News From Nowhere

Artist, designer and political activist William Morris published a utopian novel in 1890, News From Nowhere. The protagonist of the novel falls asleep in miserable, industrial Victorian England and wakes up in a future in which labor is meaningful, where our cities are adorned with beautiful architecture and gardens and where we address each other as, “neighbor.” As we all know, instead of that future we ended up with one, in many ways, far worse than Morris could have imagined.

Consider this prescient passage from Morris’ novel,

Said he, settling himself in his chair again for a long talk: “It is clear from all that we hear and read, that in the last age of civilisation men had got into a vicious circle in the matter of production of wares. They had reached a wonderful facility of production, and in order to make the most of that facility they had gradually created (or allowed to grow, rather) a most elaborate system of buying and selling, which has been called the World-Market; and that World Market, once set a-going, forced them to go on making more and more of these wares, whether they needed them or not. So that while (of course) they could not free themselves from the toil of making real necessities, they created in a never-ending series sham or artificial necessaries, which became, under the iron rule of the aforesaid World-Market, of equal importance to them with the real necessaries which supported life. By all this they burdened themselves with a prodigious mass of work merely for the sake of keeping their wretched system going.”

“Yes – and then?. said I.

“Why, then, once they had forced themselves to stagger along under this horrible burden of unnecessary production, it became impossible for them to look upon labour and its results from any other point of view than one – to wit, the ceaseless endeavour to expend the least possible amount of labour on any article made and yet at the same time to make as many articles as possible. To this `cheapening of production,’ as it was called, everything was sacrificed: the happiness of the workman at his work, nay, his most elementary comfort and bare health, his food, his clothes, his dwelling, his leisure, his amusement, his education” – his life, in short – did not weigh a grain of sand in the balance against this dire necessity of `cheap production’ of things, a great part of which were not worth producing at all. Nay, we are told, and we must believe it, so overwhelming is the evidence, though many of our people scarcely can believe it, that even rich and powerful men, the masters of the poor devils aforesaid, submitted to live amidst sights and sounds and smells which it is in the very nature of man to abhor and flee from, in order that their riches might bolster up this supreme folly. The whole community, in fact, was cast into the jaws of this ravening monster, `the cheap production’ forced on it by the World-Market.”

“Dear me!” said I. “But what happened? Did not their cleverness and facility in production master this chaos of misery at last? Couldn’t they catch up with the World-Market, and then set to work to devise means for relieving themselves from this fearful task of extra labour?” . . .

He smiled bitterly. “Did they even try to?” said he. “I am not sure. You know that according to the old saw the beetle gets used to living in dung; and these people whether they found the dung sweet or not, certainly lived in it.”

“I think I do understand,” said I: “but now, as it seems, you have reversed all this?”

“Pretty much so,” said he. “The wares which we make are made because they are needed: men make for their neighbours’ use as if they were making for themselves, not for a vague market of which they know nothing, and over which they have no control: as there is no buying and selling, it would be mere insanity to make goods on the chance of their being wanted; for there is no longer any one who can be compelled to buy them. So that whatever is made is good, and thoroughly fit for its purpose. Nothing can be made except for genuine use; therefore no inferior goods are made. Moreover, as aforesaid, we have now found out what we want; and as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them. All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without. There is no difficulty in finding work which suits the special turn of mind for everybody; so that no man is sacrificed to the wants of another. From time to time, when we have found out that some piece of work was too disagreeable or troublesome, we have given it up and done altogether without the thing produced by it. Now, surely you can see that under these circumstances all the work that we do is an exercise of the mind and body more or less pleasant to be done; so that instead of avoiding work everybody seeks it: and, since people have got defter in doing the work generation after generation, it has become so easy to do, that it seems as if there were less done, though probably more is produced. I suppose this explains that fear, which I hinted at just now, of a possible scarcity in work, which perhaps you have already noticed, and which is a feeling on the increase, and has been for a score of years.”

Morris comes from the, earthy, embodied thread of the Western tradition, a philosophical chain that links Aristotle, Christ, Aquinas and Marx. In our dystopian present, we’ve inherited the incorporeal flim-flam of Plato: virtual reality, magical thinking, consumerism, atomized individualism, prosperity gospel and the absurd notion that Elon Musk utterances have any credibility.

Instead of waiting for a future that will never come, News From Nowhere imagines a paradise within our grasp, right here right now. We need not wait for the vaporware future that will never happen, the jetpacks, flying cars and space colonies. We can make the work of our hands a joy and we can form meaningful communities. We can reject the utilitarianism and bean counting that define contemporary life. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put it in his moving introduction to the Victoria and Albert Museum edition of this book, “to make a beautiful object is not to ice an otherwise dull and tasteless cake but to do something that is in its way as straightforwardly necessary to human beings as any machine-made convenience.”

Speaking of beauty, my dear neighbors, you should definitely read this book in the facsimile edition that reproduces Morris’ impossibly beautiful printing. Reading it this way has the hopeful quality of holding an object from the future Morris imagines. Morris’ exquisite typography physically locates the reader in the place of the time traveling narrator. That said, if you don’t feel like springing for the book, you can read a copy online. And, of course, check your local library for the Vitoria and Albert edition.

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9 Comments

  1. Amen. Thank you for this inspiration. As someone trying to make a living making things, I struggle with these issues, especially how to translate ideas I know to be true and ethical into creating an economically viable enterprise.

    Maybe for your next post /podcast on the topic you can find examples of people living up to WM’s ideals, making beautiful things and making ends meet in our modern, cheap crap economy.

    • Well Anne, that would be you. You make things that are beautiful and useful. Want to be on the podcast?

  2. beautiful ideas, but I’m not sure how there’s room for (non-functional) art and music. They seem to be in the category of “things that are made on the chance of being wanted,” assuming “things being wanted” only counts the want outside of the creator.

    What would Morris think of the extraneous bits in medieval manuscripts? they’re cute, they’re silly, and not of the kind of beauty one could call practical or useful, but I’d argue they were worth the time spent.

    • Morris was very much in favor of making art for the sake of making art and a champion of useful and beautiful.

  3. Part of the problem is that people have been persuaded true happiness can only be achieved by using money that you do not have to buy stuff that you do not need to impress people that you do not like.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. This helps articulate what a lot of us feel about contemporary Life…the depression and dread and anxiety of the economic stressors, coming down from high from mostly incompetent elites. But we all have to help create meaning from within, not just cast blame from the outside. I garden, compost, recycle, do without, play music, make things by hand, repair things, etc…

  5. Teaching the practical arts (e.g. woodworking, metalwork, knitting, crochet, plant dyeing, embroidery) is a key element of Waldorf Education pedagogy.

    “Children who learn while they are young to make practical things by hand in an artistic way, and for the benefit of others as well as for themselves, will not be strangers to life or to other people when they are older. They will be able to form their lives and their relationships in a social and artistic way, so that their lives are thereby enriched. Out of their hands can come technicians and artists who will know how to solve the problems and tasks set us.” – Rudolf Steiner

  6. it is interesting to read that people have been seeing the positive and negative effects of the industrial revolution for 250 years. There have always been those who remember the way things were before it all changed. People needed to hear them then and we still need those voices now more than ever.

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