HXH – loss
The more I read, the more I muse on loss. I’ve always thought of the establishment of the Dartington experiment in the 1920s as an attempt to create a social utopia. It’s become clearer to me that this was always intended to be a utopia based on sound business principles, despite the hefty capitalisation provided by the deep pockets of the Elmhirsts. Moreover it was an attempt to use ‘traditional’ rural craft and skills in a sound financial context. This was not capitalism extant but neither was it an expression of Marxism or communism. It was, rather, intended to provide a model for a functioning rural economy whilst simultaneously acting as a research centre and to provide education. Culture was but one part of what makes a functioning society, and always seen as an essential element of the work.
What I had not understood is that British agriculture was in crisis in the early part of the 20th century, and had been for at least sixty years. The increasing dominance of capitalist industry and its mavens, and the massive shift in the nineteenth century from rural to urban, resulted in massive political pressure for cheap food. The Empire and former Empire countries such as America were well-placed to provide this, and as shipping techniques and food storage techniques improved there had been a steadily increasing flow of food from overseas. The power of the corporations led to the repeal of the Corn Laws which had provided a guaranteed price for British farmers. This in turn led to the slow and apparently irrevocable decline of farming – a decline that was to continue until the end of the second world war, the introduction of mass mechanisation, and the return of subsidy brought back into political acceptability by a country on its economic knees.
The Elmhirst experiment was to bring in the talent to introduce modern approaches to farming and to other craft-base industries such as furniture-making, forestry, textiles, and glass making. There were no rose-tinted glasses here: the intent was to create a working Estate using modern business-centred approaches and techniques, many of which were imported from America. Initially education was intrinsic to this: pupils at the school worked on the Estate and this was seen as an essential part of their education. Eventually it became clear that this was not sustainable despite its high ideals, and the schools were created as a separate entity in less than a decade.
My overwhelming sense in reading all of this is how much we have chosen to lose in favour of profit. We no longer make things: our ‘products’ are financial instruments, loans, office services, insurance, and so on. These are not, however you choose to justify it, things that are made – they are not products of anything other than a mind obsessed with making money from nothing. It is a black magic that has proven already to take us to the edge of extinction. Making things is still a necessity, but we chose many decades ago to secede all making to states where people can be paid less – much less, retaining only high craft carried out by individuals working for themselves. Skilled trades remain of course, as do traditional skills such as boat-building. The Elmhirst vision was to retain making and craft within the context of a self-maintaining and self-regulating society in which culture and education were also a part.
We have lost our interest in these skills, it seems, and just as we have divorced ourselves from the natural world on which we depend to eat and breathe, we have divorced ourselves from the grit, grind, noise, smell, and graft of making on an industrial scale. Ironically, what survives is agriculture despite the best efforts of successive governments to outsource this, too. As the inevitable and long-overdue reform of subsidy begins in earnest, as it surely will over the coming decades, what will happen? Will this skill, too, be lost to technocracy and cheap labour?
Finally, I feel the loss of the Dartington vision as the Estate careens from money-making idea to money-making idea, investing in failure, and seemingly divorcing itself almost entirely from the driving power of ideals. The careening is nothing new: Dartington has for the past 70 years been a place of experiment and risk: however it now feels as if what remains of the original vision is but a rump: what seems to be dominant above all is the maintenance of the Estate and its buildings. But they are empty of anything meaningful, increasingly. What should be seen as core activities seem to be shoved further and further to the periphery, and the Estate will cease even to have a working farm in the next couple of months. I’ve been reading the voices of so many who are now dead or no longer functioning, so this writing is tinged with that loss. Some of this is however a tangible loss as the Estate shifts ineffably towards becoming merely a visitor attraction capable only of sustaining itself without any core or heart or meaning.