Tuesday, 30 August 2011

From Riots to Utopia

I’ve been expecting the Saturday ‘Review’ section of the Guardian newspaper to devote its ‘Ten of the Best’ column to the subject of Riots in Literature; but it hasn’t done so yet. As a Victorianist, I’d start with the attack on Thornton’s mill in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, follow it up by the riot in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and eventually pass on to twentieth-century examples. Such a column would be salutary in reminding us what a recurrent social phenomenon riots are, but in the present climate of moralistic indignation the Guardian probably feels it would be accused of trivialising the issue by converting it to literary history in this way.

How deep has the shock of those riots actually been, what impulses to personal change have they given to those of us who weren’t ourselves out on the streets earlier this month? To me, they demonstrated how much anger there is out there against capitalism and what it’s doing to people’s lives, but also how shapeless, unstructured and therefore self-defeating and ugly such anger currently is. They’ve made me ask again what an effective anti-capitalist politics might look like. When New Labour made the Labour Party hopeless, I joined the Greens expectantly and even became a Green Party city councillor for a while (1999-2003); yet now I feel that we have to reinvent the wheel and get the term ‘socialism’ back into circulation all over again instead. But how?

When William Morris lectured here in Lancaster on 2 November 1886 his topic was ‘Socialism: The End and the Means’. So even if we had the means, i.e. an effective socialist party (which we don’t), we would still require the ‘end’, i.e., an inspiring vision of the good society which that party was working towards. Which is precisely where utopianism comes in. Analysis of the causes of the riots, fine; new efforts at Left political organisation in the present, yes indeed; but happy visions of the future too, absolutely. Marxism has always been chary of utopia, and in a postmodern ‘image-culture’ that traditional suspicion was reinforced by a feeling that all positive utopian images were already somehow incorporated by the system.

But the great importance of Morris is in showing us that, however vulnerable the activity of utopian mapping and speculation may be, it is entirely indispensable to the Left too. We still need our own News from Nowhere, from a good future whose outlines we can as yet barely see, if we are to have any chance of remaining sane and resolute in the present.


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