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Not with a bang but a Wimpy – T.S. Eliot’s Economics in ‘The Rock’

April 9th, 2015 | Posted by David in Literature

Reading T.S. Eliot’s pageant play ‘The Rock’, I mistook the statement Make perfect your will to mean one’s Last Will and Testament. Yet reflecting on my mistake it seemed apt, first that Eliot’s play should reveal my preoccupation with money, and secondly that I had imported the essential Capitalist pact into the play. Our Will confers ownership of the hearth and wealth that outlasts us onto our children, simulating permanence. It is not a Blessing, which predicts our fate and passes on the wisdom needed to outwit it. It isn’t Immortality because we do not experience its outcome,

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

‘The Rock’ was performed in Sadler’s Wells Theatre between 28th May and 9th June 1934 to raise money to build churches. It is an argument in favour of churchbuilding in a Modern world; despite Modernity. New churches for new converts, yet perhaps a few in attendance already suspected that Modern air raids would necessitate the rebuilding of churches, which Jonathan Meades points out would be gleefully undertaken by Modernist architects with atheistic pretensions. Eliot in 1934 was coming to see Christianity as the only viable alternative to Nazi paganism. Anglicans today, still giddy from the good fortune of having one of the greatest poets of all time on their team, sometimes turn to ‘The Rock’ to harvest quotes that may vicariously endorse Anglicanism. They look for sentiments that support the simplicity of spirituality over Materialism, and superficially the choruses that Eliot wrote for it do house some wonderful juxtapositions of that kind,

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

In a crowded Palestine square Jesus was asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ but the same question has an alarming literalness when it pops into a vacant head sitting in a stuffy suburban sitting room. Yet this Anglicanism a la Amazon, those who bought Eliot might also buy Christ, overlooks Eliot’s ambivalence towards Modernity. He had a state of the art typewriter. This weak reading is at the expense of Eliot’s economics; his analysis of the spiritual dimension of finance and labour that is the true central concern of ‘The Rock’ and a theme that has stimulated great art for centuries,

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
There are hands and machines
And clay for new brick
And lime for new mortar
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

But ‘The Rock’ is not consistently great art. His collaborator Mr E. Martin Browne wrote some awful Cockney scenes for it,

ETHELBERT: ‘Arf a mo’, ‘afr a mo’. It’s lucky for you two as you’ve got someone what’s done a bit o’ lookin’ into things to keep you in line. What’s wrong with you is, you’re a lot too cocksure. Ain’t you ever ‘eard me speak o’ the principles of Social Credit reform?

I kid you not.

Social Credit promoted a solution to a problem that may or may not have existed. A perceived imbalance in production and consumption which, in today’s consumer society is even less likely to be a problem. Eliot wisely claims in the preface ‘of only one scene am I literally the author’, and that he was ‘submissive’ to Browne’s ‘direction’ and ‘expert criticism’. It wasn’t me guv, it was ‘im wot wrote it. Oh, go on then, I know he was probably being sincere about his friend. Maybe people really spoke like this in the Music Halls he visited, even. But it still lacks the subtle overheard quality of Working Class voices in ‘The Waste Land’, and there’s even an apology for the Crusades in here, the wrong kind of apology; a justification for the unchristian undertaking.

As soon as labourers obtained the vote everyone wanted to own them. They were given bread and uniforms, the raw material for Fascism. They were given dreary lectures by Communists, equipping them to manufacture their destiny. They were sober footsoldiers for the Sally Army, which Orwell vilified because he too wanted them on his side. Their voices lack this overheard quality in The Rock because Social Credit Theory is being shoved into their mouths. Just like a battleship an ideology needs stokers below decks to reach full steam, yet if we keep Eliot’s religion and economics in binocular focus as we read it, ‘The Rock’ has something important to say to the labourers of 1934.

The Rock says emphatically that if the State denies labourers opportunities to labour through foolish financial planning, or the City does so because of greed, it denies them fulfilment as human beings. There is a spiritual dimension to labouring, therefore unemployment causes spiritual poverty and alienation. The unemployed here begin with words taken from Matthew’s Gospel,

Now а group of Workmen is silhouetted against the dim sky. From
farther away, they are answered by voices of the Unemployed.

No man has hired us
With pocketed hands
And lowered faces
We stand about in open places
And shiver in unlit rooms.
Only the wind moves
Over empty fields, untilled
Where the plough rests, at an angle
To the furrow. In this land
There shall be one cigarette to two men,
To two women one half pint of bitter
Ale. In this land
No man has hired us.
Our life is unwelcome, our death
Unmentioned in “The Times.”

Chant of Workmen again.

The river flows, the seasons turn,
The sparrow and starling have no time to waste.
If men do not build
How shall they live?
When the field is tilled
And the wheat is bread
They shall not die in a shortened bed
And a narrow sheet. In this street
There is no beginning, no movement, no peace and no end
But noise without speech, food without taste.
Without delay, without haste
We would build the beginning and the end of this street.
We build the meaning:
A Church for all
And a job for each
Each man to his work.

This alienation is the aspect of Modernity that Eliot bemoans in the play, not that Modern life is somehow inherently rubbish. There is a kind of Modernity, Eliot is saying, that promises a godless utopia over the next hill but leaves much of importance behind, such as the poor, the young and elderly. Surely we can have a Modern world that does not dispense with all the durable institutions and rhythms of life? That does not dispense with unprofitable people? That,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Eliot was never the kind of Modernist that wanted to flood the museums, whose material could be perpetually reinvented. Eliot is a Modernist poet defending Modernity from a half-finished counterfeit.

Social Credit theory urged redistribution of wealth among labourers specifically to balance production and consumption. In this detail The Rock is out of date. Yet our limited demand for labour and the incoherent benefits system, a crutch that becomes a makeshift prosthetic limb, these create a similar problem of income inequality. This is the root conundrum of British politics today. From it fears over immigration, benefits and housing begin. This problem was partially updated in the Nineties in Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo‘, a book which, like Eliot, called for labourers to be given work to do on a fair basis, but globally. A vague aura of honesty and individuality surrounds labour for Klein, opposed to corporate (low) standardisation. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Wimpy. Eliot’s evocation of labour as an activity that allows people to internalise enduring values and disciplines goes much further. St Paul loved making Hellenes uncomfortable with the idea that both he and his God got their hands dirty. He claimed slaves could redeem the imposed futility of their lives by silently offering their diligence to God. Socially regenerative graft is seen by the Apostles, like St Paul and St James, as an embodiment of resurrection empowered by The Resurrection. In the English past Eliot points to in the play anyone could access labour quite easily, and one of the injustices of the Industrial Revolution is that it uproots people from their parish and prevents them from entering the soporific, draining, yet ultimately life affirming cycle of labour. It puts them in a queue. It makes them a surplus. Nobody should be made to feel they are a surplus. “We have only our labour to give and our labour is not required.”

Yet is this true? Haven’t we got something better for labourers to give? The energy that can now be harvested directly from the Sun, or by unlocking the fissile energy of dead suns, makes the claim that a muscle class is necessary unjust. We no longer have a Proletariat, this is another facet of The Rock that is out of date. We still have labourers standing and looking about on the highways and dockyards, waiting for robots to arrive, but much has been outsourced overseas. Instead we have this complex mixture of consuming classes who also produce in difficult to define ways. Old Labour fought poverty on behalf of people like me and opened new opportunities, New Labour gave me the chance to discuss last night’s Grand Designs over a cappuccino in a free Museums’s cafe, the terrorist threat level outside ‘heightened’. Miliband’s Ye Olde Labour is currently prioritising the simulation of a working class, trying to make itself needed by compelling bright young people to work long pointless hours for corporations, which also pleases the vindictive sort of older people who feel everyone should have to suffer what they did. They address ‘fears’ created by UKIP rather than shooting them down. Labour’s ‘controls on immigration mug’ should be a Situationist prank, yet it is real, emblematic merchandise.

While The Rock was on at Sadler’s Wells Theatre there were Clergy and Greenshirts calling for workers to receive a share of automated wealth – the fruits of Industry. The latter were the urban expression of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a pacifist offshoot from the Scouts; woodcraft folk. Today the Green Party have written an economically savvy manifesto, one we might once have expected from Labour, and the Church also criticises chaotic redistribution of wealth and greed in the City, greed facilitated by Government. We need to put as much thought into enabling people to consume as to labour. Take away someone’s spending power in a market economy and you diminish one of their freedoms. They have less say about what should be on offer in their community. They have to take what they are ‘given’. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Greenshirts demand the wages of the machine

Ergo it would be a mistake to extract Eliot’s economics from The Rock and dispense with the churchbuilding. For him Christ is the cornerstone of community, and community is served by the economy. It is tempting to remove Christ for the sake of inclusiveness, but a vaguely spiritual idea of labour is both patronising and analogous to Klein’s mere ‘honesty’. For Eliot there is a precise link between Christian churchbuilding, justice and freedom of expression, the fruits of which can be shared with all without compelling submission to the Church.

One of the few remaining institutions tackling income inequality on a large scale in Britain is the Church of England. The City’s ethics and the Coalition’s ‘war on the poor’ have attracted criticism from Lambeth Palace, and it looks to be a choreographed and long term priority for the Church, and we can expect to see the kind of alliances with other secular organisations and faiths that you find in most parishes these days. Universities are also engaged but, unlike the Clergy, Academics are facing their own enemies within. Marina Warner warns that Higher Education is less ‘accessible’ to the poor and the marketisation of University is eroding its civic value from within. Academics, on short contracts, are defending the Nation’s ability to think critically. Managers on huge salaries impose ‘efficiencies’ on them, a model allegedly taken from Business, but evidently not Stanford success stories where the Market and University have been in mutually advantageous conversation for decades and both make space for specualtive thinking.

Not all bright young people want to work in startups, however. If they are looking for a job with status, fully funded, accommodation provided, freedom to improvise, oversight that isn’t overbearing, working with community groups, thinking through social problems and tackling them on the ground, publishing their findings with mainstream presses, campaigning on social justice, historic buildings with a bit of ceremony – I won’t be at all surprised if many refugees from Academe head for the Church of England, especially now the issue of female Bishops has been settled and they are moving forwards around the issue of income inequality. The Church was traditionally a job for qualified Naturalists, Meteorologists, Historians, Poets and Social Engineers, the difference today is that Vicars tend to collaborate with expert agencies. Many British people would in turn be surprised to find that Eliot’s vision of a Church for all is more realised than they thought if they went into one, often with a community garden providing food for the homeless, homeless shelters, debt counselling, toddler groups, groups for the elderly, homework support for migrant families, seminars on Humanities in the Protestant tradition, genuine links with non-Christian faiths and friendly with other Christian denominations, all supported by a congregation who would build the beginning and the end of this street. The Church of England – now hiring in your area.

 

 

 

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