1 August 2018 **** Front Page
By Tapani Lausti
As life in the societies of our time gets more and more stressful and young generations are losing faith in the capitalist system’s ability to guarantee a decent future for them, the question of alternative possibilities arises. The occupy and indignados movements showed that behind desperation there is still enough power of imagination to see that “freedom of markets” is far from real human freedom.
In his book The Democracy Project, radical American anthropologist David Graeber asks if it is really surprising that people whose life prospects have been destroyed by the money elite would like to have a word with the financial magnates who have stolen their future. These young people have followed the rules which society set out for them, whilst the financial class have used fraudulent speculation to enrich themselves and in the process have destabilized the world economy. More and more people in the US can see how the whole political system has become corrupted by big money. To various degrees this is also happening in other parts of the world.
People living a life full of anxiety have been provoked to dream of a more creative, inspiring existence. This is exactly what the occupy and indignados movements were all about. This kind of dreaming has a long history. I often think of one memorable historical observation which is included in Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography of William Morris. MacCarthy wrote: "Harold Laski, visiting Nothumberland miners in the Great Slump of the 1930s, found copies of A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere 'in house after house', even when most of the furniture had been sold."
In News from Nowhere , published in 1890, Morris imagines life in England in the 21st century. A revolutionay upheaval in 1952 had shaken the capitalist system and opened the way to a completely different form of human life. Instead of tedious drudgery, most work is pleasant, the products are beautiful and making them gives their makers satisfaction. Instead of working for the market, production serves real needs. Decisions are arrived at democratically. Money has been abolished because there is enough of everything for everybody. Violence and other forms of crime are so rare that prisons are not needed. There is equality between sexes. Cities are beautifully built.
News from Nowhere is still quite a fascinating reading experience, so one can imagine why it was a popular book during those miserable times of economic slump. In desperate times people were prone to dream of some other way of living. What was happening around them could not be seen as an inevitable turn of events. Morris’s dream must have felt like a breath of fresh air.
In his William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary, E.P. Thompson explains how events such as Bloody Sunday and the successful dock strike of 1889 had made Morris think that revolution was inevitable. But at the time he also realised that he would never live to see the change that he had worked so hard for. This gave him the impetus to imagine the contours of a society after a socialist revolution. Even if he could not live in a new society, at least he could imagine how it might look.
Morris did not see his dreams as a definite model for a future society. He wanted to encourage people to give up the illusion that a more inspiring and humane life is not possible. His ideas can challenge even the trite capitalist ideologies of our time. We are being fed empty promises of how markets and competition can give an impetus towards a better social model. These ideologues cannot see how modern societies developed by stifling democratic currents. People actually hated wage slavery. Even the welfare state did not change the basic contours of class societies. And now the welfare state is under attack. Huge amounts of money are being moved around in financial speculations while we are told that we have supposedly lived beyond our means.
Michael Albert, an American radical writer, has been inspired by William Morris. He recently published his own utopia of a future society: RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution.
Justin Podur describes what the book is about: “RPS 2044 tells the story of the American Revolution for a Participatory Society (RPS), looking backwards from 2044 at the people, organizations, and strategies that succeeded in winning a new world. In 2044, a president from the RPS organization is elected, and journalist Miguel Guevara conducts a series of interviews with the president-elect and the many activists that made the revolution possible.
“The new world has the features that Michael has professed throughout the decades in his nonfiction books: a socialist economy with a participatory planning process, in which decisions are made by democratic and neighborhood councils in direct democracy. There is no division between professional and unskilled labor because everyone does a mix of both, a “balanced job complex.” “Miguel Guevara” interviews activists from different walks of life as they trace the way they won this new economy where they live, and the specific consequences of the change for their lives.”
The idea of a participatory economy – Parecon as it is also known – has a Morris-spirited will to break the myth of the inevitability of current social structures. Fiona MacCarthy points out that News from Nowhere was not intended as a blueprint of an alternative social system. MacCarthy writes: “Its effect is as a catalyst. Morris releases the imagination by suggesting that another form of society is possible . For people suffering political stagnation – then and now – it points to a way out.”
This tradition of libertarian thinking believes that the human longing for freedom and creativity manifests itself as internalised belief in social justice and ecological life-style. Among the best known modern representatives of this tradition is the linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky. He has described the Parecon model as a worthwhile project. Chomsky always emphasises that people have a need to control their own work, free of authoritarian command. People need to work in conditions which they can freely develop in democratic co-operation with other people.
Michael Albert, RPS / 2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. 2017.
Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics. Montréal, New York. Black Rose Books. 1988.
David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. Allen Lane 2013.
Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time. Faber and Faber 1994.
William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, edited by Clive Wilmer. Penguin Books 1993.
Archive: David Graeber, Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Noam Chomsky, Social thinking, Occupy - los indignados, International Organization for a Participatory Society
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