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What Is Wealth?



Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent, the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it, means of free communications between man and man, works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful,  – all thing which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth.

William Morris “Useful Work Versus Useles Toil”  quoted in Communitarian Luxury (Kristin Ross, 2015, Verso, p. 142)

This is the kind of revolution in values that is required if we are to survive as a civilization and “adapt” to the climate chaos that is certain to ensue.

The only things I would add to Morris’ view of wealth would be time – sufficient time to create, to explore, to think, to reflect, and to enjoy the kind of real wealth that is meaningful, not possessive materialistic.

That Morris quote closes her book.

But in the introduction of her book, Ms. Ross suggests that William Morris’ ideas, views, and values have continuing meaning and resonance for our times:

It has become increasingly apparent, particularly after the unraveling of societies like Greece and Spain, that we are not all destined to be immaterial laborers inhabiting a post-modern creative capitalist techno-utopia the way some futurologists told us we were ten years ago – and continue desperately to try to tell us even today. The way people live now – working part-time, studying and working at the same time, straddling those two worlds or the gap between work they are trained to do and the work they find themselves doing in order to get by, or negotiating the huge distances they must commute or mitigate across in order to find work – all this suggests to me, and to others as well, that the world of the Communards is in fact much closer to us than is the world of of our parents. It seems utterly reasonable to me that young people today, put off by a career trajectory in video-game design, hedge-fund management, or smart phone bureaucracy, trying to carve out spaces and ways to live on the edges of various informal economies, testing the possibilities and limitations of living differently now within a thriving – if crisis-ridden – global capitalism economy, might well find interesting the debates that took place among Communard refugees and fellow travelers in the Juras in the 1870’s that led to the theorizing of something called “anarchist communism” – debates, that is, about decentralized communities, how they might come into being and flourish, and the way they might become “federated” with each other in relations of solidarity.

Think about it.

[Update: Ms. Ross states the relationships between past and present and the possibilities of the moment in this interview:

These thinkers were all extremely attentive to what we might call “wrinkles in time” — moments when the seamlessness of capitalist modernity appears to crack open like an egg. Historians in general fear anachronism as the greatest possible error. They are given to dismissing Morris’s interest in the Iceland of his day and its medieval past, for example, as wooly-headed nostalgia. Morris was in fact perfectly capable of seeing pre-capitalist forms and ways of life like those that had flourished in medieval Iceland as at once gone, past, part of history and, at the same time, as the figuration of a possible future.

This is the mark, to my mind, not of nostalgia, but of a profoundlyhistoricizing way of thinking. Without it we have no way of thinking the possibility of change, or of living the present as something contingent and open-ended.


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