2000s >> 2006 >> no-1218-february-2006

Book Reviews

A utopian vision

Omasius Gorgut: Poor Man’s Heaven: The Land of Cokaygne. Past Tense Publications. £1.00. (Available from Past Tense Publications, c/o 56a Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London SE17. Postage 30p.)

The Land of Cokaygne, reprinted as a modernised verse in this pamphlet, is a 14th century utopian image of an earthly paradise, largely created by serfs, which became a popular song or ballad. This pamphlet puts it into context, linking it with other stories and songs of the time and later.

In the Land of Cokaygne there is “joy and green delight”. There is nothing good but fruit to bight. Indeed,

“In Cokaygne we drink and eat
Freely without care and sweat,
The food is choice and clear the wine
. . .no land is like it anywhere,
Under heaven no land like this
Of such joy and endless bliss.

Many fruits grow in that place
For all delight and sweet solace,
. . .every man takes what he will,
as of right. . .
All is common to young and old,
To stout and strong, to meek and bold.”

The author of Poor Man’s Heaven notes that in most of Europe, in their folk tales and popular songs, the poor of the Middle Ages dreamed up a land where their sufferings were reversed, and where people lived in harmony and plenty without having to work. The Church, however, told them constantly that they could not expect, and should not dream of, a better existence in this life; but that paradise existed for them in another, after death. Utopian dreams appeared not just in England, but in France, in Ireland, in Medieval German legends, in Holland, and in Celtic mythology. The author suggests that early popular medieval utopias may be pre-Christian.

Interestingly, the Land of Cokaygne is enjoyed without effort. It stresses idleness rather than the largely unrewarded labour of the serf. As in much revolutionary utopian thought of the Middle Ages, in Cokaygne there is neither rich nor poor. There is equality says the writer, as in, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.” Of course, the peasants did not just dream, or sing, of a better world. Often they revolted, as in England in 1381.

The writer of Poor Man’s Heaven links the story of Cokaygne with the modern American songs The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Poor Man’s Heaven, where the barns are full of hay and there are streams of alcohol. “There’s a lake of stew and whisky too.” The singer is bound to stay where they sleep all day”. And in the Poor Man’s Heaven:

“There’s strawberry pie that’s twenty feet high
And whipped cream they bring in a truck. . .
We’ll eat all we please off ham and egg trees
That grow by the lake full of beer.”

This pamphlet is well worth reading, depicting as it does what, in the past, could only be a utopian vision of a better world.


Post-capitalist capitalism

Michael Albert: Parecon: Life After Capitalism. Verso, £9.

Participatory economics, or parecon for short, is a vision of life after capitalism favoured by many in the anti-capitalist movement. The author of this particular vision helped to establish Z Magazine and its web site Zmag (zmag.org), including its subsidiary page devoted to parecon (zmag.org/parecon), which debates the issues raised by this book.

Parecon opposes “corporate globalisation” and argues for its replacement by “equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management.” For Albert, capitalism means “private ownership of the means of production, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labour.” Life after capitalism is said to combine “social ownership, participatory planning allocation, council structure, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory self-management with no class differentiation.” The council structure involves workplaces, neighbourhoods, and “facilitation boards” which co-ordinate planning.

So-called “market socialism” is rejected because the market and class differentials would remain, as would buyers and sellers of labour power (capacity to work). In Albert’s account, because class differentiation disappears in parecon, “you cannot choose to hire wage slaves nor to sell yourself as a wage slave.” Parecon permits workers to assess their own pay and conditions in their decision-making by inputting their preferences via councils. It apportions income in accord with effort and “does not force or even permit people to try to maximise profits, surplus, or even revenues.”

Notice however that Albert is specifically talking about prohibiting profit maximisation, not profits as such. Profits are acceptable; “excessive” profits are not. In the procedure envisaged, individuals and councils submit proposals for their own activities, receive new information including new indicative prices, and submit revised proposals until they reach a point of agreement. This process is open-ended and in Albert’s book a hypothetical example is discussed which reaches a seventh planning cycle, or as Albert calls it “planning iteration.” In reviews of this book much has been made of the potential for bureaucracy in this procedure, but a more telling criticism would be its unquestioning acceptance of the profit system. Wages cannot rise to the point which prevent profits being made; and a fall in profits will put a downward pressure on wages. This is called the class struggle.

“Parecon is basically an anarchistic economic vision”, admits Albert, and it shows. Like many on the left, the difference between capitalism and post-capitalism presented here is essentially political, not economic. As indicated by the title, the crucial factor is participatory planning. The capitalist economy would remain substantially the same in parecon: the accumulation of capital out of profits produced by the unpaid labour of the working class.


Another question, Mr Morris

Tony Pinkney, ed: We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96. Spire Books £19.95.

In the 1880s the interview was a fairly new journalist technique, and a range of publications, from Justice to the Daily News and Bookselling, wanted to have William Morris’s views on a variety of topics. Most of the thirteen interviews gathered here took place in Kelmscott House, his residence in Hammersmith. The result is an interesting view of Morris as a person (generally dressed in a blue serge suit and smoking incessantly) as well as an insight into his opinions on political and other matters.
In 1885, Morris gave his reasons for leaving the Social Democratic Federation to help form the Socialist League. The SDF had been run ‘arbitrarily’, and it was heading towards ‘political opportunism tinctured with Jingoism’. The League, in contrast, would ‘uphold the purest doctrines of scientific Socialism, and + educate and organize towards the fundamental change in society’. In an interview from 1890, Marx is given credit for starting off the Socialist movement on scientific lines, and for showing that Socialism is ‘the natural outcome of the past’. There is a pleasant image of Socialism having ‘a public library at each street corner, where everybody should read all the best books, printed in the best and most beautiful type’. An 1894 criticism of anarchism is backed up by the argument that it is important to get control of parliament rather than attempting an insurrection (a contrast with his earlier opposition to parliamentary methods).
But this same interview acknowledges ‘the wisdom of the S.D.F. in drawing up that list of palliative measures’, i.e. a policy of reformism, something which Morris himself had previously rejected. In 1885 he also talked of the need for leaders, though it is not entirely clear what they are to do other than explain Socialist ideas, so this can hardly be taken as support for a Bolshevik-style vanguard. An interview with a woman journalist reveals some views which, to put it kindly, show that Morris was a man of his time: ‘I feel very strongly that a working man’s wife is needed in her home, and it is a pity when she has to leave it to compete in the labour market.’ (Shades of News from Nowhere, where it seems to be the women who do the housekeeping.)
It helps to have some previous acquaintance with Morris’ ideas and writings, but this is a well-produced volume which shows him in an unfamiliar and revealing light.


Political lines

Christopher Hampton: Border Crossings. Katabasis £7.95.

We don’t often review poetry in the Socialist Standard, but here is a volume which merits a brief notice at least.
One poem speaks of ‘something other than this money system’ and of the need to ‘make resources work for the social wealth’. Another, in an echo of Brecht’s work (‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates?’), refers to ‘those / without whose skills no cities can be built’ – ordinary people, rather than gods or rulers. The Anonymous Makers repeats this point: that it’s nameless people who have built and grown things, not those who live off their backs. The invasion of Iraq is satirised: ‘We’ve hearts and minds to win and markets to invest’. But all this is spoilt by a poem supporting Allende’s Chile: ‘this workers’ President, this hated workers’ state’ (hated by the rulers of the US, that is).
Best to remember this volume though for its attempt to supply ‘words that cross the frontiers / of hope and failure’.


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