William Morris. Commonweal 1887

An Old Superstition — A New Disgrace

Source: “An Old Superstition — A New Disgrace” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 76, 25 June 1887, p. 204;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As was said last week, the contempt with which all socialists must necessarily look on the idiotic court ceremony of the week has prevented anything more than a mere hint being given in the Commonweal about the jubilee. And besides this, Socialists feel of course that the mere abolition of the monarchy would help them little if it only gave place to a middle-class republic; such an one, for example, as that which butchered so many thousands of citizens at Paris in 1871 and now in 1887 grown respectable and liberal, still blocks the way to all progress in France, and holds out a hand to the corruption of society there. Nevertheless, now the monstrous stupidity is on us (for I am necessarily writing before the event), one’s indignation swells pretty much to the bursting-point, and I really must take advantage of my position to relieve my feelings, even at the expense of being considered somewhat old-fashioned. And we must not after all forget what the hideous, revolting, and vulgar tomfoolery in question really means nowadays, or how truly its hideousness and vulgarity of upholstery symbolizes the innate spirit which has forced the skinny twaddle on a nation that is in the habit of boasting (how vainly) of its practicality. Such a ceremony would once have meant something very different to what it does now. Time was when the central figure in the procession from palace to Abbey would have been a man or woman whose personality would have been felt, though acting according to the ethics and maxims of feudalism. The central figure in the procession would at the worst have been also in the centre of the feudal warriors gathered for the battle and not seldom in the centre of the enemies’ host. The administration of affairs, the balancing of the various claims of the groups of the feudal hierarchy, the assertion of the due rights of the great manor (scarcely yet a country) — all these would have the duties of the central figure of a great royal procession; and no monarch of England, not even the worst of the Angevine monarch most faineant of the Plantagenets could altogether neglect such duties; they had to do the deeds of men and women however faulty or perverse, and not the deeds of a gilt gibbie-stick; they were each of them a part of the public, and an active part too.

All that is as dead as King Harold now. The nucleus of that grievous mass of flunkeyism which has been a disgrace even to disgraceful London (although the coolness with which her duties are neglected is from time to time noticed by the public and the press) is on the whole considered as a satisfactory representative of what she does represent; so satisfactory that we are called upon to take part in a set of antics in her honour compared with which a corobbery of Australian black-fellows is a decent and dignified performance.

What is it then that this central figure does represent? Not the feudal hierarchy, dead centuries ago; nor the queer pedantic divine-right-of-kings, whose struggle with the bourgeois divine-right of parliamentary majority played such an important part in developing the supremacy of that bourgeoisie. No, it does not represent these extinct superstitions, but, superstition as it is itself, it represents commercial realities rather: to wit, jobbery official and commercial, and its foundation the Privilege of Capital, set on a background of the due performance of the conventional domestic duties; in short, the representation of the anti-social spirit in its fulness is what is required of it.

That is the reason why the career of the present representative is, in spite of those few grumblings aforesaid, so eminently satisfactory. It has been the life of a respectable official who has always been careful to give the minimum of work for the maximum of pay, to keep the public well at arm’s length, and to abstain from any fantastic act of generosity, which might have been taken as a precedent in the future. All this has been expected of it and it has performed it in a way which has duly earned the shouts of the holiday-makers, the upholsterers, fire-work makers, gas-fitters and others who may gain some temporary advantage from the Royal (but shabby) Jubilee Circus, as well as the deeper-seated applause of those whose be-all and end-all is the continuance of respectable robbery. For us Revolutionists it is clear that the gibbie-stick line of conduct is better than one with some show of human interest in it would have been; so that we have nothing to complain of. The more reaction is stripped of sentiment the better for us.

One word before this loathsome subject of the jubilee is consigned to its due dust-heap. Fifty years ago the country was yet in the throes of that unorganized but formidable insurrection which followed on the industrial revolution, and the reckless greed of those benefitted by it — the capitalists, to wit. That insurrection was damped down by the commercial successes which so much increased the number and power of the definitely middle-classes, so that twenty-five years ago a survivor of the discontent of 1837 might well have thought that all was over. But unbridled competition has forced the pace more than any one could have guessed it would; fifty years is gone, and once more we have ‘discontent’ amongst us, if not wider spread than before, yet at least deeper seated, and with no apparent staving-off remedy before it except Mr Chamberlain’s feeble attempts at peasant-proprietorship. And even this vulgar Royal Upholstery procession, trumpery as it is, may deepen the discontent a little, when the newspapers are once more empty of it, and when people wake up, as on the morrow of a disgraceful orgie, to find dull trade all the duller for it, and have to face according to their position the wearisome struggle for riches, for place, for respectability, for decent livelihood, for bare subsistence, in the teeth of growing competition in a society now at last showing its rottenness openly.