Saturday 17 February 2018

A Return to Nowhere

Guest post by constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate Rob Normey.

In our current Age of the Autocrats, it could be suggested that reading a daily newspaper paints a
News From Nowhere is well-regarded
enough as a utopian work that
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams wrote the introduction to
the most recent edition.
(image via the Victoria and Albert Museum)
fairly dire picture of what lies ahead if we cannot dramatically alter the course of our 21st century ships of state.

If we wish to avoid going down with the Titanic (so to speak), we need to consider alternative social and political visions that might just afford us some hope. The 1890 novel News From Nowhere does just that.

The Who Killed D’arcy McGee History Club — a book club with a member that is also a member of the book club that hosts this blog — considered this utopian work at our recent meeting.

This novel — considered by many to be the best utopian fiction since Thomas More’s Utopia —was written by William Morris, a radical democratic socialist.

In the novel, written in 1890, Morris introduces us to William Guest, a time traveler from late-Victorian England. Guest offer the reader a window on the land of Nowhere, set around 2050. Although, some aspects of the new world are not particularly persuasive, there is much to commend this new society that has emerged in a transformed England after a revolution called the Great
Born in Walthamstow,
William Morris became
famous as an artist and
fabric designer.
(Image via
Change (following a Civil War around the 1950s).

Morris wrote the book as a reaction to the repression, massive inequalities and environmental degradation he saw in late-Victorian society.

His radical approach to political and social problems was controversial in his time and yet possesses a certain poetic justice, as Morris was born in the midst of the The Age of Revolution, as described by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant account of the nineteenth century (published in 1962).

Some in our book club felt that the book misses the mark on gender relations and technological advancements that obviously could not be foreseen but make the work laborious to read in 2018. Of course, utopian fiction is not intended as a blueprint for the future. The tale provides an imaginative vision of one possible alternative to the late 19th-century world of Victorian hypocrisy and oppression of the poor and of the working class.

This novel can be read together with the essays on art and democratic socialism that Morris wrote in the 1890s to understand the rage and frustration of this remarkable visual artist, poet and novelist who became a dedicated revolutionary.

Police brutality towards striking workers and protesters was a recurring pattern. Morris himself was arrested during a demonstration.

One of the highlights of the novel is the way it imagines the world of meaningful and pleasurable work, and the supreme values of equality and community, based on cooperation, that are inscribed at the heart of Nowhere.

They are discussed by many of the time-displaced protagonist’s new friends, including by the woman who enchants him, Ellen, and the historian, Henry Morsom.

It is refreshing to think of a world where people actually have time to talk at length with one another, with no digital distractions, no tyrannical television screens and computer screens and cellphones. William sits down with his friends after helping prepare a meal and reflecting on a day in which more than likely they have worked together on a project that they have voluntarily participated in.

The citizens of this utopia, it seems, will always have work to enrich their lives. They have achieved a balance between mankind and machinery and need not fear the displacement caused by automation that features in the capitalist dystopias that litter modern science fiction.

Gradually readers are given an account of the main features of the society and of the commitment all citizens have to ensuring that workers, not the owners of capital and the corporations of old, are in control of their own fate.

This society has developed schemes to ensure that all work is as pleasurable and varied as is reasonably possible. So they take turns with both the less pleasant janitorial and laboring jobs and the more stimulating kinds of work. Most citizens have developed into superb craftsmen.

One of the most striking sections of the novel takes place near the old town of Wallingford, which
Wallingford as it appears today.
(image via
was in Victorian times a synonym for poverty and squalor. In this future, Wallingford has become a delightful, well planned village.

Henry Morsom, the historian, tells the inquisitive protagonist that a major debate occurred amongst citizens in the dramatic era just after the Civil War, between those who wanted to increase production levels through industrialization and reliance on machines and those who favored the handcraft movement, and a minimal reliance on automatic machinery. Recognizing that the move towards industrialism contained within it the seeds of inequality and possible exploitation of man by man, they ultimately opted for a commitment to “handicrafts.” Only work that would be irksome to do by hand is accomplished by machines. All other work that can be done by “heart and mind” is done by hand. The result is a much happier workforce, with no difficulty ensuring that sufficient numbers are willing to seek out employment. 

Both Marx and Morris shared
disdain for the way Victorian
England treated the working
class. (Image via Wikipedia)
You may have guessed by now that the capitalist order that Morris and other radical socialists like Karl Marx so despised in the era that the novel was written has been destroyed and a socialist economy has taken its place.

Speaking of Marx, Morris shared his near-contemporary’s disdain for an economy that contained within it the conditions which led to widespread alienation of labour. Both Morris and Marx offered insights into the inevitable discontents that flow from the commodification of all elements of modern life.

Students of Marx will find much to appreciate in Morris’ vision of a utopian society where the aggressive competition for ever-higher returns on capital investment, and the concomitant alienation of workers who are conceived as simply impersonal cogs in the commodity-making machine, has replaced money and profit-making with what would be termed by later socialists as the “cooperative commonwealth.”

Despite some improbabilities in its world-building, News From Nowhere provokes the reader to consider at the very least the fundamental values of a fairer, joyful society built on trust and fellow-feeling. 

Hopefully some readers will indeed be inspired to fight for a new world, based on the very qualities that underpin Morris’ utopia.

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