down a
beautiful tree to make room for a hideous statue. I
believe it is the same with a PLONGEUR. He earns his
bread in the sweat of his brow, but it does not follow
that he is doing anything useful; he may be only
supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury.

As an example of what I mean by luxuries which are not
luxuries,take an extreme case, such as one hardly sees
in Europe. Take an Indian rickshaw puller, or a gharry
pony. In any Far Eastern town there are rickshaw
pullers by the hundred, black wretches weighing eight
stone, clad in loin-cloths. Some of them are diseased;
some of them are fifty years old. For miles on end
they trot in the sun or rain, head down, dragging at
the shafts, with the sweat dripping from their grey
moustaches. When they go too slowly the passenger
calls them BAHINCHUT. They earn thirty or forty rupees
a month, and cough their lungs out after a few
years. The gharry ponies are gaunt, vicious things
that have been sold cheap as having a few years' work
left in them. Their master looks on the whip as a
substitute for food. Their work expresses itself in a
sort of equation--whip plus food equals energy;
generally it is about sixty per cent whip and forty
cent food. Sometimes their necks are encircled by one
vast sore, so that they drag all day on raw flesh. It
is still possible to make them work, however; it is
just a question of thrashing them so hard that the
pain behind outweighs the pain in front. After a few
years even the whip loses its virtue, and the pony
goes to the knacker. These are instances of
unnecessary work, for there is no real need for
gharries and rickshaws; they only exist because
Orientals consider it vulgar to walk. They are
luxuries, and, as anyone who has ridden in them knows,
very poor luxuries. They afford a small amount of
convenience, which cannot possibly balance the
suffering of the men and animals.

Similarly with the PLONGEUR. He is a king compared
with a rickshaw puller or a gharry pony, but his case
is analogous. He is the slave of a hotel or a
restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless.
For, after all, where is the REAL need of big
hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to
provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a
cheap, shoddy imitation of it. Nearly everyone hates
hotels. Some restaurants are better than others, but
it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant
as one can get, for the same expense, in a private
house. No doubt hotels and restaurants must exist, but
there is no need that they should enslave hundreds of
people. What makes the work in them is not the
essentials; it is the shams that are supposed to
represent luxury. Smartness, as it is called, means,
in effect, merely that the staff work more and
the customers pay more; no one benefits except the
proprietor, who will presently buy himself a striped
villa at Deauville. Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a
place where a hundred people toil like devils in order
that two hundred may pay through the nose for things
they do not really want. If the nonsense were cut out
of hotels and restaurants, and the work done with
simple efficiency, PLONGEURS might work six or eight
hours a day instead often or fifteen.

Suppose it is granted that a PLONGEUR'S work is more
or less useless. Then the question follows, Why does
anyone want him to go on working? I am trying to go
beyond the immediate economic cause, and to consider
what pleasure it can give anyone to think
of men swabbing dishes for life. For there is no doubt
that people--comfortably situated people--do find a
pleasure in such thoughts. A slave, Marcus Gato said,
should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not
matter whether his work is needed or not, he must
work, because work in itself is good--for slaves, at
least. This sentiment still survives, and it has
piled up mountains of useless drudgery.

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. A rich man who happens to
be intellectually honest, if he is questioned
about the improvement of working conditions, usually
says something like this: 'We know that poverty is
unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather
enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of
its unpleasantness. But don't expect us to do anything
about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as
we are sorry for a, cat with the mange, but we will
fight like devils against any improvement of your
condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are.
The present state of affairs suits us, and we are
not going to take the risk of setting you free, even
by an extra hour a day. So, dear brothers, since
evidently you must sweat to pay for our trips to
Italy, sweat and be damned to you.' This is
particularly the attitude of intelligent, cultivated
people; one can read the substance of it in a hundred
essays. Very few cultivated people have less than
(say) four hundred pounds a year, and naturally they
side with the rich, because they imagine that any
liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own
liberty. Foreseeing some dismal Marxian Utopia as
the alternative, the educated man prefers to keep
things as they are. Possibly he does not like his
fellow-rich very much, but he supposes that even the
vulgarest of them are less inimical to his pleasures,
more his kind of people, than the poor, and that
he had better stand by them. It is this fear of a
supposedly dangerous mob that makes nearly all
intelligent people conservative in their opinions.

Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based
on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental
difference between rich and poor, as though they were
two different races, like Negroes and white men. But
in reality there is no such difference. The mass of
the rich and the poor are differentiated by their
incomes and nothing else, and the. average millionaire
is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.
Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice,
which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal
terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the
trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the
very people who might be expected to have liberal
opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the
majority of educated people know about poverty? In my
copy of Villon's poems the editor has actually thought
it necessary to explain the line 'NE PAIN NE VOYENT
QU'AUX FENESTRES' by a footnote; so remote is even
hunger from the educated man's experience.

>From this ignorance a superstitious fear of the mob
results quite naturally. The educated man pictures a
horde of submen, wanting only a day's liberty to loot
his house, burn his books, and set him to work minding
a machine or sweeping out a lavatory. 'Anything,' he
thinks, 'any injustice, sooner than let that mob
loose.' He does not see that since there is no
difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is
no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in
fact loose now, and--in the shape of rich men--is
using its power to set up enormous treadmills of
boredom, such as 'smart' hotels.

To sum up. A PLONGEUR is a slave, and a wasted slave,
doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept
at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that
he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated
people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the
process, because they know nothing about him and
consequently are afraid of him. I say this of the
PLONGEUR because it is his case I have been
considering; it would apply equally to numberless
other types of worker. These are only my own ideas
about the basic facts of a PLONGEUR'S life, made
without reference to immediate economic questions,
and no doubt largely platitudes. I present them as a
sample of the thoughts that are put into one's head by
working in an hotel.


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