Sunday, January 17, 2010

Useful work versus useless toil revisited

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.


sv koho said...

This is an educational post for me, Kurt and I thank you for it. I have been a longtime fan of the arts and craft era and regard it as the pinnacle of American civilization. I wish we could conjure up such a world as envisioned by Morris and bid goodbye to the likes of Golden Sacks and all the other parasitic corporate rascals who brought us to this place..Wait a minute! We are a consuming despoiling nation of potato couch dwellers who bought into this dream doing god's work just like Lloyd Blankfein, and we all bear our fair share of responsibility for a world in which many nations may come to look like the lunar landscape of Haiti.

Tom said...

Kurt, I enjoyed the post and used the link to the original document. I have always thought that a large portion of "work" in America was not necessary for survival. The problem of coarse is that people depend on that "work" for a living and if the system starts to implode and unravel all those doing unnecessary work be out of work! We seem so close to that edge right now that I am deeply concerned that we could go into unravel mode.

The real sad part for me is when I was in the Peace Corps in 1974 I lived for a time in a rural subsistence village and realized that the people only had to work about 3 hours per day to supply their food and shelter needs leaving the rest of the day for village projects or crafts.

This impressed me as real contrast to the American dream and I must admit that I have struggled with the amount of useless work I have been required to do in my work career. This is especially annoying now that I am retirement age and my retirement savings are being threatened by the instabilities in the system.

WwoofBum said...

Kurt, I agree with you, personally, but I believe you are missing a very important point about the human animal: we are, on the whole, a status driven species. The status drive may (or may not) now be an important survival trait, but it was. So to say that status producing work is "useless" is to miss an important part of our heredity.

There are certainly many of us for whom beauty is more valuable than status, but that is not true for all of us, and perhaps not even most of us.

I believe that as long as status seeking is an inherent trait, Morris' utopia will remain a dream.

Kurt Cobb said...

Let me respond to comments so far:

Tom is correct that given the nature of our society, nearly all of us are forced to engage in what Morris would call "useless toil." I understand as Tom does that people need a livelihood, and unfortunately what is now available to most people are livelihoods that either are essentially useless to society or parasitic to it and may also make our ecological predicament worse. Still, we need a guide to help us discover those occupations and pursuits that might yield useful work.

Tom also knows from experience that getting one's daily essentials does not take 8 or 12 hours a day. It's only the lavish, energy-intensive lifestyles we now lead in a society with swiftly increasing inequality that is pushing us to work ourselves to death for no good reason.

WwoofBum is, alas, correct that status is an important driver for human behavior. Morris is not unaware of this and if you read closely his essay "Useful work vs useless toil" you will see some ways in which he tries to deal with that. Look for the word "honor" as a clue. Still, this part of the human equation requires more thought than Morris gives it in his lecture and other writings.

mattbg said...

Bur, aren't a lot of arts and crafts useless toil?

I see art in efficient systems.