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.
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…”
“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.
"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…)