William Morris. Commonweal 1885

Attractive Labour

Source: “Attractive Labour” Commonweal, Vol I, No. 5, June 1885, pp. 49-50 (Supplement);
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In what I wrote last month I tried to make it clear that under the wages-system labour is bound to be unattractive as well as excessive in quantity and underpaid. The creation of surplus value being the one aim of the employers of labour, they cannot for a moment trouble themselves as to whether the work which creates that surplus value is pleasurable to the worker or not. In fact in order to get the greatest amount possible of surplus value out of the work, and to make a profit in the teeth of competition, it is absolutely necessary that it should be done under such conditions as make (as I wrote in my last) a mere burden which nobody would endure unless upon compulsion. This is admitted on all hands, nay is loudly insisted on by anti-Socialists. The necessity for the existence of class distinctions as a means of compelling people to work is always present in their thoughts; and no wonder, since the only type of worker that they can conceive of is the worker of to-day, degraded by centuries of forced labour, wearisome and hopeless. To such a man, indeed, ever fresh and fresh compulsion must be applied at any cost, at any risk, until the string breaks with the strain. It is no wonder that the bare idea of the destruction of the hierarchy of compulsion terrifies those who rejoice in our modern civilization. But for us whose business is leading people towards the destruction of that hierarchy, who believe that men’s morals, aspirations, and what not, are made by their material surroundings, there is no room for fear of the consequences of revolution. We do not fear for the transformation of civilization we hope for it; nay it is an assured hope for us which consoles us for the disappointments and griefs of the passing day, which makes ‘life worth living’ for us; and my reason for writing this is to do my best to quicken that hope in the minds of our comrades. For that purpose I want if I can to give a very slight sketch of attractive labour which, of course I presuppose is to be done not for the profit of a master, but for the production of wealth for the use of ourselves and our neighbours.

I can see, without much straining, labour going on under quite the reverse of the circumstances which surround it at present, and yet the world none the poorer for it. It would, one might think, be possible in the first place for a man to choose the work which he could do best; which if he were a healthy constituted man in mind and body, would mean from the outset that his work would be no longer a mere burden to him, since everyone likes to do what he can do well; there is at least some pleasure in such work. This choice of work would not be difficult; for though it may seem under our present profit-ridden conditions that people have little choice in such matters, are listless and don’t care what they do, so they can but live by it pretty easily — this state of mind is artificially produced by commercial tyranny. People’s innate capacities are pretty much as various as their faces are; but individual character and varied capacity are not cherished by the system which tends to get rid of skilled labour altogether. If a man would live now, as a part of industrial economy, he must submit to be the hundredth part of a machine and swallow any longings he may have to exercise any special faculty.

But in a reasonable community these varied capacities would be looked out for and cultivated; the industrial arts would be an essential part of all education and not only would they be taught gradually and easily to children, and as a part of their pastime, but grown men also would have opportunities for learning more than one craft. There would be no reason for forcing them to practice one craft only all their lives long. Nay many, or most, men would be carrying on more than one occupation from day to day. Surely almost everyone would wish to take some share in field or garden work besides his indoor occupation, even if it were no more than helping to get in the harvest or save the hay; and such occasions would become really the joyous and triumphant festivals which the poets have dreamed of them as being, and of which pleasure there is still some hint or, it may be, survival in barbarous countries. But besides such obvious change in work as this, there could certainly be found useful outdoor occupation whereby a person could vary his or her indoor work; helping, for instance, in the work which has to do with the transit of foods. It needs but people to turn their attention to life and not to profit-scraping to find such opportunities.

This matter of fitting people’s work to their capacities and not, as now, their capacities to their work, would be the most important reversal of the present system of labour. And though my hint about it has been put in a few words, I beg our readers to consider what a difference it would make in labour if it were carried out. It is not too much to say that the difference would be immeasurable; labour so set about would not differ in degree from our present labour but in kind. But to complete the change, two other elements are necessary: leisure and pleasantness of external surroundings. I need not say much about the first, it may be thought, since among the better-off part of the workers the struggle with the employers about the length of the working-day has been going on so long, and in our own times, so obviously; though even with these it has been and is being fought on the assumption that the wages-system is to endure for ever — that the hierarchy of compulsion is necessary and the shortening of the day’s labour has really meant a mere raising of wages.

As for real leisure in work I am afraid I must say that working men do not know what it means; their work being generally an anxious, strained hurry of drudgery, varied by what the natural repulsion to such slavery is sure to bring about as a reflection of it, a listless dawdling through the day, when owing to the due driver not being to the fore they are able to indulge in it. Both of these miseries are miles apart from the way of working when people are not working for wages, but for the wealth of the community; the work would be done deliberately and thoughtfully for the good’s sake and not for the profit’s sake, but cleanly and briskly too, under the influence of hope and the looking, not to next day’s drudgery, but this day’s further pleasure by men saying, ‘Let us get through with this job and then on to the next piece of our life’. In work so done there is no slavery; whereas ordinary work now is nothing but slavery. It is only a question whether the slaves shall be idle or industrious. Perhaps on the whole, looking at the effect on the community, they had better be idle.

Work so done, with variety and intelligently, not intensified to the bursting point of the human machine, and yet with real workmanlike, or rather artistic eagerness, would not be a burden, but an interest added to life quite apart from its necessity; with such work to do we might even bear with equanimity as a temporary evil, some of the discomforts of our town life, though surely not the dreadful squalor which the hierarchy of compulsion condemns us to to-day. But there is no reason why we should bear with the discomforts; it is, for instance, only the necessity for making a profit that compels us to the wretched and even ridiculous want of elbow-room, which is the universal rule in factories.

The crowding up of factories into huge towns, or congeries of towns, is a thing which we shall refuse to bear when we work voluntarily and for the purpose of leading happy lives. A great deal of work is still done on the workshop rather than the factory system. There is no sort of need for these workshops being heaped together in the mass of disorder and misery which we call a big town. Centres of a manageable size would afford all the necessary elements of life and refinement and movement when all were educated and had the leisure which alone can make education valuable, and had the intelligence which, pretty equally distributed among every knot of men and women, would not be repressed by sordid misery. The only thing which makes huge centres desirable to the privileged few at present, is the fact that the lives of the greater part of men are wasted in drudgery. On the other hand, where associated labour on the large scale was necessary, and the factory system in its fullest organization had to be used, each of those factories highly improved as to the means of production, as it would be, should be itself a town. It should be no mere phalangstery on a philanthropical basis, arranged for the passing an existence somewhat better indeed than our helpless wage-slaves of the mill now live, but bare of the real joys of life; but it should contain in itself all the resources for a refined and well-occupied life — at once manly, restful and eager. There is no reason why it should not be beautiful itself, and the country about it might well be a garden. When we were working for our own wealth, and not the waste of others, we should surely think it well in spending part of our work on housing ourselves decently, and on taking care that we left behind our work no signs of the haste, bred by the terror of ruin and starvation, in the shape of smoke and ash-heaps and all the unutterable filth which now disgrace our manufacturing districts and distinctly brand the work done there for what it is — work done by helpless slaves for helpless masters.

But work done under such conditions as I have been crying to sketch out would, I am sure, be attractive to all except the exceptions, the monsters of vagabondage and loafing who are now bred by the excessive overwork which is the general lot of the workers or by the privileged idleness of the rich, and whose descendants might last through a few generations, but would soon melt into the general body of people living in the happy exercise of energy.

By such work and such a life we should be set free from intestine warfare among ourselves for the nobler contest with Nature, and should find that she also when conquered, would be our friend, and not our enemy.