Resonating warnings of William Morris

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In the late nineteenth century William Morris frequently gave public lectures throughout England on the dangers of competitive commerce and the possibility that the world could become a nightmarish place where no one experiences what it feels like to make the necessities of life with their own hands and no one even uses things made by human hands at all. He also points towards hopeful alternatives. The perspectives he conveyed are as relevant today is they were then.

These quotations were found in, “Art and Society: lectures and essays by William Morris.” Edited by Gary Zabel: George’s Hill Publications; Boston. 1993.

Art under plutocracy. 1883.

And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to all aspects of all the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of these things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must either be beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and a burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him. How does it fare therefore with our external surroundings in these days? What kind of an account shall we be able to give to those who came after us dealing with the earth, which our forefathers handed down to us still beautiful, in spite of the thousands of years of strife and carelessness and selfishness.

Art, wealth, and riches. 1883.

Popular art, that is, the art which is made by the co-operation of many minds and hands varying in kind and degree of talent, but all doing their part in due subordination to a great whole without anyone losing his individuality –the loss of such an art is surely great, nay, inestimable. But hitherto I have only been speaking of the lack of popular art being a grievous loss as a part of wealth; I have been considering the loss of the thing itself, the loss of the humanizing influence which daily sight of beautiful handiwork brings to bear upon people; but now when we are considering the way in which it is done, the matter becomes more serious still. For I say unhesitatingly that the intelligent work which produced real art was pleasant to do, was human work, not overburdensome or degrading; whereas the unintelligent work which produces sham art, is irksome to do, it is unhuman work, burdensome and degrading; so that it is but right and proper that it should turn out nothing but ugly things. And the immediate cause of the degrading labour which oppresses so large a part of our people is the system of the organization of labour which is the chief instrument of the great power of modern Europe, competitive commerce. That system has quite changed the way of working in all matters that can be considered art, and the change is a very much greater one than people know of or think of. In times past these handicrafts done on a small, almost domestic, scale by knots of workmen who mostly belonged to organized guilds, and were taught their work soundly, however limited their education was in other respects. There was little division of labour among them; the grades between master and man were not many; a man knew his work from end to end, and felt responsible for every stage of its progress. Such work was necessarily slow to do and expensive to buy; nether was it always finished to the nail, but it was always intelligent work; there was a man’s mind in it always, and abundant tokens of human hopes and fears, the sum of which makes life for all of us. (68-69)

Art and socialism. 1884.

I have said that people work no less labouriously than they ever did; but I should have said that they work more labouriously. The wonderful machines which in the hands of just and foreseeing men would have been used to minimize labour and to give pleasure, or in other words added life, to the human race, have been so used to the contrary that they have driven all men into more frantic haste and hurry, thereby destroying pleasure, that is life, on all hands: they have, instead of lightening the labour of the workmen, intensified it, and thereby added more weariness yet to the burden which the poor have to carry. (82)

[. . .]

And now in the teeth of this stupid tyranny I put forward a claim on behalf of labour enslaved by Commerce [. . .] This then is the claim: It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which is worth doing, and be itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious. (82-83)

[. . .]

Betwixt the days in which we now live and the end of the Middle Ages, Europe has gained freedom of thought, increase of knowledge, and huge talent for dealing with the material forces of nature; comparative political freedom withal and respect for the lives of civilized men, and other gains that go with these things: nevertheless I say deliberately that if the present state of Society is to endure, she has bought these gains at too high a price in the loss of the pleasure in daily work which once did certainly solace the mass of men for their fears and oppressions: prosperity of the middle classes. Grievous indeed it was, that we were could not keep both hands full, that we were forced to spill from one while we gathered with the other: yet to my mind it is more grievous still to be unconscious of that loss; or being dimly conscious of it to have to force ourselves to forget it and cry out that all is well. For, though all is not well, I know that men’s natures are not so changed in three centuries that we can say to all the thousands of years which went before them: You were wrong to cherish art, and now we have found out that all men need is food and raiment and shelter, with a smattering of knowledge of the material fashion of the universe. Creation is no longer a need of man’s soul, his right hand may forget its cunning, and be the worse for it.

Three hundred years, a day in the lapse of ages, have not changed men’s nature thus utterly, be sure of that: one day we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour. (90-91)

[. . .]

What can give us the dayspring of a new hope? What, save general revolt against the tyranny of commercial war? The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless: because they are partial revolts against a vast wide-spreading grasping organization which will with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the condition of the people with an attack on a fresh side; new machines, new markets, wholesale emigration, the revival of grovelling superstitions, preachments of thrift to lack-alls, of temperance to the wretched; such things as these will baffle at every turn all partial revolts against the monster we of the middle-class have created for our own undoing. (95)

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George Orwell on equality in Spain 1936-37.

George Orwell. Homage to Catalonia.

This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with the notion of writing newspaper articles, but I joined the militia almost immediately, because at the time and in that atmosphere it seemed like the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists had virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. (8).

. . .

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life –snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. –had ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of having been among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance. (101-103).

 

 

A social networking site could be the internet’s democratic compass.

Imagine a website that could reconfigure the internet –something that could redefine social networking, journalism, democracy, and the internet itself, amongst other things.

Imagine a website designed around allowing anyone to create a portal or page for whatever issue they are concerned about. Attached to each issue portal there could be polls, forums, journalism, and archives of all the statistics and writings which get gathered through this process.

Imagine a website that collected statistics on how many people support or oppose any and all issues. Polling statistics would be gathered from all open sources as well as through the site’s social networking face –which itself serves as a place for people to have their opinions officially registered and archived.

Imagine a website with check-and-balance powers in relation to governments and corporations. The facts of who is fore or opposed to every issue could be contrasted with what governments do in those cases. This site would serve the purpose of giving people a place to go to have their voices heard, archived, and retrievable on any issue.

I am picturing something which can be continuously developed and changed by participants, so it could serve different functions as time progresses and it could be different things to different people. It could be primarily an activism-oriented social network; it could be primarily a new framework for journalism –with stories linked to specific issues which would have discussions and polls ongoing, archived, and accessible for analysis by anyone; it could be primarily about discussions concerning specific issues; it could be primarily about polling; it could be primarily about freedom of information –having the facts of what specific numbers of people think about a vast array of specific issues.  These facts could then be used to petition governments or corporations to change their ways, but just as important would be the use of transparent and freely accessible information as a cornerstone for building new societies. It could also be key to keeping the internet open to such uses as this.

Swarj –no submission and no exploitation.

What does it mean to work together as equals? It involves a shared commitment to resisting the systems of oppression which exist in subtle interactions and glaring power dynamics. It involves resisting the perks of being in a privileged position over others. It also involves refusing to be oppressed by others. In the words of Vinoba Bhave –who carried Gandhi’s torch,

If I am under some other person’s command, where is my own self-government? Self-government means ruling over your own self. It is one mark of swaraj not to allow any outside power in the world to exercise control over oneself. And the second mark of swaraj is not to exercise power over any other. These two things together make swaraj –no submission and no exploitation.    [Domestic values. Quoted in Anarchism Today. The MacMIllian Press. 1971. Edited by B.E Apter and James Joll.]

Iroquois democracy

The following quotation is from a statement presented before a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing  (on Senate Resolution S. Con. 76) in 1987 to recognize the Iroquois origin of the U.S. Constitution, spoken by the Honorable Oren Lyons, speaker for the Onondaga Nation. Found in, “Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control!” Edited by Christopher Plant & Judith Plant. New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, Pa and Gabriola Island, BC. 1992. (70-73)

Early history, prior to the coming of the white man to this continent, receives little attention in the history books. But it was in these early times that the development of democratic processes came about on this land.

Upon the continent of North America, prior to the landfall of the white man, a great league of peace was formed, the inspiration of a prophet called the Peacemaker. He was a spiritual being, fulfilling the mission of organizing warring nations into a confederation under the Great Law of Peace. The principles of the law are peace, equity, justice, and the power of the good minds.

With the help and support of a like-minded man called Aionwatha, whom some people now call Hiawatha, an Onondaga by birth and a Mohawk by adoption, he set about the great work of establishing a union of peace under the immutable natural laws of the universe. He came to our Iroquois lands in our darkest hour, when the good message of how to live had been cast aside and naked power ruled, fueled by vengeance and blood lust. A great war of attrition engulfed the lands, and women and children cowered in fear of their own men. The leaders were fierce and merciless. They were fighting in a blind rage. Nations, homes, and families were destroyed, and the people were scattered. It was a dismal world of dark disasters where there seemed to be no hope. It was raging proof of what inhumanity man is capable of when the laws and principles of life are thrown away.

The peacemaker came to our lands, bringing the message of peace, supported by Aionwatha. He began the great work of healing the twisted minds of men. This is a long history, too long to recount here. Suffice it to say it is a great epic that culminated on the shores of the lake called Onondaga where, after many years of hard work –some say perhaps even 100 years –he gathered the leaders, who had now become transformed into rational beings, into a Grand Council, and he began the instructions of how the Great Law of Peace would work.

The Peacemaker set up the families into clans, and then he set up the leaders of the clans. He established that the League of Peace would be matriarchal and that each clan would have a clanmother. Thus, he established in law the equal rights of women.

He raised the leaders of each clan –two men, one the principal leader and the second his partner. They worked together for the good of the people. He called these two men royane, or the good minds, the peacemakers, and they were to represent the clans in council. Thus, he established the principles of representation of people in government.

Henceforth, he said, these men will be chosen by the clan mother, freely using her insight and wisdom. Her choice must first be ratified by the consensus of the clan. If they agree, then her choice must be ratified by full consensus of the Chiefs’ Council of their nation. Then her choice must be ratified and given to over to the Council of Chiefs who then call the Grand Council of the Great League of Peace, and they will gather at the nation that is raising the leader, and they would work together in ceremony.

He made two houses in each nation. One he called the Long House and the other he called the Mud House. They would work together in ceremony and council establishing the inner source of vitality and dynamics necessary for community.

He made two houses in the Grand Council, one called the Younger Brothers, consisting of the Oneida and the Cayuga Nations and later enlarging to include the Tuscarora. The other was the Elder Brothers, consisting of the Mohawks with the title Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Onondaga, whom he made the Firekeepers, and the Senecas, who were the Keepers of the Western Door. Now, he made the house, and the rafters of the house were the laws that he laid down, and he called us the Haudenosaunee: the people of the Longhouse.

Now, the candidate for the clan title is brought before the Grand Council and will be judged on his merits, and they have the right to veto. If they agree, then he may take his place in the Grand Council. But before that, he is turned back to the people, and they are asked if they know a reason why this man should not be a leader and hold title. Thus, the process is full circle back to the people.

Thus, the peacemaker established the process of raising leaders for governance, and, by this process, a leader cannot be self-proclaimed. He is given his title and his duties, and his authority is derived from the people, and the people have the right to remove him for malfeasance of office.

He established the power of recall in the clanmother, and it is her duty to speak to him if she is receiving complaints from the people concerning his conduct. The clanmother shall speak to him three times, giving sufficient time between warnings for him to change his ways. She shall have a witness each time. The first will be her niece, in other words, a woman. The second shall be the partner of the chief in council or the principal leader, as the case may be. And the third and final warning comes with a man who holds no title, and he is coming for the chief’s wampum and for the chief’s emblem of authority, the antlers of a deer. Thus he established the power of recall vested in the people.

The leader must be free from any crime against a woman or a child. He cannot have killed anybody and cannot have blood on his hands. He must believe in the ways of the Longhouse. His heart must have great compassion for his people. He must withstand the accusations, slander, and insults of the people as he goes about his duties for the people. He has no authority but what the people give him in respect. He has no force of arms to demand the people obey his orders. He shall lead by example, and his family shall not influence his judgement. He carries his title for life or until he is relieved of it by bad conduct or ill health. He now belongs to the people.

At the first council, there were 50 original leaders, and their names became offices to be filled by each succeeding generation. So, it continues up to this very day. The Great Peacemaker had established a government of absolute democracy, the constitution of the great law intertwined with the spiritual law.

We then became a nation of laws. The People came of their own free will to participate in the decision-making of the national council and the Grand Council. Thus, the Peacemaker instilled in the nations the inherent rights of the individual with the process to protect and exercise these rights.

If for no other reason, this has relevance for re-interpreting history so as to include buried narratives.

Transcending gender.

In this short video Judith Butler explains what it means for gender to be performative and how that relates to how gender identities are forced onto people through hetronormative reactions by people who observe others interacting with the world around them.

In the following video the good folks at the PBS idea channel further extrapolate on the performative phenomena of gender.

Next, a blogger going by the name queersocialistdave expresses the need to rebel against hetronormativity.

Androgyny or genderqueerness is about the liberation of the body and mind from the constraints of heteronormative patriarchal capitalist society. It is a way of rebelling against the norms laid down by this oppressive social order and refusing to live one’s life in conformity with them. It is about being a more balanced, whole person, able to draw upon all aspects of one’s character, whether these be labeled masculine, feminine or otherwise. It is about not limiting oneself to an artificially fixed role. It is about not living in a role that is a socially constructed straight-jacket. It is about fulfilling one’s potential as a sexual being. Patriarchy oppresses both women and men in different ways, heternormativity oppresses both “straights” and queers in different ways, and capitalism oppresses the vast majority of us on every level. We all should feel free to dare to break out of this bourgeois-hegemonistic view of gender and sexuality that controls us, just as we should all dare to break free of every aspect of the hegemony imposed upon us by the ruling class. As well as class warriors, we should dare to be gender rebels, transgressors, subversives – in short, revolutionaries. When we dare to do this we will see there isn’t one among of us who isn’t a little bit queer.  queersocialistdave, from the post, Androgyny and Gender Performativity in Queer Identity Politics

I will add to all this that the responsibility to rebel against patriarchal order lies not just with those who identify as queer, bisexual, transgender or any other norm-diverging gender, but with everyone who cares about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, with everyone who wants to be free of the illusion-creating matrix of systematic oppression. Being free of patriarchal conceptions of gender is key to spiritual liberty as well. What gender is detachment? What gender is Buddha-nature? In Transmission of Light, Keizan (1268-1325) wrote, “If you are not detached from appearances of maleness and femaleness, whatever you do is mundane activity, not buddha work.”

In an interview with Liz Kotz, Judith Butler states, “I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” This image of gender and race as vectors of power visualizes the mechanics for a matrix visualization of systematic oppression. These vectors of power function through groups and individuals projecting identity stereo-types onto other groups and individuals and in the process pushing people into positions of having to counter stereo-types with their own version of their sense of identity. This process divides people, fracturing all sense of unity, and puts people unwittingly in collaboration with systems of oppression. Perhaps  steps towards de-powering the vectors of power which reinforce systematic oppression are to not identify with patriarchal conceptions of gender or race and to view gender as variable, multiple, and as unique as each human.

Beuys and Böll’s free school manifesto.

For this entry I am quoting in full the “Manifesto on the foundation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Inter disciplinary Research” written by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in 1973.  This is a particular sort of initiative which I am interested in reviving.

Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art.  Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression.  To recognize, explore and develop this potential is the task of the school.

 Creation—whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel, involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

 Conversely, when we consider the ability to organize material that is expected of a worker, a housewife, a farmer, doctor, philosopher, judge or works manager, we find that their work by no means exhausts the full range of their creative abilities.

 Whereas the specialist’s insulated point of view places the arts and other kinds of work in sharp opposition, it is in fact crucial that the structural, formal and thematic problems of the various work processes should be constantly compared with one another.

 The school does not discount the specialist, nor does it adopt an anti-technological stance.  It does, however reject the idea of experts and technicians being the sole arbiters in their respective fields.  In a spirit of democratic creativity, without regressing to merely mechanical defensive or aggressive clichés, we shall discover the inherent reason in things.

 In a new definition of creativity the terms professional and dilettante are surpassed, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.

 The founders of the school look for creative stimulation from foreigners working here.  This is not to say that it is a prerequisite that we learn from them or that they learn from us.  Their cultural traditions and way of life call forth an exchange of creativity that must go beyond preoccupation with varying art forms to a comparison of the structures, formulations and verbal expressions of the material pillars of social life:  law, economics, science, religion, and then move on to the investigation or exploration of the “creativity of the democratic.”

 The creativity of the democratic is increasingly discouraged by the progress of bureaucracy, coupled with the aggressive proliferation of an international mass culture.  Political creativity is being reduced to the mere delegation of decision and power.  The imposition of an international cultural and economic dictatorship by the constantly expanding combines leads to a loss of articulation, learning and the quality of verbal expression.

 In the consumer society, creativity, imagination and intelligence, not articulated, their expression prevented, become defective, harmful and damaging—in contrast to a democratic society—and find outlets in corrupted criminal creativity.  Criminality can arise from boredom, from inarticulated creativity.   To be reduced to consumer values, to see democratic potential reduced to the occasional election, this can also be regarded as a rejection or a dismissal of democratic creativity.

 Environmental pollution advances parallel with a pollution of the world within us.  Hope is denounced as utopian or as illusionary, and discarded hope breeds violence.  In the school we shall research into the numerous forms of violence, which are by no means confined to those of weapons or physical force.

 As a forum for the confrontation of political or social opponents, the school can set up a permanent seminar on social behavior and its articulate expression.

 The founders of the school proceed from the knowledge that since 1945, along with the brutality of the reconstruction period, the gross privileges afforded by monetary reforms, the crude accumulation of possessions and an upbringing resulting in an expense account mentality, many insights and initiatives have been prematurely shattered.  The realistic attitude of those who do survive, the idea that living might be the purpose of existence, has been denounced as a romantic fallacy.  The Nazis’ blood and soil doctrine, which ravaged the land and spilled the blood, has disturbed our relation to tradition and environment.  Now, however, it is no longer regarded as romantic but exceedingly realistic to fight for every tree, every plot of undeveloped land, every stream as yet unpoisoned, every old town center, and against every thoughtless reconstruction scheme.  And it is no longer considered romantic to speak of nature.  In the permanent trade competition and performance of the two German political systems which have successfully exerted themselves for world recognition, the values of life have been lost.  Since the school’s concern is with the values of life we shall stress the consciousness of solidarity.  The school is based on the principle of interaction, whereby no institutional distinction is drawn between the teachers and the taught.  The school’s activity will be accessible to the public, and it will conduct its work in the public eye.  Its open and international character will be constantly reinforced by exhibitions and events in keeping with the concept of creativity.

 “Non-artists” could initially be encouraged to discover or explore their creativity by artists attempting to communicate and to explain—in an undidactic manner—the elements and the coordination of their creativity.  At the same time we would seek to find out why laws and disciplines in the arts invariably stant in creative opposition to established law and order.

 It is not the aim of the school to develop political and cultural directions, or to form styles, or to provide industrial and commercial prototypes.  Its chief goal is the encouragement, discovery and furtherance of democratic potential, and the expression of this.  In a world increasingly manipulated by publicity, political propaganda, the culture business and the press, it is not to the named—but the nameless—that it will offer a forum.

Reprinted in Energy Plan for the Western Man:  Joseph Beuys in America, Writings by and Interviews with the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni.  New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990.