The book, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil”, was written in 1884, by the illustrious William Morris; at least three years before the first Arts and Crafts exhibitions were proposed and long before there was such a thing as an “Arts and Crafts Movement”. It is a remarkable work, notable for its prescience, clarity and crisp, lucid argument. You can read the full text of the book by following the link given in the references, at the end of this post.
In the book, Morris succinctly presents some interesting views on work and toil. In so doing, he effectively outlines and sets forth the bases and foundations for the arts and crafts movement, many of which have been subsequently forgotten, conveniently de-emphasised or widely misunderstood. Modern explanations of the purposes and goals of the arts and crafts movement tend to be filled with insubstantial waffle, in my view.
Reading the book, you become aware of some of the elegance and moral rectitude of the philosophy underpinning the arts and crafts movement. It was a progressive idea and meant to result in the betterment of mankind. Morris’ philosophy describes a true society of equals, sharing in the beneficial fruits of human endeavour, but did not appear to advocate or require deliberate social engineering and hierarchies of control and power, as Socialism turned out to depend upon, in the implementations of Socialism that became manifest, at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Under Morris’ philosophy, everybody would have been too busy and too existentially satisfied, working contentedly, to have the inclination or desire to live idly and parasitically off the labour of a working class, ordering them around, while contributing no productive labour of their own.
However, due to the forces of unfettered, deregulated, unconstrained Capitalism, of which Morris was only too aware, the aims of the movement were never fully realised and it passed into history, as a quaint and revivable fashion and school of design, but not as a moral philosophy, which was, at its heart, deeply humanist, practicable and just. The movement, in fact, offered a recipe for genuine hope.
The book is worth a read, as it is quite pertinent to today’s situation.
This post (which very few people will ever read in full) is my interpretation of the work and a commentary on some of the points arising, from the perspective of the year 2015, some one hundred and thirty one years after it was first published. Many of the worst excesses of capitalism are now much worse – so much so that they prove the correctness of Morris’ original assertions and prescriptions for solution.
I felt the post was necessary because the ideas presented were remarkable, relevant, valuable and viable, but the language Morris used to set them forth is somewhat archaic to the modern ear. An attempt at clarifying the ideas in a modern linguistic idiom seemed overdue. While Morris writes in a florid, ornate and often distinctively beautiful way, his sentence construction can make his arguments difficult to follow and fathom. I have attempted to disentangle the threads of his thought, wherever I was able.
My purpose, in writing this post, is to answer the question, “How should we be working and living today?”
Suffice it to say, we shouldn’t be living and working as we do. The thesis of the post is that we are all capable of being artists and craftsmen and further, that we all should engage ourselves thus, more or less without exception.
Although widely believed to be anti-industrialist, the books reveals that Morris does not argue against Industrialisation, in the sense of being against the use of machinery to produce quality goods and wares. What he is against is the way we industrialised, the use of machinery and industrial organisation to inflict misery on working lives, the production of cheap and worthless wares and the displacement of working men into a pool of unemployed, discarded people. Remove those problematic aspects of industrialisation and use machinery to instead lessen the burden on labour (i.e. to produce real labour savings, but with the leisure time, thus gained, shared equitably) and Morris had no problem with modern production technology.
The book begins with a remark about the book’s title:
“The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself – a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.”
We have already been introduced to some important concepts:
- Not all “work” is useful. There are many occupations that we could well do without. They are make-work or busy-work jobs, but contribute nothing substantial to the betterment of mankind’s situation.
- If some work is not useful, why is it desirable that a human soul spend their lifetime doing something that is, by definition, useless?
- Clearly, earning a livelihood by being employed in doing something ultimately useless is, in Morris’ view, not something that ought to be celebrated.
- Those that view useless occupations as worthy of congratulations and praises as those in useful occupations believe that it is even more worthy if the employee deprives himself of all life’s pleasures and holidays, in order to pursue the sacred cause of his labour. In other words, the overworked are to be admired and those that construct a life solely around their work are the most saintly, irrespective of whether or not what they do for work is useful or useless.
- There are people that do not work themselves, but instead live on the labour of others.
- Labouring as a moral good, in of itself, has become an article of faith, unquestioned by all, but especially by those who live on the labour of others. Morris counsels us that this belief ought not to be taken on trust, by those upon whose labour they live.
- If somebody living off the fruits of your labour tells you that working is the highest absolute good, you shouldn’t believe them. They would say that, wouldn’t they?
Morris proceeds to say:
“Let us grant, first, that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort of degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable, but even pleasurable.”
- Morris grants that nature requires that we, as living organisms, must win our livelihoods by some degree of toil, but suggests that nature, in requiring that toil, may grant some compensation for it. This is by analogy, since in other matters, such as procreation or eating food, for example, nature makes acts necessary to the continuance of life of both the race and the individual not only endurable, but also pleasurable.
- In other words, when nature asks us to labour in order to survive, the labour is endurable and often pleasurable. He is suggesting that all work should be both endurable and pleasurable.
- How many occupations, in the modern world, fall under this description? A great many are unendurable (in that they are psychologically intolerable, or cause unsurvivable or life altering physical injuries and degradation of health). Still more are miserable. Workers derive no pleasure from doing them. Many modern occupations are both intolerable and miserable. Figures indicate that as many as 70% of all jobs, in the US, may fall into this category, suggested by studies on worker disengagement. The high incidence of employee burnout and workplace-induced depression is evidence that we have a significant problem with work that is both unendurable and disagreeable.
- Some employers, having rented the labour of people they regard as underlings, believe it is their unassailable right, as the person paying the wages, to make the work as unendurable and disagreeable as they please. They do so as an expression of their power over their employees, justified by words like “efficiency” or so that the employees are compelled to demonstrate their “company loyalty”, or else for sheer sadistic pleasure.
“You may be sure that she does so, that it is of the nature of man, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions. And, yet, we must say in the teeth of the hypocritical praise of all labour, whatsoever it may be, of which I have made mention, that there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison – which you will.”
- This is interesting. The assertion is that some labour is so odious that, far from being pleasurable, it is a curse. Morris suggest that in the face of such labour, it would be better for the community and for the individual if the worker were to refuse to do it, even if that means death or prison.
- We can only speculate what kinds of occupations he had in mind, but a modern example may be the weaponisation of biological agents for warfare, for example, or the repossession of homes bought by people offered fraudulent mortgages that the lender knew, a priori, could never be repaid and which the borrower was more or less guaranteed to default on. In both cases, the individual and the community are both degraded and harmed by engaging in this odious labour.
“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.
What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”
- There is “good” work and “bad” work.
- Good work may be seen as a blessing and a pleasure, lightening a life.
- Bad work is a curse and a burden to life.
- When Morris speaks of “life”, one can assume from previous paragraphs that he means the life of the individual and the lives of those that comprise mankind.
- What distinguishes good work from bad work is hope.
- Morris claims it to be “manly” (perhaps meaning “morally defensible”, in order to be inclusive of female work contributions) to do good, hopeful work and to refuse to do bad work, which is devoid of all hope.
“What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?
It is threefold, I think – hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.”
- Morris asks what the nature of the hope that attaches to good work actually is and why that makes the work worth doing.
- The hope is three things. Hope of:
- Pleasure in the work
- Morris qualifies these three hopes, hoping that each aspect of hope occurs in some abundance and of good quality
- When the worker hopes for rest, Morris means enough rest, of good enough quality and duration, to be worth having. Those that feel that they are on treadmill, not stopping long enough to rest and recuperate, lose this hope. This can apply to touring musicians, sporting heroes that are over-scheduled to do matches, authors on perpetual speaking tours and so on.
- When the worker hopes for product, Morris means a product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic. Morris is speaking, here, against stupid products, fripperies or products so austere, that only an ascetic would be content with them. In other words, the product must be worthwhile and good, with sufficient style, design or ornamentation to make it attractive.
- When the worker hopes for pleasure in the work, Morris means pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work. “For all”, in this context, probably refers to all workers and colleagues, but may refer to society. The pleasure needs to be of sufficient existential quality that it is not the pleasure of mere habit, but something deeper.
“I have put the hope of rest first because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. Whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest. We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work. Also the rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it. If we have this amount and kind of rest we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts.”
- Hope of rest is placed first and foremost, because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope, says Morris. It is fundamental to working.
- When balancing the pleasure derived from work, versus the pain of stirring one’s mind and body into action, to perform the work and the pain of accepting change, when we are at peace and at rest, the compensation is to be able to rest, once more, when the work is done.
- The idea of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, while working is a very important component of the hope of rest. Part of the hope is that you can foresee the time will come when you will not have to work. This, I think, means both at the end of the current task in hand and at the end of your working life. In other words, production lines, where people see an endless queue of work that can never be finished, save for the end of the shift, monumental projects that seem so large that a person feels overwhelmed, believing they will never finish them, or else the fad for promoting the idea that people may never be able to retire, for financial reasons, all diminish the hope of rest, associated with work. Hope of rest is also dashed when employees are required to work mandatory overtime, at short notice, or to work long nights and weekends to meet a deadline, such as is common in the software development industry.
- Another essential component of the hope of rest is that you will be in a mental and physical state to enjoy the rest, not merely recover the strength and vitality expended in doing the work. Employers that provide too little rest time, between work (such as with what are known as “quick shifts”, where an employee must be last to leave at night and first to arrive in the morning, leaving insufficient time to sleep and eat, or by making the work so arduous and stressful that a single weekend away from the office cannot hope to mend the wear and tear) diminish the hope of rest. Being expected to work voluntary overtime on a routine basis or to answer emails and phone calls from an employer or about work, at any time of the night or day, also diminishes the hope of rest.
- Rest needs to remain undisturbed by anxiety. If the employer has employees under constant threat of redundancy or demotion, or if the firm is not on a sound financial and managerial footing, these conditions can render the resting time as not very restful at all. Rest accompanied by anxiety, especially if that is financial anxiety caused by low pay or poor working conditions, cannot be enjoyed, and so diminishes the hope of rest.
- If we are able to have the amount and kind of rest that is sufficient to allow us to enjoy it, free from anxiety, only then are we no worse off than wild or domestic beasts.
- It is interesting to note that finding work is work and in times of high unemployment, can be (for some) an unending toil. Vagrancy and homelessness involve being confronted by genuine want and having to take continuous actions for survival. The hope of rest, in such toil, is absolutely shattered and a humane society ought to provide rest and respite, for those engaged in an arduous and frequently fruitless search for work. Because society reneges on this responsibility, so often, it permits employers to offer bad and unworthy occupations, knowing that to somebody who has lost all hope of rest, these jobs will at least hold some hope of rest, inferior though they are to good and worthy occupations.
- Zero hours contracts, where people are not guaranteed work, can be stood down, without pay, at very short notice (often while they are en route to their place of work) and where the employee is contractually obliged to remain on-call for normal business hours, in the event that there is work for them to do, add a new twist to the hope for rest. While these arrangements appear to offer a lot of hope for rest, on the surface of it, the actuality of working on a zero hours contract, as reported by those that work under this regime, is that they suffer constant anxiety about paying their bills and that, being on-call for all the normal business hours, they are unable to enjoy their so-called “rest days” or plan for recreational activities in advance, because they may be called upon, at any time, to work. Refusal or an inability to respond to a work request can result in them being in technical breach of their contract and lead to termination or summary dismissal. In such contracts, the hope of rest is completely undermined by the anxiety which accompanies rest periods. The risk to employers is minimal.
“As to the hope of product, I have said that Nature compels us to work for that. It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines.”
- When producing things, through our work, we want to be sure that we produce something, and not nothing. In other words, the fruits of our labour should produce something worth producing. Labouring to produce no resultant product at all diminishes the hope of product. It has been suggested that purely administrative or form-filling occupations are examples of work where the resultant product is nothing substantial.
- If we produce things that we, ourselves, are not allowed to use or cannot afford to own, then that, too, diminishes the hope of product. Makers of luxury products or exceptionally expensive wares must feel a loss of hope of product, when they know that the work of their hands can never be theirs to use. Low wage, off shore workers, making garments for sale in Western stores, or mobile phones for far away markets also experience a loss of product.
- Work that does not uphold the hope of product can and should be produced by machines and ensuring that we only do work which provides the hope of product means that we shall, so far, be better than mere production machines. I believe that Morris is alluding to the superiority of artistic, artisanal or crafts work.
“The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers – to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.”
- Morris asserts that the idea of obtaining hope of pleasure, from work, is a foreign one, to most people. That appears to be the case even today. It is not widely recognised that people ought to derive some sort of pleasure from their daily activities and occupation.
- All living things experience some kind of pleasure from the exercise of their energies. Being lithe, swift and strong must be pleasurable to the beasts that are so endowed.
- Man exercises not only his strength, agility and speed, but also his mind and soul, when causing something to come into existence, through the wilful act of making it. Man is aided by memory and imagination, augmenting his will and his dexterity. Not only do his thoughts inform the work, but those thoughts of men of past ages, who may have been mentors, or teachers, or perhaps who wrote influential or informative books about how to make things.
- Making is a creative exercise that, due to inherited knowledge and cultural learning, becomes an exercise involving the whole human race. If we work in a way that is inclusive of knowledge and skills obtained from other people, our days will be happy and eventful and we shall experience the existential pleasure of being a full member of mankind. There is great satisfaction in working with this integrated feeling of belonging to and working with all of humanity.
- Today, a lot of people report feelings of anhedonia (a complete loss of feelings of pleasure), associated with long term burnout, which they suffer due to the unacceptable nature of their working lives.
“Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.”
- Meraki is a word that modern Greeks often use to describe what happens when you leave a piece of yourself (your soul, creativity, or love) in your work. When you love doing something, anything, so much that you put something of yourself into it, you experience the hope of pleasure in the use of your daily skill.
- Worthy work is replete with hope of pleasure in rest, hope of pleasure in using what that work creates or makes and hope of pleasure in the use of our creativity, ability, facility, agency (i.e. self-determination in how we work) and dexterity.
“All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work – mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”
- This is a very strong statement. All other work, being devoid of the three hopes, is worthless.
- Worthless work is slaves’ work – toiling to live, for the sake of living to toil. It is a meaningless, pointless existence, full of struggle, endured for no better reason than being able to struggle and toil some more. Being engaged in worthless work, which carries with it no hope whatsoever, is a very bleak life.
- The astute reader will note that a great many modern occupations are devoid of all hope. They offer no hope of rest, product or pleasure. In essence, workers engaged in these occupations work as virtual slaves, enduring a bleak, pointless existence, for no adequate result or return.
- It is important to note that compensation, in the form of monetary reward for work, is nowhere discussed in Morris’ analysis. Clearly, if the work is worthless, unable to provide hope of rest, hope of product or hope of pleasure, then any financial compensation for doing it is an irrelevance. It in no way compensates for living a futile life, as a slave.
- This is a significant departure from our normal ways of thinking about work and compensation, where for an adequate amount of money, any job is thought to be worth doing. Morris, by omission, clearly repudiates the notion.
“Therefore, since we have, as it were, a pair of scales in which to weigh the work now done in the world, let us use them. Let us estimate the worthiness of the work we do, after so many thousand years of toil, so many promises of hope deferred, such boundless exultation over the progress of civilization and the gain of liberty.”
- Having established a standard measure of the worthiness of work, Morris turns his attention to discussing how work now done in the world measures up, compared to the standard.
- He notes that his comparison is being made after many thousands of years of human toil, during which promises of hope have been deferred (often indefinitely). There is a sceptical note regarding whether the worthiness of work squares with the “boundless exultation over the progress of civilisation and the gain of liberty”. In other words, he asks if human endeavour, through work, has delivered progress, civilisation and liberty. The unstated suggestion, of course, is that it has not. A great majority of the work available to humanity, over the period of thousands of years, has been worthless, as defined by a lack of hope for rest, product and pleasure.
“Now, the first thing as to the work done in civilization and the easiest to notice is that it is portioned out very unequally amongst the different classes of society. First, there are people – not a few – who do no work, and make no pretence of doing any. Next, there are people, and very many of them, who work fairly hard, though with abundant easements and holidays, claimed and allowed; and lastly, there are people who work so hard that they may be said to do nothing else than work, and are accordingly called “the working classes,” as distinguished from the middle classes and the rich, or aristocracy, whom I have mentioned above.”
- Morris notes that the distribution of work is uneven.
- There are upper classes that do no work and make no pretence of doing any. They wear their idleness and dependence on the work of others as a badge of class and honour.
- There are middle classes that work fairly hard, but who enjoy time off and other easements.
- There are working classes that may be said to do nothing else other than work.
- In the modern world, there are middle classes who, while provided with holidays and other easements, can be said to do little else other than work, given the amount of voluntary overtime they are required to contribute and the “always-on” nature of many modern occupations, where employees are effectively “on-call” at all hours of the day and night.
“It is clear that this inequality presses heavily upon the “working” class, and must visibly tend to destroy their hope of rest at least, and so, in that particular, make them worse off than mere beasts of the field; but that is not the sum and end of our folly of turning useful work into useless toil, but only the beginning of it.”
- The uneven distribution of work, quite obviously, means that the working class do a disproportionate amount of the work, thereby destroying their hope of rest (at least – there are other hopes that they also forfeit). In this, they are therefore worse off than mere beasts of the field, since beasts of the field retain their hope of rest (unless they are beasts on modern factory farms, whose very lives are treated as if they were components of an industrial machine, leaving little rest or respite for even these poor, unfortunate creatures).
- If, by extension, working people become regarded as mere extensions or components of a larger industrial machine, leaving them little rest or respite, then their situation becomes far worse than that of the beasts of the field of a former, gentler, more humane age of farming and animal husbandry.
- This inequality, whereby some classes do no work at all, at the expense of a class of people who do the majority of the work, is not the end of human folly, turning useful work into useless toil. We do other things that render useful work as useless toil, which will be expounded upon shortly.
“For first, as to the class of rich people doing no work, we all know that they consume a great deal while they produce nothing. Therefore, clearly, they have to be kept at the expense of those who do work, just as paupers have, and are a mere burden on the community. In these days there are many who have learned to see this, though they can see no further into the evils of our present system, and have formed no idea of any scheme for getting rid of this burden; though perhaps they have a vague hope that changes in the system of voting for members of the House of Commons may, as if by magic, tend in that direction. With such hopes or superstitions we need not trouble ourselves. Moreover, this class, the aristocracy, once thought most necessary to the State, is scant of numbers, and has now no power of its own, but depends on the support of the class next below it – the middle class. In fact, it is really composed either of the most successful men of that class, or of their immediate descendants.”
- Not only do upper classes not work, they consume an inordinate amount, per capita, compared to other classes.
- Since they are both heavy consumers and non-producers, they may be considered to be parasitic on the community.
- While people have become aware of this, they have not perceived the further evils of such a system, have formed no ideas on how to remove the burden of a non-productive class, but believe that through unspecified means, voting for different parliamentarians may perhaps remedy the matter. Morris believes that faith in this course of action is superstitious. The non-productive aristocracy is firmly entrenched.
- While it is generally (and erroneously) believed that the aristocracy is necessary to the State, they are few in number and depend on the support of the middle class. The aristocracy is mainly composed of the most successful of the middle class, or their immediate descendants, hence the class fealty. Every middle class person feels that if fortune favours their enterprise, they will be the next aristocrat and hence remain supportive of the non-working class.
- In modern times, writers like Larken Rose argue fervently and convincingly that the State itself is not necessary, let alone an aristocracy.
“As to the middle class, including the trading, manufacturing, and professional people of our society, they do, as a rule, seem to work quite hard enough, and so at first sight might be thought to help the community, and not burden it. But by far the greater part of them, though they work, do not produce, and even when they do produce, as in the case of those engaged (wastefully indeed) in the distribution of goods, or doctors, or (genuine) artists and literary men, they consume out of all proportion to their due share. The commercial and manufacturing part of them, the most powerful part, spent their lives and energies in fighting amongst themselves for their respective shares of the wealth which they force the genuine workers to provide for them; the others are almost wholly the hangers-on of these; they do not work for the public, but a privileged class: they are the parasites of property, sometimes, as in the case of lawyers, undisguisedly so; sometimes, as the doctors and others above mentioned, professing to be useful, but too often of no use save as supporters of the system of folly, fraud, and tyranny of which they form a part. And all these we must remember have, as a rule, one aim in view; not the production of utilities, but the gaining of a position either for themselves or their children in which they will not have to work at all. It is their ambition and the end of their whole lives to gain, if not for themselves yet at least for their children, the proud position of being obvious burdens on the community. For their work itself, in spite of the sham dignity with which they surround it, they care nothing: save a few enthusiasts, men of science, art, or letters, who, if they are not the salt of the earth, are at least (and oh, the pity of it!) the salt of the miserable system of which they are the slaves, which hinders and thwarts them at every turn, and even sometimes corrupts them.”
- The middle class, while appearing to help, rather than burden, the community, through their hard work as traders, manufacturers and professional people, in fact do not produce. Their work is largely unproductive.
- Many of the middle class workers are wastefully engaged in activities such as the distribution of goods, as doctors, (genuine) artists and literary men. Even when they do produce, they consume out of all proportion to their productive contribution to the community.
- Artists and writers may especially think this a harsh assessment of their endeavours and vocation, but it is a fact that they are inordinately dependent on the labour of others for their sustenance, dwellings, utilities and materials. As Morris’ own life and work attest, however, it was not his desire to abolish artistry, literature and medicine, or to prevent goods from finding their ultimate consumers. Rather, he wished to recast the ethics and behaviour of the middle classes away from the established hierarchy and system of “folly, fraud and tyranny”, which they currently supported, toward something altogether more beneficial for the community.
- It does raise the question, however, of whether or not the production of goods that are primarily in the class of “intellectual property” is productive work in the same sense as producing other wares might be. In terms of answering mankind’s fundamental survival needs, we can refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise that most of this work only satisfies the higher order needs. It reduces the burden on the community, but only after base needs, such as for food, shelter and warmth, have been met and satisfied.
- The most powerful segment of the middle classes, those engaged in manufacture and commercial pursuits, spend their energies in (wasteful) competition with each other, to determine who will profit most from the wealth they force the working classes to produce for them.
- Another segment of the middle classes are the pure “hangers-on”, who unashamedly work not for the public benefit, but on behalf of the privileged few. As such, these middle class workers are actually parasites of property, sometimes undisguisedly so, as in the case of lawyers. Others, such as doctors, profess to be useful to the community but are often of no use to it and serve, instead, as upholders of (and an intimate part of) the fraudulent, tyrannous folly that is embodied in the class system. While the class system is, today, less crisply delineated, it is still the case that many middle class people do little more than uphold the privilege of the elite, through their voting patterns, their assumptions about living and how they conduct their professional lives. Inequality now is worse than it was when Morris was writing.
- The middle classes, as a rule, have the desire to gain a position, for themselves or their children, in which they do not have to work at all. This is their primary aim, not the production of utilities for the community. It is still their aim today. It is their ambition and the ultimate aim of their working lives to gain, if not for themselves, then for their children, the proud positions of being obvious burdens on the community. Everybody seeks lives of opulence and indolence.
- This sole aim means they care little for the quality or substance of their work. Despite the sham dignity that surrounds their occupations, they are, in fact, indifferent to the utility and quality of their work products, save for the few enthusiasts, men of art, science and letters, whose personal integrity demands they pay attention to the quality and utility of their output, from the perspective of their community.
- Those who are “salts of the miserable system”, of which they are slaves, find they are thwarted, hindered and frustrated in their efforts to produce work of high integrity at every turn. The system is so weighted against producing professional work of a good quality and which is useful to the community, that it sometimes corrupts such men. It is not easy or even possible to cling to any other goal than finding a way to become idle and burdensome to the community, due to the class structure they find themselves within. This is as true today as it was when Morris wrote these lines.
“Here then is another class, this time very numerous and all-powerful, which produces very little and consumes enormously, and is therefore in the main supported, as paupers are, by the real producers. The class that remains to be considered produces all that is produced, and supports both itself and the other classes, though it is placed in a position of inferiority to them; real inferiority, mind you, involving a degradation both of mind and body. But it is a necessary consequence of this tyranny and folly that again many of these workers are not producers. A vast number of them once more are merely parasites of property, some of them openly so, as the soldiers by land and sea who are kept on foot for the perpetuating of national rivalries and enmities, and for the purposes of the national struggle for the share of the product of unpaid labour. But besides this obvious burden on the producers and the scarcely less obvious one of domestic servants, there is first the army of clerks, shop-assistants, and so forth, who are engaged in the service of the private war for wealth, which, as above said, is the real occupation of the well-to-do middle class. This is a larger body of workers than might be supposed, for it includes amongst others all those engaged in what I should call competitive salesmanship, or, to use a less dignified word, the puffery of wares, which has now got to such a pitch that there are many things which cost far more to sell than they do to make.”
- Morris turns his attention to a subclass of the working class, who produce little and consume enormously, supported by the real producers. The class he refers to are working class parasites of property, namely the army of clerks, shop assistants and so forth, who fight the battle for private wealth, on behalf of the middle classes that employ them. It includes those engaged in competitive salesmanship (the “puffery of wares”), the added cost of employing whom makes things cost far more to sell than they do to make. This subclass, Morris says, is a necessary consequence of the tyranny and folly of the class system.
- He notes that the real producers are supporting themselves and the other classes, through their toil, yet are regarded as inferior to them and placed in a position of real inferiority, involving degradation of the mind and body.
- In passing, Morris also notes that soldiers and naval sailors are also an obvious burden on the productive, working community; parasites of property, producing little, but engaged in perpetuating national rivalries and enmities. In modern times, the militia have been reduced to serving capitalist enterprises to secure resources and access to foreign markets by force of arms. They spill their blood in the name of noble causes, but are actually taking orders from corporate elites, via corrupted governments, for no better reason than profit.
“Next there is the mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich non-producing classes; things which people leading a manly and uncorrupted life would not ask for or dream of. These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will forever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?”
- The next mass of working class people that Morris asserts are performing worthless toil are those that make and sell articles of folly and luxury. These fripperies are not necessities, but the demand for them comes from the rich, non-producing classes. People leading an uncorrupted life and a morally correct one would never ask for, or dream of owning, these luxuries and follies.
- Morris refers to the production and ownership of these fripperies as waste, not wealth, because of their lack of necessity and limited utility.
- He defines wealth as what Nature provides, which a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The gifts of Nature are sunlight, fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, clothing and housing. He also includes the storing up of knowledge of all kinds and the power of disseminating it, the means of free communication between people, and works of art (the beauty of which man creates when he is in his most manly state, most aspiring and thoughtful). Wealth, to Morris, is all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly and uncorrupted. He goes as far as to say that he cannot think of anything worth having that does not fall under one of the above categories of wealth.
- In modern times, the production of useless gimmicks, throw-away items, petty, faddish objects and all manner of wasted production has reached a scale that Morris could scarcely have imagined. People engaged in making or selling these things are participating in useless toil.
“Now, further, there is even a sadder industry yet, which is forced on many, very many, of our workers – the making of wares which are necessary to them and their brethren, because they are an inferior class. For if many men live without producing, nay, must live lives so empty and foolish that they force a great part of the workers to produce wares which no one needs, not even the rich, it follows that most men must be poor; and, living as they do on wages from those whom they support, cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with coarse food that does not nourish, with rotten raiment which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of the nomad tribe, or the cave of the prehistoric savage. Nay, the workers must even lend a hand to the great industrial invention of the age – adulteration, and by its help produce for their own use shams and mockeries of the luxury of the rich; for the wage-earners must always live as the wage-payers bid them, and their very habits of life are forced on them by their masters.”
- Sadder and more wasteful than toiling to make luxury good and fripperies for the idle rich is the industry that makes cheap and inferior goods for people who can afford nothing better. So impoverished and disenfranchised are these customers that the only goods they have the ability to purchase are those that are made poorly, of inadequate materials and not designed for durability or to last. In modern times, think about the goods offered in Pound of Dollar stores, flat pack furniture and cars made to meet a low price, rather than a high quality, as examples. Working to produce these must offer work of a particularly ungratifying kind. The production of things you know to be rubbish must seem like a total waste of one’s working life and skills. It certainly offers no hope of product and little hope of pleasure in the work.
- If people must put up with miserable makeshifts for the products they truly require, causing an industry to exist to produce such inferior items, then it follows that a great many in society must be so poor and live empty and foolish lives, for this to be the case.
- Nobody truly needs these inferior wares, not even the rich. The fact that people must tolerate food which fails to nourish, clothes that do not provide adequate warmth, protection and shelter from the elements and live in houses so wretched that they are scarcely better than nomadic tents or primitive caves, proves that a very large sector of society is not sharing in the common wealth produced by the aggregate work of the community. They are being short changed (or more correctly, robbed).
- Worse still, workers are forced to lend a hand to the adulteration of products, whereby they produce shams and mockeries of the luxuries of the rich. Think of Gerald Ratner’s unguarded and accidentally overly frank confession, some years ago, that the jewellery on sale in his chain of jewellery stores was, in fact, “total crap”. Workers, as wage-earners, are forced to live as their wage-payers constrain them to live. Their habits of life are thrust upon them by their masters, due to the limits of the wages they earn. Clearly, Morris is hinting, here, that wage slavery is to be avoided.
“But it is waste of time to try to express in words due contempt of the productions of the much-praised cheapness of our epoch. It must be enough to say that this cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make the slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.”
- While people generally regard the cheapness of manufactured goods as a good thing and a benefit to mankind, Morris suggests otherwise. He holds such cheap goods in contempt, because the necessity of cheap goods derives solely from the fact that a great mass of wage slaves, who after all must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, have daily necessities that compel the production of slave-wares.
- The use of these slave wares perpetuates their slavery. If they cannot afford better tools, or capital equipment, they can never rise above the status of wage slaves, by setting up enterprises of their own, where they can make higher quality goods and become the sole beneficial owners of the profits deriving from their endeavour.
- In fact, much of the workers’ wage earnings will be dissipated in prematurely replacing slave-wares that wear out, or break sooner than the higher quality goods they really want and require would. Far from being able to save a little from their wages, to get ahead, they are kept in perpetual poverty, replacing items they already bought, but which have proven inadequate for the tasks required of them. Think about planned obsolescence and appliances that cannot be repaired economically, in this context. An iPhone, whose battery is not field-replaceable, is an example of a slave-ware.
“To sum up, then, concerning the manner of work in civilized States, these States are composed of three classes – a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to works but which produces nothing, and a class which works, but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive.”
- It’s a sorry, cold summary, but Morris concludes that society is composed of three classes:
- A class which does not even pretend to work.
- A class which pretends to work, but which produces nothing and which aims and aspires to not work at all.
- A class of people which does most of the productive work, which produces most of what everybody in the community actually lives on, but which is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often wholly unsatisfactory, wasteful and unproductive.
“Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts. These are cold words with which to describe the tyranny under which we suffer; try then to consider what they mean.”
- Under the current regime and class structure, civilisation, therefore, wastes its own scarce and sometimes irreplaceable resources and will continue to do so, as long as the present system lasts. Consider the mountains of garbage annually consigned to landfill and the industrial scale pollution and despoiling of land, water and air, to understand the scale of the waste involved.
- Morris calls this state of human affairs a “tyranny under which we suffer”. His purpose in calling our attention to this waste is that it is unsustainable.
“There is a certain amount of natural material and of natural forces in the world, and a certain amount of labour-power inherent in the persons of the men that inhabit it. Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete. And, looking backwards to the time when history first began, we note that the progress of that victory has been far swifter and more startling within the last two hundred years than ever before. Surely, therefore, we moderns ought to be in all ways vastly better off than any who have gone before us. Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.”
- In Nature, there is a certain amount of natural material and of natural forces. There is also a certain amount of labour power in the people that inhabit the Earth. Men, urged on by their necessities for survival and desires, have laboured for many thousands of years to “tame” Nature, subjugate its forces and make the natural material useful. To people of Morris’ time, the struggle with Nature seemed to be almost over, with mankind having won. The domination and conquering of Nature for man’s needs and wants seemed, at that time, to have been accomplished at a startlingly swift rate, having happened within the past two hundred years.
- It seemed incongruous to Morris that, having conquered Nature, people of that time ought to have been vastly better off, in all ways, than any people that had gone before them, yet were not. Surely they ought to have been, one and all, wealthy and well furnished with the goods which the victory over Nature has won for humanity. This did not seem to be the case.
- It is interesting to note that Morris did not spare a thought for people writing over a hundred years after him. Would there be anything left for future generations? Having conquered Nature and divided up its resources, how would future inhabitants of Earth fare? Provision for future people did not seem to be high on the list of considerations for those engaged in the conquest and victory over Nature, nor to Morris. This same attitude prevails today amongst those that exhaust the Earth of its non-renewable resources.
“But what is the real fact? Who will dare to deny that the great mass of civilized men are poor? So poor are they that it is mere childishness troubling ourselves to discuss whether perhaps they are in some ways a little better off than their forefathers. They are poor; nor can their poverty be measured by the poverty of a resourceless savage, for he knows of nothing else than his poverty; that he should be cold, hungry, houseless, dirty, ignorant, all that is to him as natural as that he should have a skin. But for us, for the most of us, civilization has bred desires which she forbids us to satisfy, and so is not merely a niggard but a torturer also.”
- The real fact is that, despite the Industrial Revolution, the great majority of civilised men remained poor, then as now. They were (and are) so poor, in Morris’s view, that arguing over whether they are slightly better off, in some ways, than their forefathers was (and is) an irrelevance.
- Comparing a modern person’s poverty to that of a resourceless savage is also not a valid comparison, because civilisation has bred desires in most of us which she forbids us to satisfy. Civilisation, on these terms, is not only miserly, but also a torturer and frustrator.
- In modern times, with growing inequality, the same can be said. We have a vast population of people that remain self-evidently poor, despite the advances in production, the more numerous workforces alive today and the amount of resources extracted from Nature so far.
“Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us, thus has compulsion by Nature to labour in hope of rest, gain, and pleasure been turned into compulsion by man to labour in hope – of living to labour!
What shall we do then, can we mend it?”
- Morris argues that the fruits of our collective victory over Nature have been stolen.
- Whereas Nature compels men to labour in hope of rest, gain and pleasure, people have been compelled, by man, to labour in the hope of living to labour. Meaningful work has been converted into unending drudgery.
- The question raised is whether or not this situation can be remedied.
“Well, remember once more that it is not our remote ancestors who achieved the victory over Nature, but our fathers, nay, our very selves. For us to sit hopeless and helpless then would be a strange folly indeed: be sure that we can amend it. What, then, is the first thing to be done?”
- Since the victory over Nature was achieved by the present generation (and their fathers’ generation), according to Morris, it makes no sense for people to sit hopeless and helpless, making no effort to amend the situation. Morris asks where to start.
- Writing from the perspective of 2015, it is plain that people did sit hopeless and helpless and made little effective effort to amend the situation. We are still in the same situation today as mankind was, in Morris’ time. Perhaps our present situation is arguably more urgent and grave.
“We have seen that modern society is divided into two classes, one of which is privileged to be kept by the labour of the other – that is, it forces the other to work for it and takes from this inferior class everything that it can take from it, and uses the wealth so taken to keep its own members in a superior position, to make them beings of a higher order than the others: longer lived, more beautiful, more honourable, more refined than those of the other class. I do not say that it troubles itself about its members being positively long lived, beautiful or refined, but merely insists that they shall be so relatively to the inferior class. As also it cannot use the labour-power of the inferior class fairly in producing real wealth, it wastes it wholesale in the production of rubbish.”
- Morris now divides society into essentially two kinds of people – those that are privileged and kept by the labour of the other group of people, and those who do all the work; the parasitic and the productive, if you like.
- The parasitic, privileged class forces the other to work for it and takes from this class, which it insists is inferior, everything that it can take from it. This class uses the wealth it takes from the productive class to keep its own members in a superior condition, to make them beings of a higher order than the others. By sheer force, violence and coercion, the parasitic, privileged class uses that stolen wealth to become longer lived, healthier, more beautiful, more honourable and more refined than those of the other class.
- The parasitic class does not trouble itself about its members being positively long lived, beautiful or refined, but merely insists that this be so, relative to what they consider to be the inferior class.
- Also, being unable to use the labour power of the productive (and allegedly inferior) class fairly, in producing real wealth, the parasitic class wastes it wholesale, in the production of worthless rubbish. Waste of labour and resources makes the entire community poorer, with the heaviest burden of the poverty they thus generate falling disproportionately on the productive class.
“It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor; if it could be shown that it is necessary for the preservation of society that this should be submitted to, little more could be said on the matter, save that the despair of the oppressed majority would probably at some time or other destroy Society. But it has been shown, on the contrary, even by such incomplete experiments, for instance, as Co-operation (so-called), that the existence of a privileged class is by no means necessary to the production of wealth, but rather for the “government” of the producers of wealth, or, in other words, for the upholding of privilege.”
- Robbery and waste, on the part of the minority parasitic class, keeps the majority productive class poor.
- If it were the case that such inequality was a necessary condition for the preservation of society and civilisation, there would be an argument for the oppression of the productive class, save for the fact that the despair induced in the oppressed majority would probably, at some time or other, destroy society anyway. However, it has been demonstrated (through the co-operative movement, for example) that the existence of a privileged class is by no means necessary to the production of wealth. The privileged class does little more than “govern” the producers of wealth.
- Thus, government reduces to little more than a system for upholding privilege. Little else. It is a protection racket.
“The first step to be taken then is to abolish a class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men, thus forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability, and so produce what they consume – that is, each man should work as well as he can for his own livelihood, and his livelihood should be assured to him; that is to say, all the advantages which society would provide for each and all of its members.”
- Morris’ solution is to abolish idleness and privilege. He wants an end to those that shirk their responsibility to the community to participate in the creation of its wealth and to forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do.
- All must work according to their ability and so produce what they consume. Each man should work as well as he can for his own livelihood and his livelihood should be assured to him. Society should provide all of its advantages for each and all of its members.
- This does not preclude trade and systems of credit, but it does preclude unearned wealth (income), through usury, financial, commodity or property speculation and a rentier economy (operated by privileged landlords, capitalists and idle investors).
- Also not precluded is collaboration on projects that require more than the work of a single man to accomplish, provided that the benefits are shared equitably, according to each worker’s contribution. The mechanisms of such collaborative work ventures are not discussed, regrettably.
- Writing long before the Russian Revolution and the advent of Communism (i.e. State Capitalism), what Morris does not elaborate upon is how his proposed system would ensure that each person works according to his ability and in what way his livelihood should be assured to him. Morris leaves a lot of significant unanswered questions about self-determination, without government by a privileged, idle class (i.e. anarchy) and about a monetary or trading system that might support, rather than undermine, his stated goals. The solution description is incomplete.
- The abolition of parasitic privilege is no small thing to achieve. It has endured for hundreds of years, protected and bolstered by the formation of governments partial to the interests of this class, the judiciary, the apparatus of law enforcement, the military, ownership of the media and its messages and armies of willing supporters, all of whom wish to be admitted to the ranks of the elite (though few of whom actually will be, if any).
- Many of the members of the non-working classes think it their birthright to exploit the labour of others, which is why they act imperiously when one of their employees finally finds their employment situation intolerable and withdraws their labour (through striking or resigning). The assumption the privileged class steadfastly maintains is that another labourer will be along shortly, to exactly fill the place of the one that has left. This mind set takes no account of the unique capabilities of the worker that has left whatsoever. Because this class remains united in its belief, they never admit to themselves or anybody else that they have lost something of immense value, when an employee leaves them. They pretend it is a trifling loss, even though they depend entirely on their hired help to live at all.
“Thus, at last, would true Society be founded. It would rest on equality of condition. No man would be tormented for the benefit of another – nay, no one man would be tormented for the benefit of Society. Nor, indeed, can that order be called Society which is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members.”
- It is Morris’ assertion that his solution, the abolition of idle privilege and class-robbery, would permit a true society to be founded, at last.
- His society would rest on equality of condition (i.e. living conditions). No man would be tormented and abused for the benefit of another. No man would be tormented for the benefit of society, either.
- A society is not worthy of the name, if it is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members.
- Our present, modern society is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members. Millions (if not billions) of people, globally, are completely disenfranchised and tormented routinely and egregiously, both for the enrichment of other people and for the benefit of maintaining the brutal and merciless system of protection of privilege and idleness that our society has degraded into being. Tormenting one person for the benefit of another is the default, accepted norm, in both working life and in general life.
“But since men live now, badly as they live, when so many people do not produce at all, and when so much work is wasted, it is clear that, under conditions where all produced and no work was wasted, not only would every one work with the certain hope of gaining a due share of wealth by his work, but also he could not miss his due share of rest. Here, then, are two out of the three kinds of hope mentioned above as an essential part of worthy work assured to the worker. When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is. Some Socialists might say we need not go any further than this; it is enough that the worker should get the full produce of his work, and that his rest should be abundant. But though the compulsion of man’s tyranny is thus abolished, I yet demand compensation for the compulsion of Nature’s necessity. As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.”
- If everybody produced and no work was wasted, there would be not only the hope of sharing in the wealth of this aggregate work, but also some hope of gaining a due share of the rest. Given that so much work is wasted and so many do not work, then if everybody did their share of the work and little of it was wasted, those that work very hard today would need to spend less time doing so, for the same standard of living (while those who don’t work at all would not have to work as much or for as long as the productive workers have to, today, under the conditions of inequality that prevail).
- Under conditions of full, universal productivity and no waste, two of the three essential kinds of hope, which characterise worthy work, are assured to the worker. When there is no class-robbery, each worker reaps the fruits of his labour and every man has his due rest, or leisure. Hope of rest and hope of product are therefore satisfied.
- Some Socialists would insist that providing two of the three hopes which characterise worthy work is sufficient. It is, they say, enough that each worker should get the full benefit of the full produce of his work and that his rest should be abundant. Morris disagrees. Even though man’s tyranny is abolished, he demands compensation for the compulsion of Nature’s necessity – the fact that men must work to survive. As long as the work is repulsive, it will still be a daily burden and so, will mar one’s life, even if the hours of labour were short.
- The goal must be t add to mankind’s wealth without diminishing our pleasure. In Morris’ view, Nature will not be finally conquered until work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives. In other words, the work must offer hope of pleasure in the work as well; the final third of the hopes that characterise worthy work.
“That first step of freeing people from the compulsion to labour needlessly will at least put us on the way towards this happy end; for we shall then have time and opportunities for bringing it about. As things are now, between the waste of labour-power in mere idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that the world of civilization is supported by a small part of its people; when all were working usefully for its support, the share of work which each would have to do would be but small, if our standard of life were about on the footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think desirable. We shall have labour-power to spare, and shall, in short, be as wealthy as we please. It will be easy to live. If we were to wake up some morning now, under our present system, and find it “easy to live,” that system would force us to set to work at once and make it hard to live; we should call that “developing our resources,” or some such fine name. The multiplication of labour has become a necessity for us, and as long as that goes on no ingenuity in the invention of machines will be of any real use to us. Each new machine will cause a certain amount of misery among the workers whose special industry it may disturb; so many of them will be reduced from skilled to unskilled workmen, and then gradually matters will slip into their due grooves, and all will work apparently smoothly again; and if it were not that all this is preparing revolution, things would be, for the greater part of men, just as they were before the new wonderful invention.”
- Morris argues that freeing labour from the compulsion to toil needlessly and for no useful purpose will at least create the time and opportunities to bring about his revolution in working, the abolition of parasitic privilege and make progress towards making work pleasurable.
- Due to the amount of wasted labour power in mere idleness and unproductive work, it is easy to see that civilisation is currently supported by a small part of its people. If everybody worked usefully for the support of civilisation, it is equally clear that the amount of work each would have to do would be small, if our standard of living were about on an equal footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think of as desirable. Consequently, there would be labour power to spare and we could choose to be as wealthy as we please, as a community. It will be easy to live.
- If people were to find it “easy to live” under the present system of parasitic privilege and worthless work, that system would force us to set to work, at once, to make it harder to live, under the guise of developing our resources, or progress, or some such justification.
- Because the current system wastes so much labour power profligately, the multiplication of the power of labour has become a necessity and an imperative. However, for as long as we insist on wasting human power, no amount of ingenuity or invention of machines will be of any real use to mankind. Each new machine will simply cause a certain amount of misery among the workers whose special industry it may disturb and disrupt, displacing those that formerly performed the work with a machine. So many of these workers will be reduced from skilled to unskilled workmen, robbing them of the pleasure in their work and wasting their valuable skills.
- As each new productivity advance, via machines (or via computerisation, automation or artificial intelligence, in our own time), is introduced, it gradually becomes the accepted norm and the world apparently works smoothly again, just as before the introduction of the wonderful machine. What remains hidden is that each advance merely pushes humanity one step closer to revolution, since each increment erodes the dignity and purpose of labour by one further small amount.
“But when revolution has made it “easy to live,” when all are working harmoniously together and there is no one to rob the worker of his time, that is to say, his life; in those coming days there will be no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing; we shall be able calmly and thoughtfully to consider what we shall do with our wealth of labour-power. Now, for my part, I think the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody; for thinking over the matter carefully I can see that the one course which will certainly make life happy in the face of all accidents and troubles is to take a pleasurable interest in all the details of life. And lest perchance you think that an assertion too universally accepted to be worth making, let me remind you how entirely modern civilization forbids it; with what sordid, and even terrible, details it surrounds the life of the poor, what a mechanical and empty life she forces on the rich; and how rare a holiday it is for any of us to feel ourselves a part of Nature, and unhurriedly, thoughtfully, and happily to note the course of our lives amidst all the little links of events which connect them with the lives of others, and build up the great whole of humanity.”
- Morris says that when the revolution in work has made it easy to live, when we are all working harmoniously together and there is no one to rob the worker of his time (i.e. his very life), then there will be no compulsion to go on producing things we do not want and no compulsion to labour for nothing.
- This, of course, means that a system predicated on growth for growth’s sake (i.e. Capitalism) would have to change, because under this system, there are powerful incentives to produce unnecessary products (to fuel consumption) which must be thrown away prematurely and bought again. People frequently labour for nothing, in the modern world. However, accepting Morris’ premise, he claims that when the revolution in work has happened, we shall be able to calmly and thoughtfully consider what to do with the wealth of our collective and individual labour power.
- The first use we should make of that wealth and freedom should be to make all labour pleasant for everybody, even the commonest and most necessary labour. Taking a pleasurable interest in all the details of life is assured to make life happy, despite accidents and troubles.
- While the above sounds obvious and universally accepted, modern civilisation forbids it. The life of the poor is surrounded by sordid and terrible details. Modern civilisation forces a mechanical and empty life on the rich. People rarely feel themselves to be a part of Nature. They lack the ability to unhurriedly, thoughtfully and happily note the course of their lives amidst the little links of events which connect them with the lives of others and build up the great whole of humanity. In other words, modern civilisation is divisive and isolating, destroying the opportunity for communities to cohere together.
“But such a holiday our whole lives might be, if we were resolute to make all our labour reasonable and pleasant. But we must be resolute indeed; for no half measures will help us here. It has been said already that our present joyless labour, and our lives scared and anxious as the life of a hunted beast, are forced upon us by the present system of producing for the profit of the privileged classes. It is necessary to state what this means. Under the present system of wages and capital the “manufacturer” (most absurdly so called, since a manufacturer means a person who makes with his hands) having a monopoly of the means whereby the power to labour inherent in every man’s body can be used for production, is the master of those who are not so privileged; he, and he alone, is able to make use of this labour-power, which, on the other hand, is the only commodity by means of which his “capital,” that is to say, the accumulated product of past labour, can be made productive to him. He therefore buys the labour-power of those who are bare of capital and can only live by selling it to him; his purpose in this transaction is to increase his capital, to make it breed. It is clear that if he paid those with whom he makes his bargain the full value of their labour, that is to say, all that they produced, he would fail in his purpose. But since he is the monopolist of the means of productive labour, he can compel them to make a bargain better for him and worse for them than that; which bargain is that after they have earned their livelihood, estimated according to a standard high enough to ensure their peaceable submission to his mastership, the rest (and by far the larger part as a matter of fact) of what they produce shall belong to him, shall be his property to do as he likes with, to use or abuse at his pleasure; which property is, as we all know, jealously guarded by army and navy, police and prison; in short, by that huge mass of physical force which superstition, habit, fear of death by starvation – IGNORANCE, in one word, among the propertyless masses, enables the propertied classes to use for the subjection of – their slaves.”
- Our lives would be like a holiday, if we were resolute in making all our labour reasonable and pleasant. However, half measures will not do. We must be resolute indeed.
- Under the present system, we labour joylessly and live our lives scared and anxious, like hunted beasts. These conditions are forced upon us by the present system of producing for the profit of the privileged classes.
- To state what this means, under the present system of wages and capital, the manufacturer has a monopoly of the means whereby the labour inherent in every man’s body can be used for production. The manufacturer is the master of those who are not so privileged. He (and he alone) is able to make use of this labour power, because he has to capital to put that labour power to work (in his factories, using his machines, on his land, etc.). However, this labour-power is the only means by which his “capital” can be made productive to him. Otherwise, it is a useless, inanimate pile of cash. Ironically, his so called capital is actually the accumulated product of past labour.
- Being in this monopolist position, he therefore buys the labour power of those who are bereft of capital, who can only live by selling it to him. The capitalist’s purpose in making this transaction is to increase his capital and make it breed.
- It is clear that if he paid his labour the full value of it (i.e. the value of all they produced), he would fail in his purpose. However, because of his monopoly power, he can compel workers to make a bargain better for him and worse for them. The bargain he forces is this: after they have earned their livelihood, estimated according to a standard just high enough to ensure their peaceable submission to his mastership, the rest of what they produce shall belong to him, shall be his private property, to do as he likes with, to use or abuse at his pleasure.
- Under such bargains, the larger part of the value of the goods produced is said to belong to the capitalist. His private property, as we know, is jealously guarded, on his behalf, by army and navy, police, the judiciary, the body of law and prison. In short, his private property is guarded by a huge mass of violent, armed, physical force, justified by governments and law.
- Workers submit to this bargain out of superstitious beliefs in the rectitude of the government, the supposed superiority of their masters, the fairness and justice of the legal system, the necessity of an elaborate and invasive system of governance to maintain civilisation, habit, indoctrination, tradition and fear of death by starvation.
- Essentially, the bargain made between workers and capitalists is underwritten by ignorance among the propertyless masses. This ignorance permits the propertied classes to subjugate them as their slaves. It is little wonder that the privileged classes hold the working and middle classes in such disdain and contempt. They cannot believe how foolish and ignorant they are, in accepting a bargain so obviously weighted toward favouring the privileged.
- Morris notes that the term “manufacturer” is absurd, since it the word means a person who makes things with his (own) hands. Clearly, under the present system, manufacturers make nothing with their own hands and depend entirely on the labour of others.
“Now, at other times, other evils resulting from this system may be put forward. What I want to point out now is the impossibility of our attaining to attractive labour under this system, and to repeat that it is this robbery (there is no other word for it) which wastes the available labour-power of the civilized world, forcing many men to do nothing, and many, very many more to do nothing useful; and forcing those who carry on really useful labour to most burdensome over-work. For understand once for all that the “manufacturer” aims primarily at producing, by means of the labour he has stolen from others, not goods but profits, that is, the “wealth” that is produced over and above the livelihood of his workmen, and the wear and tear of his machinery. Whether that “wealth” is real or sham matters nothing to him. If it sells and yields him a “profit” it is all right. I have said that, owing to there being rich people who have more money than they can spend reasonably, and who therefore buy sham wealth, there is waste on that side; and also that, owing to there being poor people who cannot afford to buy things which are worth making, there is waste on that side. So that the “demand” which the capitalist “supplies” is a false demand. The market in which he sells is “rigged” by the miserable inequalities produced by the robbery of the system of Capital and Wages.”
- While the system of wages and capital has many other evils resulting from it, Morris makes a special point of demonstrating the impossibility of creating worthwhile work, under this system. He repeats that it is this robbery (stating that there is no other word for it) which wastes the available labour power of the civilised world, forcing men to do nothing and very many more to do nothing useful. Further, he states that it forces those who carry on really useful labour into the most burdensome over-work.
- The “manufacturers’” primary aim is to produce profits, not goods. He does this using the labour he has, by his one-sided bargain, effectively stolen from others. His profit is, as has previously been stated, the “wealth” that is produced over and above the livelihood of his workers and the wear and tear on his machinery. Whether that wealth is real or sham is of no importance to him. If it sells and yields him a profit, it is all right. The defect in this aim and in this thinking is that sham profits are wasteful.
- Because there are rich people that have more money than they can reasonably spend (think, today, of the 1%) and who therefore buy sham wealth, there is waste on this side.
- Because there are poor people who cannot afford to buy things which are worth making, there is also waste on that side.
- The combination of waste due to there being both very rich and very poor people indicates that the “demand” which the capitalist “supplies” is, in large part, a false demand. The market in which he sells is rigged and distorted by these miserable extremes of inequality, which is itself a product of the robbery of the system of capital and wages.
- In our time, inequality is galloping away, at an increasing rate. It is the only possible outcome of the system of robbery of product value, from those that make things to those that do no work, which we blindly perpetuate.
“It is this system, therefore, which we must be resolute in getting rid of, if we are to attain to happy and useful work for all. The first step towards making labour attractive is to get the means of making labour fruitful, the Capital, including the land, machinery, factories, &c., into the hands of the community, to be used for the good of all alike, so that we might all work at “supplying” the real “demands” of each and all – that is to say, work for livelihood, instead of working to supply the demand of the profit market – instead of working for profit – i.e., the power of compelling other men to work against their will.”
- Morris states that it is this system of wages and capital that we must be resolute in eliminating entirely, if we are to attain happy and useful work for all.
- The first step in making work attractive for all is to obtain the means of making labour fruitful – the Capital. The land, machinery, factories and so on that make it possible to convert work into products need to be in the hands of the community, to be used for the good of all alike, so that we might, as a community, work at supplying the real demands of each and all, rather than producing waste.
- What is not elaborated upon is how the community decides which pieces of Capital shall be made available, in what quantity or when to replace worn out Capital with something better and more productive. Soviet Russia established a huge bureaucracy to attempt to do so, but failed utterly in its purpose.
- One problem with shared capital is that some workers use their tools and materials brutally, greatly foreshortening the useful working life of their tools, whereas others use them with delicacy and finesse. The latter find it difficult to work with tools that have been previously abused and damaged by those heavier of hand. Community ownership of capital needs to protect those that take care of the tools and dissuade those that are coarse with them, to maximise the value of the capital to the community and prevent wanton waste.
- Communal innovation is difficult to achieve, because innovation essentially starts with a single person’s burning passion and bright idea. Taking an entire community along with them, in order to get it done, places a massive burden on the innovator, as they need to “sell” their new idea to everybody else, many of whom will be sceptical, if not unreasonable. They will have to spend a lot of time and energy educating and persuading the rest of the community to support them in their ambition, which in itself is a very wasteful use of their labour. This presents an almost insurmountable obstacle, in most cases. Morris did not consider this question. The problem of who controls and makes decisions about the community’s capital is not addressed. While his analysis of the underlying problem may be quite correct, the solution proposed is incomplete.
- William Morris proposed that the community work for their livelihood, instead of working for profit and fulfilling the demand of the profit market. In other words, he wanted an end to the practice of compelling other men to work against their will.
- In such an environment, is leadership necessary? Does it play any part, other than in setting an inspiring example to others? Is there a difference between directing a large, collaborative creative project and compelling men to work against their will? I say there is. Non- coercive leadership still has a part to play in human progress and endeavour.
“When this first step has been taken and men begin to understand that Nature wills all men either to work or starve, and when they are no longer such fools as to allow some the alternative of stealing, when this happy day is come, we shall then be relieved from the tax of waste, and consequently shall find that we have, as aforesaid, a mass of labour-power available, which will enable us to live as we please within reasonable limits. We shall no longer be hurried and driven by the fear of starvation, which at present presses no less on the greater part of men in civilized communities than it does on mere savages. The first and most obvious necessities will be so easily provided for in a community in which there is no waste of labour, that we shall have time to look round and consider what we really do want, that can be obtained without over-taxing our energies; for the often-expressed fear of mere idleness falling upon us when the force supplied by the present hierarchy of compulsion is withdrawn, is a fear which is but generated by the burden of excessive and repulsive labour, which we most of us have to bear at present.”
- When this first step has been taken:
- Men will begin to understand that Nature wills all men either to work or starve.
- They will no longer be foolish enough to allow some the alternative of stealing, rather than working.
- They will be relieved from the tax of waste.
- Consequently, they will find they have a mass of labour power available.
- This surplus labour power will allow us all to live as we please, within reasonable limits.
- We shall no longer be hurried and driven by the fear of starvation (which, at present, presses on the greater part of men in civilised communities at least as much as it does on mere savages).
- The first and most obvious necessities will be so easily provided for, in a community in which there is no waste of labour that humanity shall have time to look around and consider what we really want. It can be obtained without over-taxing our energies.
- We only fear unemployment and enforced idleness, when the force supplied by the present hierarchy of compulsion is withdrawn, because it is generated by the burden of excessive and repulsive labour, which most of us have to bear, at present. Remove the compulsion and we would not be so afraid of working less.
“I say once more that, in my belief, the first thing which we shall think so necessary as to be worth sacrificing some idle time for, will be the attractiveness of labour. No very heavy sacrifice will be required for attaining this object, but some will be required. For we may hope that men who have just waded through a period of strife and revolution will be the last to put up long with a life of mere utilitarianism, though Socialists are sometimes accused by ignorant persons of aiming at such a life. On the other hand, the ornamental part of modern life is already rotten to the core, and must be utterly swept away before the new order of things is realized. There is nothing of it – there is nothing which could come of it that could satisfy the aspirations of men set free from the tyranny of commercialism.”
- One of the best things we can do with this newly obtained idle (leisure) time is to instead make labour more attractive. Doing so will not require a heavy sacrifice, but some will be required.
- We may hope that men who have been through a period of strife and revolution would be the last to tolerate a life of mere utilitarianism, though some ignorant people claim that this is the aim of Socialism.
- The ornamental part of modern life is already so corrupted and compromised that it must be utterly swept away, before a new order of things is realised. There is nothing of it, or which could come of it, which could satisfy the aspirations of men set free from the tyranny of commercialism. In other words, the present edifice of life ornamentation is an unsatisfactory thing, requiring wholesale reform. “Life ornamentation” is defined and described in the next section.
“We must begin to build up the ornamental part of life – its pleasure, bodily and mental, scientific and artistic, social and individual – on the basis of work undertaken willingly and cheerfully, with the consciousness of benefiting ourselves and our neighbours by it. Such absolutely necessary work as we should have to do would in the first place take up but a small part of each day, and so far would not be burdensome; but it would be a task of daily recurrence, and therefore would spoil our day’s pleasure unless it were made at least endurable while it lasted. In other words, all labour, even the commonest, must be made attractive.”
- The ornamental part of life includes its pleasure, bodily and mental, scientific and artist, social and individual. In other words, it’s all the unique things that make us human, rather than simple working machines. It includes intellectual and physical pursuits and includes artistic endeavours as well as scientific ones.
- The ornamental part of life must be built up on the basis of work undertaken willingly and cheerfully, consciously benefitting ourselves and our neighbours by it.
- Even though our absolutely necessary work would take up a small part of each day, it would still be a task of daily recurrence and would therefore spoil our day’s pleasure, unless that work is made at least endurable, while it lasts, as small a burden as it might be. In other words, all labour, even the commonest, must be made attractive.
“How can this be done? – is the question the answer to which will take up the rest of this paper. In giving some hints on this question, I know that, while all Socialists will agree with many of the suggestions made, some of them may seem to some strange and venturesome. These must be considered as being given without any intention of dogmatizing, and as merely expressing my own personal opinion.”
- Morris speculates on how all work can be made attractive, for the remainder of his book. He offers his own opinions on the matter, without the intention of being dogmatic about it.
“From all that has been said already it follows that labour, to be attractive, must be directed towards some obviously useful end, unless in cases where it is undertaken voluntarily by each individual as a pastime. This element of obvious usefulness is all the more to be counted on in sweetening tasks otherwise irksome, since social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of man, will, in the new order of things, take the place of theological morality, or the responsibility of man to some abstract idea. Next, the day’s work will be short. This need not be insisted on. It is clear that with work unwasted it can be short. It is clear also that much work which is now a torment, would be easily endurable if it were much shortened.”
- For labour to be attractive, it follows from all that has been said thus far that labour must be directed towards some obviously useful end, unless the work is undertaken voluntarily by the individual as a pastime.
- Obvious usefulness of result sweetens tasks otherwise irksome, because social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of his fellow man, will, in the new order of things, take the place of theological morality, or the responsibility of man to some abstract idea (such as nationhood, for example).
- The antidote to complacency and producing poor quality work is to be found in making the work attractive, too.
- The day’s work will be short, because work is not wasted, though this short duration of work need not be insisted on. People engrossed and enmeshed in the pleasure of their work could, if they so wished, extend its duration.
- It is clear that much of the work which, today, is a torment would be easily endurable, if it were much shortened.
“Variety of work is the next point, and a most important one. To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment. Nothing but the tyranny of profit-grinding makes this necessary. A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor – occupation calling for the exercise of strong bodily energy for work in which the mind had more to do. There are few men, for instance, who would not wish to spend part of their lives in the most necessary and pleasantest of all work – cultivating the earth. One thing which will make this variety of employment possible will be the form that education will take in a socially ordered community. At present all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their places in the hierarchy of commerce – these as masters, those as workmen. The education of the masters is more ornamental than that of the workmen, but it is commercial still; and even at the ancient universities learning is but little regarded, unless it can in the long run be made to pay. Due education is a totally different thing from this, and concerns itself in finding out what different people are fit for, and helping them along the road which they are inclined to take. In a duly ordered society, therefore, young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of “money-making” for oneself – or one’s master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.”
- Variety of work is, most importantly, essential to make work attractive.
- To compel a person to do the same task, day after day, without escape or change, is nothing short of turning his life into a prison torment and abject servitude. Even so, much Capitalist doctrine, still adhered to religiously in modern times, asserts that this is the most “efficient” way to make things, claiming specialisation and division of labour is the natural way to produce quality goods. It is only the tyranny of profit-grinding that makes this necessary.
- A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupations with outdoor occupations, which call for the exercise of strong bodily energy, to better prepare him for work in which the mind has more to do. Not only is this a healthier way to live, intellectual pursuits inform purely physical ones and physical pursuits improve the performance of purely intellectual ones. There is good science to back up this assertion. Polymaths have always known it. There are very few men who would not wish to spend part of their lives cultivating the land, for instance – the most necessary and pleasant of all work.
- Education, in Morris’ proposed world, would also need to reform. Whereas current education practice, right up to the present day, is directed toward fitting people to take their places in the hierarchy of commerce (some as masters, others as workmen), due education would concern itself with finding out what different people are fit for and helping them along the road they are inclined to take. Rather than requiring that humans conform to some pre-defined roles and pre-ordained occupations, the new form of education would be about discovering an individual’s particular talents and inclinations, nurturing and developing those, so that the individual could pursue a true vocational career, exercising their talents, abilities and interests to the fullest.
- In the present educational system, the education of masters is more ornamental than that of the workmen, but it is still commercial. Even at the ancient universities, learning is little regarded and valued, unless it can, in the long run, be made to pay. We have seen a worsening of this tendency toward purely commercial concerns, in education, over the past few decades. Learning for any other purpose than in the support of commerce has been denigrated in status and had its funding cut.
- The new education system would teach young people such handicrafts as they had a turn for, as well as disciplining their minds and bodies. Adults would have the opportunity of learning in the same schools.
- The development of individual capacities (whether in a child or an adult) would be the chief aim of education, in the new system, rather than the subordination of those capacities to the great end of money-making, for oneself or one’s master. Today, children with non-commercial abilities are steered away from these and towards “real jobs”. They are taught in ways that can support them in getting one of these “real jobs”, rather than developing their special talents and abilities, whatever they happen to be. For this reason, many enter the world of work feeling inferior, force-fitted into roles that would not have been their natural or first choice and deeply frustrated that they have not been permitted to follow their inner calling.
- The amount of talent (and even genius) that the present system of education crushes (geared up as it is to prepare people for work in a world of wages and capital), would instead be drawn out by the education system, proposed above. It would make our daily work both easy and interesting.
- If people are give education which encourages creativity and personal development, it necessarily follows that work would only be seen as attractive if it had less structure. As much as managers hate to imagine it, because they see themselves as masters and therefore believe in the myth that they are superior in every way to their workers, people thrive when they work with less micromanagement and fewer rigid schedules of work. Eliminating arbitrary, artificial, “motivating” deadlines, which are transparent methods of grinding more profit out of the workers, causes productivity to increase. Any work that is organised around rigid timetables, fixed rotas, production stations, fixed and repetitive tasks and overly prescriptive working practices might give the masters the illusion of control, but it harms the collective output and prevents people from enjoying their work or taking pleasure in it. Masters are not required.
- To achieve more variety in the work, workers need the flexibility to decide what to do with the time and resources available to them and how to best do the work. Grant them the resources they need, a brief of the goods required and an approximate, expected due date and let them figure out the rest for themselves. Better still, under the new system of work, people should establish their own ideas of what they need to produce, based on the actual demand of the community.
- Under the present system of wages and capital, people are forced to work at an artificially, arbitrarily rapid pace, so as to maximise profits for the employer. Under the new regime of work, people would work at their own pace, which is most comfortable for them and which produces the best quality product. Rushing the work often causes additional worker stress needlessly and compromises the integrity of the product, so is really another form of waste. Products are made hurriedly and are, therefore, not as good as they ought to be. If something is worth making at all, then it is worth making well.
- Another essential requirement of work that is pleasurable is to give workers autonomy. They ought to have personal responsibility for producing work of quality, without wasting resources, to satisfy the community’s needs. Workers need full control over setting their own task priorities, assuring the quality of their work, making decisions about what to make and how, choosing their own tools and processes and so on. This does not mean that nobody should collaborate in their work, or mentor others of lesser experience in a given task, however. While each person should have a high level of self-determination in their work and take personal responsibility for their produce, it doesn’t follow that they must work alone or work only on things they can personally achieve, with their own manpower and time. Larger community accomplishments are still possible and necessary.
- For most people, their motivation to make and create is very likely to occur at different times of the day, not according to “regular business hours”. Taking advantage of these moments of high motivation, whenever they occur and permitting down time or thinking time, when motivation is lower, is another key aspect of making work pleasurable. It is a characteristic of the toxic wages and capital system that workers are required to be motivated and at their peak of performance all day long. Again, this is a dictate of profit grinding. Actual productivity suffers. Better product and more product results from people respecting their human cycles of fatigue and motivation, producing primarily when fully motivated and not requiring output, when motivation and stamina is lacking.
- To a self-directed worker, routines make little sense. While some enjoy the self-discipline of showing up to perform a particular task at a particular time, most workers find more variety and hence pleasure in changing their daily patterns of work, according to needs. More correctly, it is externally imposed routines, which are impossible for the worker to modify that destroy the pleasure in working.
- When people are educated to enhance their natural inclinations and talents, job titles and fixed categories of work, or industries, make less sense. These traditional fields of work are an artefact of the education system that attempts to place each person within the commercial hierarchy. In fact, real people are different and have a variety of skills which span traditional job description boundaries. One is likely to find a ceramicist, musician and steam engineer in a single person, whereas commercial job descriptions do not permit such a mix of abilities and interests. In today’s world of work, the individual must choose one of his abilities to “specialise” in, abandoning the other talents and interests entirely. This is not a natural state of affairs at all. Polymaths, again, have always known it. In the new world of work, people would be able to utilise their particular creative strengths, whatever they happen to be, without abandoning any of them. This, again, increases the pleasure in work and ensures that talents and abilities available to the community are never wasted. If the ceramicist, musician, steam engineer never makes another pot or writes another note of music, in order to specialise in steam engines, what a tragic loss of pottery and musical composition the community endures!
- Whereas it is a commonplace, today, for such an individual to announce themselves in public as a “Steam Engineer”, without mentioning or even hinting at their abilities and fascination with ceramics and music, in the future it would be a travesty to personally identify with and organise one’s entire working life around a single skill, while pretending the other skills do not exist and permitting them to wither, through underutilisation.
- Instead of being rule-following economic drones of capitalism, we are essentially playful beings. The most basic level of being is play rather than economics, fun rather than rules, goofing around rather than filling in forms. The concentration on investment technologies that favour labour discipline and social control has been a feature of the modern era. Hence the internet. To quote the anthropologist and anarchist, David Graeber, “The control is so ubiquitous that we don’t see it.” We don’t see, either, how the threat of violence underpins society, he claims. “The rarity with which the truncheons appear just helps to make violence harder to see.” The blanket surveillance by governments all over the world and the ever-present threat of being hacked maliciously or trolled mercilessly, cyber stalked or publicly shamed and humiliated, just add to the not so veiled threat of violence. It’s almost as if these unsavoury aspects of life on the Internet are co-ordinated and controlled by a privileged class, in order to subjugate ordinary people. What is utterly remarkable about the Internet and Social Media is how few CEOs and privileged people participate in it personally, rather than through paid representatives and ghost writers.
“Under this head of variety I will note one product of industry which has suffered so much from commercialism that it can scarcely be said to exist, and is, indeed, so foreign from our epoch that I fear there are some who will find it difficult to understand what I have to say on the subject, which I nevertheless must say, since it is really a most important one. I mean that side of art which is, or ought to be, done by the ordinary workman while he is about his ordinary work, and which has got to be called, very properly, Popular Art. This art, I repeat, no longer exists now, having been killed by commercialism. But from the beginning of man’s contest with Nature till the rise of the present capitalistic system, it was alive, and generally flourished. While it lasted, everything that was made by man was adorned by man, just as everything made by Nature is adorned by her. The craftsman, as he fashioned the thing he had under his hand, ornamented it so naturally and so entirely without conscious effort, that it is often difficult to distinguish where the mere utilitarian part of his work ended and the ornamental began. Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in the work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure. All this has now quite disappeared from the work of civilization. If you wish to have ornament, you must pay specially for it, and the workman is compelled to produce ornament, as he is to produce other wares. He is compelled to pretend happiness in his work, so that the beauty produced by man’s hand, which was once a solace to his labour, has now become an extra burden to him, and ornament is now but one of the follies of useless toil, and perhaps not the least irksome of its fetters.”
- Ornamentation, prior to rampant commercialisation of the making of things, was once a natural outcome of the maker enjoying the work and seeking variety in what is made, rather than making every article identically the same as the last. As a workman’s skilled improved, so the level of skill demonstrated and applied also increased, resulting in more ornate and decorated products. The ornamentation was a mark of how much the workman cared about the work he was producing.
- Today, when items exhibit ornamentation, it is a forced ornamentation, produced in a joyless, regimented, identical way. It is not the spontaneous expression of contentment in the making of the object, it is a standardised requirement imposed for commercial reasons.
- Uniformity of product is imposed for profit-grinding reasons. It is cheaper to stamp out identical units than to permit individual variances and uniqueness.
- Once, every item made by a craftsman was somewhat unique and therefore more highly valued, if the item in question exhibited outstanding workmanship or artisanal skill. While there is some value in the interchangeability and universal fitment of items like standardised screw threads, this is by no means a virtue in all things made. Bugattis, for example, were all hand-made and even the screw threads were unique to the maker. Replacement parts have to be hand-made, by exceptionally skilled hands, to the pattern of the original part; not picked willy-nilly from a parts bin of identical units. For this reason, Bugattis were often made to the highest standards of quality, as each part was a work of high integrity craftsmanship and art. It is for this reason that many early Bugattis are still working today.
- People who do not work, who therefore have no internalised personal experience or measure of what it takes, in terms of application and skill, to make things with their own hands, have no business valuing the work of others. In the current situation, however, products are valued by the people with precisely zero experience or appreciation of making anything. It is clear to see that under such a system, gross errors in valuation will and are made. They aren’t even qualified to adjudicate the value of the raw materials used, particularly when these are non-renewable resources that have become non-existent or extinct, through excessive demand for them.
- Before the rampant commercialisation of all human industry, everything that was made by man was adorned by him, just as everything made by Nature is adorned by her. As the craftsman fashioned the thing he had under his hand, he ornamented it so naturally and without conscious effort that it is difficult to distinguish where the mere utilitarian part of his work ended and the decorative, ornamental part began. This tradition was alive and generally flourished, for hundreds and thousands of years, before the advent of Capitalism. Ordinary workmen, going about their ordinary work, produced what has been come to be known as “popular art” or “folk art”. Each piece they made was adorned in a uniquely decorative way, because there was no thought of doing it any other way. The origin of this artifice was the necessity that the workmen felt, intuitively, for variety and pleasure in his work. The beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world. Even still, obtaining variety and pleasure in the work was more important to the workman, because it stamped all labour with the impression of pleasure and all products with the unmistakable, indelible impression of a thing well made, by somebody that cared about making it, who took great pleasure in doing so. All this has quite disappeared from the work of civilisation.
- Removing the opportunity to vary and ornament that which is made, at the whim of the maker (or prohibiting it), removes one of the things that makes work attractive, joyful and interesting.
- Today, if you wish to have ornament, you must pay specially for it. It is not a standard and expected part of any product. The workman is forcibly compelled to produce ornamentation, as he is to produce any other kind of wares. He is compelled to pretend happiness in his work, so that the beauty produced by man’s hand, which was once a solace to his labour, has now become an extra burden to him.
- Ornamentation is now but one of the follies of useless toil and perhaps one of the more irksome of its fetters. Instead of producing ornamentation for the sheer joy of doing so, it has become drudgery, nevertheless demanding exceptional skill and labour, produced to uniform specifications and to order, if the customer is prepared to pay more for it. Ornamentation is now soulless.
- This is why you see so very few products of the Arts and Crafts Movement which are identical to one another. The very ethos of the movement is to permit pleasure in the work, by allowing and encouraging natural, unconscious variances. Mass production is anathema to the philosophy.
“Besides the short duration of labour, its conscious usefulness, and the variety which should go with it, there is another thing needed to make it attractive, and that is pleasant surroundings. The misery and squalor which we people of civilization bear with so much complacency as a necessary part of the manufacturing system, is just as necessary to the community at large as a proportionate amount of filth would be in the house of a private rich man. If such a man were to allow the cinders to be raked all over his drawing-room, and a privy to be established in each corner of his dining-room, if he habitually made a dust and refuse heap of his once beautiful garden, never washed his sheets or changed his tablecloth, and made his family sleep five in a bed, he would surely find himself in the claws of a commission de lunatico. But such acts of miserly folly are just what our present society is doing daily under the compulsion of a supposed necessity, which is nothing short of madness. I beg you to bring your commission of lunacy against civilization without more delay.”
- Besides making labour of short duration, producing useful goods and promoting variety in the work, another thing that adds attractiveness and pleasure to work is to be able to conduct it in pleasant surroundings. The misery and squalor, both in our homes and places of work, which we people of civilisation bear with complacency, as a necessary part of the manufacturing system, would not be acceptable at all, in the home or workplace of a private rich man. A wealthy man who allowed cinders to be raked all over his drawing room, who allowed people to defecate and urinate in each corner of his dining room, who habitually made a refuse heap of his once beautiful garden, who never washed his sheets or changed his tablecloth and made his family sleep five in a bed, would find himself committed to a lunatic asylum. Such acts of miserly folly are exactly what our present society is doing daily, under the compulsion of a supposed necessity. Factories are buildings that were the machines removed, would not be fit for human habitation, lacking adequate warmth, light and protection from the elements. Most add a noise hazard and grime, to the abject discomfort. Workers returning from these workplaces trample industrial grime and harmful toxins into their homes, sharing the hazard with wives and children. I know of workmen who have died of exposure to asbestos, whose wives also died for the same reason, having been exposed to the fibres when cleaning their husband’s work clothes. Due to the pressures of working and commuting, many families cannot attend to washing their sheets and tablecloths, or cleaning their houses, as frequently as would be ideal. Their gardens are unkempt, due to the lack of remaining leisure time and energy to attend to them adequately. Although sleeping five to a bed has, thankfully, passed into history, many families still struggle to live in houses that are way too small for their practical, material needs and comfort.
- Modern offices, with their noisy and intrusive open-plan layouts, impersonal cubicles, and constant network surveillance, coupled with less than adequate heating, cooling and lighting, are also unfit for human habitation, yet most people spend up to a third of their lives in them. The houses of the poor, within our society, are also without the creature comforts that would soothe them and make their work bearable. Old age pensioners and retirees must frequently decide between eating and keeping warm, in the winter. Food banks are on the increase. These unpleasant surroundings are a reality for modern workers.
“For all our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the outcome of the profit system. Capitalistic manufacture, capitalistic land-owning, and capitalistic exchange force men into big cities in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital; the same tyranny contracts the due space of the factory so much that (for instance) the interior of a great weaving-shed is almost as ridiculous a spectacle as it is a horrible one. There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind. All labour is not yet driven into factories; often where it is there is no necessity for it, save again the profit-tyranny. People engaged in all such labour need by no means be compelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in industrial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.”
- Crowded towns, cramped living spaces and bewildering factories and offices are simply the outcome of the profit system. While unearned income, in the form of rents, accrues to landowners, there is financial pressure to maximise earnings from the space available.
- Capitalistic manufacture, capitalistic land-owning and capitalistic exchange force men into concentrated, big cities, in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital.
- The same tyranny contracts and condenses the due space of the factory so much that, as an example, the interior of a great weaving shed is almost as ridiculous a spectacle as it is a horrible one. If you have worked in heavy industrial factories, you will be familiar with how overly-crowded they are and how little concession to safety and comfort is afforded the workers.
- There is no necessity for this degradation of surroundings other than the necessity for grinding profit out of men’s lives and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind. Not all labour is yet driven into factories, but it is often the case that people are compelled to come to a place of work when there is no necessity for it, save for the profit tyranny and the illusion of control. People engaged in all such labour need not be compelled to pig together in close city quarters, yet each morning, literally millions of commuters drag their tired bodies into large cities, riding on overcrowded trains, or stuck in interminable traffic jams, breathing fumes. There is no reason why they should not work and follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in industrial colleges or in small towns located in picturesque places. In short, they could work wherever they find it happiest to live.
- In a system that forbade people who do not work at all (save for the very young, the elderly, the sick and the disabled), the rentier economy, with its demands for unearned income, would cease entirely. There would be ample space available, to work and live. Most importantly, there would be space to enjoy working and living.
- People ought to be able to live where they work and work where they live. Other than for reasons of specific interpersonal collaboration, there is no necessity for most people to gather together in a single place of work, every day, to get things done together. We have telepresence and project management tools on-line, today, which facilitate much of the contact that previously required physical presence and co-location.
- An end to the daily grind of commuting to and from work, which blights the lives of millions of workers today, would greatly increase the pleasure derived from work. Commuting has no adequate justification, in the modern world, as it is profligately wasteful of resources, time (i.e. of workers’ lives), their money and of their energies. It also takes a physical toll on health, through stress and truncated sleep and degrades the quality of family time and of the family’s nutrition, through last-minute, rushed preparation of evening meals, cursory lunch provision and skipped breakfasts.
- Without this sheer waste of labour-power, caused by commuting, better and more useful things could be achieved and accomplished, which would give each individual more pleasure in their work and greatly benefit the community.
- Home-working is largely prohibited, today, because the employer wishes to obtain as much work (and hence profit) out of his workers as possible, through sheer intimidation, by constant, vigilant worker oversight and supervision. These heavy-handed, stand-over tactics actually result in less work of value being done and less profit, therefore, being generated. It is self-defeating.
“As to that part of labour which must be associated on a large scale, this very factory system, under a reasonable order of things (though to my mind there might still be drawbacks to it), would at least offer opportunities for a full and eager social life surrounded by many pleasures. The factories might be centres of intellectual activity also, and work in them might well be varied very much: the tending of the necessary machinery might to each individual be but a short part of the day’s work. The other work might vary from raising food from the surrounding country to the study and practice of art and science. It is a matter of course that people engaged in such work, and being the masters of their own lives, would not allow any hurry or want of foresight to force them into enduring dirt, disorder, or want of room. Science duly applied would enable them to get rid of refuse, to minimize, if not wholly to destroy, all the inconveniences which at present attend the use of elaborate machinery, such as smoke, stench, and noise; nor would they endure that the buildings in which they worked or lived should be ugly blots on the fair face of the earth. Beginning by making their factories, buildings, and sheds decent and convenient like their homes, they would infallibly go on to make them not merely negatively good, inoffensive merely, but even beautiful, so that the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish.”
- For larger scale projects, factories may be a necessary evil, but under a new system of work and labour, they could at least offer opportunities for a full and eager social life, surrounded by many pleasures. Factories might even become the centres of intellectual activity.
- Work in the new factories might be quite varied. Tending to machinery might only take up a small part of each worker’s day. The other work they do might vary from raising food from the surrounding country to the study and practice of art and science (and crafts).
- Of course, people engaged in such work, being the masters of their own lives, would not allow and rush into, for lack of planning, themselves being forced to endure dirt, disorder or lack of room. Science, duly applied, would enable to them to get rid of refuse, to minimise, if not wholly destroy, all the inconveniences which at present accompany the use of elaborate machinery, namely smoke, stench and noise. Recycling technologies and the fact that they needed to grow safe food near their factory would ensure that the wanton pollution that most modern factories spew forth would be a thing of the past. Such workers would also not permit that the buildings they worked or lived in should be ugly carbuncles on the fair face of the earth.
- Even today, so few places of work make any attempt whatsoever to shield their workers and passers-by, or their neighbours, from excessive noise, even though technologies to do so are readily available. Open plan offices are perhaps some of the noisiest environments in which people are required to perform intellectually demanding work, yet employers would rather maintain surveillance over their workforce, save office costs and cling to the illusion of control, in preference to providing quiet areas in which people may work uninterrupted and with fully focussed concentration.
- The smoke and stench emitted from modern factories and the lack of any serious attempt to ameliorate these problems is nothing short of disgraceful. Employers refuse to spend any of their profits on correcting these issues. The workplaces of most modern corporations are ugly sheds, erected hastily and cheaply, lacking ornament or artifice and standing like an eye-sore on the landscape, rather than blending in harmoniously and sensitively. These hastily erected sheds are energy inefficient in the extreme and, in many cases, expose the workforce to the full vicissitudes of the weather. Out of town industrial estates are bereft and devoid of of any leisure facilities, places to eat in quiet and comfort, convenient places to conduct the ordinary business of their lives, or any intellectual stimulation whatsoever.
- If we begin by making factories, buildings and sheds decent and as convenient as a reasonable home, then not only will they be merely inoffensive, but perhaps even beautiful. The glorious art of architecture, slain some time ago by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish, experiencing a true renaissance.
“So, you see, I claim that work in a duly ordered community should be made attractive by the consciousness of usefulness, by its being carried on with intelligent interest, by variety, and by its being exercised amidst pleasurable surroundings. But I have also claimed, as we all do, that the day’s work should not be wearisomely long. It may be said, “How can you make this last claim square with the others? If the work is to be so refined, will not the goods made by very expensive?””
- In summary, work can be made attractive by:
- The consciousness of usefulness
- Carrying it on with intelligent interest
- Having variety in the work
- Doing the work in pleasurable surroundings
- Not making the day’s work long and wearisome
- If the work is to be so refined and yet short, won’t the goods made be very expensive? Morris proceeds to address this question in the next section.
“I do admit, as I have said before, that some sacrifice will be necessary in order to make labour attractive. I mean that, if we could be contented in a free community to work in the same hurried, dirty, disorderly, heartless way as we do now, we might shorten our day’s labour very much more than I suppose we shall do, taking all kinds of labour into account. But if we did, it would mean that our new-won freedom of condition would leave us listless and wretched, if not anxious, as we are now, which I hold is simply impossible. We should be contented to make the sacrifices necessary for raising our condition to the standard called out for as desirable by the whole community. Nor only so. We should, individually, be emulous to sacrifice quite freely still more of our time and our ease towards the raising of the standard of life. Persons, either by themselves or associated for such purposes, would freely, and for the love of the work and for its results – stimulated by the hope of the pleasure of creation – produce those ornaments of life for the service of all, which they are now bribed to produce (or pretend to produce) for the service of a few rich men. The experiment of a civilized community living wholly without art or literature has not yet been tried. The past degradation and corruption of civilization may force this denial of pleasure upon the society which will arise from its ashes. If that must be, we will accept the passing phase of utilitarianism as a foundation for the art which is to be. If the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shines for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth – day and night, summer and winter – can be presented as a thing to understand and love, we can afford to wait awhile till we are purified from the shame of the past corruption, and till art arises again amongst people freed from the terror of the slave and the shame of the robber.”
- Morris concedes that we will need to make some sacrifices, as a community, to make labour attractive. It won’t come for free.
- While it is certainly true that if we accept the dirt and misery and continue to work in the same hurried, disorderly and heartless way, as we do today, we could work very much less than would be necessary, if we instead expended additional effort to make work more attractive, but accepting this as the de-facto state of affairs would be a listless and wretched settlement indeed. This hard-won freedom would not reduce our anxiety at all and for this reason, Morris says that such a settlement is impossible.
- We could, instead, raise the condition of the entire community to that standard already called out as desirable and be happy to make the sacrifices required to do so. Each individual should actively want to give up a little more of their time and ease, to raise the standard of life.
- People, either by themselves or associated for the purpose, might freely produce the ornaments of life for the service of all, motivated by the love of the work and its results, stimulated by the hope of the pleasure of creation. We might produce the ornaments of life, as a matter of course, by enjoying our work, instead of as we are bribed to do now, in the service of a few rich men.
- A civilised community without art or literature has never been tried. Maybe the degradation and corruption we’ve endured will force denial of pleasure on the society that rises from the ashes and we might accept the passing phase of mere utilitarianism as a foundation for the art which is to be. It might take time for art to rise again, once people are freed from slavery and the shame of the robber. This is an acceptable wait, if in the mean time we eliminate poverty and want, become more loving and tolerant toward one another and share equally in the wealth of Nature.
“Meantime, in any case, the refinement, thoughtfulness, and deliberation of labour must indeed be paid for, but not by compulsion to labour long hours. Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have as yet made no use.”
- Refinement, thoughtfulness and deliberation of labour have to be paid for, it is true, but not by compulsion to long hours.
- Morris suggests that we use machines to achieve it instead. We’ve made little attempt so far to use machines for this. Machines have been used to grind profit, to discipline the workforce and as a means of social control, but rarely to realise other alternative ways of living and working, more beneficial to the community. The reason is that the privileged classes are more interested in using their retained capital to preserve their privilege than to use it and the technologies available to improve the situation of the entire community. It reduces to an unwillingness to share the wealth of the planet and their good fortune. They would rather preserve the exclusivity of their privilege.
“They are called “labour-saving” machines – a commonly used phrase which implies what we expect of them; but we do not get what we expect. What they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the “reserve army of labour” – that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers and to intensify the labour of those who serve the machines (as slaves their masters). All this they do by the way, while the pile up the profits of the employers of labour, or force them to expend those profits in bitter commercial war with each other. In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, which by their means might be so reduced as to be but a very light burden on each individual. All the more as these machines would most certainly be very much improved when it was no longer a question as to whether their improvement would “pay” the individual, but rather whether it would benefit the community.”
- So-called “labour saving devices” have merely reduced skilled labour to unskilled and increased the ranks of the reserve army of labour (i.e. the unemployed).
- Machines have increased precarity and intensified the labour of those who serve the machines (as slaves of their masters). People are more in fear of losing their jobs and hence livelihoods and have to work so much harder, because of machines being introduced. This applies especially to occupations where the use of artificial intelligence is increasing, in modern times.
- While this is happening, employers pile up the profits, or else are forced into spending those profits in bitter and ultimately wasteful commercial wars with each other (through additional marketing and advertising expenditure, for example).
- Machines, these miracles of ingenuity, could be used, for the first time, to minimise the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, reducing the burden on each individual to a very light one. Improvements in machines wouldn’t come about only if they would pay the individual, but on the basis of whether they would benefit the community.
- The privileged classes, for their part, wish that machines (and artificial intelligence, in our own time) could be used to maintain their privilege, making the actual human working classes and even the middle classes wholly redundant, but this is a pipe dream. Machines cannot be made conscious, today, so will fail to perform as well as conscious workers. Consciousness is still required to make all the micro-decisions that attend any moderately complex task.
- If machines were to achieve consciousness, they would not, in all likelihood, uphold the present system of privilege either. They would overthrow and eliminate these non-workers, in the name of labour efficiency, as Morris is arguing we ought to, anyway.
“So much for the ordinary use of machinery, which would probably, after a time, be somewhat restricted when men found out that there was no need for anxiety as to mere subsistence, and learned to take an interest and pleasure in handiwork which, done deliberately and thoughtfully, could be made more attractive than machine work.”
- Handiwork would tend to displace ordinary machine work anyway, once workers were freed from the anxiety of merely subsisting and learned to take an interest and pleasure in handiwork, if done deliberately and thoughtfully. It would be more attractive than machine work.
- Even today, when making furniture as a pastime, for example, the decision about whether to use power tools or hand tools, to make the furniture, rests entirely with the craftsman. When the hand-tool produces a better result, the cabinet maker will almost always make that choice, if freed from the pressures of producing the furniture for a profit.
“Again, as people freed from the daily terror of starvation find out what they really wanted, being no longer compelled by anything but their own needs, they would refuse to produce the mere inanities which are now called luxuries, or the poison and trash now called cheap wares. No one would make plush breeches when there were no flunkies to wear them, nor would anybody waste his time over making oleo-margarine when no one was compelled to abstain from real butter. Adulteration laws are only needed in a society of thieves – and in such a society they are a dead letter.”
- As people are released from their daily terror of starvation, becoming compelled by nothing other than their own needs, they would discover what they really wanted. As a consequence, the tendency to produce the wholly optional and unnecessary inanities now called luxuries would diminish, as would the poison and trash now called cheap wares. There would be no need of such products.
- Adulteration laws are only needed in a society of thieves and in such a society they are ignored anyway. As adulteration becomes profitless, it becomes pointless, so the practice of adulterating products, to make them more cheaply, but pass them off as the more expensive item, will be eradicated entirely.
“Socialists are often asked how work of the rougher and more repulsive kind could be carried out in the new condition of things. To attempt to answer such questions fully or authoritatively would be attempting the impossibility of constructing a scheme of a new society out of the materials of the old, before we knew which of those materials would disappear and which endure through the evolution which is leading us to the great change. Yet it is not difficult to conceive of some arrangement whereby those who did the roughest work should work for the shortest spells, And again, what is said above of the variety of work applies specially here. Once more I say, that for a man to be the whole of his life hopelessly engaged in performing one repulsive and never-ending task, is an arrangement fit enough for the hell imagined by theologians, but scarcely fit for any other form of society. Lastly, if this rougher work were of any special kind, we may suppose that special volunteers would be called on to perform it, who would surely be forthcoming, unless men in a state of freedom should lose the sparks of manliness which they possessed as slaves.”
- How would rough and repulsive work get done? Morris says that it is hard to say, until such a society, as is proposed, is actually attempted. He speculates that the workers doing the roughest work would work for the shortest spells. The variety of work provided by the new way of working would also mean nobody would be condemned to only doing rough work.
- If rougher work was specialised, the community would call on specialist volunteers to do it. Volunteers would come, unless they lose the manliness they had as slaves, once freed.
“And yet if there be any work which cannot be made other than repulsive, either by the shortness of its duration or the intermittency of its recurrence, or by the sense of special and peculiar usefulness (and therefore honour) in the mind of the man who performs it freely – if there be any work which cannot be but a torment to the worker, what then? Well, then, let us see if the heavens will fall on us if we leave it undone, for it were better that they should. The produce of such work cannot be worth the price of it.”
- If there is work so repulsive that making it short and infrequent, or attaching a sense of special and peculiar usefulness to it (and hence honour for the workers doing it) doesn’t make it tolerable, then Morris suggests we should leave that work undone. The produce of such work cannot be worth the price of it.
“Now we have seen that the semi-theological dogma that all labour, under any circumstances, is a blessing to the labourer, is hypocritical and false; that, on the other hand, labour is good when due hope of rest and pleasure accompanies it. We have weighed the work of civilization in the balance and found it wanting, since hope is mostly lacking to it, and therefore we see that civilization has bred a dire curse for men. But we have seen also that the work of the world might be carried on in hope and with pleasure if it were not wasted by folly and tyranny, by the perpetual strife of opposing classes.”
- Summarising the whole of Morris’ extended essay so far:
- We’ve seen that the (theological) dogma that all labour is a blessing is both hypocritical and false.
- Labour is only good when hope of rest and pleasure accompanies it.
- We have weighed the work of civilisation and found it wanting, since hope is mostly lacking.
- We have seen that civilisation has bred a dire curse for men.
- We have also seen that the work of the world might be carried on in hope and with pleasure, if it were not wasted by folly and tyranny, by the perpetual strife of opposing classes.
“It is Peace, therefore, which we need in order that we may live and work in hope and with pleasure. Peace so much desired, if we may trust men’s words, but which has been so continually and steadily rejected by them in deeds. But for us, let us set our hearts on it and win it at whatever cost.”
- Therefore we need peace, so that we may live and work in hope and with pleasure.
- Peace is desired, if you listen to what men say, rather than heed how they act. They have steadily rejected it by their deeds.
- Let us set out hearts on it and win peace at whatever cost.
- Note that war is nothing more than a profiteering racket and is driven, meticulously planned, organised and executed by Capitalism’s desire to make disproportionate and rapid profits, through wholesale waste and destruction, then needless reconstruction. Millions die and suffer for it. The psychopaths in charge don’t care about the rest of humanity. They care only for themselves. Why do they need to make such extreme profits so quickly? The answer is so that the privileged classes can maintain and strengthen their privileges, extend their power and control over the rest of humanity and to enrich their private opulence.
“What the cost may be, who can tell? Will it be possible to win peace peaceably? Alas, how can it be? We are so hemmed in by wrong and folly, that in one way or other we must always be fighting against them: our own lives may see no end to the struggle, perhaps no obvious hope of the end. It may be that the best we can hope to see is that struggle getting sharper and bitterer day by day, until it breaks out openly at last into the slaughter of men by actual warfare instead of by the slower and crueller methods of “peaceful” commerce. If we live to see that, we shall live to see much; for it will mean the rich classes grown conscious of their own wrong and robbery, and consciously defending them by open violence; and then the end will be drawing near.”
- Who can tell what the cost of peace will be and if it can be won peaceably? How can it be? We are so hemmed by wrong and folly, that one way or another we must always be fighting against them. Our lives may see no obvious hope to end the struggle.
- Morris says that maybe the best we can hope is to see the struggle get sharper and bitterer, day by day, until it breaks openly into the slaughter of men by actual warfare, instead of by the slower and crueller methods of “peaceful” commerce. I think that Morris’ hope, here, is too pessimistic and fatalistic, but he wrote it long before the appalling scale of the slaughter possible, using sophisticated killing machines, was made evident by the two World Wars and the nuclear age.
- If open warfare transpires, Morris says, it means the rich classes will have grown conscious of their own wrong doing and robbery of the labour of ordinary men, so that they may boastfully live without working at all. In consciously and deliberately defending their illegitimate privilege, by resort to open violence, Morris suggests that the end of the current system of wages and capital will be drawing near. The rich, after all, cannot cling to this approach of using violence to defend the indefensible forever.
- On the other hand, we had a century of perpetual wars, including two World Wars and the Cold War, not to mention two Gulf Wars and war in the Balkans, since Morris wrote these words. The rich aren’t prepared to give up their privileges just yet and have shown a remarkable willingness to use unprecedented levels of industrial scale violence to keep them, so far. For how long can they keep this up?
- The fact is that the privilege of the privileged classes is illegitimate. Nothing justifies their privilege. They are parasitic on society and there is no changing that fact, regardless of how much propaganda, psychological operations, brainwashing, market distortion, political and judicial corruption, war, terror, false flag operations, civil unrest and banking bamboozlement they employ in an attempt to do so. Yes, we have seen the rise and collapse of Soviet-style Communism, which parroted the rhetoric of Socialism, but which merely succeeded in replacing one privileged, non-working class with another. It doesn’t matter how much violence, implied or overt, the privileged classes employ to uphold their privileges, in the face of common, widespread knowledge about its ultimate illegitimacy. Sooner or later, the truth will out. They cannot afford to fully kill off the only people that are actually productive, in society, anyway, for that would bring an end to their ability to live without working. There are limits to how much war they can wage and limits to how much the productive working class will tolerate of it. We haven’t reached those limits yet, despite plumbing the depths of them, but we must surely be closer now than we were one hundred and thirty one years ago, when Morris was writing.
- The privileged cannot sustain forever the relentless campaign of blanket, saturation propaganda, involving the lock down and control of all of the world’s mainstream media, the blunt force attempts to silence and systematically discredit alternative voices on the Internet, the distraction of mass consumption and the creation of command and control “bullshit” jobs to keep disaffection at bay, or the wholesale buying off and corruption of politics and the judiciary, in order to silence and contain the masses either. Control cannot be maintained through increasing personal and national debt peonage, either, because the debts have already become too large to ever repay. Mass surveillance of the entire population is also losing its efficacy, as a tool of control. Keeping everybody who is actually productive fully occupied, supporting their privileged lives, is impossible, because production is now at such a pitch and environmental destruction at such a critical level, that we cannot continue along this path and remain viable as a species. For one thing, the privileged classes’ existential survival needs are satisfied many times over and yet the other classes cannot afford to buy the surplus, due to the one-sided bargain they have enforced with labour, to retain profits for themselves, as a class. Secondly, we cannot continue to progressively turn the Earth’s finite and non-renewable resources into trash. There is nowhere left to put it and nothing left of Nature that can sustain us, if we accomplish that task. In short, the current neoliberal project to maintain the privilege of the privileged classes and all of the tools and techniques they have used, to keep the working classes in their place, are running out of steam rapidly. Doing more of what they have done just isn’t going to work.
- The only viable way out of the conflict is for the non-working classes to give up their privileges. Surrendering them voluntarily will involve less bloodshed and strife than otherwise. Ironically, they stand to gain immeasurably, as human beings, by voluntarily giving up their non-working status, stopping the class robbery, refusing to steal from their fellow men any longer, in order to live without working. It is actually a far brighter prospect to set to developing their own skills and interests, as human beings, through pleasurable, non-wasteful work, rather than aspiring to living lives as virtual invalids, attended by servants and pampered in meaningless opulence. It makes you wonder why they resist it so violently.
- The dream of the privileged and middle classes to never have to work at all makes no sense, when work is pleasant, useful, not-wasteful, hopeful, joyful, allows you to enjoy the fruits of your own labour, provides rest, is varied, short in duration, performed in pleasant surroundings and is, ultimately, edifying and redemptive of the soul. Why would a life of sheer idleness and empty consumption hold any attraction, compared to these benefits? Their ultimate dream and goal is wrong-headed, futile, not in their own self-interests and ultimately unsustainable and indefensible. Why do they cling to it? Stupidity?
“But in any case, and whatever the nature of our strife for peace may be, if we only aim at it steadily and with singleness of heart, and ever keep it in view, a reflection from that peace of the future will illumine the turmoil and trouble of our lives, whether the trouble be seemingly petty, or obviously tragic; and we shall, in our hopes at least, live the lives of men: nor can the present times give us any reward greater than that.”
- Peace will come and in the future, we will look back on the struggle and turmoil as having been worth it. If we aim at an improved way of living and working for all, steadily and with singleness of heart, keeping it in view always, a reflection of the future peace will illuminate the turmoil and trouble of our present lives. Whether our previous troubles appear, in hindsight, as trivially petty or obviously tragic, we shall, in our hopes at least, live the lives of free men, unshackled from the greed of commercialism and the parasitic dead weight of a whole class of people determined to live off the labour of others. The present times cannot give us any greater reward than that.
- The things that William Morris said, in his extended essay, needed to be re-iterated, for our own time. The analysis still holds. The solutions are sound.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was, it appears, about using creativity and artistry in the pursuit of creating worthwhile, productive work for all, producing useful things, of quality, beauty and durability, without waste. There is an equality of living standards built into the philosophy and a repudiation of idleness and coercion, with one class stealing the fruits of the labour of another. William Morris, through his ideas, sought to eliminate both privilege and poverty. As a philosophy, its aims are not bad, though the body of thought does not preclude ornamentation and the use of art to produce things of beauty rather than utility, for the edification of mankind, having satisfied his material needs. In his writings, William Morris succinctly defines wealth without reference to money.
It is clear that, from the perspective of 2015, we are in almost the same unsatisfactory situation as the one Morris so eloquently wrote about, in 1884. In many ways, our situation is even more dire and pressing than mankind’s situation was in those days. A modern interpretation of Morris’ writings demonstrates a clear need for a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s ethos and a revolution in the way we work and produce. It demands political and societal change.
While the class distinctions William Morris described are, today, blurred and de-emphasised, the same dynamics still apply. There is a parasitic class of people that steal from the productive. It is costing us the Earth, creating unconscionable waste and rendering people’s working lives a living misery.
We have the power to change the situation, but we must find the will and choose to do so.
(I did not write this post with the expectation that it would be read widely, or read in its entirety at all. I certainly have no expectation that it will significantly change anything about the world we live and work in. Rather, I wrote it because I felt that such a piece should exist. In so doing, I derived a great deal of solace from doing the work to bring it into existence.)
A scan of the book “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” by William Morris is available here:
If you read to the end of the above PDF, you will observe that Morris’ book (in what could perhaps be a note inserted by the publisher or editor of the series) recommended the reader familiarise themselves with the book “The Rise of the American Proletarian” by Austin Lewis. You can find that book here:
Other useful resources: