Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Nurture of Nature

Some other posts are going to stay on the back burner for a while longer. In the meantime I want to quote some memorable passages from Politics and Letters, the 1979 book-length interview with the great Marxist critic Raymond Williams. I think they are still relevant and even radical, thirty years later.
Take the example of the famous slogan of the mastery of nature. Of course anyone who views history in a materialist way must see the processes of understanding and working within nature as the central founding element of any civilization. But to describe these as mastery was to treat nature as if it was just material to dominate: a transposition of bourgeois ideology into Marxism, with which it cannot be reconciled. Marx’s innocent use of the phrase, or of the terms ‘produce’ or ‘productive’, is comprehensible in his time. But its unthinking repetition today, when we have reason to be aware of the consequences of the formula, is really inexcusable. The anger it arouses in me comes out in the book [The Country and the City], both for personal autobiographical reasons and for contemporary cultural reasons. For the values of the rural capitalist order which first imposed the notion of mastery are now being presented as the height of civilization. Now it is true that the bourgeois country houses and furniture have not ceased to be valuable in the sense that some of them are beautifully made. But at the ideological locus where this connects with a reactionary affiliation today, I found it necessary to say in the crudest ways that these houses were primarily sites of exploitation and robbery and fraud. If anything, the fact that some of them were well-built and were pleasant to look at makes that worse [311-12]. ...

I should say that when I read the phrase ‘rural idiocy’, it stuck in my throat: yet I knew instantly what they were referring to even in this very different British rural experience. I can remember a time when I had felt like using the same phrase myself. The persistence of certain established mystifications, superstitions, deferences or political abdications, the lack of exposure to the liberating community of other kinds of settlement – when I was moving out of the countryside, I knew very strongly what these meant. But it still seems to me that Marx and Engels should not have used that phrase, because what they were pointing to was a process of deprivation – of ignorance and illiteracy. They were also aware of that very important process by which the exploited pass on their exploitation between men and women and children, the way in which a man who has been brutalized by very hard conditions of work, which exhaust him physically, can nervously reproduce the brutality in his family. But they should have described these as what they were: products of social deprivation and exploitation, whereas they picked up the term idiocy as a conventional form of court dismissal of the country [319]
In my view, the industrial working class is going to have to rethink, radically and painfully, its relations with the producers of raw materials as well as of food, and thus enlarge its customarily foreshortened vision which passes for a socialist future. It is in danger of becoming at times, because of its position as consumer, objectively hostile to those producers. You can hear ludicrous complaints today, including from organized working-class opinion, that potatoes cost more in a drought year than in a wet year. This habit of disregarding the production of raw materials, as if their existence went without saying, leads to the notion that the only real work and real human activity is the second-order working on those materials and their transformation. The recent disputes over Welsh water and Birmingham supply are characteristic of the extreme impatience with which even a very militant working class receives rural protestations against the implantations of reservoirs that deprive people of their land, while piping water in such a way that those living literally below the dam cannot get the supply which is flowing across the country to Birmingham. Conflicts like these reveal a loss of real relations dangerously similar to that of a petty-bourgeoisie or bourgeoisie which thinks it is the only important and responsible productive force in society, simply forgetting where the means of its life comes from. Once such an opposition springs up, it can be exploited at either end by right-wing politicians. A lot of the mobilization of rural opinion for reactionary policies draws on resentment at what I would call – since the phrase has got around – an urban idiocy: the idea that food grows in shops. The same problem is even more acute in international politics, where one can by no means rule out the industrial working class in a late capitalist country becoming quite objectively reactionary in its position towards a raw material producer country which is not its own, supporting all kinds of imperialist pressures to drive down the costs of primary products. I think this is going to become a major question in the rest of this century, because to an extent one couldn’t have foreseen in the fifties, when the imperialist order still held with more force, food and raw materials are really now at the centre of the world economic crisis. … The recent programme of the Italian Communist Party is one of the few in the West which takes up this issue – criticizing the concentration on industrial investment for the export market at the expense of agricultural development in Italy [322-23].
(Published by London: NLB, 1979)