BookView | A Perspective on Material Ecology in ‘News from Nowhere’ by William Morris
News from Nowhere (1890) is a classic work combining utopian socialism and soft science fiction, written by William Morris.
News From Nowhere was written as a Libertarian socialist response to a previously published book called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, a book that epitomizes a kind of State socialism that Morris disagreed with. It was also meant to directly influence various currents of thought of the time regarding tactics to bring about socialism. Morris projects the idea of a world that is free from oppression and offers individual choices and plenty of opportunities to take up. The novel begins with the narrator, William Guest, falling asleep after returning from a meeting of the Socialist League and wakes to find himself in the future, in a society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. This agrarian society functions simply because the people find pleasure in nature, and this is why they find pleasure in their work.
The novel explores a number of aspects of this society, including its organization and the relationships which it engenders between people. In this society there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no monetary system, no divorce, no courts, no prisons, and no class systems. Morris fuses Marxist socialism and the romantic tradition when he presents himself as an enchanted figure in a time and place different from that of Victorian England. Morris quests for love and fellowship—and through them looks for a reborn self. Old Hammond is both the communist educator who teaches Morris about the new world and the wise old man of romance. Dick and Clara are good comrades and the married lovers who aid Morris in his wanderings. The journey on the Thames is both a voyage through society transformed by revolution and a quest for happiness. The goal of the quest, met and found though only transiently, is Ellen, the symbol of the reborn age and the bride the alien cannot win. Ellen herself is a multidimensional figure: a working class woman emancipated under socialism, she is also a benign nature spirit as well as the soul in the form of a woman. The book offers Morris’ answers to a number of frequent objections to socialism, and underlines his belief that socialism will include not only the abolition of private property but also of the divisions between art, life, and work.
Morris tackles one of the most common criticisms of socialism; the supposed lack of incentive to work in a communist society. Morris’ response is that all work should be creative and pleasurable. This differs from the majority of Socialist thinkers, who tend to assume that while work is a necessary evil, a well-planned equal society can reduce the amount of work needed to be done by each worker. Morris describes women in the society as ‘respected as a child bearer and rearer of children, desired as a woman, loved as a companion, un-anxious about the future of her children’ and hence possessed of an enhanced ‘instinct for maternity’. Morris presents us with a society in which women are relatively free from the oppression of men; while domestic work, respected albeit gender-specific in Morris’s work here as elsewhere, is portrayed as a source of potential pleasure and edification for all denizens of his Utopia. Although Oxford still exists as a place to study the ‘Art of Knowledge’, we learn that people are free to choose their own form of education here. As for educating children, we learn that children in Nowhere ‘often make up parties, and come to play in the woods for weeks together during summer time, living in tents, as you see. They encourage them to do it; and they learn to do things for themselves, and get to know the wild creatures; and see the less they stew inside houses the better for them.’ Here Morris breaks away from the traditional institutions of 19th century England. Learning through nature is the best suited lifestyle for this agrarian society.
News from Nowhere is a utopian representation of Morris’ vision of an ideal society. “Nowhere” is in fact a literal translation of the word “utopia”. This Utopia, an imagined society, is idyllic because the people in it are free from the burdens of industrialization and therefore they find harmony in a lifestyle that coexists with the natural world. In a lecture titled “How We Live and How We Might Live” in 1884, Morris gives his opinions about an ideal existence. This opinion is the bedrock of the novel. Morris claims that the society is full of evil and that capitalism has destroyed what is left of the society but with communism it can be revived. Morris believes that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work, and not only in the labors that can make one rejoice, the products represent the height of human achievement to date. He rejected mass production, but rather encouraged them to develop their own manual skills such as were necessary to, and to be enjoyable in the domestic environment. The solutions to the social problems, which lay hidden in the undeveloped economic conditions, the utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but the wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society without propaganda. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more complete they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.
The book makes us understand that Morris motivated a happier society by maintaining the satisfactions of creative work. He was not opposed to machines as a matter of principle. A lot of people believe he opposed them. He supported labour saving devices where dullness was not concerned. He said that the use of machines would speed production thereby doing the hard labour and saving the time and strength of humans. However, he criticizes the use of machines for the increase of production so as to make profit for the capitalists. Morris stresses on the importance of education, especially in the party system so as to have a strong party which comprises of education in economics, in organization, and also administratively. He went further on to say that without an organized political party to provide a concrete and theoretical awareness and existence of socialism, any sudden revolt would bring it to scatter in various directions.
From an ecological perspective, Morris hints at a society where the future is ruined due to man’s actions. In a Utopian and futuristic society, Morris highlights the requirement of being in harmony with nature. The idea of morality and fulfillment feel almost utopian in today’s world, where technology and mechanization are taking over most processes. The appropriation of energy and agricultural productivity look like off-set situations that allow exploitation elsewhere. For example, in an anarchist society, how would we come to the conclusion as to what sort of resources are to be utilized, what policies must be implemented and how nature will be used only for needs and not for wants or greed? Another perspective would mean that democracy and societies are again simplified and narrowed down to one model of working, which in itself is an infringement of freedom and choice due to limited principles that control every society. Morris’ ideas reflect a promise in terms of ecological protection and one’s moral as well as emotional well-being while co-existing with nature. His one-sided debate on the existence of free societies seems appealing in theory, yet remains untouched and insignificant in practice, where large societies need to be included in a far better way. Like every new theory, Morris introduces modern socialism which needs to connect to the intellectual stock-in-trade, no matter how deeply its roots lie in material economic facts.
Ayesha Mehrotra is the Program Director, Sustainability Initiatives at One Future Collective.
Featured image: Unknown source from Caitlin Duffy