News From Nowhere - William Morris’s Vision For The 22nd Century
Morris, William, 'News From Nowhere, News From Nowhere And Other Writings, Penguin Classics, Penguin Group, (London, 1993)
William Morris stands out against other nineteenth-century socialist thinkers for not conforming to classical poetry or realist fiction. News From Nowhere is the amalgamation of Morris’s interests and beliefs – love of the English countryside, pleasure of arts and crafts, hatred of capitalism and the useless toil which it produces. Clive Wilmer, a poet who shares Morris’s enthusiasm for architecture, goes so far as to compare News From Nowhere to a Bible, a piece of literature more important than any category obeying prose or poetry (p. xxix). Morris’s Bible prophecies a future where society operates more merrily than ever without codified laws and where the infrequent crimes that occur go unpunished.
As Wilmer explains, Morris does not intend to provide a blueprint or a manifesto when writing fiction, he aims to challenge the readers’ assumptions about the world around them – what if it was radically different (p. xli)? For the nineteenth-century reader, News From Nowhere presents a very different Britain. The overcrowded and sooty East End is clean and comfortable; the ostentatious neo-classical town homes of Kensington are no longer the paradigm for the rising middle-class, and Parliament has become a dung market (p. 93). Morris envisions a new Britain which has undergone a socialist revolution in 1952, followed by radical changes to fundamental aspects of society such as property, gender relations, politics, laws, and crime.
Our narrator, an insert of Morris himself, wakes up in his Hammersmith home well into the twenty-second century, having gone to sleep in 1890 after a tiring day arguing at the Socialist League. Morris is initially surprised by people keenly offering him things he was accustomed to paying for – a boat ride on the Thames, breakfast at a stranger’s home, and a ride (on a carriage drawn by horses) through London. He quickly establishes that he has woken up in a society without money. Strides have been made towards gender equality, and marriage as a legal concept has become extinct - there are no law courts to enforce “contracts of sentiment and passion” (p. 93). Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts, universities have reverted to their true purpose of seeking knowledge for the sake of it (p. 103) – a change that may spark jealousy in many dilettante students.
The main crux of Morris’s utopia that interests students of law is how society can remain cohesive and peaceful without laws. Morris himself questions those around him on this topic at length. Through Platonic dialogue with an elderly man, Morris questions the raison d’etre of civil laws and concludes that they existed to uphold a society built on private property (p. 112). The end of private property through the socialist revolution meant civil law “abolished itself” (p. 112). Whereas the abolition of civil law seems comprehensive to an imaginative reader, the scrapping of criminal law seems unthinkable and even intuitively undesirable. Yet, the old man explains their eventual demise by breaking down their cause (p. 113). Private property was both the surface-level cause of crimes such as theft and the root cause of crimes that sprang from material inequality and corruption (p. 113). Crimes of sex and passion originated from the artificial belief of “women being the property of the man” (p. 113). As private property as a concept ceased, so did this ludicrous and antiquated idea. Morris also identifies family tyranny as a cause of violent crime. He envisions its end with families being held together not by legal or social coercion but by “mutual liking and affection” (p. 113). For Morris, consent is the solution to problems and suffering caused by coercion.
But what of the crimes that are committed seemingly without systemic cause? Humans are imperfect, and “hot blood will err sometimes” (p. 113). Morris struggles to understand why punishment of the crime is not the way to safeguard society. Morris’s companion explains that society expects the transgressor to atone for their wrongdoings instead of inflicting further punishment on the wrongdoer (p. 114). If there were laws to ensure punishment for acts of violence, the offender would be absolved of their crimes by society – an idea that may be uncomfortable for many ‘tough on crime’ readers to digest. In addition, what could punishment achieve anyway? Imprisoning or torturing an offender would not undo the damage inflicted on the victim – in cases of murder, execution would mean that two die instead of one. Violence does exist, as it always will, but in Morris’s ideal society, it is not a disease as it was in late nineteenth-century Britain.
Laws seem fundamental to our society, yet Morris insists they are detrimental. When contemporary readers think about how to manage a group of people, many will resort to coming up with fair rules. One rule which may seem necessary is that the will of the majority has a right to decide on matters when unanimity cannot be achieved – this is in order to prevent obstacles to decision-making. However, Morris’s ideal world rests on an anarchist interpretation of managing society. As all coercive force is wrong, the majority has no inherent right to impose its will on the minority and thus no changes should be made without unanimous support. This explains why Parliament is used for storing manure – MPs merely represented the will of the majority (p. 116). Morris believes that strict political crystallisation in society is due to the illusion of genuine difference in beliefs – if such disagreements were substantial daily life would not go on as it did (p. 119). Equality would mean that no political class could rise to construct schisms from which they could benefit. In the vast majority of disagreements, “immediate outcome” shows which side was right, and so opposing sides would be very short-term phenomena (p. 118). As such, Morris envisions a future where politics is made irrelevant with the end of private property and laws empowering the majority over the population.
Although Morris may be rightfully criticised for relying heavily on abolishing private property as a panacea (universal remedy) for society's ills, his unapologetic optimism for the future should be praised. For those unwilling to read News From Nowhere themselves, I suggest they think about what an ideal world would look like. Does everyone have enough money or none? What has become of Parliament? Do people study Management or History? If it’s one where society can operate without the need for laws and private property, then they and Morris will certainly get along over a bottle of port if he ever decides to visit the future again.