Orwell argues that there is no reason for poverty to exist. People live in poverty only because of selfishness and greed, the norms of consumption, and the social hierarchies that structure the world.
One way that Orwell attacks the logic of poverty is to weigh its costs against its benefits. He does this by contrasting the life of the poor with the luxurious lives of those who employ poor people. Orwell, who himself worked as a plongeur at Hotel X in Paris, describes the life of the plongeur as one of long hours, bad pay, and mind-numbing, frenetic activity. At the end of a shift (which is typically 11 hours but sometimes more), one only has time to rush home, eat a hurried meal, and go to bed. The plongeur then wakes up and does it all over again. As such, there is not enough time in the day for a plongeur to even consider getting an education or starting a family. Rather, plongeurs live like indentured servants, often until they die. Orwell then contrasts this joyless existence of the plongeur to the few hours of flimsy opulence that the rich experience at the restaurants where the plongeurs work. Orwell concludes that such luxury is pointless, and that the brutal lives forced upon the plongeurs are thus completely unnecessary.
To add insult to injury, Orwell claims that at “high end” establishments, what passes for elegance is, upon closer inspection, actually shoddy and awful. When Orwell works at the Auberge, for example, he finds that the restaurant is poorly run, maintained on a system of bribes, and filthy. In the kitchen, the floor is an inch-deep in old food, the garbage can is overflowing, and the outdoor shed where the meat and vegetables are stored is overrun with rats. And yet, the Auberge is successful, in large part because of the “Norman” decorations: fake beams on the walls, “peasant” pottery, and erotic paintings over the bar. Customers are attracted to the this “elegance,” which is in fact a sham, while workers like Orwell, Boris, and the restaurant’s long-suffering cook, slave away in horrible and unsafe conditions.
Likewise, Orwell describes Hotel X as a perfect example of a restaurant that obtains its reputation for luxury through cutting corners and overcharging. The dining room might appear to be a bastion of elegance, but just behind a door is the kitchen where the cooks often spit in the food and vermin are not uncommon. There is, Orwell contends, “a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.” Orwell then, paints the “luxury” of such restaurants as a kind of con game in which the rich get only the illusion of luxury—and the status of being able to go to a “high-end” establishment—in exchange for the brutal exploitation of the poor.
Orwell is not blind, though, to the pernicious attraction of valuing status over substance—in fact, he describes how this value system has been adopted by the poor themselves. As a dishwasher, Orwell is keenly aware of his place in the Hotel X pecking order: he is just below an apprentice waiter and just above the chambermaid. This caste system gives (limited) power and superiority to those in valued positions (cooks, waiters, the maître d’hotel), which contents these workers and gives other workers a status to which they can aspire. In other words, the poor themselves buy into the system in order to achieve an illusion of power and status. While the rich get power through spending money on goods and services that appear luxurious, the poor get power by rigidly defining each other and fighting for the meager power or esteem they are allowed.
The streets of London share in common with the hotels of Paris a fixed pecking order. Acrobats and street photographers are at the top of the food chain, beggars at the bottom. Organ grinders and talented pavement artists are just below photographers, and those who sell cheap, unwanted merchandise (bootlaces, lavender in envelopes) are below them. This kind of hierarchy is also found among London tramps who are eager to distinguish themselves from those they consider the lowest of the low. At the Lower Binfield spike, for instance, Orwell meets a homeless woman who refuses to be associated with the trashy men around her. “When I want to get mixed up with a set of tramps,” she says, “I’ll let you know.”
At the end of the book, Orwell explains how the things he has learned while “down and out” will transform the way he behaves: “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels,” he writes, “nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy … nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.” Orwell, then, ends his book at the “beginning.” It is a beginning that doesn’t offer a clear path forward, but that does offer the idealistic vision: should society decide to prioritize investment in the poor over pampering the rich, poverty might be eradicated. The down and out state is, according to Orwell, a creation of a capitalist system that rewards artificiality and fruitless toil. Orwell contends that if people—the wealthy and the poor—were to wake up to this fact, nobody would need to continue to waste their lives as slaves to the system.
Poverty is Unnecessary ThemeTracker
Poverty is Unnecessary Quotes in Down and Out in Paris and London
Appearance—appearance is everything, mon ami. Give me a new suit and I will borrow a thousand francs by dinner-time.
To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.
If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.
People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose. They see somebody else doing a disagreeable job, and think that they have solved things by saying that the job is necessary.
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 opinion.
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.
Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone, it flies towards you from all directions.
The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body, that they cannot even run a lodging house without it stinking of charity.
Another thing to remember is to keep your money covered up, except perhaps a penny in the hat. People won’t give you anything if they see you got a bob or two already.
In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue…A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. But a man like Paddy, with no means of filling up time, is as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain. That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.
A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor—it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.
Still 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.