‘The horrors’

Posted on | August 10, 2011 | 5 Comments

When I finished writing my book manuscript in early 2010, I included an epigraph from the late George Orwell:

Even the middle classes, for the first time in their history, are feeling the pinch. They have not known actual hunger yet, but more and more of them find themselves floundering in a sort of deadly net of frustration in which it is harder and harder to persuade yourself that you are either happy, active, or useful. Even the lucky ones at the top, the real bourgeoisie, are haunted periodically by a consciousness of the miseries below, and still more by fears of the menacing future. And this is merely a preliminary stage, in a country still rich with the loot of a hundred years. Presently there may be coming God knows what horrors – horrors of which, in this sheltered island, we have not even a traditional knowledge. – George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

At the time, this passage seemed to capture some of the texture of the 2008 financial crisis – an event that marked a turning point for many of the employees studied in my book.

Whether it was the sense of foreboding haunting the workplace as job losses became a reality, or the broader feeling of anxiety that the turmoil in global markets spelled for investors, the middle class office workers I interviewed in boom time Brisbane were far from encountering actual hunger or poverty.

Their tremendous work ethic, which saw them attached to their email from morning to night, stemmed from a different set of fears: that the happiness and success to which they felt entitled as ambitious professionals could suddenly not be their destiny. “I’m starting to realize I might have to go down almost 50 per cent of what I was getting paid,” a retrenched marketing manager told me: “maybe even less, because there’s just so much competition out there.”

The publication of my book in the past week has coincided with a renewed period of economic uncertainty. As the US battles the prospect of recession, and volatility reigns on the share market, riots have spread across Orwell’s “sheltered island,” to the disbelief of so many. We have witnessed scenes of horror as the extent of ordinary political disaffection has been revealed.

Watching these events – on cable television, Facebook and YouTube – an already clear division in the experience of power and participation in a knowledge economy is further reinforced. Our culture is one that values and rewards ambition, particularly when this is appropriately targeted to the pursuit of paid work. But it cannot afford to acknowledge that such aspirations will never be sustainable for all. It is abundantly clear that there are structural conditions that determine the distribution of opportunity, in spite of the ways neoliberal discourses try to make failure a personal responsibility.

A major motivation for my recent research has been to better understand a situation in which so many educated professionals remain protected from an awareness of others’ lack of access to work – how social inequalities fall off the radar in the course of busy day-to-day priorities. When your own job is both demanding and rewarding, it is hard to relate to the much larger majority in a global economy for whom (to use the words of Andre Gorz) the spoils of a merit-based society are forever distant, the prospect of fulfilling work “a bad joke.”

I wanted to mark this week by returning to Orwell, especially since the quotation above was cut from my manuscript in the production process. For the publisher, the difficulty of securing copyright for the passage outweighed the significance of its message. And right now this seems to be just another indication of our misplaced legal and political priorities.


5 Responses to “‘The horrors’”

  1. Fiona
    August 10th, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    Great and timely post Mel – and congrats on the book. The Orwell quote is particulary relevant on the verge of GFC mark II – so glad you got it up here to frame the project. GT showed me a copy today – it would be fantastic to have a brisvegas launch of it up here and I look forward to reading and teaching from it asap.

  2. melgregg
    August 15th, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    Great to hear from you Fi! Thanks for the kind words. Will keep you posted on launch plans. Publishing in Oz next month, so watch this space…

  3. Greg
    August 18th, 2011 @ 4:38 am

    I just happened across your blog while surfing online, pretty interesting content.

    I think the Orwell quote is still very timely today. And can be applied to the US as well. The middle class here is shrinking, mostly getting poorer. But most Americans are still flush with entitlement from the past century of growth & prosperity. And I do believe that the worst is yet to come. And only God does know what is in store for us all.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  4. Michael
    August 23rd, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    I got a manuscript turned down, I am shattered, I know even the best academics and minds in the world face it, but i’m like a bull I won’t let it go and I will ask them, nicely, to consider a revised.

    What gets me is, you appreciate they are busy and reviewing is thankless often, but the system demands publishing. The review was 7 lines, total nonsense but I know you can’t tell the reviwers that. Why are they so fussy? Its often strange things they say and you go, umm hello. Anyway, I know that’s the price.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me get that off chest, I wanted to comment on putting Orwell in.

    I am not a know it all who can save the world but surely isn’t this just a case of here we go again? Governments and those elite capitalists need to stop blaming the masses for this. Your correct in saying hard work is rewarded but not all can achieve that.

    Personally, I am anti-conscription, but why can’t firms and universities, as well as charities, accept more volunteer work? For example, we know academics are busy, you prove that, but to get experience in research etc, and to offer that for free, well anyway, rules need to change.

    The knowledge economy operates more than ever; what does operate are the social and cultural norms which are pushed at people but for reasons of the spirit, or the body or money, cannot be attained. Yet we have to be thin, rich, powerful in the workplace etc etc, when clearly that picture that societies including Asian ones are still trying to maintain. We need to change; but perhaps it is attitudes first than behavours.

    I wish Bourdieu and other thinkers were here they would be having a field day with this current folly.

    Thanks for letting me rant on your blog, I really am shattered over the manuscript, but…well, there are always other journals and they may not close the door on submission, and yes I will not push the editors. Promise.

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