On Thursday, we met at Revival cafe for the seventh week of the Social Science Imagination course (SSI). As a cafe, Revival closes at 6pm and then opens again at 7pm for various groups to occupy the building, as we do each week. This Thursday, there were 10 scholars, including eight-year-old Laylah, who had come with her Mum and Dad, and added a very welcome sense of play to an evening spent largely discussing ‘work’.
Like last week, our theme on Thursday evening was ‘work’ and we had spent this week reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), at the suggestion of Mike. Before beginning to discuss the text and its relation to the theme of ‘work’, each of us gave a brief recap of what we had got out of the course so far by taking it in turns to read from something we had prepared and to speak freely about what we had learned and also any short-comings of the course.
When it came to my turn, I said that I had struggled to write down anything coherent about the course so far. I said that I had not originally intended to take the SSI course but after attending the first week to meet new scholars, I was captured by the course as both a social and educational space to look forward to in my week. Classes like Thursday’s, but also previous weeks, too, have been some of the best seminars I have ever attended as a student or teacher. Scholars are engaged with the reading and in discussion, the atmosphere is open, collegial and critical, and I have asked myself: “what more could we expect to get out of a two-hour seminar?” It is very satisfying and fulfilling. As for what I have learned from the class so far: I think I am learning, not just in the SSI class but in general, to think dialectically; to look at social life critically in terms of its antinomies, its contradictions. These include:
Mills’ private troubles and public issues; pasts and futures; the ‘system’ and ‘individuals’; capital and the state; ‘work’ and ‘labour’; liberalism and marxism; critique and utopias; property and communism; materialism and idealism; feminism and gender; abstract and concrete; me and you.
In our summaries, two or three of us also raised the question about how the SSI course relates to the SSC as a co-operative. Although SSC members set up, facilitate and organise the SSI course, in practice, the connection between the learning on the course and the running of the co-operative feels quite tangential to me. I suggested that we discuss this at a later date, and having thought about it a little, I will suggest that a second term of the course might focus on applying our learning in the first term, to the re-design and running of the Social Science Centre. As a member-run co-operative, the SSC might be conceived by all its members as a political project, the actual manifestation of the critique we are developing this term. Of course, it is up to members to discuss and agree what happens. In response, one scholar offered an impassioned defence of the course and its relationship to the SSC, arguing that our coming together each week was a thing for members of the SSC to celebrate and we should acknowledge our time together and the space we create, as practising an alternative social life. We should use that time to learn, to teach, to live differently, and “just to love each other for a moment.”
Following these short, personal reflections, we then discussed how the course so far had been facilitated. Whereas Mike, Sarah and Gary had led each class so far, the intention has always been that other scholars would act as facilitators, too. So next week, Hanna and Andrew will kick off two weeks looking at the theme of ‘health’.
Moving on to the texts, Mike reminded us of the Introduction to Kathi Weeks’ book that we had discussed the week before: It is a Marxist, feminist critique of waged work and, by extension, of institutions such as the family within capitalist society. Her project is revolutionary in that it seeks not primarily to improve the conditions of capitalist work but to abolish waged work, which she argues is against human life. In order to arrive at that revolutionary moment, she, like others, proposes the transitional actions of a guaranteed basic income and a reduction in working hours.
Mike said he had chosen to follow Weeks’ book with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), because it can be seen as the first attempt at a critique of political economy, which is one of the critical disciplines Kathi Weeks draws from, and similarly offers a vision of an alternative to the existing social system. So, with Utopia, we went ‘back to basics’ in order to ask what the purpose of wage work is – an activity that we are all subject to but which we did not design; a way of structuring society which was imposed upon people over centuries despite popular struggle against it in many forms. We were careful to distinguish between the conditions of work and its appearance on an everyday level: the boredom, the shit conditions, the monotony, the hierarchies, as well as the pleasure and sense of fulfilment that can come from work, too; and on a deeper, more abstract level: wage work as a structuring, disciplining, impersonal logic at the heart of the capitalist production of value.
The discussion was wide-ranging and engaging and difficult to do justice to from my notes, but I can offer my own thoughts here on More’s Utopia.
It was the first time I’d read the text and I really enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to read: it is short, humorous, cleverly constructed, and More employs a number of literary devices to get his message across. The first question I had when reading it was, “who was he writing it for in 1516?” Thomas More was, for a time, England’s Lord Chancellor. He was a councillor to Henry VIII (who later beheaded him for refusing to accept the King’s position as the head of the Church of England), and clearly a member of England’s social and political elite. He wrote Utopia in Latin and it was not translated into English until 1551, sixteen years after he had died. Clearly, More had not written the text for everyone to read. Literacy in England during the 16th century was very low (only 20% of men were able to sign their name and less than 10% of women), and William Caxton had introduced the printing press to England in 1476, so the circulation of books was also in its infancy. That so few people could read English, let alone Latin, and that access to books was also limited, clearly identifies the readership of Utopia as More’s aristocratic peers and the ruling elite.
Utopia consists of two ‘books’. Today, we might call the first book a critique of political economy and the second book as visionary, ‘utopian’ writing or even a forerunner to science fiction. It imagines an ideal society, an alternative to neighbouring kingdoms that exist in a state of war and crises. The first book was of most interest to me. Given the context of its publication, it seems bold and perceptive for its time. More places himself in the book, but distances himself from the actual critique by having a different, nomadic character, Raphael, point out the flaws inherent in Tudor society.
In book one of Utopia, he argues that because of enclosure, sheep were effectively ‘devouring men’. He argues that capital punishment does not deter crime when people are forced into crime in the first place. He goes on to question and critique the nature of private property, the distribution of wealth and the role and purpose of money. The text that I read was a Penguin edition from 1965, and the translator had introduced the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’, terms which More wouldn’t have used himself when writing in 1516, but writing at a time when agrarian capitalism was emerging in England, the retrospective use of the terms seems appropriate to me. More was conscious that the shift from the relative stability of feudalism to an early form of mercantile capitalism was resulting in the impoverishment, neglect and death of huge numbers of people. As a land-owner who himself practised enclosure, this social instability was a threat to the stability and comfort of his own way of life and so Utopia can be read as a conservative text that was seeking to influence the ideas of an elite and persuade them that if they weren’t careful, there would be violent rebellion. As such, More is no communist and Utopia is not a blueprint for communism. It is a clever form of defence of the status quo arrived at through critique at the level of society.
Book two goes on to describe the island of Utopia (meaning ‘noplace’). It is at once a place where its inhabitants are free from long hours of toil because they distribute the work more evenly among themselves (and their slaves); it is a place where education is central to the lives of men, women and children, and where property is communally owned, people all wear the same, simple clothing, money is despised, and everything is under patriarchal state control. Households are shared by multiple patriarchal families, and what we might call ‘urban planning’ today, is highly regulated, such that people are re-located to households elsewhere, and new towns are developed when existing ones reach a certain size. It is also, in many ways, a monastic society. Material life is willingly restrained for the opportunities it allows to develop one’s spirit and intellect. More is describing the good life from the point of view of someone who wants for very little and can see that with careful planning, an abundant, good life, is possible for a broader class of people.
While reading Utopia, I imagined More acting as a kind of Jester, a humorous councillor to the King, who wanted to offer critical advice – to speak the truth about what he saw in society – but to do so in an indirect and casual way, through the use of humour and the voices of different characters. In fact, in the book, the character called ‘More’, is in disbelief much of the time and critical of what the traveller Raphael has to say about Tudor society and his experience of the island of Utopia. In the last page of the book, More states this quite clearly, yet concedes that Raphael does have something interesting to say, although he would hardly expect Europe to become Utopia. Here, I think More is speaking in anticipation of his peers’ reaction to the tale of Utopia and its explicit critique of their social world. For the aristocracy, the island of Utopia is in fact a dystopia, a world in which they would have to renounce their “dignity, splendour and majesty”. More’s point though, is that without deep reflection on the distribution of wealth, the nature of work, and what comprises the ‘good life’ for all, without some tactical concessions that might be derived from such a critique, More and his aristocratic pals could lose it all to a rebellion.
To conclude, I very much enjoyed reading Utopia and our discussion of the text in the context of our focus on capitalist work. It is a reminder that social critique, or more specifically, the critique of political economy, has a long history. In his historical context, More displays a quality of mind that I think Mills is appealing to in his book The Sociological Imagination. Kathi Weeks’ proposals for a guaranteed basic income and reduced working hours can be found on More’s island of Utopia. Despite the capitalist mode of production having developed from its English agrarian origins to become a social totality which influences, subsumes, controls and disciplines most aspects of our lives today, the fundamental ‘problem of work’ (to use the title of Weeks’ book), remains central to any vision of an alternative future. For me, the two weeks of classes which have focused on work have introduced me to the term ‘productivism‘; that is, the organisation of society around the production of economic growth or self-valorising value, as Marx puts it. Both More and Weeks, in their own distinct ways, are seeking one or more alternative organising principles, and I am finding that the hardest thing to conceive of at the moment.
To aid my thinking I am looking to history to try to understand how the organising principle of waged work came about. Having read Utopia, I am now reading A Trumpet of Sedition by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Neal Wood. It is an enjoyable and fascinating social history of English ‘Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism, 1509-1688’, a formative period when modern conceptions of waged work, property, individuality, the state and the economy were conceived. It also has a useful chapter for understanding More’s book.