I knew that Morris’s favourite tobacco was Latakia and had always presumed this entailed on his part at least a minimal interest in Syria (for that is where the city of Latakia is); but it was still a surprise to come across the more specific remarks on Syria in News from Nowhere itself. For Dick Hammond, in the context of a discussion about the Bible, refers to ‘Syria, a hot dry country, where people live faster than in our temperate climate’ (ch.VIII). And people certainly are living faster in Syria just at the moment, with sustained protests against the Assad regime and extreme government violence in repressing them.
News from Nowhere has confidence that government massacres of protestors, as happens in Trafalgar Square in 1952 in the book, will kick off rather than stifle wider revolutionary upheavals; but that isn’t what happened in the wake of the Bloody Sunday violence of Morris’s own day (which led to a shift towards reformism rather than revolution), and it’s hard to see the ruthlessly widespread murder and torture practised by Assad and his henchmen as generating a mass movement that will sweep them all away in the near future.
Nor are there any good options for the West in all this. The sanctions against Assad and his cronies announced by President Obama today are too little too late; while, at the other extreme, British and French-led NATO military action in Libya is bogged down in a stalemated civil war, has lost the initial credibility the UN ‘no-fly zone’ resolution gave it, and is looking increasingly like old-style Western imperialist intervention.
In Morris’s utopia, extreme repression proves counter-productive; one hopes for the sake of the brave people of Syria that he is right. But at the moment they are dying fast as well as living fast in that country; and, outside utopia, we will have to content ourselves with Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.