BY MATTHEW HERBERT
When Orwell wrote down the very first political lesson he learned, he still went by his birth name, Eric Blair. The lesson was this: It is often illegal to be somewhere, and since poor people have less choice over where they happen to be at any given time, it is most often they who lack a legal right just to stand, sit, or lie around. The police move them on, to the next place it will be illegal for them to be.
The 17-year old Blair had been travelling by train. Beckoned by an acquaintance waving from a village station, he got off, was delayed, and was, as it turned out, left behind. There were no more trains that day. Even later in life, when he became known as George Orwell, Blair never had much money in his pocket. That day, he records, he had seven and a half pence, or about $5. It was enough to pay for dinner or a bed at the local Y but not both. It was August, so he decided to buy food and skip the shelter.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote that once he had bought his dinner, he sought out a palace to sleep rough, “finally [coming] to anchor in a corner field” near some garden plots.
As dogs began to bark nearby, Blair worried that, “people frequently got fourteen days for sleeping in someone else’s field & ‘having no visible means of support’.” And that described him to a T. He was illegally occupying the only place he could be, given his options.
I mention this episode for a few reasons. First, in the huge shadow of Orwell’s later, more formidable writings, it is often forgotten that his first political inklings were very simple ones about the plight of the poor. This was the very first one.
Second, like so many of Orwell’s small, offhand observations–such as calling London’s plutocrats the “one percent” in 1943–this one would grow into its own weighty branch of political discourse. It applies directly to refugees and asylum seekers. (Our whole approach to the southern U.S. border, for example, is to shrink the space in which potential refugees have standing to plea their cases. We are doing our damndest to make it illegal for them to be anywhere.) The whole edifice of the Jim Crow South rested on the legal power to use poverty as a stand-in for race and therefore a pretext for racial oppression. It kept Blacks in “their” place, which was almost nowhere. Southern whites simply made it illegal for the poor to be anywhere they might try to exercise a human right. Then all they had to do was apply the law.
Third, Blair’s letter highlights why it is not, as is often alleged, hypocritical for privileged members of society to acquaint themselves with the plights of others. Yeah, of course he got on a train the next day and just went home. When Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London and then, a few years later, The Road to Wigan Pier, he caught the full force of the standard reactionary critique of this kind of thing: that comfortable do-gooders posing as the poor are merely dabbling in others’ suffering, something that is in poor taste and morally dishonest. A white, middle-class student, like Orwell sleeping in the field, can at any time remove himself to the comforts of home. They can never know the full extent of what it means to be poor.
To which the rest of Orwell’s writings would say: Yes, that is absolutely the point. Only those who can return to the comforts of home can approach the halls of power, where injustices are redressed. Were an activist to transform himself to a poor person, he would an unremarkable instance of the injustice he opposed. Orwell saw, many decades before the idea of a “social justice warrior,” that the allies of the oppressed must come from the privileged class, and they will always look awkward doing their jobs. But their jobs must be done.