One of the most bizarre things to me about the socialist strand of thought is how they treat matters of beauty and utility. (In)famously, the well-known objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand saw beauty as an objective thing in the universe. Some things were just clearly perceptible as more aesthetically pleasing than others through the use of our reasoning capabilities. This led to such plays like Mozart Was a Red mocking Rand’s absurd aesthetic theories and not to mention her cult of followers.
But similarly utopian socialists, such as William Morris, wrote about the ways that society would inherently produce “beautiful” and “useful” things if profit and competition were eliminated from society. In his collected articles entitled A Factory as it Might be Morris consistently claims that these factories would produce unimaginable beauty:
One’s imagination is inclined fairly to run riot over the picture of beauty and pleasure offered by the thought of skilful co-operative gardening for beauty’s sake, which beauty would by no means exclude the raising of useful produce for the sake of livelihood.
In brief, our buildings will be beautiful with their own beauty of simplicity as workshops, not bedizened with tomfoolery as some are now which do not any the more for that hide their repulsiveness…
Thus our Socialistic factory, besides turning out goods useful to the community, will provide for its for its own workers work light in duration, and not oppressive in kind, education in childhood and youth. Serious occupation, amusing relaxation, and mere rest for the leisure of the workers, and withal that beauty of surroundings, and the power of producing beauty which are sure to be claimed by those who have leisure, education, and serious occupation.
Now, I have no doubt that capitalism is a highly wasteful economic system. I also have no doubt that much of the art, products and work that people do is often tedious and likely doesn’t give tem a lot of meaning in their lives. The ways that profit and competition currently work, with the state giving priority to some companies over others, a deeply patriarchal culture and many elements of white nationalism gaining prevalence (at least in the US) it isn’t surprising that the way we act out things like competition and profit often come at the expense of others.
But just because that’s the way things currently are doesn’t necessarily entail that the paradigms of profit and competition must always act in such a way.
For example, there are ways we can combine the benefits of competition and cooperation by networking amongst friends and trying to deliver the best service or product to our local community. The goal of this competition isn’t to dominate the other as much as possible but to provide the best reward for yourself and others from your efforts within the community. I think the fact that it’d be among friends would make it more likely to cause this interaction to more closely resemble a game than anything else.
And as I’ve argued before, it seems likely to me that a society would be made up of games which are themselves predicated on competition. However, the sort of “friendly competition” that exists today in society are more likely to produce animosity than friendships, community, or even generalized solidarity, etc.
But would we really blame play for this? Wouldn’t we see it more prudent to criticize the context that play takes place within? Namely a capitalist, patriarchal and white supremacist one where power is glorified and hailed more often than not. Even “play” under these conditions in its voluntariness and free spirit can be curtailed in its benefits towards the participants.
Likewise, I think the cultural ways under which we understand (and have been taught to understand) profit implicitly reinforces particular social dynamics that would be problematic (to say the least) in an anarchist society. But that doesn’t mean that if we eliminated or at least minimized these cultural biases that profit would continue to exist in the same fashion as it does now. I see no reason why, for example, the surplus value a little girl at a lemonade stand makes for her business is the same as surplus value a boss makes from a worker’s labor.
In any case, this post is mostly dealing with sketches of the future and what an anti-work society might look like. My claim isn’t that things wouldn’t be more beautiful or wouldn’t be more useful but just that I don’t understand how people would have such a superior knowledge of the world to ensure this to the extent that Morris believes.
The way Morris and other socialists talk about people is often seen as “The New Socialist Man” and I’m disinclined to take this concept seriously. As much as people have changed in their interests, habits and dispositions over the years, I’ve never seen many larger questions about God, art, etc. solved. Maybe if we reach the utopia of the transhumanists and we all become gods, that will become possible, even probable.
But barring that sort of conclusion to the anti-work society (and I remain open to that possibility) I don’t think we can rightfully say that everyone will be able to produce the more objectively beautiful or useful things within industries. I’m always confused at how such things are determined and the only few hints we have from Morris is that they’d necessarily involve the benefit of (naturally) the community or the society, not the individual.
As an individualist anarchist, I don’t want us to aim for a society that downplays the importance of individuals as Morris does:
…but those externals of a true palace of industry can be only realised, naturally and without affectation by the work which is to be done in them being in all ways reasonable and fit for human beings; I mean no mere whim of some one rich and philanthropic manufacturer will make even one factory permanently pleasant and agreeable for the workers in it; he will die or be sold up, his heir will be poorer or more single-hearted in his devotion to profit, and all the beauty and order will vanish from the short-lived dream: even the external beauty in industrial concerns must be the work of society and not of individuals.
What Morris does here (and what I think many socialists do) is they conflate capitalism with individualism. But capitalism is one of the most anti-individualist systems because it crushes the individual under certain patterns of relating to the means of production. There’s little room for renegotiation, experimentation or voluntary cooperation amongst their fellow workers even within the limited confines of meaningless banter to pass the time.
And the drudgery and repetitiveness of these jobs is completely antithetical to the development of free individuals. How are individuals growing under a system that makes them stick so close to set patterns without their own individual variations? Where is the individualism in a system that claims there are individuals who are just inherently higher up than others and deserve to make choices about other individuals lives?
You can read my The Individualist Anarchist and Work for more arguments against the individualistic interpretations of capitalism but for now I think my point has been made.
To his credit, Morris does say that:
…healthy and undomineering individuality will be fostered and not crushed out by Socialism.
And likewise other socialists such as Oscar Wilde have explicitly and repeatedly claimed that the truest form of socialism is individualism. Similarly the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker and others like him tried to reclaim the label “socialist” for the individualist anarchist movement as well.
So there’s something to the claim that socialism and individualism do not have the unbridgeable chasm that some (for example) egoists may claim. But at the same time, I’m inclined to think that, more often than not, socialists tend to undermine their own arguments for individualism meshing so well as Morris has already been shown to do.
To be clear I’m not writing this article to pick on Morris, I’ve reposted his work on this site before and enjoy it and also enjoy this essay. But it’s good to be critical of these socialist visions of the future that downplay competition, profit and even individuality itself through the lens of an “objectivist socialism” with regards to beauty and utility.
I don’t think any of us, unless we’re some sort of god, will ever have the foresight to objectively say we’ve made a much more beautiful and useful society. People’s needs and tastes are far too varied and complex for a claim like that. And I think that any claim to the contrary is often how we get people who think they know better than us.
Folks who think they can direct certain communities, factories or even whole societies towards some “better” world. This is a similar mindset that capitalists, bosses and managers have, that government officials have and that central planners have.
Let’s not recreate capitalist conditions under well-meaning socialist intentions.
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Trump is officially president and that fucking sucks.
Catch up on some cool protest history from ’04 to maybe inspire some hope.