Sunday, 17 February 2008

Hours of Work in 'Nowhere'

In The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis (1914), Graham Wallas remarks that ‘once, while I listened to him [William Morris] lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week’ (p.326). And since News from Nowhere is the fleshing out of the economic, social and political principles of Morris’s lectures, we must assume that Wallas’s calculation of hours of work applies to it too.

200 hours a week – in a week of only 168 hours (=7x24)?! Good grief, it’s almost enough to send you scuttling back, with William Guest, to nineteenth-century capitalism as some sort of escape from this overwhelming utopian work schedule. Or we might exclaim: come back Looking Backward, all is forgiven, since there at least one retires from the utopian work-force at the age of forty-five. It’s true that work in Morris’s utopia is indistinguishable from art, creativity and pleasure; but even so, two hundred hours of it seems rather too much of a good thing. Whatever happened to the high ideals of the Socialist League manifesto, which argued that when labour was distributed fairly two to three hours work per person per day would be enough to produce the necessaries of life?

Graham Wallas had been a Fabian, and May Morris in her Artist, Writer, Socialist mocks the Fabians’ habit of taking their slide rules to her father’s utopia: ‘The materialist frame of mind was amusingly shown by the Fabian criticism that the economic process by which the inhabitants of News from Nowhere got wine from France was never known: people didn’t seem in that happy country to be producing for exchange, and some active young minds were anxious about it. My Father often laughed over this’ (II, 334).

Well, it’s difficult to defend Wallas’s point against William Morris’s own robust laughter, and nowadays we often invoke Miguel Abensour’s notion that Nowhere is a heuristic ‘education of desire’ which is not subject to a Wallasian hours-and-minutes critique that might indeed be apt enough for the more detailed blueprints of the classical utopian tradition. But even so, I find myself intrigued by Graham Wallas’s calculation of two hundred hours: is there any way, I wonder, in which we could retrace the steps by which he arrived at that figure, or even boldly venture an independent, new calculation of our own (Bob the Yorkshire weaver, with his passion for mathematics, would be the character in Nowhere most likely to help us with this)? For if Morris’s utopia, with its radical simplification of life, does indeed require more work to sustain it than there are hours in the week, then its ‘dream’ is likely to remain just that, and never arrive at the status of a shared ‘vision’ after all.


Alias Guenevere said...

What an original idea to investigate Morris's utopia through mathematical logic! Why not go a step further and define Nowhere as a fifth-dimensional reality?

Anonymous said...

"Fifth-dimensional reality", yes indeed! I think the more ideas we can import back from science fiction (or contemporary physics, for that matter) into 'News from Nowhere', the more interesting we can potentially make the reading of that text.

Owlfarmer said...

I'm continuously amazed at the resonance with contemporary issues Morris's work elicits. For example, in the current issue of Orion magazine, Jeffrey Kaplan's article on "The Gospel of Consumption" considers both the nature of the work week and, in effect, the education of desire. The online discussion generated by the article indicates a great deal of sympathy for views Morris would recognize. The article is available here if you're interested:

I'm glad I found your blog; I appreciate your perspective.

Owlfarmer said...

Addendum: sorry the URL got truncated. will get you there, however.

Marshall Colman said...

The precise figure isn't important but it is important that Morris hadn't bothered with the calculation himself. But if News from Nowhere isn't a blueprint, can it be an inspiration to social reformers?

Those Morris inspired actually moved in the wrong direction. His followers in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society ossified into crafts dogmatists who refused to have any truck with machinery. Twenty years after he died, Roger Fry found them to be elderly fusspots who insisted in bringing morality into every design question. Consequently, the baton of design reform passed from Britain to Germany, where the Werkbund had industrial companies as members and the Bauhaus adopted ideas of type-form and mass production. Greater reforms were achieved by industrial designers than were ever achieved by Morris's followers. As designers Charles and Ray Eames said, "The ideal is to get the best to the most for the least." Utopia is Ikea.