News from Nowhere, by William Morris

Chapter XIV

How Matters are Managed

Said I: “How about your relations with foreign nations?”

“I will not affect not to know what you mean,” said he, “but I will tell you at once that the whole system of rival and contending nations which played so great a part in the ‘government’ of the world of civilisation has disappeared along with the inequality betwixt man and man in society.”

“Does not that make the world duller?” said I.

“Why?” said the old man.

“The obliteration of national variety,” said I.

“Nonsense,” he said, somewhat snappishly. “Cross the water and see. You will find plenty of variety: the landscape, the building, the diet, the amusements, all various. The men and women varying in looks as well as in habits of thought; the costume far more various than in the commercial period. How should it add to the variety or dispel the dulness, to coerce certain families or tribes, often heterogeneous and jarring with one another, into certain artificial and mechanical groups, and call them nations, and stimulate their patriotism — i.e., their foolish and envious prejudices?”

“Well — I don’t know how,” said I.

“That’s right,” said Hammond cheerily; “you can easily understand that now we are freed from this folly it is obvious to us that by means of this very diversity the different strains of blood in the world can be serviceable and pleasant to each other, without in the least wanting to rob each other: we are all bent on the same enterprise, making the most of our lives. And I must tell you whatever quarrels or misunderstandings arise, they very seldom take place between people of different race; and consequently since there is less unreason in them, they are the more readily appeased.”

“Good,” said I, “but as to those matters of politics; as to general differences of opinion in one and the same community. Do you assert that there are none?”

“No, not at all,” said he, somewhat snappishly; “but I do say that differences of opinion about real solid things need not, and with us do not, crystallise people into parties permanently hostile to one another, with different theories as to the build of the universe and the progress of time. Isn’t that what politics used to mean?”

“H’m, well,” said I, “I am not so sure of that.”

Said he: “I take, you, neighbour; they only PRETENDED to this serious difference of opinion; for if it had existed they could not have dealt together in the ordinary business of life; couldn’t have eaten together, bought and sold together, gambled together, cheated other people together, but must have fought whenever they met: which would not have suited them at all. The game of the masters of politics was to cajole or force the public to pay the expense of a luxurious life and exciting amusement for a few cliques of ambitious persons: and the PRETENCE of serious difference of opinion, belied by every action of their lives, was quite good enough for that. What has all that got to do with us?”

Said I: “Why, nothing, I should hope. But I fear — In short, I have been told that political strife was a necessary result of human nature.”

“Human nature!” cried the old boy, impetuously; “what human nature? The human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave-holders, or the human nature of wealthy freemen? Which? Come, tell me that!”

“Well,” said I, “I suppose there would be a difference according to circumstances in people’s action about these matters.”

“I should think so, indeed,” said he. “At all events, experience shows that it is so. Amongst us, our differences concern matters of business, and passing events as to them, and could not divide men permanently. As a rule, the immediate outcome shows which opinion on a given subject is the right one; it is a matter of fact, not of speculation. For instance, it is clearly not easy to knock up a political party on the question as to whether haymaking in such and such a country-side shall begin this week or next, when all men agree that it must at latest begin the week after next, and when any man can go down into the fields himself and see whether the seeds are ripe enough for the cutting.”

Said I: “And you settle these differences, great and small, by the will of the majority, I suppose?”

“Certainly,” said he; “how else could we settle them? You see in matters which are merely personal which do not affect the welfare of the community — how a man shall dress, what he shall eat and drink, what he shall write and read, and so forth — there can be no difference of opinion, and everybody does as he pleases. But when the matter is of common interest to the whole community, and the doing or not doing something affects everybody, the majority must have their way; unless the minority were to take up arms and show by force that they were the effective or real majority; which, however, in a society of men who are free and equal is little likely to happen; because in such a community the apparent majority IS the real majority, and the others, as I have hinted before, know that too well to obstruct from mere pigheadedness; especially as they have had plenty of opportunity of putting forward their side of the question.”

“How is that managed?” said I.

“Well,” said he, “let us take one of our units of management, a commune, or a ward, or a parish (for we have all three names, indicating little real distinction between them now, though time was there was a good deal). In such a district, as you would call it, some neighbours think that something ought to be done or undone: a new town-hall built; a clearance of inconvenient houses; or say a stone bridge substituted for some ugly old iron one — there you have undoing and doing in one. Well, at the next ordinary meeting of the neighbours, or Mote, as we call it, according to the ancient tongue of the times before bureaucracy, a neighbour proposes the change, and of course, if everybody agrees, there is an end of discussion, except about details. Equally, if no one backs the proposer — ‘seconds him,’ it used to be called — the matter drops for the time being; a thing not likely to happen amongst reasonable men, however, as the proposer is sure to have talked it over with others before the Mote. But supposing the affair proposed and seconded, if a few of the neighbours disagree to it, if they think that the beastly iron bridge will serve a little longer and they don’t want to be bothered with building a new one just then, they don’t count heads that time, but put off the formal discussion to the next Mote; and meantime arguments pro and con are flying about, and some get printed, so that everybody knows what is going on; and when the Mote comes together again there is a regular discussion and at last a vote by show of hands. If the division is a close one, the question is again put off for further discussion; if the division is a wide one, the minority are asked if they will yield to the more general opinion, which they often, nay, most commonly do. If they refuse, the question is debated a third time, when, if the minority has not perceptibly grown, they always give way; though I believe there is some half-forgotten rule by which they might still carry it on further; but I say, what always happens is that they are convinced, not perhaps that their view is the wrong one, but they cannot persuade or force the community to adopt it.”

“Very good,” said I; “but what happens if the divisions are still narrow?”

Said he: “As a matter of principle and according to the rule of such cases, the question must then lapse, and the majority, if so narrow, has to submit to sitting down under the status quo. But I must tell you that in point of fact the minority very seldom enforces this rule, but generally yields in a friendly manner.”

“But do you know,” said I, “that there is something in all this very like democracy; and I thought that democracy was considered to be in a moribund condition many, many years ago.”

The old boy’s eyes twinkled. “I grant you that our methods have that drawback. But what is to be done? We can’t get ANYONE amongst us to complain of his not always having his own way in the teeth of the community, when it is clear that EVERYBODY cannot have that indulgence. What is to be done?”

“Well,” said I, “I don’t know.”

Said he: “The only alternatives to our method that I can conceive of are these. First, that we should choose out, or breed, a class of superior persons capable of judging on all matters without consulting the neighbours; that, in short, we should get for ourselves what used to be called an aristocracy of intellect; or, secondly, that for the purpose of safe-guarding the freedom of the individual will, we should revert to a system of private property again, and have slaves and slave-holders once more. What do you think of those two expedients?”

“Well,” said I, “there is a third possibility — to wit, that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished.”

He looked hard at me for a second or two, and then burst out laughing very heartily; and I confess that I joined him. When he recovered himself he nodded at me, and said: “Yes, yes, I quite agree with you — and so we all do.”

“Yes,” I said, “and besides, it does not press hardly on the minority: for, take this matter of the bridge, no man is obliged to work on it if he doesn’t agree to its building. At least, I suppose not.”

He smiled, and said: “Shrewdly put; and yet from the point of view of the native of another planet. If the man of the minority does find his feelings hurt, doubtless he may relieve them by refusing to help in building the bridge. But, dear neighbour, that is not a very effective salve for the wound caused by the ‘tyranny of a majority’ in our society; because all work that is done is either beneficial or hurtful to every member of society. The man is benefited by the bridge-building if it turns out a good thing, and hurt by it if it turns out a bad one, whether he puts a hand to it or not; and meanwhile he is benefiting the bridge-builders by his work, whatever that may be. In fact, I see no help for him except the pleasure of saying ‘I told you so’ if the bridge-building turns out to be a mistake and hurts him; if it benefits him he must suffer in silence. A terrible tyranny our Communism, is it not? Folk used often to be warned against this very unhappiness in times past, when for every well-fed, contented person you saw a thousand miserable starvelings. Whereas for us, we grow fat and well-liking on the tyranny; a tyranny, to say the truth, not to be made visible by any microscope I know. Don’t be afraid, my friend; we are not going to seek for troubles by calling our peace and plenty and happiness by ill names whose very meaning we have forgotten!”

He sat musing for a little, and then started and said: “Are there any more questions, dear guest? The morning is waning fast amidst my garrulity?’

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07