Let’s talk William Morris, interior decorator extraordinaire/writer/loud and proud socialist. Not the talent agency.
Morris belonged to that unique strain of British socialists, a movement that preceded Karl Marx, that began alongside the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent impoverishment of the working class. Morris had briefly flirted with the works of Marx, but he had neither the head nor the commitment to sit down and decipher Das Kapital. Nevertheless, Morris held the same belief system of British socialism, namely total equality and a freedom of the drudgery and wage slavery of industrial capitalism.
Rather than the futuristic dreams of Marxists, who believed that new technology would emancipate humanity, Morris actually looked backward, past the Industrialization of England, even past the Enclosure Act of the “Enlightenment”. At times Morris sounds like a Luddite, an enemy of all technological progress, but he felt that industrial progress simply “saved time” in order to make the proletariat work longer and harder. Furthermore, Morris felt that the mass production of cheap, useless products just added to the glut of equally useless end-product, and the only members of society that actually benefited from this mass production of consumer goods were the bourgeois. The bourgeoisie would reap the monetary gains, although this would not stop the industrialists from seeking out more money. As for the products themselves, they were artless, flimsy and worthless, and only intended for the proletariat who would be forced to consume new goods as cheap manufacture meant continuous need for new product.
Morris not only preached a return to genuine craftsmanship, but he also advocated for “popular arts”, arts that were not vacuum sealed in a museum, not contained the hearts of aesthetes. Architecture, interior design, even the production of basic tools of living such as pipes and glasses, should be made with a degree of work ethic, pride, and freedom from the confines of mass produced goods which had only the profit margin of the entitled few in mind. As Morris himself said at a lecture, the Emperor Constantine did not lift a single brick in making Constantinople a wonder – it was craftsman, the producing class that made that city a marvel. Morris’ vision of destroying the binary relationship of higher/lower forms of art predate Andy Warhol touching a tomato can.
News from Nowhere is a distillation of his philosophy, told in semi-narrative form as a fin-de-siecle gentlemen falls asleep and wakes up in a post-revolution England. The work is pastoral, as people have gone back to the land, as money and profiteering has disappeared (the “pursuit of happiness” and property laws have been laid waste in Morris’ hands). People once again take pride in their work, and the products from their hands are beautiful – and it should be noted that these products are not motivated by profit-scale, but the simple work that constitutes living and creation.
Morris is surprisingly quite militant when it comes to describing the revolution itself, as told from the mouth of old antiquarians holding conversation with the protagonist. The revolution has to be violent, as it is a direct confrontation between the past and the future. Morris’ realistic view echoes that of other genuine radicals, even if the end of industrialized society creates an almost medieval society of sharing, happy workers, and proud artisans. It is worth noting that Manchester, formerly the industrial capital of the world, no longer exists in this future vision, which stands in stark contrast with the beliefs held by every other socialist to come, as industrialization was considered paramount by the Soviets, the Chinese, etc. Naturally News from Nowhere completely utopian and will likely never happen in our lifetimes, but so is City of God. It is an ideal worth fighting for.
If you’re like Morris, and you simply do not have the time or energy to read the collected work of Marx (or even worse, Marx’s predecessor, Hegel), then I heartily suggest reading Useful work vs Useless Toil, a snapshot of British socialism and a rousing call to arms. Morris may have looked backward in News from Nowhere, but his analysis of the contemporary “iron laws” of capitalism remain as relevant today as they did during the late Victorian period. If you have any interest in the collision between art forms, you will never read anything more astute than Morris succinct attack on the so-called “lower form of art“. For anyone who is baffled by economics and prefers the cultural make-up of socialism, Morris is your man.
*NB: I apologize for the total silence of this blog. This will be rectified in the coming weeks.