Was Modern Industry a Mistake?

Green Culture and Commodity Production

by Gwydion M. Williams

Between the 1760s and the 1940s, the middle classes in Britain totally undermined the existing culture of the nation. Commodity production – production in which money takes the place of social relationships- slowly but steadily grew in importance, and in the end changed everything

The middle class does not of course hold itself responsible for the predictable results of its own actions, even though they were warned about it many many times – by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Cobbett, Ruskin and many others. At the beginning of the process – when the 18th century gentry were carrying through great changes in agriculture – Oliver Goldsmith made his famous complaint:

“Ill fares the land, to lingering ills a prey
“When wealth accumulates and men decay”

But the bulk of the middle classes continued to undermine the existing order through their commercial activities, while finding various reasons for not deeming themselves responsible; deploring the whole process but blaming it on the failings of others.

Since the mid- 20th century, the British middle classes have lost much of their importance, and have become very much less distinct from the working class. The genuinely rich and powerful no longer bother much about the middle classes, but seek working class support instead. Thatcherism was based on the nouveau-riche teaming up with individualists among the skilled workers. Both of these groups did quite well out of Thatcherism, at least until Thatcher and Lawson managed to blunder and squabble their way into a recession. The middle class got very little out of it, and many previously secure middle class enclaves were undermined. Commodity production goes marching on, but has now outgrown the “bourgeoisie”.

What has this to do with culture?

Nothing, if you see culture as the isolated activity of superior souls. Peter Brooke (Down in the Valley, L&TUR No. 28) does mostly see it that way, even though he makes a few remarks which might imply something different. But I prefer to see culture as something that everyone participates in, the crude and basic lifeblood of the society.

Culture in the narrow sense – superior works of long-lasting and perhaps eternal merit – is best ignored in policy debates. Not because such things are unimportant, but because they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. A few superior cultural products are passed on to future generations – a few hundred of the tens of thousands of novels published in the 19th century, for instance. No one can tell which hundred out of the tens of thousands will be seen as valuable in the future, and no one should be vain enough to try.

The creation of “immortal works” is definitely not controlled by the “highly cultured” people of any particular era. Shakespeare’s plays were seen as doubly vulgar by the educated – for being plays rather than poetry, and for ignoring the noble rules of drama handed down from Aristotle. Jane Austen was not rated particularly highly by her contemporaries: she was just one of a large group of female writers, far less popular with the public and the critics than was, say, Mrs Radcliffe. William Blake was mostly ignored: we have his poems only because he was a skilled printer who could publish works that no one else would have been likely to circulate. Coleridge was well regarded as a public lecturer, critic and philosopher, but not as a poet. He only ventured to publish Kublai Khan as a ‘curiosity’, supposedly composed during a dream.

(This story is almost certainly false: among other things, a less polished version of the poem turned up in a manuscript in Coleridge’s handwriting, along with a less sophisticated and romantic version of how it was ‘spontaneously’ composed.)

If a writer like Coleridge could be forced to such ludicrous tricks to get public attention, how likely is it that any process of critical judgment will spot the really significant stuff? The production of artworks of permanent significance might as well be ignored, as totally beyond any sensible human control. And artists and writers are generally at their most silly and least significant when they suppose themselves to be saying something timeless and profound.

The only sensible approach to culture is to ensure its general health throughout the whole society, while preserving everything that might have some merit. Timeless values can be expected to look after themselves, and will do so anyway, no matter what “highly cultured” people think or try to do. Timeless values should be left alone, and the emphasis put on popularising serious well-crafted works, matters that each individual can in some small way either promote or retard. Culture is the sum of all such individual efforts, good or bad. Even the smallest contribution counts for something.

“Ill fares the land”, said Goldsmith in The Deserted Village, a poem that has been treasured and preserved despite failing utterly in its main and immediate objective. The relatively stable rural society that Goldsmith admired has gone completely.  It was not an inevitable process – China preserved a stable mix of high urban culture and prosperous agriculture for more than 2000 years, and might have continued it indefinitely had European imperialism not disrupted it with opium, guns and free trade. But Western Europe had no true stability after the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire. (The eastern half, Byzantium, was managing quite nicely until it was wounded by the Fourth Crusade and finally extinguished by Islam.) Western Europe was never able to settle down into any very definite or continuous cultural or social pattern, and in the end it extended its own instability to the rest of the world.

“Ill fares the land” – but has it in fact fared so ill? Would it have been better if Europe had stabilised itself at something like the 18th century level of development? Reading writers like Tobias Smollett, or even Goldsmith himself, I don’t feel sorry that that particular social pattern didn’t perpetuate itself. I don’t think that such stability was impossible. 18th century Europeans, including Adam Smith, reckoned that China was a richer and in some ways better organised society than their own. China was stable: Europeans tried to achieve the same stability. But it didn’t happen, and despite all the resulting damage and dangers I am very glad that it did not happen.

The recent election saw the “Green Party” reduced to much the same level as the Natural Law Party, which is where it belongs. British Labour has its own “green” tradition, existing long before anyone thought of using “green” for anything other than Irish Nationalism or Islam. Most notably we have William Morris, with his splendid vision in News from Nowhere. His boatman rows people along the because that’s what his role in society is. There is no notion of payment. Morris’s craftsmen are concerned merely with the creation of the beautiful, not supposing that they can find the transcendent except by accident.

News from Nowhere is a low-tech vision, but there is in fact no need to go that far. Commodity production ties us all to the accumulation of wealth and power, ploughing under all those who refuse to play the game, or who play it badly, or who are simply unlucky. Freed from the endless need to complete, we might concentrate on creating interesting, enjoyable work that was worth doing in itself and without material incentives.

Machines as such are not the problem. When steam engines were first introduced to pump water out of mines, there were no objections. Anyone who fails see why, should try operating hand-pump for a few hours and then imagine doing that all day, every day, for the whole of one’s life. The objections, the “luddism”, came when capitalists with machines began destroying the whole way of life of skilled handicraft workers. Hand craft as such need not be valuable or life-enhancing – e.g. tying identical fancy bows in identical ribbons all day. Skilled engineering work using machine tools is probably quite as creative as the work of medieval masons. (And it should be noted that the masons were creating stone propaganda for a repressive church. Also, a lot of what they built fell down again soon after. There was a sort of natural selection – if it has lasted a few years, try same again, only bigger, till the limit was reached.)

Computers have removed the need for many repetitive unskilled or semi-skilled tasks. There is the need once again for whole human beings. But there is also the problem – a problem we have had since the Bronze age, if not before – that ruthless exploitation and concentration of power is quite often successful. Had the Soviet Union taken a different and rather improbable turn in the 1960s, i.e., become a green, clean, tolerant and democratic place, it still might have lost the global power struggle with the West. Might and right are very seldom the same thing. Commodity production is a very effective way of accumulating wealth, even though it will also produce vast and unpredictable changes in any society that allows it.

On the other hand, there is a widespread feeling that an ‘epoch of rest’ and a cleaning-up of the environment would be the logical next stage, now that industrial society can meet all ordinary needs and many extra-ordinary ones. No one nation can do it alone, but globally it could be done. Maybe even Western Europe alone could do it, which is why the Green Party’s anti-EC policies are so foolish.

A Green World – with a ‘spiritual dimension’ as an optional extra – should be the long-term goal for Labour.


This article appeared in May 1992, in Issue 29 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazines-020-to-029/.