Friday, September 30, 2005

Back to the future

William Morris – Pre-Raphaelite poet, writer of fantasy novels, leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement, designer of wallpapers, fabrics, and typefaces, founder of the Kelmscott Press, and political radical – was aggrieved by the fact that the beautiful goods he and his firm produced could be afforded only by the well-to-do. It was Morris’s belief that art, as the expression of creative and satisfying work, should not be something separate from everyday life. Further, both art and work should connect human beings with the natural world. Morris’s vision of his ideal society is elaborated in his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890). The novel seems impossibly idealistic and naïve in many ways, yet in some respects Morris was ahead of his time.

Morris called himself a communist. He wrote articles and co-authored a volume (Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome) sympathetically expounding, and elaborating on, Marx’s ideas. In the 1880s he was a political colleague of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, in the Social Democratic Federation and then in the Socialist League. Yet Morris was an anomaly among socialists, his commitment to radical social change growing out of a visceral and uncompromising opposition to the values of the industrial age, including the technological triumphalism espoused by most socialists. He was even more radical than Marx and Engels; unlike those two in their later years, he rejected the possibility of the working class attaining power through peaceful parliamentary means. (A memorable line in News from Nowhere informs us that in post-revolution Britain the Houses of Parliament are preserved as a storage place for manure.) More than this, he rejected not just capitalism, but industrial society in any form.

As Morris saw it, the proper goal of the socialist revolution was not to further the domination of humans over nature, but to allow us to exercise our faculties in communion with nature. His ideal communist society is not only decentralized, but de-industrialized: “It is a society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forgo some of the power over nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end.” To fail to cherish the beauty of the natural environment is to be self-destructive. “How could people be so cruel to themselves?” is the rhetorical question from Ellen, the travelling companion of Morris’s alter ego in News from Nowhere.

Running as a unifying thread through Morris’s writings is the idea that a flourishing natural environment is a vital human need – a need rooted in our very nature. This has more recently been articulated as the concept of biophilia, the hypothesis that human beings have a profound emotional affinity for the planet’s other living organisms, which constitute the web of life within which Homo sapiens has evolved. Morris goes further, by calling our attention to the way industrial society has thwarted satisfaction of the vital need for a flourishing natural environment. To prosper, he says, we must work to undo previous destructive human intervention in the environment and must free ourselves from the system of production that furthers this destruction. Morris urges his audience “to set yourselves earnestly to protecting what is left, and recovering what is lost of the Natural Fairness of the Earth: no less I pray you to do what you may to raise up some firm ground amid the great flood of mechanical toil, to make an effort to win human and hopeful work for yourselves and your fellows.”

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