The road to my street

Shoveling snow, thinking deep thoughts about the hard physical work millions of people do every day for much of their lives.

We had a big snowstorm here. Roads were closed. The University cancelled classes, and so on. I’m a reasonably fit, though reasonably miniature middle-aged guy. I was pretty tired and sore after a morning’s hard work shoveling heavy snow.

Of course, probably 500 million people around the world did more arduous labor this morning, took a short meal break, and then returned to finish their usual day’s work. Some were mining coal. Others harvested rice, maneuvered nursing home patients, or maybe carried heavy trash cans or pounded sheetrock down the block from my home. Hundreds of millions of people do hard physical work every day, for most of their lives.

Across the globe, providing the wealth, capital, and technology to relieve people of these daily burdens remains a central challenge. Here at home in an era of rising inequality, we’re challenged to provide the people who do this essential work with fair wages, health benefits, occupational safety, the opportunity to retire before one’s body gives out. If you read this blog, you’re more likely to earn your living in front of a computer screen than to do any of the jobs mentioned above. You’re probably spared the worst burdens that accompany hard physical work.

Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier:

In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

If you doubt what Orwell is saying, go outside in the cold. Do some hard physical work for two or three hours. Then see how you feel.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “The road to my street”

  1. Or the modern equivalent, a young woman (or even a child) doing dull, repetitive work in an Asian factory.

  2. The Orwell quotation is missing a word: “Nancy” precedes “poets.” “Nancy” was a slur for “homosexual”; yes, even Orwell was a product of his times. We don’t need to protect him.

  3. my own strategy is sons. two of them. ‘Lads, go out an shovel the walk. That’s what you’re for’…

  4. A similar idea:

    A Worker Reads History

    Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
    The books are filled with names of kings.
    Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
    And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
    Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
    That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
    In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
    Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
    Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
    Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
    Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
    The night the seas rushed in,
    The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

    Young Alexander conquered India.
    He alone?
    Caesar beat the Gauls.
    Was there not even a cook in his army?
    Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
    was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
    Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
    Who triumphed with him?

    Each page a victory
    At whose expense the victory ball?
    Every ten years a great man,
    Who paid the piper?

    So many particulars.
    So many questions.

    -Bertold Brecht

  5. Huxley in Island:

    “Aren’t you supposed to be intellectuals?” Will asked the two men.
    “We do intelectual work,” Vijaya answered.
    “Then why all this horrible honest toil?”
    “For a very simple reason: this morning I has some spare time.”
    “So did I,” said Dr. Robert.
    “So you went out into the fields and did a Tolstoy act.”
    Vijaya laughed. “You seem to imagine we do it for ethical reasons.”
    “Don’t you?”
    “Certainly not. I do muscular work, because I have muscles; and if I don’t use my muscles I shall become a bad-tempered sitting addict.”
    “With nothing between the cortex and the buttocks.” said Dr. Robert. “Or rather with everything–but in a condition of complete unconsciousness and toxic stagnation. Western intellectuals are sitting addicts. That’s why most of you are so repulsively unwholesome. In the past even a Duke had to do a lot of walking, even a moneylender, even a metaphysician. Whereas now, from the tycoon to the typist, you spend nine tenths of your time on foam rubber. Spongy seats for spongy bottoms… The life force that used to find an outlet through striped muscle gets turned back on the viscera and the nervous system, and slowly destroys them.

    Which all leads to me wonder: Do you suppose the Internet is so replete with political venom precisely because we’ve become a nation of bad-tempered sitting addicts? Have bile will post. And how much more an honest man would Rush be if he had to shovel some stables clean every now and then?

  6. This is one of the largest reasons I’m not a carpenter.

    After working in the building trades for 10 years, I realized that I knew no one who was 50, and could get up in the morning without it hurting.

  7. I sense the potential for a Rawlsian moment here.

    As someone in his fifties who still earns a living with his hands I offer this challenge: While you’re out there doing two or three hours of hard physical labor a couple, few times a year think about the poor drudges whose daily toil affords you your comfort and imagine what its like to undertake this labor under the added burden of economic insecurity. Think about the thirty plus years the real value of your wages have remain virtually unchanged.

    Think about not having tenured employment in an economy with 10% nominal unemployment with actual unemployment considerably higher. Think about official Washington’s de facto policy of structural disemployment.

    Think about the lack of political will and moral courage among your economic betters to do the hard work required to provide you with a healthcare policy that increases access and lowers cost instead of one that increases access (albeit at a lower level) and satisfies the apparently much more socially valuable goal a insuring future campaign contributions from the relevant industries.

    Imagine you’re one of the poor drudges who makes less than $20,000 per year and that your taxes were just raised (while those of the wealthiest were lowered by multiples of your annual income) in order to…. I don’t know, words literally fail me on this one.

    Think about not having to worry about how the meager retirement–if you’re lucky to retire at all–you’ve been saving for will be made even more meager when Social Security is cut in order to satisfy the moral superiority of people who apparently can’t be comfortable in their wealth unless others are going cold and hungry.

    Think about the possibilities if self-identified liberals and progressives stopped supporting the Democratic Party that long ago abandoned the best interests of working people and started the long, hard slog towards building a political movement that is liberal in action beyond the token deeds done that either further enrich the wealthy (or, at least, don’t negatively effect their bottom lines).

    In other words, think about class and answer the question, which side are you on?

  8. There are people (including many of my relatives) who prefer physical work (altho usually, as pointed out by a commenter above, they need to switch to something else by late middle age, and it would be good if our economy facilitated this instead of penalizing it). Believe it or not, many don’t want to work in call centers or in retail or as bank tellers.

  9. My favorite passage from The Road to Wigan Pier comes toward the end:

    One sometimes gets the
    impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped
    and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at
    them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right–the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank. Any Socialist, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him. And some such notion seems to exist even among
    Socialists themselves. For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian’. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the
    life of his carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.

    …Sometimes I look at a Socialist–the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his
    Marxian quotation–and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to
    something resembling a chessboard.

  10. And then there’s Orwell’s “Raffles and Mrs. Blandish”:

    The interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate. To take merely the first example that comes to mind, I believe no one has ever pointed out the sadistic and masochistic element in Bernard Shaw’s work, still less suggested that this probably has some connexion with Shaw’s admiration for dictators. Fascism is often loosely equated with sadism, but nearly always by people who see nothing wrong in the most slavish worship of Stalin. The truth is, of course, that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini, nor from the efficiency experts who preached “punch”, “drive”, “personality” and “learn to be a Tiger man” in the nineteen-twenties, nor from that older generation of intellectuals, Carlyle, Creasey and the rest of them, who bowed down before German militarism. All of them are worshipping power and successful cruelty. It is important to notice that the cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes. A tyrant is all the more admired if he happens to be a bloodstained crook as well, and “the end justifies the means” often becomes, in effect, “the means justify themselves provided they are dirty enough.” This idea colours the outlook of all sympathizers with totalitarianism, and accounts, for instance, for the positive delight with which many English intellectuals greeted the Nazi-Soviet pact. It was a step only doubtfully useful to the U.S.S.R., but it was entirely unmoral, and for that reason to be admired; the explanations of it, which were numerous and self-contradictory, could come afterwards.

    Von Mises suggests something similar in __Socialism__. That a preference for organized coercion over market processes in resource allocation questions originates in a primitive revenge fantasy.

  11. “it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”

    Aristotle said the same thing. And both are essentially correct.
    Is there a way out? I think there is, but humanity is not willing to take it. It IS possible (for the most part) for humanity to live like kings by having machines do most of the work — but it is not possible to do so for 7 billion people on the planet. IF society were willing to reduce its numbers to something like maybe half a billion, I think we could indeed run things this way.

    Whether we WOULD run them this way is a different question; we have successful examples from around the globe and history of both possibilities, both strongly egalitarian and strongly unequal societies. But WITHOUT a willingness to reduce the numbers, the future will be variations on what the past has always been — backbreaking labor every day for the peasant in the field. The fact that this allows some small fraction to live better lives is basically irrelevant — remove the kings and bishops and the peasant would STILL have to perform his backbreaking labor.
    This is why I keep bringing up the Malthusian point, in so many contexts.

    And, I have to admit, the fact that people continue to refuse to accept it leads me to two responses:
    (a) the future will indeed (once the party is over, the oil is all burned and the coal, and the natural gas, and the planet is a sweltering hell-hole) be more of the same — peasants engaged in back-breaking labor growing their tiny plots of rice on terraces in Antarctica AND
    (b) it’s difficult to feel any sympathy any more for any of the people engaged in these practices here and now on today’s earth. The people engaged in these practices, are after all, the breeders of today and the future, and at what point do we sever one’s responsibility for the world we live in?

  12. the future will indeed (once the party is over, the oil is all burned and the coal, and the natural gas, and the planet is a sweltering hell-hole) be more of the same — peasants engaged in back-breaking labor growing their tiny plots of rice on terraces in Antarctica

    I think the problem here is that you don’t know enough about at least two of these three things:

    the sort of weather you need to grow rice;
    the sort of weather that would occur in Antarctica after unchecked AGW.

  13. And Orwell’s reliable sense of irony, after all, is what makes this quote so great. Because, in fact, the “superior person” is anything but. Speaking as someone whose day is involved with work on a computer, or writing, studying, lobbying, interpreting, etc., but not shoveling very often, it would never occur to me that the fact that I can make my living that way is either because I am superior or that it makes me superior.

    I wish that realization could somehow reach the academic left. From my experience, their conviction of their own superiority is resolute. It drives the certainty with which they promote their policy prescriptions, deride the free market, interpret scientific (and not so scientific) data, etc. etc. Their need to control blinds them to the beauty of systems that are in dynamic balance if just left alone, and causes them to stumble on the unintended consequences of their enthusism to promote their (well intentioned) solutions. It would be so much better to teach their students humility rather than arrogance, to encourage them to strive for what man can achieve within an admittedly disorderly world and not attempt to establish some perfectly egalitarian order (save for the selection of who gets to make the decisions).

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