Monday 22 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion

In the stirring chapters of News from Nowhere devoted to ‘How the Change Came’, the British government makes ‘a desperate effort to overwhelm “the rebels,” as they were now once more called, and as indeed they called themselves’.  Are the Extinction Rebellion activists who brought some areas of London to a standstill this week ‘rebels’ in that sense?  What is the force of their name, what are the aims and means of their protest, what metaphors and narratives emotionally inspire them?

Suppose we shifted the purpose of the William Morris Society from reconstruction of the activities of the socialists of the 1880s and 1890s (to which the current issue of the Society Journal is partly devoted) to tracking the aims and activities of progressive moments today, and to eliciting the utopian ‘structures of feeling’ (Raymond Williams’s term) which underpin and inspire their commitment.

But not just tracking and elicting, but actively intervening too.  For not once, for example, did we hear the term ‘capitalism’ mentioned in David Attenborough’s splendid climate change television documentary the other night; and nor have I heard it in television and radio coverage of the Extinction Rebellion protests, though of course I’ve not caught all of that.  Without a sense of the systemic economic pressures driving us to reckless levels of over-consumption of the earth’s resources, you inevitably fall back – as Attenborough did - on smallscale individual solutions (cycle rather than drive, use less plastic, and so on).

As E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams made so clear, Morris was the great figure who brought nineteenth-century romanticism into contact with the actual working-class movement of his time, who, in response to environmental despoliation, named capitalism as the enemy and communism (exemplified in News from Nowhere) as the solution.  The William Morris Society could and should be an active force promoting that intersection of ‘rebellions’ in today’s politics too.

Thursday 11 April 2019

Hammersmith Bridge: an Opportunity

So Hammersmith Bridge is now closed to road traffic after being found to have critical faults in one of Hammersmith and Fulham council’s weekly inspections.  There is, apparently, a plan for repair, but due to the government’s austerity budget cuts Transport for London says it cannot finance the necessary work.  In which case, the bridge must stay closed to traffic indefinitely.

This situation is surely opportunity as well as crisis.  Let’s think not of repairing but replacing what William Guest in News from Nowhere refers to as that ‘ugly suspension bridge’.  The new structure won’t be Boris Johnson’s vanity ‘garden bridge’, which wasted some £43 million of taxpayers’ money in planning costs, but rather the utopian bridge that Morris himself describes: ‘of stone arches, splendidly solid, and as graceful as they were strong; high enough also to let ordinary river traffic through easily.  Over the parapet showed quaint and fanciful little buildings, which I supposed to be booths or shops, beset with painted and gilded vanes and spirelets’.  So: no to Bazalgette, yes to utopia.  And even in the non-utopian meantime, what a delight to be able to walk or cycle across Hammersmith Bridge without the noise and air pollution of all that disgusting road traffic!

Monday 8 April 2019

Jameson's American Utopia

‘In its conception of work, both in itself and in relation to leisure, An American Utopia sides more with Team Bellamy than Team Morris’.  Thus Kathi Weeks, in a footnote to her essay in the Verso collection that accompanies Fredric Jameson’s ‘American Utopia’ proposal.  The reference to Morris here, important though it is, oddly does not appear in the book’s index.

Thus for Jameson, as for Thomas More and Edward Bellamy before him, the social labour that guarantees the physical means of human subsistence – food, clothing, shelter, transport – remains in the last analysis mere drudgery, something we are grimly obliged to get done before we can move off to the higher and more distinctively human pursuits and pleasures of our leisure time.  It is true that, in their assorted utopias, such necessary labour will be shared around equally and reduced to a bare minimum (through technological innovation, sturdiness of materials, and so on), so it shouldn’t prove too onerous.  But none the less drudgery it essentially is and will remain; and real human living takes place elsewhere.  Morris himself, of course, will have none of this.  For him we must overcome such a direly dualistic view of the world, finding ways to make labour itself sensuously pleasurable and humanly creative, aesthetic in short, so that our most fundamental satisfactions are achieved in it, and not elsewhere.

So: Team Bellamy or Team Morris?  You might have hoped that Fredric Jameson, as our foremost Marxist dialectician, would have avoided so binary a dilemma.  It’s certainly my sense that, if Morris perhaps sets the bar for social labour too high (not all work can be of that creative kind, surely), More, Bellamy and Jameson set it too low (at least some of it can, just as surely).  So the key issue for a contemporary utopia will be how it fairly apportions out those two very different kinds of labour across its work force, a task that probably will require the very complex computerised labour distribution system of, say, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.