As part of my research into ‘work’ I chose to read this paper by William Morris. I am becoming concerned about our relation to work and how the nature of jobs and employment is changing or how it is not. I have looked at some specific examples from the local area and I wanted to look at the history of different points of view on work. William Morris I knew as a designer, craftsperson and socialist as leading member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, I remembered visiting the museum dedicated to him in Waltham Forest when I lived in London. This is in fact a transcription of a lecture he gave in 1884 to the Edinburgh University Socialist Society.
Morris begins by challenging the widely held notion that all labour is innately good. Morris establishes, in common with other authors on the subject, that labour in some form is necessary for human survival. Although all work requires effort and may not be pure pleasure he believes that there should be the potential (he calls this hope) for pleasure in the work. This is something he feels has been lost. He observes that many late 19th century workers do not have the expectation that work could be rewarding in any way. He outlines 3 ‘hopes’ 2 of which he feels are common to socialists and the third may differ:
Hope 1 for fair recompense for work (money)
Hope 2 for sufficient rest (and leisure)
Hope 3 for pleasure (job satisfaction)
He stresses the importance of the worth of the product (here we are not talking of a given economic worth). Any work that does not produce this is, he feels, meaningless.
Morris sums up the class system in this way: – ‘a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to work but produces nothing and a class which works but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive’. (he has identified two types of production – unnecessary items for the richer classes and substandard production for themselves).
So what is different about Morris’s arguments?
Most of the arguments do not differ greatly from standard late 19th century socialism – the abolition of the non working class; community ownership of the means of production and the hopes of fair wages and hours of work for everyone. I shall focus therefore on where he may differ.
Most of the paper is about work and although it is not very good at defining how the ‘new order’ would work Morris does define how he feels work should be. If one can ignore the sexist tone of the writing and some of the vocabulary many of his ideas are quite reasonable although his ways of presenting them is not particularly clear. Morris believes in the pleasure of work being defined through variety and usefulness. He also believes that through the pleasure of work we produce what is not only necessary but also that which is beautiful. In his argument adornment comes from the pleasure of making. Variety in work could mean for example: working indoors and outdoors; using ones physical skills and intellectual skills. The most unpleasant tasks could be done for shorter times and mixed with more rewarding activities. He emphasises working on the land and contact with nature and beauty as a reward for labour. One suggestion is that any necessary evil of factories could be short shifts combined with intellectual activities. Morris lists various products that would be obsolete in his utopia.
Morris’s arguments can be seen as nostalgic and backward looking as they tend to blanket criticism of technology and focusing on its repetitive nature (although he does admit that the machines could perform unpleasant tasks at some point). At times he seems to ignore the harsh reality of many workers under the pre industrial system, he doesn’t mention their living conditions or the feudal class system at all. The fact that women are totally absent from the paper is also a major problem. Morris’s own pleasure in making probably outweighed his dedicating time to developing these arguments. It is also true that the subsequent centuries’ socialist revolutions largely ignored this type of argument against the capitalist model of production. Lenin, it seems, embraced it.
In relation to our own world of work many of his criticisms seem to remain true 130 years later. Capitalism is global, working conditions have improved somewhat for many but certainly not all. Large corporations may have largely replaced the idle rich and much political business. We no longer believe in the Utopias of the 19th and early 20th century and the reserve army of capitalism is huge in places like Spain or Greece.
However if we just focus on the 3 hopes. Many countries have a minimum wage and many people working illegally surviving underneath it. Women have equal pay legislation which has helped in many places. There is an enormous difference between rich and poor which is growing at the moment, I don’t know how this compares to 19th century figures but the trend is very negative especially as social mobility is also declining. Hope 2 – in spite of large unemployment there are very few part time jobs and most people are working longer hours usually for less money. This is true of traditional working and middle class occupations.
Most important for Morris is hope 3. so what of job satisfaction? In Europe we manufacture very little anymore we are more involved in ‘service’ industries do they offer us more satisfaction? I believe this is very difficult to quantify and varies according to country and culture in spite of globalisation. I strongly suspect that there is a limited amount of variety and creativity. There are certainly long hours and insecurity. Of course there are people who opt out and set up alternative economies. Nevertheless I don’t feel able to build a serious argument without more concrete data. I will continue reading from more recent sources.
How would Morris feel about the explosion in design and visual culture? ikea as an example of a global corporation purveying 21st century adornments. What does it sell? it is an excellent example of commodity fetishism unleashed on a huge global scale in identical stores all over the planet. Undercutting all the local carpenters, upholsterers – these trades barely exist. How would poor Morris cope with ikea? He talks about the pleasure of creating the individual designs through the process and pleasure of working.
Those of us who today have any job satisfaction are really lucky. If we have holidays and leisure time and can afford to not only pay our bills and eat but have a surplus for books and travel. Which brings me to the final point. I think I am a product to a certain extent of these utopian dreams of the past. I was allowed a free education for educations sake as Morris describes it unfettered by the money making necessity. I was able to work as little as I could for most of my life and therefore even when I have to do work I do not like I have nearly always had the great luxury of time. I appreciated his education for educations sake like ‘l’art pour l’art’.
I want to investigate how deep this idea that all labour is good still runs within different cultures. Especially as there seems to be an increase of unnecessary production and therefore more meaningless work. There is an enormous difference in the narrative on news programmes in Spain and the UK for example where I hear the ‘working families’ line spun out repeatedly. This is to suggest that the non workers are unworthy and suggests the all labour is good belief is intact. What exactly are those working families doing? and would it meet either Morris’s or our criteria for meaningful. How is it benefiting society? This could not be said in Spain as it would be such a huge insult to so many unemployed, (as I am sure it is to the English) here the reserve army is overflowing with members.