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.

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