William Morris

Why Not?

At a meeting of the Commons Preservation Society I heard it assumed by a clever speaker that our great cities, London in particular, were bound to go on increasing without any limit and those present accepted that assumption complacently, as I think people usually do. Now under the present Capitalist system it is difficult to see anything which might stop the growth of these horrible brick encampments; its tendency is undoubtedly to depopulate the country and small towns for the advantage of the great commercial and manufacturing centres; but this evil, and it is a monstrous one, will be no longer a necessary evil when we have got rid of land monopoly, manufacturing for the profit of individuals, and the stupid waste of competitive distribution and it seems probable that the development of electricity as a motive power will make it easier to undo the evils brought upon us by capitalist tyranny when we regain our senses and determine to live like human beings; but even if it turns out that we must still be dependent on coal and steam for force, much could still be done towards making life pleasant if universal co-operation in manufacture and distribution were to take the place of our present competitive anarchy. At the risk of being considered dreamers therefore it is important for us to try to raise our ideals of the pleasure of life; because one of the dangers which the social revolution runs is that the generation which sees the fall of Capitalism, educated as it will have been to bear the thousand miseries of our present system, will have far too low a standard of refinement and real pleasure. It is natural that men who are now beaten down, by the fear of losing even their present pitiful livelihood, should able to see nothing further ahead than relief from that terror and the grinding toil under which they are oppressed; but surely it will be a different story when the community is in possession of the machinery, factories, mines, and land, and is administering them for the benefit of the community; and when as a necessary consequence men find that the providing of the mere necessaries of life will be so far from being a burdensome task for the people that it will not give due scope to their energies. Surely when this takes place, in other words when they are free, they will refuse to allow themselves to be surrounded by ugliness, squalor and disorder either in their leisure or their working hours.

Let us, therefore, ask and answer a few questions on the conditions of manufacture, so as to put before us one branch of the pleasure of life to be looked forward to by Socialists.

Why are men huddled together in unmanageable crowds in the sweltering hells we call big towns?

For profit's sake; so that a reserve army of labour may always be ready to hand for reduction of wages under the iron law, and to supply the sudden demand of the capitalist gamblers, falsely called "organisers of labour."

Why are these crowds of competitors for subsistence wages housed in wretched shanties which would be a disgrace to the Flat-head Indians?

For profit's sake; no one surely would build such dog-hatches for their own sake: there is no insuperable difficulty in the way of lodging people in airy rooms decently decorated, in providing their lodgings not only with good public cooking and washing rooms, but also with beautiful halls for the common meal and other purposes, as in the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which it would be pleasure merely to sit in.

Why should any house, or group of lodgings, arranged in flats or otherwise, be without a pleasant and ample garden, and a good play-ground?

Because profit and competition rents forbid it. Why should one third of England be so stifled and poisoned with smoke that over the greater part of Yorkshire (for instance) the general idea must be that sheep are naturally black? and why must Yorkshire and Lancashire rivers run mere filth and dye?

Profit will have it so: no one any longer pretends that it would not be easy to prevent such crimes against decent life: but the 'organisers of labour,' who might better be called 'organisers of filth,' know that it wouldn't pay; and as they are for the most part of the year safe in their country seats, or shooting - crofters' lives - in the Highlands, or yachting in the Mediterranean, they rather like the look of the smoke country for a change, as something, it is to be supposed, stimulating to their imaginations concerning - well, we must not get theological.

As to the factories themselves: why should there be scarcely room to turn round in them? Why should they be, as in the case of the weaving sheds of over-sized cotton, hot houses for rheumatism? why should they be such miserable prisons? Profit-grinding compels it, that is all: there is no other reason why there should not be ample room in them; abundant air, a minimum of noise; nay they might be beautiful after their kind. And surrounded by trees and gardens: in many cases the very necessities of manufacture might be made use of for beautifying their surroundings; as for instance in textile printing works which require large reservoirs of water.

In such factories labour might be made only no burden, but even most attractive: young men and women at the time of life when pleasure is most sought after would go to their work as to a pleasure party: it is most certain that labour may be so arranged that no social relations could be more delightful than communion in hopeful work; love, friendship, family affection, might all be quickened by it; joy increased and grief lightened by it.

Where are the material means to come from for bringing this about? Fellow-workers, from the millions of surplus value wrung out of your labour by the 'organisers of filth'; screwed out of you for the use of tools and machines invented by the gathered genius of ages, for the use of your share of earth the Common Mother.

It is worth while thinking about, fellow-workers! For while theologians are disputing about the existence of a hell elsewhere, we are on the way to realising it here: and if capitalism is to endure, whatever may become of men when they die, they will come into hell when they are born. Think of that and devote yourselves to the spread of the RELIGION OF SOCIALISM.


Justice, 12th April 1884, p. 2.