Monday, 16 September 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 5 Hope of Product

This is the fifth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a short story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on.

This is also the second of three posts exploring the topic of work within the story and we are using William Morris' three requirements of meaningful work; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself. If you missed the first one you can read it by clicking here, otherwise it's on to hope of product...

The twin concepts that Morris gives us of hope of product and hope of pleasure in making that product are, for him, closely related; in fact we could say that it is this very closeness that is at the heart of the arts & crafts movement, and which strikes so many of us as so radical even now. Nonetheless in this article I want to try and tease them apart a bit and focus on hope of product, the idea that our daily efforts should result in something meaningful and useful, which helps meet our needs.

What did you make today I wonder? What will you make tomorrow? The answer to these questions might be quite simple; perhaps you made a loaf of bread or a chair, if you’re a baker or chairmaker. If it isn’t bread or furniture, perhaps you made something else useful, a lamp or a book, a film or a bowl. Maybe you did. But I suspect you didn’t.

On the other hand you could be a nurse or doctor and so you made someone better or comforted them. But even this is quite rare.

Instead I wonder if you did what most people do? Make money; not for yourself, but for the person or persons who employ you.

We all know that someone who works in a high street clothing store doesn’t make clothes, instead their job is to sell clothes or, to be more precise, to encourage you to buy clothes from their shop, rather than the one next door. Think about it next time you go into a clothing shop; what does the assistant actually do, other than encourage you to buy, ensure the clothes are on the rack for you to buy and then take your money?

The same is true for Hugo in our story of course. He doesn’t make mobile phones, he may pretend to advise customers based on their needs, but actually his job is to persuade the public that they should buy from his shop rather than the other three down the street and that you should spend as much as you can. His product is profit for a group of people he is unlikely to ever meet.

What a market economy does (even in its most basic form) is replace the link between what you need and what you then produce. So if I needed a bowl, in a non-market, non-exchange society, I have to make one. And of course for most of human history this is how life worked, but slowly over time (long before capitalism) people started to specialise in making certain things, like bowls, and it maybe that they would make them for certain part of the day/week/year and then exchange the bowl for food or other essentials. However, I think it is fair to say that it was a very, very long time before this transformed into a situation where people only made bowls and never made things or grew food to meet their own needs, which of course is where we find ourselves now.

Another crucial difference is that the bowl maker has need of his bowls – nothing leaves his hands that he could not use or own for his own use. Compare this with the current situation where so many workers are producing goods they could never afford to own or have no use of.

 And so we move onto a capitalist system, where the average worker has two products; whatever it is they do or make and the products that they buy to meet their own needs, with the money they are given for their work. This ever increasing disconnect between the two – the genuine needs you have and the tasks you perform on a daily basis – was a concern to Morris and should be a concern for us now.

Morris, in a wonderfully Victorian passage, describes the situation Hugo find’s himself in:

‘…living as they do on wages from those whom they support, [they] cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them…’

Even if we follow this thinking of a market economy and call the product of Hugo’s labour the money he earns with which to buy a jumper, that is only enough to buy one of poor quality. The jumper is entirely constructed from cheap materials (e.g. cotton) and hence quickly becomes misshapen and worn. The stitching is perhaps weak and done in such haste that it did not catch all along the seams. Because it is mass produced it is made to ‘fit’ as many sizes as possible and so hangs a little on him. But the alternative, a properly fitting jumper, of good quality, made over time from excellent materials would be unaffordable to Hugo. And this is exactly the point Morris is making. He continues:

‘…[they] must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with course food that does not nourish, with rotten rainment [clothing] which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of nomad tribe, or the cave of the pre-historic savage.’

The language has changed, but sadly the situation Morris describes has not. Our Bangladeshi worker will almost certainly live in substandard housing, that may well make a tent look plush. She may well be clothed in, at best, her traditional clothing made in a sweatshop in her own country or at worse second-hand clothing the west no longer wants, and yet each day she walks to make jumpers she could never afford. Her actual product (the jumper) is poor and her rewards so meagre that her own living (her product) is pitiful.

Her housing is not made from scrap because it is effective at keeping out the weather and elements, it is because it is cheap. It is cheap housing, because that is all she can afford. It is not unheard of for those in developing countries to have to raise a mortgage to afford a few sheets of corrugated iron to use as a roof.

As ever Morris describes it best:

‘But it is a waste of time to try and 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 slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.’

How often have you bought something, only for it to break, not work or just be horrible to use, or been constrained by money to buy something you know will not last? True quality is such a rare thing in our societies that it is almost impossible to find, and, when we can, the market system makes the time and care it requires unaffordable. This is one of the key problems that craftspeople face; how can their product, which often takes so many hours to produce, ever be affordable to the general population? And so instead we are presented with cheaper imitations to help us make believe that our lives are richer than they are. Some of this we can counter ourselves; buy less and buy quality, make it yourself so that you don’t have to pay for the time it takes and buy second-hand – where quality doesn’t often reflect the price. And we should do these things, but let us be clear that this is tinkering at the edges, our current system cannot allow us all to reverse this system of cheap manufacturing it relies on.

Planned obsolescence has become a much more widely understood term since Annie Leonard’s excellent ‘Story of Stuff’ (if you haven’t watched it do), but it’s true that in a consumer society, that works by citizens buying new products constantly, the idea of something of quality, that lasts, is against the very principle of the system. And so in short, things have to brake, have to be cheaply made, so that you buy new ones. This is also the reason for constant innovation, as it brings new products to the market – replacing those before. Considered refinement of quality and reliability is much lower down the pecking order than “new!”.

Let us come back to our story and just review where we are. Our Bangladeshi woman’s hope of product is extremely poor, whether we are talking about the poorly made jumper she could not afford, and which she has no emotional attachment to or the meagre shelter, food and clothing she can afford with the money she makes from working at the factory.

Hugo, of course, doesn’t actually make anything, his product is simply profit for his ultimate employers; his ultimate personal product is the jumper that will last one year, which he has no input into the making of and which he has very little emotional attachment to.

And what of Mary? Well her product is very different to the others, because she is able to meet her own needs, through her own effort and skills. The end product is one of excellent quality, fitted to her size and shape, of her own design and suited to her needs. Because of this she has an emotional tie and investment in it, which enriches her experience of owning and wearing it.

Morris isn’t saying (and neither am I) that each of us should be capable of making everything and meeting our every need. In fact Morris berates the fact that he has to learn so many crafts, a situation he blames on the way society is constructed. And this leads us nicely into the next blog post, hope of pleasure in the work itself, because we need to reconnect our work with the needs we are trying to meet and create a society where people can develop their skills to create beautiful products, of real quality, for their communities own needs.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 4 Work & Rest

This is the fourth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Out of the blog posts I am doing on The Foolishness of Craft I think these next three are the ones I have been looking forward to the most. They give me a chance to delve into and share some of the work of William Morris, whose great understanding of social and environmental issues should be more widely known. Like Morris, I feel that the nature of what work is, and should be, is the great lynch pin that holds together an understanding of how we might organise ourselves, putting sustainability of both people and planet first and yet provide for our needs in a fulfilling and enriching way.

John Drinkwater, writing as early as 1912, said of Morris that he understood that anyone who is ‘overworked, or employed all the while in degrading work… cannot be [themselves]’ and that Morris’ philosophy is that ‘in bringing back joy to their daily work… [we could put our] feet on the first step towards… true dignity and pride of life.’

Perhaps William Morris’ key writing on the subject of work is in ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, a speech first given in 1884. He opens with a paragraph that even today strikes one as being true. He says: 

“It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful …and 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…” 

Compare this with Iain Duncan-Smith, the British Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, writing in early 2012 and defending a system that required young people to work for multinational companies, for no pay, in order to receive their meagre job seekers allowance. 

“We find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’… I doubt that I am the only person who thinks that supermarket shelf stackers add more value to our society than many of these ‘job snobs’… they should learn to value work and not sneer at it… [I] passionately believe that work in all shapes and forms can be valuable” 

The article is helpfully illustrated with an image of Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco, stating (misleadingly) that he started out cleaning the supermarket floors.

Mr Duncan-Smith, for pretty obvious reasons, is seeking -  like Morris’ “well-to-do” – to bolster a sense of phoney respect for those who stack shelves in Tesco shops. But is really what we want people to be doing? Is it really snobbery to suggest that each of us has it within us to use our genuine skills, talents and enthusiasms to make a worthwhile contribution to society? You only need shelf stackers if you have large shops and big businesses. A small deli or local shop doesn’t employ a shelf stacker. The owner puts the food on the shelf, often doing so to make it attractive. But that is only one part of their role, they have to know what local people like, have to understand food and, in the best shops, when food is in season and what works well together. We need food. We need somewhere to go and get our food and we need someone who knows about it. But society doesn’t need shelf stackers – only big businesses do. It is this transformation, usually through small scale, local, production and distribution that creates work that is meaningful and fulfilling, away from the divisions of labour.

The same attitude often prevails with regard to work in so called developing nations; I have lost count of the number of times I have raised questions regarding working conditions in certain countries, only to be told that they are lucky to have jobs and that the alternative for them is a life on the streets. And yet surely in the C21st after 6 million years of human development, 2.5 million years of using tools, 140,000 years of long distance trade and 5,000 years of writing, we can come up with a better system of organising ourselves than one where the only two alternatives for so many is poverty or slavery.

But let me stop there, because perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself, a little steamed up, a little too political – there is time for that – but for now let us just reject this notion that any job is a good job, and instead recognise that with more thought the tasks that we spend the greater part of our waking hours performing can bring real satisfaction and worth to our lives.

So with that in mind let’s return to our tale.

Morris is clear that work should have three elements in order for it to be ‘useful work’; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself and that these be in ‘some abundance’. In the rest of this blog post we are going to explore the ‘hope of rest’ and in further posts the other two.

Even the wonderfully romantic Morris might suggest that I have painted an overly rose tinted picture of Mary sitting in her garden knitting the jumper, as though she had not a care in the world. In his article he says that “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”, which is a lovely image and one I suspect most of us can relate to. He continues ‘we must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work’.

I firmly believe that such relaxed and enjoyable work as Mary’s knitting is possible and viable, but if she were forced to knit for long periods of time and not allowed a break what joy could there be in it? It is surely the freedom to pick up and put down (within the confines of what nature requires – e.g. the warmth of the jumper), that allows it to be pleasurable. Mary, of course, represents the ideal, free from contractual commitments to do as she wishes, but what of Hugo? There is still the hope of rest, once the shop closes he can stop and relax. But not until then – he has agreed when and where his work shall be undertaken and is kept strictly to that, with serious repercussions if he didn’t. Here rest does not necessarily come when it is needed, it comes when it is allocated; when it suits the employer. Within many jobs (mainly public sector) there is a genuine need to ensure continuous staff presence (e.g. fire service, hospitals etc), but it is hard to suggest that all work needs to be like this, where rules are set to suit the commercial interests of companies.

Morris goes further; rest is not enough. It is the quality of that rest that is also crucial. 

"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. "

 I do not think that there is enough stimulation or interest in Hugo’s job for him to give it much thought when he has left for the night and we can be assured that his rest is indeed uninterrupted by work stress. But what of his boss? The constant phone calls from his area manager, demanding to know why sales for that quarter are down and informing him that his shop is now the lowest ranking in the county. This personalisation of his shop’s performance leads to a great deal of stress; which fails to simply vanish when the key is turned at night. There is rest, but this is not an anxiety free rest; it’s hard to switch off, tough to let go. Relationships at home strained by still speaking and acting as though in the shop. Course work brought back and studied in front of the TV; a pass needed to ‘get on’, if only those damn sales figures would improve. The next morning comes and he doesn’t feel much better than he did the night before – but still, it will be the weekend soon.

This is the modern malaise of the middle classes and Morris, in one of his more reflective moments, would perhaps recognise some of this in himself. But really this passage was aimed at the mass working classes toiling away in factories in slave like conditions. The last 130 years have moved these factories, but not capitalism’s need for cheap labour or it’s disregard for the conditions of its workers. Our Bangladeshi garment worker knows no rest. She has no hope of rest. What precious little time she spends away from the factory is either spent walking to and from work, looking after her family or sleeping. She cannot choose to work or when not to; she has to work every moment she can to feed her family and her set hours can be extended at a moments notice. Sleeping on the factory floor is no rest. How far removed her life seems to Mary’s or even Hugo’s.

Even this first condition, which Morris sets, casts into sharp relief the differences under which work takes place and we need to be radical in demanding true freedom and hope of rest; simply replacing the garment workers extreme lack of rest with Hugo’s boss’ middle class anxiety is not enough (even if it is an improvement). Morris, without using the word, is proclaiming that rest is a basic human right, a basic human need and a society that cannot provide it does not take seriously the sustainability of it’s people and needs urgent reform or revolution.

In the next blog post I’ll be exploring Morris’ second condition, that of ‘hope of product’ and we’ll see just how each of the characters in tale fares (although there are no prizes for guessing beforehand…)