'You know it's the 200th anniversary of William Morris's News From Nowhere? Have you ever read it?'

'Course,' responded Raj defensively. 'Didn't think that much of it, to tell you the truth. If you look at it as late 19th century novel it's got less drama and characterisation in it than Three Men in a Boat or even Wind in the Willows And Jerome K Jerome in spite of his awful right wing views does make you laugh now and then. And as for the other book, I've always had a soft spot for Badger – the slum parson.'

'But it's no good seeing it as a late nineteenth century river journey book.' Objected Tim 'Morris called it a 'utopian romance'. It's – well if not exactly a political tract – an attempt to foresee and portray ideal society.'

'Well, its better than some. Wasn't it a reaction to Bellamy's Looking Backward?'

'That's right.'

'Still pretty boring though … Nowhere.'

'I wonder,' said Tim thoughtfully, 'what Morris would make of our society now – in 2096.?'

'Not a lot, probably. But you should be able to figure it out. You're supposed to be a historian of the 'long 19th and short 20th' centuries. Who was it who called them that originally? '

'Eric Hobsbawm.'

'Ah, yes, that's right. Anyway you should be able to work out how things would look now to a 1890s socialist like Morris.'

'Well, perhaps. But you're the 21st century specialist – you might have to help me out with how things turned out between then and now.'

'O K, but if you're going to be the visitor from the past, I think you should concentrate on how things are now more than how they got that way.'


'Oh, and obviously anyone from the past from what they used to call the industrial revolution onwards would probably have their impressions swamped completely by advances in technology – someone from the eighteenth century would be amazed by Victorian trains and telegraphs, Victorians by mid-20th century cars and planes, radio and TV not to mention nuclear bombs, someone who died in the 1970s by the internet and so on. Morris of course avoided this almost entirely – too much many would say. So we should leave not all but most of that out - except in as far as it is directly connected with things a Morris period socialist would be most concerned with – equality, creative work, freedom from oppressive social situations and so on.'

'O K'.

'So, we were going for a bike ride, this morning. Once we've got out of town you can get into character'.


'O K. Well, I think the first thing I'd remark upon and question is the lack of traffic. We've ridden out of town on a dedicated cycle and walk way and now we're on a country lane. Even in the 20th century you'd have expected to be passed by a few cars or vans – as they were called. But apart from other cyclists and a few people on horses we've seen nothing in the way of traffic.'

'So, I'd explain something like this. The twentieth century went mad over the motor car. It caused pollution and congestion, was intrinsically dangerous compared to most other forms of transport, and some people think it encouraged anti-social attitudes. But it was convenient. Even the best public transport systems couldn't match it in this respect.

Because of what was seen at the time as a 'love affair with the car' we were very slow to see – and even slower to take advantage of – the possibilities which computing technologies and satellites opened up. The pressures produced by uncertain and dwindling oil supplies on the one hand and approaching gridlock on the other proved to be the catalysts eventually. And so we ended up with a system which now covers the whole of Europe and much beyond, with similar set-ups on most other continents – penetrating partially even into the vast spaces of India and China which combines the best features of – in twentieth century terms – public and private transport. We still call them cars – rather like cars were originally horseless carriages – but they do not have that much in common. They run on the old road network – though most country roads are kept free or severely restricted like this one – and most are a similar size to early twenty-first century cars, but apart from that they are quite different.

They don't run on petrol or diesel of course – but we better skip the technicalities. They're publicly owned like other monopolies – and like the railways and buses were at some periods – but they are available on your doorstep. You simply order the size of car you want – anything from a single-seater to the equivalent of a large 20th century bus if there's a big party of you – for the time you want it – waiting times were a bit of a problem at first but are now negligible – and off you go. You put in the co-ordinates of your destination – that was a bit technical to start with but it was soon simplified – and off you go. Normally you'll want to go at optimum speed by the most direct route available – but you can change these things very easily. No driving is involved. The system adjusts speeds to traffic conditions but because it has control over all the cars they can travel much faster and – crucially from the congestion point of view – much closer together than the old motor cars could ever do. And if you want to go to the Mainland you are whisked through one of the Channel Tunnels. Meanwhile, the computers work out what your journey has cost and send you a bill eventually. This technology relieved the airport congestion which was becoming a real problem too. Air travel – apart from enthusiasts who like to fly old planes – is now really only needed for one used to be called long-haul routes'.

'And what about the railways? I suppose they have disappeared.'

'Not at all. They are still used for a lot of freight – as are the canals again for goods that don't need to be delivered at all urgently though leisure use is still dominant – and there's a surprising number of passenger lines still in operation. For some reason practically all forms of transport seem to create enthusiasts and nostalgia. You can take trips – including very long ones – on trains of all periods – all very authentic apart from being fitted with the latest safety devices. Hey, but there's something that you ought to be asking me about!'


'Over there. What do you think your time traveller would say?'

'See what you mean! Yes. Good heavens! People on horses in red coats.'

'They call them pink.'

'Pink coats – daft. Surely foxhunting was abolished long ago?'

'Yes, after a long drawn out period when the Blair government used it as a symbolic bait – kept just out of reach for as long as possible – to keep its MPs on side. Bit like Napoleon amending the Concordat to cut down the concessions to the Catholic Church in order to satisfy the objections of the Tribunate and the generals. All of them owed their position to him and were mostly time-servers. But these one-time believers in liberty, equality and fraternity having long given up on such ideals, made a big fuss about religion and the Church to make themselves feel that they still stood for something. For erstwhile Labourites fox-hunting was a bit like that.'

'Skip the history! How can it be that here and now – in 2096 for heaven's sake – that there's still a bunch of unspeakable savages chasing an uneatable fox? And that's what they are doing – look there goes the fox across that field.

'It's a virtual fox of course. After fox hunting was finally banned they mostly turned to what was called drag hunting, but with the rapid advances in technology it became possible to improve on that. Getting the scent right was the most difficult bit. Actually, the hunt we're watching is what they call 'old style' with just the hunters in fancy dress, the hounds and the virtual fox. In some places they prefer the 'new style' because it's more of a team game. With that there's a second team – they're on foot – also dressed in funny clothes – but this time late 20th century jeans and anoraks. They try to thwart the hunters. Great fun I'm told – 'sabs' they're called for some reason or other. 'Course we've made great strides with animal welfare – particularly since the food technologists have been able to simulate practically every kind of meat – bacon was the crucial one – so that even the most expert couldn't tell the difference.'

'But what I'd want to know about are the more essential things – equality or the lack of it, the economy, politics'.

'Well famously the shortest chapter in News from Nowhere is the one where Morris has Old Hammond say something like 'we're very well off as to politics – we have none.' Not true of course, unless like Morris you define politics exclusively in terms of Parliament and permanent political parties. Well, that's quite different – we have more politics than someone even a hundred years ago would be easily able to imagine.

And far from turning Parliament into a manure store – it's still there – though very different in both structure and functions. There is of course much more direct democracy – all sorts of things have made this inevitable – the increasing educational levels achieved by the bulk of the population and the consequent unwillingness to leave the most important questions to 'experts' – even democratically elected ones – the opportunities created by technology – I suppose the crucial stage was when Switzerland finally joined the Union (what used to be called the European Union though its spread some way beyond that now). Up till then while – on balance, arguably – Union membership meant a step or two in the direction of democracy for all the others – especially some of the southern European countries that had only recently thrown of fascist or military regimes. But it was a step back into the dark ages for the Swiss. They only joined after the referendum was established for Union policies and of course they insisted on changing the constitution to allow the initiative too.

'Of course the mistake that the more naive enthusiasts for direct democracy, particularly in the 19th century made was to imagine that it would replace representative government altogether. It took some time to get it through to such people that even if all the decisions formally made by Parliament were done by referendum – which of course is far from being the case – exactly what should be is still one of the main issues in politics today – the role of MPs would be more not less important. Instead of wasting so much time traipsing through lobbies like automatons they would be able to concentrate on their really crucial role – monitoring the executive and holding it properly to account. And that is largely what they do these days, though there's still a lot of legislative business. The second chamber – part-time and elected – has only one really important function these days - to decide whether an issue should be decided by referendum when whether it should be or not is itself contentious. There are still people who subscribe to Tom Paine's view that "The trade of government has always been monopolised by the most ignorant and rascally of mankind" but compared with a hundred years ago the standing of politicians is probably quite good. Getting more women in the job was important. But it's not that politicos are less "rascally" by nature but that a quantum leap in accountability and transparency mean there's far less scope for getting away with things.'

'Yeah,' said Tim, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be a visitor from the past. 'The most worrying bit of News from Nowhere is where, discussing communal decision-making, Morris has Hammond say that ̉the majority must have their way; unless the minority were to take up arms and show by force that they were the effective or real majority.' An awful lot of what went wrong with socialism in the twentieth century is foreshadowed in this notion of the 'effective majority'. All too easily it could become the chilling idea that somehow violence can give democratic legitimacy. But I'm forgetting. What about the economy? Is everything now socially-owned? Has money been abolished? Has equality been established or do the rich and powerful still tyrannise over the world?'

Raj laughed. 'If I go into all that in any detail, no one will have patience to read the results – we're on p 5 already. So let's keep it simple. Money we still have; it's convenient, though carrying coins and notes died out long ago. The economy is what they'd have called 'mixed' in the middle of the twentieth century – but it's a different sort of mix. There's a big co-operative and voluntary sector. There's no prescribed pattern but a whole range of more or less mutualist concerns. There are a few publicly owned utilities at state level. And there's been a big revival in local and regional public enterprise. And thank goodness with the rejection of the turn-of-the-century managerial ideology much creativity has been unleashed sometimes from the most unlikely people.'

'The managerial ideology?'

'Yes. Like all really successful ideologies it seemed not a point of view but simply the way things were – common sense. Put crudely it was the belief that there were special skills of management that were extraordinarily rare. Not just that there were such skills, but that they were superior to and less common than any other kinds of skills. It didn't quite say that brain surgeons were two-a-penny while health service managers were as rare as hens' teeth – but it felt like that. Especially to brain surgeons.

One of the strangest things was what happened to local government at this time. In the days when local authorities had actually had some real power – when they ran schools and colleges and built what were called council houses – their top officials – usually called town clerks or similar – were modestly paid. By 2000, when councils had little power, they felt it necessary to pay relatively huge salaries to their chief executives – and then when they actually had to do anything they'd spend a small fortune on consultants. It was more or less the same throughout in 2000. Thank goodness that's all changed.

Another of the oddities of that time was that many people who had previously gone about calling themselves Marxists abandoned their previous ideas and became 'free market' enthusiasts. But what they retained in a twisted sort of way was the economic determinism – which now took the form of radically underestimating the power of politics and the state and resigning themselves to allow market forces to control everything. Some of them would point to the way big business had infiltrated and dominated the American state. Yet in so far as this proved anything it showed the crucial importance of the political – else why bother to try to control it? They might have done better if they'd read a bit less Marx and more De Gaulle – although to be fair Marx himself never underestimated the importance of politics, particularly in his commentary on current events. But let's get back to here and now.

'So there's much more democracy and greater equality at work now?'

'Oh, yes … on the whole. But you have to bear in mind what 20th century enthusiasts for industrial democracy tended to forget, that the appetite for participation – except at times of some kind of workplace crisis – is limited. Even now, not everybody wants to be part of a co-op or enterprise council where they have to attend meetings and study reports and take decisions. Even in the 20th century there were plenty of people whose 'real' life – as they themselves saw it – was outside work – in the family, with friends, with their pursuits, enthusiasms and hobbies – even with politics in a very few cases.

That said, the decline in democratic participation that caused such concern at the beginning of the century was reversed long ago. Participation is higher than ever before – but that still doesn't mean that everyone is equally keen on doing it. What has changed is that we now have a clearer perception that everyone has a number of roles and that these – in some cases anyway – need to be represented separately. So, for example, you have your enterprise council delegates to represent you as participants in the undertaking and your union to look after your interests as employee, your MPs of various sorts to represent you as a "national" and international citizen, and your local councillors of different kinds to represent your local citizen interests … and that of course is just the traditional roles. There are many newer forms of representation to do with pensions, education, health and special interests.'

'But there is still private business.'

'Oh, yes. Apart from the huge proportion of self-employed – massive by all previous standards – there are loads of small firms springing up all the time, and quite a lot of larger private concerns. There are requirements for employees' views and interests to be represented properly. Unions still represent occupational groups. There's a lot of regulation. Too much some say; not nearly enough say others. And the same is true about equality of all kinds. Not everyone owns or is paid the same – but there is much less distance from the poorest to the richest. Not counting those unreconciled super rich who now live on their private islands in various places. Some would like to appropriate their wealth and cut them off from their source of income but others say it's not worth the effort and the anguish. Bit the same with the monarchy. It's been abolished, but they're still around and if some people want to invite them to open garden fetes and call them by silly titles most people are prepared to let them get on with it.'

'If I was Morris, I'd want to ask – is it socialism?'

'Interesting question. Like they always say "It depends what you mean…" It's not a society without private property or markets – though both are much more controlled within the democratic framework. It's not the fantasies of 20th century Leninists – but that's just as well, surely? But in the early 1980s Alec Nove who'd spent his professional life studying the economies of the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries wrote a book called The Economics of Feasible Socialism. What we have now is not too dissimilar from the mixture of private and public – state and voluntary – that he put forward as something possible of attainment 'in the lifetime of a child born today.'

'Some old-time socialists would see much of what is now generally accepted as liberalism rather than socialism. Decentralisation compared with 2000 – respect for the rule of law, checks and balances, reluctance to encroach on individual freedoms. But other 20th century socialists would welcome these things.

'And surely the crucial thing is the way democracy has advanced – become more real and inclusive. 20th century socialists often seemed not to understand this, but the only way something could be 'socialised' in any real sense was for it to be subject to the real – democratic – control of society. But everything couldn't be decided in that way – and a market is a much better way than planning for deciding what fashion goods to produce. There was – and probably always will be – disagreements about exactly where the line should be drawn, which is necessary regulation and which mindless red tape. About how much inequality of income and wealth should be tolerated. But as long as we've got a reasonable degree of democratic control – still far from perfect of course – we can adjust these things in the light of experience.

It's not a term that's used too much today, but what we've got may not be socialism yet it's a good deal more like it than what passed for it in the 20th century. And without the boring 'harmony' of Nowhere! But then, when people in the past talked about "socialist principles" they didn't usually have in mind nationalisation, or even social ownership. The much maligned Kautsky put it rather well (allowing for the vocabulary of the time) when he wrote that 'socialism as such is not our goal, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex or a race.' That's what people really meant by socialist values or principles. I seem to remember that he went on to say – it was in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the little book that got him labelled as the 'Renegade Kautsky' by Lenin – that if it could be shown that the 'emancipation of the proletariat and of mankind could be achieved solely on the basis of private property … then we would throw Socialism overboard, without in the least giving up our object, and even in the interests of this object.'

'OK. And what about poverty then? Has it been eradicated? '

'There are still parts of the world where it's still all-too present in considerable pockets. But at least the richer countries are now for the most part genuinely trying to assist rather than making the situation worse as was the case in the past. And great strides have been made – even in Africa where so many despaired of progress at the beginning of this century.'

'And here there's been a change of attitude to the acquisition of wealth. There was always something irrational in striving always for more and more. One survey in the late 20th century concluded that a standard of living equivalent to the then average for Portugal – one of the poorer countries of the Union in those days – maximised happiness and contentment; after that further affluence made little difference. And by the end of the 20th century their were at least two markets for many things.

The luxury one for the very rich sold almost entirely on exclusivity – a sort of equivalent of the 'gated community'. Most people could tell the difference between a really cheap meal or bottle of wine and a mid-priced one, but few could really discern the extra quality they were supposed to be paying for with the really expensive stuff. And even among the very few who could afford it there were plenty who said 'I like wine that tastes like wine – never mind notes of blackcurrant and parsley!' But that didn't stop fortunes being made by selling exclusivity and making some people actually delight in paying ridiculous prices for things. That gradually declined through the present century. Hasn't gone completely – nothing ever seems to, does it? But there's been a big shift. What used to be the approach of self-conscious 'down-sizers' is now pretty standard.'

So on the whole poverty has gone in what they called the 'developed' world and is being tackled seriously elsewhere. There is less material inequality and such as there is seems to matter less because fewer people obsess about it to the same extent as used to be the case when such things were driven by much greater insecurity.'

'But there's still a lot wrong; injustices that need to be combated; evils that need to be resisted?'

'Surely! When won't there be? And we haven't touched on whole areas like sexual relations, education, and culture. In the end what Morris wrote at the end of The Dream of John Ball is a much better prediction of the future – at any time – than News From Nowhere. Do you know the bit? It's where the dreamer says something like 'I pondered these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and how what they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.'

Ian Bullock December 2004

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