By Ioan Marc Jones
A thud on the table and the argument began. I listened intently, pretending to read, sneaking an occasional glance at the commotion. The boy was protesting. His bus had broken down, he said, and even then, he was still only five minutes late. The supervisor simply shook his head. The shake signified the sanction. The boy scraped his chair across the ugly carpet, snatched his bag, and stormed out. The security guard watched on hawkishly, ready to pounce.
This is the jobcentre in West London – the cemetery of self-esteem. The walls are painted grey to destroy any last modicum of hope or happiness. The seats are a cold blue that complements the colour scheme of decay. No other hub of public service – the police station, the town hall, even the hospital – is so drearily dressed. Those in the jobcentre avoid eye contact at all costs. Folks seldom smile. To smile is to prove you’re not serious about finding work. Smiling is frowned upon and frowning is accepted with an approving frown. The jobcentre is the source of little happiness and much disappointment.
I was twenty-four. For the past eighteen months, I had worked full-time to cover the costs of an evening Masters. I would often work 12-hour days: seven hours in the post room and five hours between lectures, seminars and libraries. I read assigned texts travelling between stations and during my lunch break. I listened to podcasts and audiobooks while walking home. I would often leave the house at eight in the morning and return at midnight. My mum would sometimes wait up for me and we would have a cuppa and a chinwag. Then I would go to bed and repeat the process.
Three months before the Masters finished, I quit the post room gig to focus on my dissertation. It was necessary to get the grade I desired and I had saved enough money to survive the period. I spent long days in the British Library reading every book that mentioned the subject of my dissertation: Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. It was a trivial time to be alive. I wanted to read fiction, poetry, Joan Didion, anything that didn’t mention Nietzsche. I wanted to get needlessly drunk and watch mundane television. I wanted to meet up with friends, get drunk, and watch mundane television.
By the time the Masters was over, I was running out of money. I started applying for jobs with the false belief that I was somehow employable. I have a Masters now, I thought, I’ll get a job in an instant. The first week, I received no responses apart than the automated. The second week, I received one personalised rejection. The third week, I had an interview with a potential employer, but other candidates proved more experienced. By the fourth week, my savings had vanished and I was still jobless.
I signed up for the dole and answered the mandatory questions. I earnt nothing, I had no savings, I lived with my parents and I had an ostensibly pointless education. I was the perfect candidate. The government approved my request and I had to visit the cemetery of self-esteem every two weeks until I was gainfully employed.
Thus began the part of my life you could call my life on the dole. It was a time of perpetual disappointment, mental instability and unnecessary grief. It was a woeful, doleful time. It was at that time, however, that I discovered Orwell.
It was around October 2013 when I received my first dole cheque. At the time, the government and most mainstream tabloids were proselytising about an apparent ‘culture of dependency’. The Sun was running a typically hyperbolic campaign called ‘the war on welfare’. The ever-charming Daily Mail daily condemned the so-called scroungers purportedly unwilling to work. Commentators on Question Time claimed that the safety blanket of welfare had become a 10,000-thread count sheet made from Egyptian cotton. Families settled on sofas across Britain every evening to watch poverty porn on domestic television while social media erupted with faux-outrage. Shows such as Benefits Street gave viewers a misleading glimpse into the lives of welfare claimants. Mocking those without means was business and business was booming.
The tabloids were dancing around the truth, of course, and reality television displayed a typical disregard for reality. The money I received from the state – fifty-odd quid a week – only served to prevent me going deep – or deeper – into debt. Notions of indulgence seemed ludicrous. Folks dependent on the jobcentre were not living a life of luxury. Some brought in screaming children in broken prams while others wore torn-up clothes. Some looked unwell while others suffered more worrying ailments. I heard amid the disquieting din of the jobcentre earnest complaints of hunger and hardship, worries and woes. Some begged for jobs and others simply begged for help. The people seemed so ingenuous. If these folks were skiving con artists – as was often perpetuated – I felt that they were wasting their talents on pitiful state handouts.
On the dole, I felt like a victim of circumstance, but the war on welfare rendered me a suspect. Politicians who had attended the finest private schools and elite universities – paid for by wealthy parents – and had never held what they unironically termed a ‘real job’ condemned the ‘something-for-nothing’ culture. David Cameron, the Prime Minister at the time and the proverbial sergeant in the war on welfare, was particularly prone to such condemnations. Cameron had attended Eton – the training ground of the British elite – before moving predictably to Oxford where, alongside his Chancellor and other members of his Cabinet, he was part of the infamous Bullingdon Club, an organisation known for smashing up restaurants and burning money in front of the homeless. After Oxford, Cameron strolled into a plush corporate job in Hong Kong through his dad’s connections and soon made his way back to the UK to join and then lead the Conservatives. Out of the members of Cameron’s Cabinet at the time, more than half had attended fee-paying schools – compared to only 7% of Britons – and the majority of them were millionaires, often through inherited wealth. And they all hated the ‘something-for-nothing’ culture.
It is perhaps unsurprising, considering the band of elite brothers and sisters that were running the country, that the rhetoric on benefits seemed so disconnected from reality. It is fair to assume that few of these politicians regularly visited a jobcentre. A more obvious assumption is that none had properly experienced life on the dole. Politicians, it seems, need little understanding of the areas they address with such assurance. As Edmund Burke, father of modern Conservativism and an intellectual inspiration for Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, explains with a healthy dose of contempt:
‘Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite.’
Without a real world understanding of life on the dole, politicians had to justify cuts using either statistics or chicanery. And statistics were of little help.
In 2014/15, for example, the government spent £258 billion on welfare – disability benefits, housing benefits, in-work benefits, state pensions and so on – which made up 35% of government spending. Those on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) received only £3 billion of this overall expenditure. Out of the pocket of the taxpayer, therefore, far less than 1% of overall taxes went to those claiming JSA. No politician, to my knowledge, has used such statistics to front an argument to cut benefits or implement sanctions. I doubt they could.
The government therefore relied on chicanery. Thus you have claims about the culture of dependency, spouted by prominent politicians and echoed by tabloids. Thus you have double-page spreads dedicated to those rare folks on the dole with large houses and flat screen televisions. Thus you have regular stories of people manipulating the system, despite the rarity of such instances. Thus you have the use of unrepresentative examples to justify nationwide policies. Thus you have the war on welfare. And thus you have public support for the war on welfare.
At the time, as one of those folks feeding off the taxpayer’s hard-earned money, I was steadily applying for jobs to no avail. I applied for twenty jobs a week, sometimes more. Not well-paid or coveted jobs either. I was applying for anything and everything. Rejections came through with equal stead. The few personalised rejections I received dictated that I was too inexperienced to gain any experience and my graduate and postgraduate degrees accounted for nothing. Every rejection made every application more demoralising. I was growing lazier and my self-esteem approached rock bottom. I continued to apply for jobs and received the inexorable rejections. I grew lazier still.
In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell empathises with lazy folks such as myself that rely on the dole, suggesting that lethargy is the result of inaction, the result of having nothing to do, the result of feeling worthless. Laziness is a force of habit for folks on the dole, Orwell suggests, not an inherent trait. The prevailing narrative at the time dictated that the lazy were unemployed because they were lazy, but in reality the unemployed were lazy because they were unemployed. Laziness is not inherent to folks on the dole: it is inevitable. And I was unwittingly embracing the inevitable.
I couldn’t go anywhere because living costs money. I couldn’t visit free museums or galleries because I couldn’t afford to travel. I was confined to areas within walking distance and such areas are always tragic, regardless of where one lives. The park was nice for perhaps a week, but I soon realised an overwhelming contempt for the incessant jogging, the vague smiles from owners of annoying dogs, and the children playing too close for comfort. I visited the shops daily, but I had no money and thus I was soon considered a thief.
Folks around me became grossly generous. My mum would offer to take me for lunch on a random Wednesday. She said she wanted to ‘spend quality time’ with me, whatever that meant, but in reality she just hated seeing me wearing pyjamas four days in a row. I would tell my friends that I was too broke to go out and they would offer to buy me a couple of beers and pay for my travel. I accepted the first few invitations, but after a while I couldn’t face scrounging off them as well as apparently scrounging off the state. My friends eventually stopped calling – they too dislike rejection – and thus I was left alone to wallow in my newfound and supposedly inherent laziness.
If late capitalism creates winners and losers, I became a sore loser. I developed a hatred of money precisely because any decent amount seemed unattainable. My friends spoke of promotions and pay rises and I mocked their fidelity to the coin. I didn’t actually believe they were enslaved, although that was often my argument, but I adopted such a position to allow an illusory sense of self-worth. I almost convinced myself that my unemployed status was voluntary. I was Orwell’s Comstock, secretly craving the aspidistra.
After two months, applications seemed futile. I suffered such a barrage of negative reinforcement – applying for jobs resulted in rejection – that the negative was essentially reinforced. I started applying in vein – just to prove I was applying – in full knowledge that I would hear nothing but an automated rejection from the employer. Everyone, apparently, was keeping my CV on record. The desperation for work dissipated and a void of emptiness, a complete lack of ambition, took its place. And every day, while walking gormlessly around all too familiar parks and visiting shops with no money, I read headlines about folks like me perpetually robbing the state.
Books were one of my few comforts. I realised that the once-cherished days of watching mundane television were the apotheosis of unproductivity, but reading offered a sense of self-achievement. Lacking money to buy anything, I worked my way through the books I owned. I had amassed a small library during university that I had barely touched. In the first few weeks of life on the dole, I read most of Joyce’s work – although I quit half way through Finnegan’s Wake, as I was convinced it was a practical joke – and I read the Beckett trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. I read some of the leftover Beat stuff from my undergraduate days – I wrote a thesis on Burroughs’s Junky – and I ploughed through a few Faulkner novels. I finally got round to the larger Steinbeck books I had always avoided – Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden – and I read the hardback copy of Moby Dick my parents gave me for graduating.
I exhausted the books in my little library and thus I asked my folks for advice on books to read from their shelves. My dad has read every Steinbeck, Solzhenitsyn and Orwell book – and little else. Conversations about literature conveniently revert to these authors. My mum primarily reads popular fiction – she is a sucker for Jody Picoult, Ali Smith and other loveable commercial types – but she possesses a nostalgic love of Eliot, Austen and Orwell. My parents had noticed my growing interest in politics, hastened by a general disillusionment with the narrative of unemployment, and their advice was thus predictable. My dad handed me that decrepit copy of Down and Out – the one that predicted my laziness.
Like many Britons, I had read Animal Farm in secondary school. Like many Britons, I had read Nineteen-Eighty-Four because I wanted to take part in conversations. I wasn’t too impressed with allegorical Orwell, as I thought in my childish naiveté that it was a little simplistic. And I wasn’t too impressed with prophetic Orwell, as prophecies always seem predictable to those living the prophecy. I had thought these books were interesting, to be sure, but I hardly understood the fascination. To borrow a phrase from Will Self – who was paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton – I felt that Orwell was the ‘supreme mediocrity’.
The evening my parents gave me Down and Out, however, I stayed up reading until two in the morning. It was immediately clear that I had been reading the wrong Orwell at the wrong time. Down and Out was less abstract than the mandatory texts, yet the message seemed more profound, and the timing for reading Down and Out was ideal.
I remember waking up to my alarm with the battered copy on my chest. I had an appointment at the jobcentre within an hour. I read Down and Out on the bus and continued to read it while sitting in the dole queue for forty-five minutes. (One typically waits up to an hour to see the supervisor, but faces sanctions for being five minutes late.) It felt appropriate reading Down and Out in that environment. Amid all the political rhetoric condemning scroungers, and amid all the media nonsense, I felt that someone finally understood. That someone, of course, had been dead for seventy-five years.
My supervisor called my name three times before I finally approached his desk. He pronounced my name wrong, as he did every two weeks. He asked typical questions and expected typical answers, which I usually provided. But something had changed. I suppose Orwell rubs off on the reader. I plucked up the courage to answer my supervisor’s questions honestly. I said the job search was terrible. I said that I didn’t feel like applying for jobs because rejection seemed inevitable. I told him that I felt lazy and dejected. I told him that my self-esteem had plummeted. I told him about the odd panic attack. I told him about how I sat on the sofa and felt sharp pains in my chest. I told him about how my mum panicked as she tried to calm me down. I told him it lasted an hour. I exaggerated a little. I told him about the sense of worthlessness. I told him that I thought everyone was against me: my brothers, my friends, the government, the people, him. I told him that I might be a little paranoid. He agreed.
I spoke to him as one speaks to a councillor. He looked at me angrily. He was annoyed that I had frustrated the system. He wanted humdrum answers. He wanted ‘yes sir’. He wanted me to play along. Other jobseekers listened, perhaps wondering how the supervisor would react to this challenge. His response was predictable: continue to apply, try some new websites, contact recruitment agencies, work on your CV.
The supervisor was good at his job. To be a successful supervisor, one needs to be robotic. One needs prescribed answers. The jobcentre exists, Orwell says in The Road to Wigan Pier, to give folks the illusion that the government wants to help. But really it’s about proving or disproving that so-called scroungers are applying. It is essentially a game of statistics: the more folks you get off the dole – through employment, sanctions or otherwise – the better. A report from the Department of Work and Pensions suggested that 2,380 people between 2011 and 2014 had died shortly after they were declared fit to work. Those good folks too, I suppose, were statistics. And folks like me, evidently applying but growing lazy, are a sustained statistic. The supervisors have no actual jobs to give out. All supervisors can do is offer banal nothingness or incentivise work through sanctions. Personal motivation and emotional recognition are a waste of time. To care for folks on the dole is to thwart vital government resources.
Before I left the jobcentre, my supervisor reminded me that if I didn’t apply for jobs I would lose my benefits. Honesty would cost me fifty-odd quid a week. I was never honest to my supervisor again.
On the way home from the jobcentre, I sat in a local park and finished Down and Out. And a creeping profundity overtook me while sitting on a pigeon-shit covered bench. The sort of profundity many have felt when finishing a book that changes their worldview. Readers are usually suspicious of the profundity throughout the text – aware that it exists, but not quite sold – and only relinquish suspicion in the final few pages. I realised on that bench the profound principle of empathy – a principle that speaks directly to those on the dole. Orwell concludes Down and Out rather brilliantly:
‘I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.’
Empathy is precisely what I felt was absent in the political discourse surrounding benefits. I wasn’t particularly hard up, to be sure, at least not in the same vein as Orwell and his homeless mates. Even though I was on the dole, my mum still offered shelter and food and charged no rent – not that I had the money to pay. An aspidistra – Orwell’s symbol of middle-classdom, appropriated from Robert Tressell’s great proletarian novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – still graced my mum’s windowsill. I was lucky to never face sanctions and luckier still that had I faced sanctions I would not have been homeless. I was one of the lucky ones. And I felt that sense of empathy for others, aware of my own privilege, aware of their lack of privilege. But I was nonetheless struggling mentally and physically – self-esteem plummeting, anxiety rising, laziness engulfing – and I felt, as many unemployed folks feel, that the government, the media and the public were against me.
For the next few weeks, alongside the seemingly robotic job applications, I devoured Orwell. This seemed the best use of my state-funded time. Both Orwell’s style – directness, simplicity, candour – and his message proved beguiling. Orwell is an empirical commentator. In each of his works, fiction and non-fiction, his opinions rely on experience and empathy – precisely what I felt was missing in popular political narratives.
Orwell’s arguments against imperialism, for example, stem from his time in the Burmese police and memories of his family profiting from colonialism. Orwell uses one particularly profound experience to make the case against imperialism in his essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’:
‘And it was at this moment, as I stood with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East…I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.’
Orwell can only make this argument because he has experience of both sides: the colonists and the colonised. As was his wont, Orwell uses the personal to justify the political and the political to inform the personal.
I felt comfortable with Orwell precisely because the personal is abnegating and self-damaging – a point many on the self-aggrandising left have always failed to grasp. Orwell explains in ‘Notes on Salvador Dali’ that autobiography in all forms is ‘only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.’ Orwell embraces such disgrace. He criticises imperialism, but acknowledges his role in the furtherance of imperialism. He represents the downtrodden, but is acutely aware that his previous social position stands in direct contrast to the downtrodden. He touches upon subjects with knowledge of his own inadequacy. It imbues a rare authenticity through the rejection of self-aggrandisement.
Orwell’s personal and political similarly informs Keep the Aspidistras Flying – his greatest novel. Orwell’s previous privilege – his ‘lower upper middle class’ upbringing – was a constant source of personal embarrassment. The reader witnesses this embarrassment through the conflict of Comstock and Ravelston. In some sense, these two pivotal characters are envious of each other. Comstock craves the comfort of wealth, perhaps unknowingly, and Ravelston seeks the authenticity of poverty.
This conflict is emblematic of Orwell’s life and work. To his early shame, Orwell had no real understanding of what he considers the oppressed. He recites, for example, vague memories from his childhood of folks telling him the working class smell. But, despite his upbringing, Orwell considered himself an ally of the working class. In order to forge political arguments in their favour, therefore, Orwell had to empathise with their plight. Down and Out – that book that so beguiled me on the dole – failed to offer Orwell such an experience, as the city tramps represent an underclass rather than a homogenous working class. And the working men and women of the city, according to Orwell, are not the real oppressed masses, as he explains somewhat pejoratively in his essay ‘Charles Dickens’:
‘[Dickens] is a south of England man, and a cockney at that, and therefore out of touch with the real oppressed masses, the industrial and agricultural labourers.’
For Orwell, therefore, the oppressed working class were in the North. In the pursuit of empathy, the road led Orwell to Wigan Pier.
I first read The Road to Wigan Pier directly after Down and Out in the early days of life on the dole. It is a rarity indeed to read two concurrent books that resonate so profoundly. Wigan Pier is the finest testament to Orwellian empathy. It is also his greatest symbioses of the personal and the political. The first half consists of Orwell walking in the shoes of the Northern working class. He goes through tunnels deep into the mines and explains the brutal working environment in a manner that resembles Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England. He lives for sustained periods with Northern families to experience their lifestyle. He sleeps on their mattresses and drinks at their pubs and working men’s clubs. He eats their food and sympathetically imbibes their mannerisms. He examines the effect of mass unemployment in the industrial lands – noting, appropriately for the present essay, the false representation of unemployment statistics. He performs each act of mimicry in solidarity, of course, always aware of his previous privilege.
This personal journey is essential for Orwell’s political arguments, as demonstrated in the second part of Wigan Pier. Orwell claims that a personal exploration of working class life ‘was necessary as part of [his] approach to Socialism.’ Before one can adopt a political position, Orwell says, one has to decide whether ‘things at present are tolerable or not tolerable’. Evidently, for Orwell, it was the latter. Thus begins his best argument for socialism – built with empathy, reinforced with subtle intellect.
Orwell explains the attractiveness of socialism, but suggests that certain aspects of socialism – the rhetoric, the propaganda, the vegetarians, the pacifists – prove unattractive. Socialism is common sense, Orwell claims, and thus supporters should focus on values not grandiosities. They should push policies and reject grandiloquence. They should call for common decency and stop banging on about dialectic materialism and the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. Orwell was always closer to Robert Owen than Karl Marx. Thus, unlike some of Orwell’s peers on the left – some of whom he ‘outed’ in his infamous ‘list’ – the Leninist and Stalinist strands of socialism troubled Orwell. Rather than travel with fellows, Orwell felt that simplicity over ideology would beckon the most favour for socialism.
Both parts of Wigan Pier draw heavily on the personal. Orwell always suffers the plight of his subject. He judges the merits of the case based on the reality. He avoids over-indulgence in theory and embraces experience and evidence. In the Burkean sense, Orwell acquaints himself with the ideas with which he is meddling.
I found in Orwell precisely the sort of political engagement that was absent in British politics, particularly concerning the narrative of benefits. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that as an unemployed man I found solace in Orwell while the establishment berated those good-for-nothing folks on the dole. It is equally unsurprising that I, one of those good-for-nothing folks, spent my time on the dole reading Orwell.
It was roughly five months before I finally found work. One Friday, I received a call from a temp agency. A local garden centre was seeking an administrative assistant. The job paid close to minimum wage. I could hardly complain. Long gone were the days of self-belief. When is the interview? I asked. No interview, the agent responded, you start Monday.
I felt a sense of Comstockian relief. While I still hated the prospect of money for the sake of money, the opportunity to overcome the inexorable laziness of unemployment proved too beguiling. I craved monotonous routine – something employed folks detest. I wanted to wake up in the morning and feel productive beyond the realms of literature. In the Wildean sense, I wanted to live, not merely exist, and the pursuit of money remained the only route.
I found a suit and tie. I shaved off a rather impressive beard and borrowed ten quid from my mum for a haircut. I essentially followed Rosemary’s advice to Gordon in Aspidistra. I was heavily in debt by this point. I had spent my overdraft, maxed out a credit card or two, and still had a mountain of tuition fees.
The job was tedious. It was databases and basic arithmetic. It was meetings to arrange further meetings. It was answering phones. It was office politics. It was fighting off complaints with perpetual apologies. It was following a script to customers and employers.
I’m a striver these days, I suppose. I have been working for nearly four years. I have a pension scheme and life insurance. I have season ticket loans and free visits to the opticians. I drink on weekends and talk shit about other employees.
The folks at the jobcentre – those unlucky few – still wear torn-up clothes. They are still asking and then begging for help. They still bring their kids to the cemetery of self-esteem in broken prams. They still wait for forty-five minutes to be told there are not jobs and still receive sanctions for arriving five minutes late. Some still rely on foodbanks. The government and the media still deem such folks lazy because they are of such a kind, not because unemployment forces laziness. They are still statistics.
These days, the counter-argument to cutting welfare is virtually non-existent – not just regarding unemployment benefits, but benefits across the board. With few exceptions, politicians of the left and right are in perpetual competition about getting ‘tough on benefits’. Empathy is scarce. The scrounger narrative is such a success, indeed, that the British public praise politicians that condemn the already struggling. British people applaud hard work and abhor those that fail to work hard – even if involuntarily. Beating the beaten has become a source of national pride. You don’t get by in Britain without earning your pay. God Save the Queen.
It is perhaps foolish to predict a dead man’s position on present politics – although our opinion writers are so fond of doing so – but one can imagine where Orwell would stand on the benefits debate. His position would have been unpopular, to be sure, but it would have had the advantage of truth. And while many on the left have forgotten their principles in the pursuit of political power, Orwell always remained firm. And as Christopher Hitchens says in Why Orwell Matters:
‘…politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.’
My life on the dole was boring. There was a lot of sitting around watching mundane television and a lot of reading. In the midst of boredom, however, I suffered a deflated sense of self-worth and inflated anxiety, along with a cornucopia of other issues. The scrounger narrative – perpetuated on television screens, newspapers and on political broadcasts – sought only to exacerbate these issues. And the narrative was successful.
But I found Orwell on the dole. Panic attacks and self-loathing, laziness and dejectedness, loss of aspiration and self-esteem, but Orwell. Swings and roundabouts, I guess. And in Orwell I found the true worth of that inviolable principle of empathy. It is a principle that I learnt reading Down and Out and Wigan Pier, Aspidistra and Coming Up For Air. A principle that suggests only that one walk in the shoes of those one seeks to condemn. A principle that asks only that one understands the affairs with which one meddles, as Burke extolled. Empathy is a principle both simplistic and enduring. Empathy is truly Orwellian.
Ioan Marc Jones is a writer and editor. His work has featured in The Independent, Total Politics, openDemocracy, Wales Arts Review and more. @ioanmarcjones