Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Monopolized Government and Robert Tressell's Socialist Revolution

       In an excised chapter from his groundbreaking socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists (1914), Robert Tressell describes the novel's locale, Mugsborough, as "a vast whited sepulchre." While Mugsborough may appear to Britain's leisured classes a prosperous resort town, beneath its veneer "the majority of the inhabitants existed in a state of perpetual poverty which in many cases bordered on destitution" because "a great part of the incomes of the tradespeople and boarding-house-keepers and about a third of the wages of the working classes were paid away as rent and rates.” 
         By 1906, when Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set, rates had for nearly a century gone to paying down local government debts, which were incurred by maintaining un-remunerative public services and Britain's poor laws. And yet, in Mugsborough "every public service capable of returning a profit was in the hands of private companies” (613). Mugsborough appears to be a city ruled by a laissez faire liberal government. The material services essential to the city’s population are in the hands of private, capitalist hands, where they generate profits at the cost of the users and employees. This would accord with previous conceptions of the Victorian state, grounded in liberal traditions of individualism and retrenchment. 
         But Tressell continues: “and the shares of the private companies were in the hands of the members of the Corporation.” In this second clause, we witness the state’s extension of itself through non-state actors, what historians of the British state call, in the Foucauldian jargon, the “governmentalization of the state.” The private economy of infrastructures binds itself  to the state, the Corporation, through the mediation of the financial market.  However, more is at stake in Mugsborough. The Corporation’s administers are “directors of one or more of the numerous companies which battened on the town.” The directors of the Corporation are the directors of the private companies. This, then, is something different from Foucauldian histories of the British state, which, like Lauren Goodlad, understand the state as comprised variously allied state and non-state actors. Here state and non-state actors are shown to be identical in their administration. Mugsborough comprises not a pastoral state like that depicted by Goodlad or a liberal state by Patrick Joyce, Chris Otter, and Andrew Barry, but a monopolist state. The entirety of social, economic, and material relations into which the population of Mugsborough can enter are controlled by the inner-circle of the town's Corporation. Government and capitalism consolidate. They therein draw together ostensibly public and private control over the varied components of life. So consolidated, these once disparate components – trams, water, gas, land, public works, welfare services – form a seemingly total world: “Mugsborough.” This world, as the novel exhaustively documents, exploits the working classes into starvation and death.
      Tressell’s vision of Musgborough is certainly politically radical. But it figures its critique of capitalist government according to a then common trope: late-Victorian and Edwardian fictional states of exception. From the anti-Bellamy dystopias of the 1890s to Conrad’s metropolis (The Secret Agent) and colonial regimes (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim), from New Romance’s Kukuanalands to science fiction’s Moreauian islands,  British literature offered the socialist Tressell a common trope: the localized state of exception. In these states, the governing classes not only exert unchallenged power, but they also exert it through nearly every material and social relation an individual inhabitant could encounter. Much as the state in Conrad’s The Secret Agent turns London’s population into homogenized individuals by first standardizing their environments, so too in Ragged does the state denature its population by controlling its every social, economic, and material relation. From conservatives like Conrad and Haggard to socialists like Wells and Tressell, such a state of exception exemplifies the extreme perversion of late-Victorian British liberal governmentality.
     Such governmentality rests on the assumption that populations are best governed indirectly, through interventions between individuals and in their relations rather than directly, through the rule of persons. As characterized by Tressell’s contemporary Thomas Duckworth Benson, liberal governmentality, even in its socialist guise, comprised the control over “the material things of our life” not “the rule over persons” (Socialism 12). The Edwardian state of exception totalizes this mode of government. All relations into which individuals of a population can enter are controlled by the governing class. Instead of some on South Pacific island or in the heart of Africa, in Mugsborough we encounter the state of exception in idyllic Southern England. Instead of witnessing rifles and encampments preserving sovereignty over colonized victims, we observe trams, waterworks, works departments, drains, and gas lines encapsulate and enervate British subjects. In Ragged a monopolized local government reigns, not another Kurtz.
      What then can we make of Tressell’s unceasing advocacy for a strand of State Socialism grounded in the democratization of local government? Pressed by skeptical coworkers to offer alternatives to capitalist governance, the novel’s socialists intone the refrain: municipalize! As Barrington proclaims, “Under a Socialist Administration this principle [municipalization] will be extended – in addition to the free services we enjoy now we shall then maintain the trains and railways for the use of the public, free. And as time goes on, this method of doing business will be adopted in many other directions." Taking their page from the State Socialism of the Social Democratic Federation, Owen and Barrington posit that the first stage of the socialist revolution will involve the democratic, local appropriation “private ownership of land, private ownership of railways, tramways, gasworks, waterworks, private ownership of factories, and the other means of producing the necessaries and comforts of life." Tressell thereby presents us, on the one hand, a socialist vision for revolution working through democracy and, on the other hand, the seemingly contradictory monopolist control over the same machinery of government.
     This tension structures the novel as a whole. It subtends the novel’s various ideological and formal oppositions: socialism and capitalism, utopianism and realism, exposition and description. It also forms the basic rhythm of the novel, a rhythm that performs the text’s political didacticism. Pivoting between lectures expounding the principles of socialism and satirical and realist scenes delineating capitalist Mugsborough, the reader first learns how to think like a socialist and then practices that socialism through the reading of object lessons. This oscillation serves to train the reader in seeing Edwardian local government for what it is, a “vast whited sepulchre.” The novel does so not simply to raise the working-classes' awareness of the fact that they dwell in a state of exception  – this is how Raymond Williams reads the novel, which carries the ultimate message, “You are a prisoner, and you’ll only get out of this prison if you admit it’s a prison. And if you won’t call it a prison, I will, and I’ll go on calling it a prison, come what may’” – but to prompt those classes into socializing the very state of exception they dwell within. 
      Such political activity structures the novel’s loose plot. Unfolding arbitrarily across twelve months – a plotting strategy Williams, Ian Haywood and other commenters see as a rejection of the individualist ideology of the Victorian realist novel – Ragged nevertheless possesses a developmental arc. As Haywood points out, the novel is a social biography: a portrayal of the average masculine worker’s life cycle through its displacement onto variously aged characters. This social biography has, however, a developmental arc of political awakening. It starts with Owen’s invective to the Tory-voting Crass, “‘You are not fit to vote,'” builds through lunchtime lectures, Parliamentary and Municipal elections of the capitalist "Brigands," and ends with the growing ranks of Mugsborough socialists, their solidarity forged through their lecturing and electioneering. As with the plot of any novel, this arc guides the emergent desires of the reader. It gives shape and direction to the nascent socialist reader’s drive to agitate against the capitalist government. Forming the developmental arc of the novel, this political plot steers the newly formed socialist reader into political action, into the socialist takeover of “Mugsborough.”

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