Book Reviews: ‘The Essential William Morris’, & ‘Knowledge Capitalism’

Socialist pioneer

‘The Essential William Morris’, by Iain Zaczek (Dempsey Parr, London & Bath, 1999)

This is a very large, coffee-table book, beautifully illustrated with 150 of Morris’s drawings, illustrations tiles, wallpaper designs, pained panels, tapestries and much else. All the illustrations are carefully described by the author.

There is also an introductory biography of Morris’s life by Claire O’Mahony, in which she traces the origins of his family, his early childhood at Woodford Hall in Epping Forest, his schooling at Marlborough College and, later, Exeter College, Oxford, where is discovered “the idyllic medieval city, the circle of idealistic undergraduates and the writings of the Tractarians, Ruskin and Carlyle”. Later, after leaving Oxford, Morris sought out the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

O’Mahony states that “the medievalism of Morris’s youth provided a consistent thread to his political morality of later years, which was so firmly rooted in the Socialism theorised by Karl Marx”. She mentions that, in 1871 and 1873, Morris visited Iceland where “he experienced a reawakening of his social conscience when he witnessed the simple dignity of classless life amidst the unrelenting hardships experienced in Reykjavik”. She very briefly mentions Morris’s membership of, first, the Liberal League; his dissatisfaction with Liberalism, his joining the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Mayers Hyndman in 1883, and his founding with 10 others of the Socialist League, as “one of the strongest advocates for a socialist revolution in 1880s’ Britain”. His friendships with “the Russian émigré anarchist Prince Kropotkin and Friedrich Engels”, are noted.

O’Mahony says that “Morris’s socialism is most lucid in his writings on art and society”. Morris was one of the few privileged members of the capitalist class in Victorian England who fully embraced, and developed, socialist ideas. And despite the coffee-table style of this book, this is stressed in the introduction. Whether readers have coffee tables or not, The Essential William Morris is worth reading, and keeping for the superb illustrations.


Mental power

‘Knowledge Capitalism’. By A. Burton-Jones (Oxford University Press. 1999)

This is another in the growing pile of books on how capitalism is changing, how it is bringing opportunities for the few and problems for the many who allegedly can do little or nothing about it. The author’s fundamental proposition is that, among the various factors causing change in the economy, none is more important than the changing role of knowledge.

Burton-Jones gives us first what we are supposed to accept as the good news: “inflation is down, productivity is up, the US locomotive is powering away, the former communist bloc is rapidly embracing western-style capitalism”. But he goes on to admit that “everywhere there is a sense of unease . . . the malaise is spreading throughout society”. Large, labour-intensive manufacturing firms, which are able to relocate their production, are rapidly establishing themselves in the Third World where labour is cheap and government regulations few. Small firms are in trouble.

The consequences for workers are dire. Whole industries have declined, skilled jobs have been lost, and the new jobs created are often part-time, temporary, unskilled and poorly paid. Unemployment is high and insecurity widespread. The ever-present question is “who will be next?”

The labour power that workers have sold and employers have bought has always contained a proportion of “knowledge”, relatively low with manual work and relatively high with non-manual and professional work. The balance is clearly shifting from industrial/manual employment to service/non-manual employment.

Burton-Jones suggests that firms are becoming knowledge integrators and individual workers knowledge suppliers. He writes of “flexihire”, the new casual labour. He believes we are in a transitional stage “on the road from jobs owned by organizations to careers owned by individuals”. It is a distinction without a difference. What kind of career can you “own” if you can’t find a buyer for your knowledge?

The author, of course, has the knowledge. He drives us in his paper taxi around the terrain of capitalism but never ventures outside it, never even recognises that there is anywhere else to go. The changes he describes are “outside the control of all of us”. We have “no option but to accept and work with, rather than against, forces outside [our] control”.

On the last page he tells us we are all on a knowledge escalator. Some manage to climb the steps faster than others. “The main requirement is for everyone to be on board the escalator!” To such an injunction socialists can only reply “Include us out!” We have the knowledge to build a society that surpasses capitalism.


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