Biological Utopianism?

Biological Utopianism

Robin McKie provides an interesting insight into arguments about the value of heritage in an article about the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (Observer, 13 July 2014, page 3). He describes a campaign led by the renowned zoologist Jane Goodall to reverse cuts to State funding for the Gardens. These cuts may lead to the loss of up to 125 professional staff members (no mention by the way of people such as cleaners, cooks, waiters and other service workers). She describes the cuts as ‘stupid’ and is backed by Sir David Attenborough, a former trustee.

The director, Richard Deverell, on the other hand, accepts that there will be job losses but believes the cuts can be managed in the long run. He believes that by next year ‘we will have found new ways to raise money’. In this regard he cites retailing, catering income, consultancy work and ‘exploiting and selling our scientific knowledge, our intellectual property and our horticultural skills’. Much of this strategy is evident on the website.

One of the campaigners, the broadcaster Anna Ford, also a former trustee, makes the interesting opposite point, stating that ‘botanical science is not a product to be sold. It is a reciprocal relationship.’ What a fascinating comment on the operations of the capitalist system!

The Gardens began as a private enterprise by Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury and quickly gained royal patronage via the Dowager Princess of Wales in 1761. Largely as a result of campaigning by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Gardens were adopted by the State around 1840. In 2003, the Gardens were given World Heritage status by UNESCO. State funding is controlled by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is partially managed and advertised as a tourist attraction, in much the same vein as major national museums and galleries. As such it is as vulnerable to budget cuts as any other body funded by the State or local authorities and arguably no more important or valuable than any of them.

The problem for campaigners is that their argument is, within the confines of the capitalist system, unsustainable and utopian. They argue from what is a basically sane proposition that what characterises the Gardens is their ‘use value’, their intrinsic value. However, it is the absolute demand of capitalism that all ‘use value’ be sold as a commodity in the market to realize the ‘exchange value’ and any profit thereby accruing. In this way the value of the labour expended, whether by scientists, gardeners, cleaners or catering staff, can be realised and returned to the enterprise, or its owner, as cash, re-invested or creamed off to buy yachts and apartments in Cannes. Not that that would happen in this instance: rather there would be more money to spend on things like Trident missiles or paying fat salaries to directors keen enough to do their masters’ bidding in return for an enhanced CV and who knows what eventual honours.

It could be argued that asking the State to restore £5 million of funding is asking the State to make a capital investment in producing even more surplus value than can be accrued through existing resources. That, strangely enough, would be a normal capitalist activity and not allowed to the State by free market ideologists. But that is not what the campaigners are arguing. Instead they are asking for Kew to be placed in a privileged position vis á vis other State funded enterprises, arguing a special international status. Their argument is therefore elitist, unless they make the next step of arguing that all cuts to State funding of cultural, educational and social welfare budgets should be reversed. That does not seem to be what they are saying.

Jane Goodall is right that the cuts are stupid. Anna Ford is right in her statement about the true value of the resources and work done at Kew. But this does not stop with one form of culturally and socially useful labour and their products. The logical consequence of the argument advanced by Anna Ford is an end to the insanity of the capitalist system and its infantile obsession with money as the measure of all value.

When it is argued that ‘botanical science is not a product to be sold’ it is no more and no less than a version of the statement: ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. That is how free creativity and exchange would occur in a sane world, not in the madness that afflicts us in 21st century globalised capitalism.

However, in the absence of real and meaningful change, the least we can do is to sign their petition, I suppose. But let’s try to move on from ‘stop the cuts’ to bringing about a more sane society, rather than tinkering with one that is ethically, and in every other respect, bankrupt.



Review of ‘The Valley’

Richard Benson, The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family, (Bloomsbury, London 2014)

The author sets out his intention to write about ‘real people, places and events’. He had considered converting the ensemble of individual stories into a novel, but preferred the inconsistency of real characters to the neatness of preconceived plot lines. The people he writes about are not ciphers.

The story begins in Derbyshire in 1907 with a meeting between Annie Weaver and Walter Parkin, both drawn to spiritualism, and ends with the funeral wake for their daughter Winnie in 2002 at Highgate Club near Goldthorpe in the Dearne Valley of south Yorkshire. In between, Winnie meets and marries Harry ‘Juggler’ Hollingworth and it is their frequently dysfunctional relationship and the dynamics of the wider family they create that are central to the book. It is far from incidental that the subtext and context is the rise, decline and somewhat violent disappearance of the Dearne Valley pit communities in which these families struggle to make a living and to create a meaningful life around and in spite of that economic necessity.

There is no way the Hollingworth clan could be called typical of working-class life, in the same way that no pit village could be reduced to some sociological average. That is the beauty of Benson’s story. These are indeed real people inhabiting real places and causing as well as experiencing real events, some of which are harrowing in the extreme.

I have argued elsewhere about the value of longitudinal family studies in helping us to understand how people both shape the world around them (‘make history’ if you like) and are in turn shaped by the times and spaces in which they act [1]. Benson’s book demonstrates the rich textuality of one such study. Imagine what we could learn from several parallel studies, and the myths and easy platitudes about working-class life that would be potentially blown away.

Benson illustrates how this can be effective for the past century, where memories are live and present. It would be much harder for earlier periods of history, particularly in terms of the insight we gain into family and neighbourhood dynamics, and above all the issues about gender power relationships around women. While the power and value might be less for studies attempting to go back into the 18th or 17th centuries, and the challenges greater, the opportunities for imaginative reconstruction remain.

Certainly, The Valley should provide inspiration for similar studies exploring other 20th century and perhaps 19th century communities – dockers, steelworkers, the motor industry, sweet manufacturing, farming, textiles and the service industries. One that immediately springs to mind would be the experiences of various immigrant communities over the past century. The Valley sets the pattern for deep investigation of working- class experience in the UK at the grassroots level, shorn of the agenda of professional sociologists and accessible to the widest possible public.

(1) Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean, Public History and Heritage Today: people and their pasts, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pbk edition 2012), chapter 11, ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’.