Tuesday, September 09, 2008

When it comes turns out not to be what they meant

The Voyou Désœuvré post I linked to last time featured this passage, quoted from William Morris' "A Dream of John Ball":
But while I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.
I like this quote a lot. The context for Voyou, again, was seeing the 1950s as embodying the radical dreams of the 1930s, only as banality. To revisit these words from Voyou:
What's so interesting about the 1950s is that many of the things that appear so radical in the 1930s—technological progress, social democracy, modernist design—reappear in the 1950s as banal.
"Technological progress" sticks out for me as the most problematic, as a radical idea, of the three listed items. (Indeed, "progress" itself strikes me as increasingly problematic, but I need to take some time to work out my thoughts on the matter.) In retrospect, it hardly seems surprising that technological progress would be used against workers. It has always been thus, though in both the liberal and radical traditions, it appears too often to be seen as a definite good (technology will free us, no doubt, instead of the opposite). But from where we sit now, the idea of technological progress, particularly as married to the idea of never-ending growth, seems especially foolish and destructive. Once we might have been able to imagine the lessening of the burden of work through the use of technology, but this has not come to pass, and with capitalism cannot come to pass. (Topic for future consideration: the Luddites were right.) Instead we get distractions, bought off with shiny iPods and cellphones and home entertainment systems.

(Incidentally, the Morris quote reminds me that we happen to have E.P. Thompson's study of Morris on our bookshelves; this quote moves it a little more in focus for me as something I'd like to read.)

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