Monday, August 17, 2009

news from nowhere

William Morris' 1890 novel News From Nowhere is that thing I have a deep love for - a blunt and blatant rant against a social evil given barely enough fictionalisation to make it something other than straightforward polemic.

In John Waters' Cecil B Demented he has a gang of outlaw film-makers kidnap a Hollywood star to rail against the Hollywood studio system. In Bruce Robinson's follow-up to Withnail & I, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, although the plot concerns a crisis in an advertising exec's life it's really about a broader evil, it's about consumerism.

Morris' conceit in News From Nowhere is to have a nineteenth century man awake in the post-revolutionary twenty-second century.

He doesn't pick on a social evil in the narrow context, but the whole profit-driven, acquisitional, possessive consumer culture. Written a year before Oscar Wilde's magnificent The Soul of Man Under Socialism, it seems very much a companion piece. Big dreaming, deeply compassionate, wildly revolutionary yet profoundly humane.

That it seems so pertinent now could be either depressing (five generations and much of it has gotten worse) or inspiring (a masterpiece dismissed as sentimental claptrap then but is clearly utterly fucking visionary from where we stand now).

This bit hit me right between they eyes. A twenty-second century man explains to his nineteenth century visitor what the problems were back then.


"The labour-saving machines? Yes, they were made to 'save labour' (or, to speak more plainly, the lives of men) on one piece of work in order that it might be expended - I will say wasted - on another, probably useless, piece of work. Friend, all their devices for cheapening labour simply resulted in increasing the burden of labour.

"The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of 'civilisation' (that is, organised misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to 'open up' countries outside that pale.

"This process of 'opening up' is a strange one to those who have read the professions of the men of that period and do not understand their practice; and perhaps shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity.

"When the civilised World-Market coveted a country not yet in its clutches, some transparent pretext was found - the suppression of a slavery different from and not so cruel as that of commerce; the pushing of a religion no longer believed in by its promoters; the 'rescue' of some desperado or homicidal madman whose misdeeds had got him into trouble amongst the natives of the 'barbarous' country - any stick, in short, which would beat the dog at all.

"Then some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found (no difficult task in the days of competition), and he was bribed to 'create a market' by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there. He forced wares on the natives which they did not want, and took their natural products in 'exchange,' as this form of robbery was called, and thereby he 'created new wants,' to supply which (that is, to be allowed to live by their new masters) the hapless, helpless people had to sell themselves into the slavery of hopeless toil so that they might have something wherewith to purchase the nullities of 'civilisation'.

"Ah," said the old man, pointing the dealings of to the Museum, "I have read books and papers in there, telling strange stories indeed of civilisation (or organised misery) with 'non-civilisation'; from the time when the British Government deliberately sent blankets infected with small-pox as choice gifts to inconvenient tribes of Red-skins, to the time when Africa was infested by a man named Stanley, who-"

"Excuse me," said I, "but as you know, time presses; and I want to keep our question on the straightest line possible; and I want at once to ask this about these wares made for the World-Market—how about their quality; these people who were so clever about making goods, I suppose they made them well?"

"Quality!" said the old man crustily, for he was rather peevish at being cut short in his story; "how could they possibly attend to such trifles as the quality of the wares they sold? The best of them were of a lowish average, the worst were transparent make-shifts for the things asked for, which nobody would have put up with if they could have got anything else. It was a current jest of the time that the wares were made to sell and not to use; a jest which you, as coming from another planet, may understand, but which our folk could not."

Said I: "What! did they make nothing well?"

"Why, yes," said he, "there was one class of goods which they did make thoroughly well, and that was the class of machines which were used for making things. These were usually quite perfect pieces of workmanship, admirably adapted to the end in view. So that it may be fairly said that the great achievement of the nineteenth century was the making of machines which were wonders of invention, skill, and patience, and which were used for the production of measureless quantities of worthless make-shifts.

In truth, the owners of the machines did not consider anything which they made as wares, but simply as means for the enrichment of themselves. Of course the only admitted test of utility in wares was the finding of buyers for them - wise men or fools, as it might chance."


Matt Sellwood said...

How odd...I literally just finished re-reading News from Nowhere, and was about to post about it too. Guess I won't do that now, but try this:

merrick said...


you should totally post about it!

There'll be plenty of people who read your blog who don't read mine, and your points will be different, and differently expressed, than mine too.

Anonymous said...

Stirring and timely stuff. Must read it soon.

Oh - here's the Project Gutenberg ebook link, if anyone wants it:

Dunc said...

"It was a current jest of the time that the wares were made to sell and not to use"

True story, from a friend complaining about the collapse of a recently bought sofa: The chap sent to inspect it and determine whether the defect was a warranty issue declared it due to misuse, with the words, "I can see you've been sitting on it."

I shit you not.

Paul said...

Have you ever read "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Merrick? Of a similar time, and as much a novel as a polemic. I think you'd enjoy it.

merrick said...

Paul, despite it being universally feted as a classic of this genre, no, I've never read it.

Incidentally, whislt it is, from our perspective, from a similar time, part of what amazes me about News From Nowhere is that it seems to pre-date a lot of works of the same ilk.

Paul said...

I agree. It pre-dates Tressell's work by about 10-15 years. They were radical times. Marx had published his manifesto. The descent of socialism into totalitarianism had not yet occurred, so utopian socialism had a lot of supporters. Inequality was extreme. No welfare state. No universal health care. Employers effectively had the power of life and death over their employees. There were workhouses and stately homes. Little wonder that the times bred some fine radical literature.

merrick said...

Paul, that extreme inequality you speak of must have made socialism seem utterly la-la. Even imagining the things that would come to pass in the next two generations - the NHS, proper trade unions, welfare state and nationalisation of essential industries - would have seemed an impossible daydream.

It's what gives me a lot of hope when I consider the scale of radical change we need today. Tackling climate change and consumerism is a huge task, but we have some sort of precedent.

The key difference is that our current problems are largely seen in terms of reducing quality of life, and nobody ever rioted because they wanted less.

So I agree with what George Marshall says, that we've got to stop talking about polar bears and start making it plain that this is actually self-interest.

'Save The Planet' raises more of my hackles than any other slogan. The planet can survive - indeed, produces - all kinds of unimaginable violence. It is literally rock solid. It's us that are on the knife edge.

Paul said...

These days I'm wary of socialism. Generally, although it's a more moral system, economically it's about how the spoils are divvied up. Both Morris and Tressell saw the Earth's resources as something provided by God or Nature for the use of Humankind. As we enter an age of scarcity, neither socialism or capitalism suggest a meaningful way of reducing consumption. I do think that it's possible to amend socialist ideas to fit much easier than with a system that is based upon incessant growth though.