Friday, February 10, 2012

Land of the Lotus Eaters

“News From Nowhere – An Epoch of Rest (Being some chapters from a Utopian Romance),” By William Morris (1890)

William Morris was an early supporter of Marx in England - and a poet, novelist, publisher, designer, craftsman, socialist activist, conservationist and businessman. This Renaissance man would be an odd duck to some modern folks – philosophically a multi-talented lover of romantic medievalism and socialism too. Morris was an activist in various Socialist organizations starting in the 1870s while keeping up other practical and intellectual pursuits. Besides British Marxism, Morris influenced the English National Trust, the Arts & Crafts movement, modernist architect Walter Gropius, town planner Lewis Mumford and the English Green Party.

Like Tolkein, Morris had a love for the small English village and its life. This love infuses “News From Nowhere,” a Utopian vision set in the year 2102, after a successful English communist revolution in 1952. The happy inhabitants of 2102 England can barely remember the crude, poor and violent society from which they emerged so long before. The narrator – ‘Guest” - goes to sleep in the 1800s - and wakes up in 2102 in a guesthouse along the Thames. Outside is a vision of gorgeous nature, beautiful men and women, quietude, health, happiness, physical abundance, mental care, artisanal technology and a lack of classes. The living modern equivalent might be a visit to the Renaissance Festival – minus the King, his Knights and the Mud Wenches. Time traveler Guest is impressed by the beautiful clothes that everyone wears in 2012, the detailed quality handwork gone into architecture and town planning, the communal sharing of food, goods, housing and transport, the physical strength and skills of the citizens, the leisurely pace of life, the almost complete lack of violence, and the personal consideration of citizens for each other. The rich and the poor no longer exist, nor do prisons, marriages or any government. Of course, the old geezer Guest gets a crush on one tanned beauty, which he must relinquish when he is thrown back into the 1800s at the end of the book.

Morris carefully shows how Marxist ideas like the ‘contradiction between town and country’ have dissolved, as the city of London is now no more than a rather large town, spread-out, with green-fields about. Another Marxist concept, of ‘non-alienated’ labor is shown for all it is worth, as each citizen – or neighbor, as they call themselves - does what he can for the general good, working on the tasks he is best at. This accounts for the high quality of the work surrounding everyone. Work itself has become a joy, not a burden. The leisurely pace of work is a nod to Marx’s son-in-law, Paul LaFargue, and his idea of the “right to be lazy” - or at least, relaxed. War and crime in 2012 barely exist – crimes of property no longer do. One man is killed in an act of self-defense during the book, due to jealousy, but that is all. Decisions are made by counsels, which work towards agreement, but if no agreement can be reached, then by majority vote.

The book is divided into 3 sections – two journeys by horse cart and boat - surrounding a long question and answer session with an old learned man, Hammond, who knows history. The Revolution of 1952 is described by Hammond in terms that are familiar. The revolution starts with a general strike, which leads to the rise of dual power – the ‘Committee for Public Safety” (The same name as the revolutionary organization during the French Revolution of 1792), then fights with groups of roving rich kids - who I would say are the fascists in this situation. The arming of the revolution is prompted by a massacre, now put in 1952, which leads to a civil war. This was based on Morris’ own experience of ‘Bloody Sunday’ – a real 1887 massacre of workers in London’s Trafalgar Square by British soldiers using Gatling guns. Eventually the majority of the English Army sides with the revolutionaries and the civil war is won by the communists. After all Morris, for all his romanticism, was not a head-in-the-clouds pacifist. He knew that capital would not give up power without a fight, even if it lost an election or a series of elections.

The most interesting thing about this vision of the communist future is the view of nature and technology. Marx called some of Morris’ friends ‘medieval socialists’ due to their views that technology was inherently evil. Marx believed that machines could overcome drudgery and increase human productivity, thus leading to more leisure time and a sufficient material basis of life. Under capitalism, machines are used to both increase unemployment and to increase the intensity of labor, while also adding to the burden of fixed capital. Under Morris, technology has returned to the artisan stage, with handcrafts and human labor being the main forms of production. For instance, haying in this utopia is done by large groups of people in a festive atmosphere, living in tents, using scythes, not tractors. Buildings are constructed by groups of neighbors, much as in American pioneer life. Horses, wagons and water skiffs provide transport. While ‘mills’ line the Thames, they all seem to be run by water power. One mysterious barge has some kind of power, but Morris is unable to explain how it works. Electricity and steam are not in evidence in this natural paradise, nor is coal - mills and factories belching fumes have disappeared. Nor are there any windmills or solar collectors, things perhaps too high-tech for Morris.

Morris understood the negative effects of technology on nature, and this understanding is something modern socialists, if they are scientists, must accommodate. Marx’s environmentalism is being re-discovered - see the reviews of “Marx’s Ecology” and “The Ecological Revolution,” both by John Bellamy Foster, below. For those socialists whose vision of communism is something along the lines of George Jetson, this book is a nice contrast. It is inevitable that socialists might have to accept a lower standard of living in the matter of goods to deal with global climate change, population and peak oil, if no clean energy source is available. And one is not yet on the horizon. I have suggested the year 1947 in a prior post – prior to the development of suburbia and the mass use of the automobile – as a year in which it would be possible for millions to live on a technological basis, while still retaining all social goods. Morris himself chose, oh, probably 1825 or maybe even 1625, prior to the development of railroads and the modern capitalist economy, as his years of inspiration. I see no reason why this kind of life could not also partially exist under socialism, much as it does under capital, i.e. the Amish, if people wish to live that way, or if these methods are actually more sustainable.

Morris portrays people in 2012 England as not going to school, but educating themselves in small groups, in training on the job, and on their own. Many do not read a lot, and instead value physical work and skills. The picture here reminds one of the cult of physicality in the USSR in the 30s and later, and the experience of the cultural revolution in China, where people from the city were sent to work as peasants. Morris here illustrates another Marxist point – that physical/manual and intellectual labor have to be combined, and both appreciated. Under capital, physical work is not compensated well, is looked down on, and so are the people doing it. Some call them ‘stupid.’ Many of the middle-class people putting workers down have no physical, mechanical, artistic or emotional intelligence themselves – though these 'geniuses' never recognize this. Morris himself was a sterling example of the opposite – that intellectual and practical physical skills can be combined. In the U.S. the modern middle class has few practical skills, and must rely on buying the labor of others to do the simplest things. Conversely, many blue-collar and white-collar workers do not crack a book, or get any real intellectual training - which is one reason why the U.S. is so politically backward. That is one of the reasons for the existence of Mayday Books.

And I bought it at Mayday Books, where it is
NOW ON SALE for $8 in the Used Area

Red Frog, February 10, 2012

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