What Makes Work Useful? (Excerpts from William Morris’ “Useful Work vs Useless Toil”)


William Morris

All in all I found Morris’ essay mostly interesting when it talked about work directly and how he defined it and thought to improve it. His complaints about the system or his vague notions of how a socialist community would be former were neither interesting to me nor the point of why I was reading him. So for the most part I am excluding such discussions.

For Morris there are certain “hopes” that one has for their work and the fulfillment of these hopes is what differentiates useful work and useless toil,

It is threefold, I think – hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.

When looking at our own work, we can use Morris’ criteria to see if, by his standards we are engaging in useless toil. Does our work make us more tired than we have time to rest for? Is the product of our work good enough to justify the effort? And finally is the work itself a pleasurable experience? When we think of the work that we want to do is it something we look forward to or is it something we sigh and prepare ourselves for as if we were about to be mildly tortured for eight hours?

It should be made clear that from my vantage point Morris’ is conflating what would call work with effort. But the question of effort and whether it is worth our time and how we can judge whether it is worth our time or not is certainly a valuable question and one definitely related to the idea of abolishing work. So even in this conflation I believe Morris is performing a useful service for those who are interested in the subject of abolishing work.

The hope of rest:

I have put the hope of rest first because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. 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, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest. We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work.

Also 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. If we have this amount and kind of rest we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts.

When we work our jobs what do we see at the end? Respite, reprieve and rest. It makes us desperate for our beds. But what does that mean for the rest of our lives? Seeing friends may take too much time or be too draining given our state or work may knock around our sleep schedule constantly with little regard to us and our needs. Maybe you’ll get enough sleep or heads up in advance but in a lot of cases it is unlikely and downright nearly impossible that you’ll get sufficient rest, let alone sufficient rest and time for the rest of your life in the necessary amounts.

If any of this is the case or anywhere near the case then it is likely that you don’t have a lot of say-so in your jobs conditions. Some jobs are obviously more fast-tempoed than others and some like working without stopping or giving themselves breaks or rest but that’s different from what I am objecting to. I suspect Morris as well wouldn’t really count that as work that lacks the hope of rest since that isn’t a hope that the person values to begin with.

The hope of product:

As to the hope of product, I have said that Nature compels us to work for that. It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines.

I have worked at a few retail stores by now as you may know and every time I was done with working on one thing I hadn’t really produced anything I was either proud of or would have done was I not getting paid for it. There was no hope of product in my work. I didn’t expect to (nor did I) actually obtain something that I really wanted to get out of my work. Not pride or satisfaction or something tangible that I could use for future (besides the minuscule amount of pay I got).

To a certain extent of course you shouldn’t expect to have the hope of product in low-skilled labor jobs. Their MO at present (unless you’ve been in that system for a long time) is to give the workers low-pay, inflexible hours, shifting schedules and so on. So to a certain level I can understand the rebuttal that you should not expect to have such a hope with this sort of work. But this just proves all he more reason why this type of work is awful and needs to be abolished.

The question of how it should be abolished though is a tough one. If we want our institutions and systems to change we’re gonna have to build new ones to outcompete the old ones. As well as try to change out relations and common/popular conceptions of what work means and what the workplace looks like. Automation can also be a possible method that while it certainly has short-term losses, with the right preparation can be both short and long-term successful.

To be a bit more concrete things like cooperatives and independent contracting (and especially black market style) are two alternative structures to the modern workplace I support. As well as trying to agitate, organize and unionize within companies if people feel they are cut out for that. Attacking capitalism from both inside and outside seems like a valuable tactic to me. And when I say unions I don’t mean reformist or liberal types that suck up to the government and have union bosses. More like the Industrial Workers of the World and other more anarchic unions.

Lastly, the hope of pleasure:

The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers – to most of them!

Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

When I write stuff (even if I sometimes have to take breaks or just simply choose to and get distracted by other things as with this point) the thing itself is very much pleasurable. Once I start doing it or get going it is pretty hard for me to stop doing it because I enjoy expressing myself and trying to figure out the world around me. Even if that means a bit of effort is requires it still seems like a worthwhile and pleasurable effort to engage with and that is a big part of why I keep doing it.

Hopefully this criteria for useful vs. useless work will give you some ideas about how to live a better life and work (i.e. give effort) in a better way.

4 thoughts on “What Makes Work Useful? (Excerpts from William Morris’ “Useful Work vs Useless Toil”)

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