(Continuing from previous posts.) My thinking about this local/translocal tension has been stimulated by a wonderful essay by the geographer David Harvey about the work of the Welsh/English cultural analyst Raymond Williams: “Militant Particularism and Global Ambition.” Harvey’s essay analyzes the fictional works of Williams at the same time as he weaves in reflections on his own experience as a professor at Oxford University.
Harvey had arrived in Oxford in 1989 fresh from completing The Conditions of Post-Modernity (Harvey 1989)—a book that was to become widely read and influential. He was soon drawn in as a “big name” to co-edit a volume of contributions from union activists and academics (Hayter and Harvey 1993). The focus of the project was the decline of the Cowley car plants that had fueled the economy of Oxford since the 1920s—as well as being the locus of many significant industrial disputes. During the 1980s the car plants had been subject to repeated cutbacks. Their closure and redevelopment of the land for a business park was a constant threat. Teresa Hayter, the volume’s other editor, had tirelessly campaigned with other shop-floor militants to preserve the plants and the remaining jobs—without the support of the union leadership and local Labour council. When Harvey composed a concluding chapter that entertained other strategies concerning the plant closing and the economic future of Cowley, Hayter challenged him to define his “loyalties” (Harvey 1995, 71).
In the “Militant Particularism” essay, Harvey describes his position as wanting to chart a long-term trajectory when, in the short-term, there were few alternatives for local workers if the remaining jobs were lost. The situation did not lend itself to a simple reckoning of his loyalties: the work conditions at the plant were deteriorating; the plant’s paint shop was a serious source of pollution; working-class solidarities around the plant were weakened and broader coalitions were needed; excess production capacity for cars prevailed in Europe, indeed Cowley produced Rovers—luxury cars for the wealthy; and the corporate owners of the plant were making decisions based on fluctuations in stock-market and property values. Intellectually, Harvey wanted these issues to be raised so readers of the volume could “consider active choices across a broad range of possibilities,” yet he recognized that “the impetus for the campaign, the research, and the book did not come from [himself, but] arose out of… a tradition of union militancy emanating from the plant.” He wanted political discussion to be guided by abstractions at spatial and temporal scales larger than the local and immediate, yet felt uneasy—disloyal—to impose that “upon people who have given their lives and labor over many years in a particular way in a particular place” (Harvey 1995, 73).
Williams’s novel Loyalties kept me thinking about Harvey’s dilemma. Through its central characters, in particular the Welsh Gwyn and his English birthfather Norman, Loyalties explores the tension between solidarities forged through working and living together in particular places—”militant particularism”—and trans-local perspectives or abstractions. (Indeed, all of Williams’s fiction wrestles his own experience of moving from a childhood in the English-Welsh borderlands into a cosmopolitan world of intellectual exchange.)
Norman had been in Wales in the 1930s doing political education with militants. His relationship with Gwyn’s mother was cut off, however, when he followed the Communist Party’s orders to work undercover in France and Spain during the Spanish Civil War and later, in England, around anti-German code-breaking and then Cold War developments in computing. Gwyn was raised in Wales by his mother and stepfather, Bert, a miner all his life, except for war service against Franco and Hitler.
The novel adds a temporal, trans-generational dimension to the local/translocal tension when the middle-aged Gwyn and elderly, long-retired Norman meet for only the second time. Norman pushes Gwyn to acknowledge that his scientific career has taken him away from his birthplace and enabled him to see more about ways the world is changing than people who remained in the Welsh towns. Political involvement, Norman argues, cannot be a simple matter of Gwyn staying loyal to his roots. Given the “powerful forces” that shape social and environmental change, we can “in intelligence” grapple with them “by such means as we can find” and take a deliberate path of action, but “none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong” (Williams 1985, 357-8). Or, in the words of another character in the novel, Norman’s close intellectual and political colleague, Monkey Pitter, if we “go on saying the things we learned to say and it will be just strange talk, in a strange land” (161).
Rather than view these conclusions nihilistically, Williams, in Towards 2000, written in the early 1980s, expressed his hope for “detailed, partipat[ory], consciously chosen planning” and opposition to the crisis-management and “politics of temporary tactical advantage” he saw ascendant in the 1970s and 80s (Williams 1983, 11-12). He would, I suspect, have been impressed by what has been achieved in West Nipissing, yet may have expressed uncertainty about its wider implications. To what extent could such local planning mitigate adverse decisions made in governments and corporations operating on a larger spatial and temporal arena? In what ways would it be important to incorporate the knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers—people who did not share experience of and commitment to livelihood in one place?
(to be continued)
Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Post Modernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.
—— (1995). “Militant particularism and global ambition: The conceptual politics of place, space, and environment in the work of Raymond Williams.” Social Text 42:69-98.
Hayter, T. and D. Harvey (Eds.) (1993). The Factory and the City: The Story of the Cowley Automobile Workers in Oxford. Brighton: Mansell.
Williams, R. (1983). The Year 2000. New York: Pantheon.
—— (1985). Loyalties. London: Chatto & Windus.