The Fight for Monad

By Raymond Williams
Book Review Details
Author: Raymond Williams
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Edition: 1979

Raymond Williams’s novel, The Fight for Manod was first published in 1979. As we know, 1979 was an important year, seemingly a watershed year. In this year Margaret Thatcher was elected, and Ronald Regan launched what was to be his successful presidential campaign. Yet the social forces that pushed them into prominence and the form of capitalism on stilts now commonly known as Neoliberalism didn’t of course suddenly emerge overnight from nowhere. Like deadly toadstools, the mycelium that brought them into being had been spreading over the previous decades with an outcome so intoxicating for the wealthy and so poisonous to the rest of society (yes, contrary to Thatcher’s infamous denial, there is such a thing as society). In this context Raymond Williams was forward-looking in identifying, evaluating, and, necessarily, confronting the social trends that were emerging.

Of Williams’s trilogy of novels, the first, Border Country (1960), has subsequently attracted more readers and attention than the succeeding Second Generation, or The Fight for Manod. The latter, which concludes the trilogy, has not been republished since 1988. Nevertheless, the novels complement the more famous works of social theory, with Manod supplying something of a case study for Williams to explore his ideas. In this novel, the scenario is the potential reinvigoration of a previously shelved proposal to develop a scattering of hill villages into a cluster of towns configured into a dispersed city. The leading character, Matthew Price, is brought in as a consultant but struggles to engage and take a position on the development and to maintain his integrity. This difficult pathway to economic and cultural improvement is perhaps Williams’s own challenge, a tension that makes the novel absorbing and relevant, compelling in its ability to dramatise social relations.

The setting, Manod, a Welsh village typically rain-sodden or verdant, according to your preference, is found in hill-farming country on the cusp of the ancient and modern with its Iron Age earthworks; a land of chapels, horses, and sheep, but also of new estates, bypasses, and regimented forestry plantations. City-dweller, Price, an industrial historian, returns to the land of his upbringing to investigate the community as it tries to navigate past and present on the potential threshold of rapid and irreversible change. He is keenly aware of this dialectic:

He must take this future seriously because the past was honoured and loved. But was this why he had come here, within the meanings of generations? In all the years between, he had worked on the past. That learning was now a habit, to make a single experience common. But where there has been past life there is no problem in finding substance; that kind of attention has a natural hold. To work on the present and on the future is a different kind of attention: at once alert and hesitant, intent and open. He could close his eyes and then open them on the city in that valley. The grey cluster of works at St Dyfrog. At Llanerch and Manod, at Bronydd and Fforest and Parc-y-Meirch and the Cwm, terraces of houses, central white towers. Circles of white light at the road intersections. The traffic, the sound, of a hundred thousand people (p. 37).

This place is good to look at but people still have to leave it (p. 75)

Ostensibly, there are two main options for Manod and the neighbouring villages. They can let time unfold gently and organically, struggling to maintain themselves and hoping to sustain their communities through gradual renewal. Or there is the option to transform the area more proactively through a revived initiative to construct the new kind of clustered urban settlement in the area. Price’s roots and affection for the area is expressed through a determinedly impartial and objective approach, an empathy that places him at the service of those who eke out a living in the hills and valleys of his youth, over the outside political and economic interests of his paymasters. In this, he shares common ground with his younger, more radical, co-consultant Peter Owen. A spell in prison, for pushing a policeman during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration (p. 67), has knocked Owen’s promising academic career off course. Both characters likely reflect different perspectives that Williams entertained.

The first option has its own risks as the traditional forms of subsistence that have provided over centuries come under increasing strain. It quickly becomes evident that the area has been experiencing significant demographic decline. This is not a resilient community, idealised for its customs and endurance, but one that is literally dying; there are many registrations of deaths, but few marriages and births. We are told that the village school closed six years ago and that the church is also likely to follow its demise soon (p. 22). In a familiar process, many of Manod’s young people leave, mostly for English cities, in search of livelihoods, education and fun. The pull of capital elsewhere increasingly becomes a force too powerful to resist. For the older members of the farming community, reliance upon physical labour can make life precarious without welfare support. When Ivor Vaughan upends his tractor (p. 55), his injury triggers an immediate crisis which forces family and neighbours to assess their vulnerable situations. This accident becomes a symbolic turning upside-down for the intimately inter-related farming folk. So, it is apparent that Manod’s situation has become not so much comfortable continuity but stagnation that is not shockproof against misfortunes in times of upheaval. This is not because the community is intrinsically unsustainable. After all, it has endured for centuries. Yet now the village struggles to reproduce and support itself because uneven patterns of development find their priorities where wealth is accumulated in cities to the east and south. In this context, it is difficult for the dispersed and quarrelling members of the community, each with their own mix of inter-related interests and private desires, to hold their own against the determining interests of economic and political power which is concentrated elsewhere.

For these reasons, there is some support for the second option, a more thoroughgoing transformation of the district. The vision for the pioneering experimental development in the district was for “a city of small towns,” a devolved but integrated centre of population amounting to up to 120, 000 people (pp. 12-13). There were several prototypes for such a development, dating back to Ebenezer Howard’s famous proposals for garden cities, as set out in Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), where dispersed towns of up to 30,000 linked by integrated transport systems were envisioned that would combine the benefits of town and country. In the more recent past, a generation of new towns such as Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, and Milton Keynes could have been inspirations for the plans on-hold at Manod. In a telling exchange with Price, local woman Modlen Jenkins represents the perspective of those who welcome the idea of reviving the cancelled development plan, arguing, “I hope it’s round here. Like we need it at Manod, bring a bit of life. […] We want more people anyhow. And some work for us here.” When Price presents the counterpoint that “there are some against it,” Modlen responds, “Aye the ones alright already.” When he prompts further “Would you want this a town though? A really big town? Most of the country built over?,” she affirms “Of course. Certainly. Whatever’s wrong with that. I like towns.” (pp. 28-29). Modlen’s absence of sentiment about the surrounding natural beauty and existing community is striking.   While such views may deserve some respect, and Williams’s is sensitive to and understanding of this class view, Modlen’s emphatic support is also oblivious to the loss and her optimism about the benefits of such development for local people turns out to be misplaced. Her perspective proves naïve as the economic motivations and political machinations underlying the scheme are exposed.

As Williams was aware, and as the alternative economist Kate Raworth has argued more recently, growth and development are very tricky things. There is an apparent contest within the Fight for Manod between the two contrasting visions of the future. There is the cautious pace of a kind of change that is characterised by continuity, a steady adaptation while conserving much of the locality’s character. Or there is the proposal for a total reconfiguration of the landscape through rapid urbanisation, leapfrogging into a post-industrial experiment, one distinguished by “post-electronic technology” (p. 13). The latter has attractions for socialist-minded observers, eager for the progressive betterment of the local community’s lot. Again, Price acknowledges the dilemmas and complexities:

When it comes to sustaining or changing, or put it harder, to growth or replacement, I can’t only inquire, I’m at once involved and confused […] I couldn’t resolve it (p. 206).

There is a strong implication that Price represents Williams’s own perspective, since he, like Williams, is a signalman’s son who left the area where he was brought up to become an academic. As a dialectical thinker, Williams confronts twin tensions here. First, between the objective observation of the academic consultant, and the recognition that such a view is always situated, making it difficult for an individual to transcend his or her historical and personal perspective. Second, between the conflicting visions at stake, as such commitment makes Price/Williams care passionately about improving the future quality of life for the communities of their youth, without destroying the natural and historical sources from where they have sprung.

Price, therefore, embodies themes of homecoming and belonging in The Fight for Manod (p. 205). The novel is sharply observed and convincing because Williams knew the communities he was talking about. Yet, having left them for the University of Cambridge, where he could never be fully at home, he too inhabited a third space, much like the returning natives that populate Thomas Hardy’s novels. Price (and Williams) is unable, nor would he wish to “un-experience” either world. He therefore represents complex perspectives and feelings. These are expressed through both sympathy that comes from distance, and more intimate and empathetic insight towards the subjects of the potential experimental settlement around Manod. While the characters that live in the farming community demonstrate little warmth and sentiment towards each other, solid customs of mutual aid are respected without question. Even the taciturn and hard Gethin Jenkins, does not hesitate to support his neighbour Ivor in time of need. Produce such as vegetables are shared (p. 38) and forms of commoning continue. These characters are not given to introspection and self-reflection, even when loners, but are revealed through their conversations. Such dialogue also exposes how economic and political circumstances, often unseen, constrain their agency over their lives and the decisions that define them. Furthermore, despite the living traditions of mutual aid, the relationships between the inhabitants of Monad are not equitable, and even sometimes exploitative. While the men are not stronger or more determined personalities than the women – as the characters Gwen Vaughan and Modlen Jenkins show – invariably they have most control over the capital and assets that are all important for allocating resources and brokering deals. Local landowner John Dance, Gethin, and Ivor are the “heart of the business” (p. 125). So, while the home country is respected and regarded with affection, the characters’ personal aspirations and desires are in tension, and the domestic arrangements of the communities are not idealised.

In Price’s mind, it is difficult to envision the revived plan being implemented in the years to come because the actual weighs heavily as a counterbalance of the sketchy, abstractness of the potential:

But then any future must be like this: abstract, angular, a blank manufactured page. It stretches far away from the intricate present, from the checks and the inhibitions, the permanent manoeuvres. It is easy to reject it for the warmth, the heaviness, of a known past: a green past, in which lives have been lived and completed, in which remembered men and women, overheard silent voices, are more actual and more convincing than this unfinished everyday living or this projection and outline of a future (p. 38).

Williams was an internationalist who understood the importance and value of place and the struggle against its increasing commodification into space, countering the kind of Utilitarianism that stakes its claims by locating the greater good somewhere else and in a deferred future. The Fight for Monad is written from a powerful sense and evocation of place, a feeling of passion for its subject, yet without idealisation of its location. The border country’s “green past” is also a colonial past, where castle ruins remain as evidence of the one-time domination of Norman and English overlords, an industrial landscape scarred by iron and coal extraction, and a land still situated on the semi-periphery of the British state, in the shadow of its powerful English neighbour (p. 36). Now though, the mechanisms of control are more subtle, although no less real for that. Nestled in the natural world, and cradled in history and prehistory, intangible forces such as the “invisible hand” of capital, that shape and control the life of the villages, human and non-human alike, and are determining its future are obscured. If the experimental settlement goes ahead, the new city could be the site of a technologically greener future too, a testing ground for a pioneering transition from coal to become the “first in the alternatives, the support systems, the new planning techniques” (p. 157). The challenge, therefore, is to reimagine the future without obliterating the past.

Urban arcadia on paper. In fact a slum of the mind (p. 74)

Ironically, in the end the competition between the rival visions for Manod and its neighbouring villages turns out to be a false opposition, as the bitterly sceptic socialist Owen had long believed it was, never accepting that the project would deliver authentically “new towns” or “alternative communities,” (p. 74) within the capitalist context. The true drivers for the expansionist approach are less idealistic than the spin accorded them by politician Robert Lane suggests. Lane is a hopeless pragmatist and realist; the system and bureaucracy that he imagines he is subverting have long neutralised and defanged his avowed radical sensibilities, despite his claims that “I’m a democrat, a radical. I hate the guts of this system” (p. 16). Far from being a pathway to a new utopian world, the scheme to revive the plan becomes an actual matter of scheming, for several related reasons.

Beyond its quasi-democratic façade, it seems that the main impetus underlying the plan is to transfer ownership of local land assets away from the farming families. The true beneficiaries of the programme are an alliance of local entrepreneurs such as John and Juliet Dance (p. 112) and international land speculators, part of a covert network. since their local Afren Agricultural Holdings (p. 123) turns out to be part of the Rural Community Development Agency, which is reveals to be part of Anglo-Belgian Community Developments whose “capital, in turn, is as to sixty-forty a split between an oil company subsidiary and a London merchant bank” (p. 157), while the public would finance the experimental city (p. 158). Deeply compromised politicians such as Lane, working as part of a European committee, are facilitating the revival of the project (p.158). This speaks of a government initiative not only capitulating to, but in collaboration with, international capital to promote private control of profits, rather than purported democratic development for the benefit of the local communities around Monad. Wealthy characters such as the Dances may not be able to thread a camel through the eye of a needle, but they can effortlessly slip through a tax loop without being snared (p. 112). With the Dances’ role as controlling members of private land companies, they stand to become majority shareholders, while the former landowning farmers become minority shareholders and employed managers (pp. 123-24). A subtle turnaround in local power relations has occurred as the owners of inherited farmsteads shift to the more precarious position of professional managers This is a soft and incremental form of enclosure, a civilised land grab, legalistically achieved by slight of pen rather than hired gangs, and enjoyed over a glass of whiskey. Ivor is turned out of the Dances’ home at the end of the evening, symbolically befuddled by sharp-dealing and literally by whiskey (p. 130). The self-interest of the Dances also signifies the attractions of acquiring a form of mobile and agile capital of a kind more readily turned to profit through speculation. This contrasts with the value locked into farming interests, where the landowners experience cashflow problems and live in hardship, because the value of their landed assets proves difficult to realise without relinquishing the ownership in which is it is vested.

Gwen is more alert to the figurative dance that John Dance has performed, neat and light around her male kith and kin, and bitterly challenges Price’s even-handed approach to appraising the scheme as either complicity or gullibility: “You’re like Ivor… You believe what people tell you. And you’ll only find out when they’ve got you where they want you” (p. 141). After all, even though he was brought up in the area, Price has the privilege of being able to come in as a government-paid observer and to step away if he wishes (p, 143). Nevertheless, Gwen’s questioning of Price’s integrity is largely unwarranted. His comfortable position allows him to take an independent position, evading complicity in Dance’s blandishments and subterfuge. Unlike Ivor, Price later refuses Dance’s proffered whiskey and confronts him about his role in the programme (p. 168). Another motivation behind the scheme further explains the lack of transparency in taking it forward. It becomes apparent that the aim to rejuvenate the area is not to improve the livelihoods of local people, but rather to ease the pressure from “the explosion and breakdown” in urban areas elsewhere (p. 77).

As we have seen, the proposed new “cluster city” is also an opportunity to pilot new technologies on the threshold of the third industrial revolution, with the intention to implement “a radically different energy design” based on “communications technology” (p. 157). This is attractive to the Anglo-Belgian Community Developments behind the project since, anticipating the more technocratic visions of the “new green deal” in the present day, it can potentially unleash a new era of industrial expansion together with vast profits. However, at least in the view of the bitterly critical Peter Owen, the eventual outcome is a matter of indifference to the investors from the oil subsidiary and bank since the scheme is to be subsidised with public money. If it falls through, they will still make significant money from the rising value of the land holdings they now own (pp. 157-58). In such instances, Williams creates a fictitious example of the seamless alliance between state and capital that characterises Neoliberalism, where dividends and benefits are privatised, while the costs and risks are nationalised.

As Williams was completing The Fight for Monad, he was developing his ideas on the relationship between socialism and ecological sustainability. It is unsurprising that a thinker who had famously critically analysed the relationship between rural society and the city, in The City and the Country (1974), should be increasingly drawn to the tensions and convergence between human well-being and environmental concerns. In essays such as “Ecology and Socialism,” published in 1980, the year after The Fight for Monad, he sought to find common ground between the labour movement and green politics (Williams’s lecture on the subject is available as a podcast from the Raymond Williams Society: Williams came to reject naïve assumptions that economic growth straightforwardly equated to improved standards of living, especially where the destruction of the living world increasingly made for less secure livelihoods. As has become more apparent following the dominance of neoliberal policies after 1979, where economic development brings about a concentration of economic and political power it acts against the distribution of wealth. When not appropriating exploiting “green” issues for their own expansion, capitalist approaches fatally frame human needs and ecological issues as in irresolvable conflict in which to indulge the latter is either a scam or a sentimental indulgence. Williams was aware, therefore, that the control of energy signified political power as well as of fuel or electricity, and that the social factors determining the adoption of alternative technologies must be identified, addressed, and contested if they were to be realised as liberating forces, rather than further tools for exploitation. To be a progressive force for social change, therefore, alternative technologies must be implemented within alternative power structures; forms of renewable energy generation such as solar or wind power may be intrinsically better suited to a decentralised and dispersed governance than for example nuclear power, but within capitalist system the struggle for control is all.

“I couldn’t resolve it. All I’ve got to know are the pressures. The conflicting pressures” (p. 206).

While the wish for, and the commitment to, transformation is respected, the character of that change and the prospects for making it happen are problematic. In this sense, while Williams’s commitment to a better, socialist society is clear, the novel is not didactic but equivocal in its conclusions. Price/Williams is open to how to achieve change and observant of the formidable obstacles that stand in its way within a capitalist system. The inherent tensions in the situation become so pressured that Price symbolically suffers from a heart attack towards the end of the novel. Williams foresaw the danger of emerging ideas that were to coalesce into Thatcherism and Reganism, early forms of a Neoliberalism that could deliver no solutions but was, and is, a serious enemy to social progress. As a means to address “rural depopulation and industrial decline” (p. 194), the scheme for Manod represents a false promise unless agency rests with those it was ostensibly conceived to benefit. As Price finally affirms, it is “Only a real way if it belongs to the people on whose land it is being made” (p. 194). Such words sentiments are incontrovertibly Williams’s own.

Raymond Williams, The Fight for Manod (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979).

Front cover of 1st edition.

Book review by Stephen E. Hunt

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