Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris (1884)

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. Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts.

In January 1883 Morris joined the tiny Democratic Federation, the only socialist organisation in England. The move crystallised the sentiments he had been publicly expressing in lectures for years, that something was seriously wrong with English society. Here we were, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, commanding the most advanced technology the world had ever seen and yet the majority of the population lived in grinding poverty and misery, either altogether unemployed or employed as slave labour in nightmareish factories producing horrible tat.

This lecture was written and delivered in 1884, in Morris’s new socialist phase. As in his previous lectures he seeks to analyse the causes of the problem, but for the first time he inserts explicitly Marxist analysis of how Capital works to distort and exploit human effort, and in the peroration for the first time states that it may take a violent conflict to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of the established order.  His argument goes:

Defining types of work

Man must work; we must wrest our livelihood from Nature. But work need not be a curse, it could be a blessing, it should be the way humans express themselves, freely and creatively. More precisely, Morris analysis three aspects of productive labour: ‘hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself’ ie that it should last a reasonable period and leave enough time to recover and rest; that it should be engaged on making useful and beautiful things; and that the work itself should give pleasure, as an animal feels pleasure in the exercise of its animal abilities.

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.

The class system analysed by its relationship with work

Having defined useful work, who in Victorian society actually does or is able to do it? Morris defines three classes: the aristocracy who make a point of ostentatiously doing nothing; the middle classes who bustle about a lot claiming to work but their work is either marketing and selling products made by others, or servicing the aristocracy (lawyers, doctors) and the great majority of the population who work like slaves to support the rest.

The upper class (does no work)

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.

The middle class (busies itself servicing the upper class, doing no productive work)

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.

The working classes produce everything in a state of slavery

In fact Morris’s analysis goes deeper than the traditional three classes to look closely into the kinds of employment there are for the labouring classes. It is striking how unchanged society is from his analysis.

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.

Working lives wasted producing rubbish

A horrible irony of the system is that a large proportion of the working class spends and wastes their lives producing tat, so-called luxury items which Morris, with his keen aesthetic sensibilities, considers anything but.

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 for ever 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 logic of exploitation

If the men who labour are forced to do so to support the (admittedly small) upper class, and the much larger varieties of non-productive middle class, it follows that only a minority of their labour effort is left over to produce goods for themselves and that, because their labour is controlled by their masters, they will be forced to produce and consume only the most inferior produce possible.

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.

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.

Is this civilisation?

Can this appalling situation really be the climax of thousands of years of history and so-called civilisation?

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.

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.

Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us.

It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor.

The way forward

Abolish the unproductive classes. Make everyone do productive work.

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. hus, 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.

By simple maths, if twice the number of people did the work which is currently done to produce X, then it will take half the time. Enough work will be done to maintain Society and also guarantee the workers enough leisure time to enjoy their lives.

When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is.

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.

But Morris wants to go beyond this, beyond the workers reaping the fruits of their labour, to insist on one more condition: that everyone’s labour be pleasurable.

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.

After the revolution

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.

Part two – pleasurable work

All the above is only the preamble, accepted by most socialists, to the section which interests Morris. How, after the revolution, can we ensure that work is pleasurable.

  1. All work will be socially useful, unlike current work most of which is socially useless and thus waste
  2. The working day will be short, since a) everyone will now be doing the work which only half the population did before b) the great burden of pointless work, producing tat or pointless luxuries, will be abolished
  3. We will be able to vary the work we do: ‘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.’
  4. Education will be completely reformed to support this utopia:

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.

6. Popular art, which has been crushed and destroyed by commercial Capitalism, will be restored.

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.

7. Decent housing and pleasant surroundings. Once luxury and the parasite classes are abolished and the capitalists incessant drive to make a profit, to ‘make money’, then we can get ride of the squalid rabbit hutches we call houses and build homes worthy of the name, and not all cramped into slum quarters but spread out so as to allow for trees and greenery, for Nature to adorn our lives.

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.

[Regarding factories, where they are necessary] Science duly applied would enable the workers 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.

A new art

Some of his artistic colleagues complain that what we currently call Art (ie luxury) will almost certainly disappear in this new utilitarian society. a) It will be worth it, says Morris, but also b) genuine art is irrepressibly intrinsic to human nature and will reappear, but in new forms.

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.

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