Useful work versus useless toil

Resource Insights Blog

It was the contention of William Morris, the great progenitor of the modern arts and crafts movement and the historic preservation movement, that the signal qualities of industrial society are waste and useless toil. One hundred and twenty-six years after Morris gave a lecture entitled “Useful work versus useless toil” to a group of workingmen in London, little has changed except perhaps that the amount of waste and useless toil has grown exponentially.

The waste, of course, is obvious: wasteful consumption (tied neither to survival nor beauty but rather status); planned obsolescence as an industrial principle (which helps create repeat sales as well as ever higher mountains in our landfills); and profligate energy use which exhausts finite sources of energy such as fossil fuels.

Useless toil refers to all those tasks which either produce nothing of value for society (even if they enrich some individuals) or which actually detract from the overall public good. Morris had a nascent environmental awareness and decried the destruction of the landscape caused by industrialism in England.

Today, some of Morris’s themes may seem passé. He champions shorter working hours so that people can not only rest but also have adequate leisure to enjoy their lives. He thinks work ought to be on the whole pleasurable, that human beings want to work and make things of value and beauty. And, he wants working conditions to be not merely tolerable, but actually pleasant and enticing.

Some of the world’s leading companies have striven to make work as Morris had envisioned it a reality. But perhaps the most questionable aspect of modern work is what it produces. Craft was at the core of Morris’s philosophy, and so the mass consumerism made possible by industrial production has created a world that is an anathema to Morris’s notions of usefulness and beauty. And, it has condemned countless millions of industrial workers in so-called developing countries to live in conditions not far removed from those suffered by the English working class in the 19th century. Think Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, the latter a truly grim accounting.

Another important indictment would be that against the so-called FIRE economy, that is finance, insurance and real estate. Morris would consider these functions parasitic on the true productive output of the economy. He might have advised keeping such functions to a minimum, more like public utilities than central players in the economy. And, the great mass of jobs involving sales, marketing, advertising, public relations, consulting, legal work, accounting and the broad array of desk jobs necessary for any large industrial concern–the jobs we tell college students to prepare for–would also be considered parasitic on the system. Morris would consider practically all the work in these occupations useless toil, no matter how pleasant the working conditions or how good the pay.

How then to run a complex, modern industrial society along principles conceived by Morris? The simple answer is you can’t. But in a society beset by the problems of peaking fossil fuels, climate change, deforestation, depletion of water, destruction of fisheries, and erosion of farmland, Morris sounds like a person in the vanguard of the sustainability movement. Even more famous during his life for his novels than for his tapestries and stained glass work, Morris described the kind of society he deemed consistent with his principles in a utopian novel entitled News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere describes a highly decentralized craft- and agricultural-based society of small towns and villages, one with democratic governance and equality of the sexes. Using the trope of a man visiting the future–200 years into the future to be precise–we get not only a description of the current conditions, but also a history of how the world evolved to that point.

News from Nowhere is not a literary masterpiece. But it offers a useful look into the mind of a man who thought deeply about the relationship between the way we organize the economy and the way we structure society. And, he offered a radical vision that sounds very much like the radical vision of those now proposing the relocalization of human society in response to the myriad challenges we face to our very survival as a species.

For Morris two guiding principles undergirded his social thinking: 1) Nature ought to be the aesthetic guide for society, and 2) pleasure in labor is a necessary condition for the creation of beauty. These principles are not a bad place to start if you are trying to remake all of society. They focus us on nature as we must, and they provide the basis for an appealing vision of a low-energy society that provides high satisfaction for its members.