Of all the ideas we take for granted in this modern world, perhaps the most insidious is that progress is good. For most of us, progress is equated with greater wealth, with a growth economy, with the ability for more people to buy more stuff.
By that definition, the progress enabled by industrial civilization has benefited some while harming many. The “some” who benefit are the colonizers, those who have taken by force or by persuasion land and natural communities that were once the home of wild beings—human and non-human—and have now been decimated in the name of progress. Progress for those who benefit has been at the expense of others: others we exploit, enslave, steal from.
Progress has disconnected us from the real world. We still depend on that real world for life, but because of progress, we are able to spend most of our days oblivious of that simple fact. Most of us do not know where our food comes from, or the people who grow it. Most of us turn on a tap to get a drink of water without any understanding of where that water comes from, how it got to the tap, and who else might have been depending on that water. Food and water are the basic necessities of life, and yet we who have progressed no longer understand how to live in the world without the ecocidal system that provides those necessities. Is that really progress?
[T]he association of modernity with civilizational advance is part of a deliberate strategy to make industrial capitalism seem somehow inevitable, a part of human evolution, something whose continued existence could never seriously be challenged.
From this capitalist perspective, any positive reference to pre-capitalist societies is necessarily “reactionary”. Any departure from the motorway of capitalist “growth” and development is necessarily a turn in the wrong direction, away from the historical destiny which it claims for itself.
It can never allow the thought that there is more than one possible future; that its industrial infrastructures are far from beneficial to humanity, let alone necessary; that one day we might collectively decide that we went wrong many hundreds of years ago and now need to put things right.
The fact that so-called “radicals” or even “revolutionaries” fall into this capitalist trap, and accept its equation of industrial “progress” with the social kind, is one of the reasons why we are still stuck in this industrial capitalist nightmare.
Seeking inspiration in earlier times is therefore not “reactionary”, or a betrayal of “progressive” politics, but a vital step in escaping the suffocating capitalist mind-cage.
At the beginning of the Victorian era in Europe, when industrial civilization and capitalism were really getting going, and extreme inequality and exploitation were rampant and obvious to anyone who cared to look, there were people who were disgusted by this “industrial arrogance”. Included in this group known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was William Morris, whose love of the natural world and hatred of industrial capitalism inspired his many designs, embodied in tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows.
William Morris was an artist, designer, craftsman, poet, revolutionary activist, and one of the most significant contributors to the arts and crafts movement during the 1800’s. This tapestry is titled “Greenery”, which Morris designed in 1892. He wrote “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”