30 March 2010

Useful Work and Useless Toil - William Morris

Thoughts on Useful Work V Useless Toil

In his essay ‘useful work and Useless Toil’ William Morris says:

“Let us grant first that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort or degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable but even pleasurable.”

Before continuing to examine his thoughts on the nature of labour. I feel compelled to examine how class societies have in various ways prevented the enjoyment of food and sex.

The enjoyment of food is for a large part of the human race not attainable. Food is so hard to come by that merely satisfying the calorific needs of the body is difficult. Even in the west food is a ‘problem’ with some of us struggling with obesity while in one profession at least (modelling) lunch may take the form of biting a sandwich chewing it and spitting it out so fearful are they of gaining an ounce that will render them unemployable. Even ordinary men and women are so fearful of eating too much fat they often actually do not consume enough to allow the body to repair itself (we need some fat to make the lipo-proteins that make cell walls).

In some parts of the world women’s bodies are mutilated in the name of keeping them ‘pure’ for their husbands. This certainly destroys the enjoyment of sex for the women and I doubt if it does much for the men either. In the west ignorance and the worship of female virginity has prevented full enjoyment. My memories of teenage dating in the fifties consist largely of him trying to get into my knickers and me stopping him because I had been taught that nice girls ‘didn’t do it until they married’! Ghastly! I can also remember reading articles about the large proportion of women who reported that they had never had an orgasm. Elderly women used to boast that ‘he doesn’t bother me with that any more’ eight very sad words.

So we can see that even in the case of sex and food human enjoyment is often denied in various ways.

It is therefore not be wondered at that as Morris says:
“…there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse…”

He goes on to explain the difference between work that is a blessing and work that is a curse. The former has three hopes – hope of rest of product and of pleasure in the work in sufficient quantity and quality.

In our post-industrial societies we are still denied these hopes, target led check list obsessed managements have even taken much of the joy out of professions like teaching and nursing.

You can get hold of this (and other essays by Morris) in a little book from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series. ISBN 978- 0 – 141 – 03670 –0 The essay was first published in 1888 and remains relevant today. Its worth a read!


  1. Anne, this a good compilation of some of Morris's work. It's got all the contents of the Great Ideas volume plus a lot of other stuff:

    News from Nowhere and Other Writings

  2. annetan,

    a very good read.


    News from Nowhere was written as a counterblast to Edward Bellamy´s Looking Back 2000/1887.

    Bellamy´s vision of a socialist utopia built on a bloodless, gradual revolution ultimately influenced the Fabians and the early Labour Party.

    Morris identified that Bellamy´s ultimate message was to change the condition of the working classes and not the position.

    News from nowhere challenged this assumption, correctly identifying that entrenched privilege would defend it´s position to the death and only a violent confrontation would change the position of the working classes. It was not enough just to change the condition.

    In this sense he believed that Fabians and the Labour Party, ultimately deriving from paternalist Bourgeoisie, would only ever pursue piecemeal improvement of the working class condition. All social structures would and should remain.

    Like most British Socialist writers, Morris softened his views in old age as articulated in EP Thompson´s biography of Morris. Orwell was another critic, accusing him of ´windbaggery´ and of the same ´crimes´ as Morris levelled at the Fabians, but ultimately Morris is one of the good guys.

  3. Duke, I didn't know that Orwell accused him of windbaggery. I'll check that out - any references? I must re-read News from Nowhere - if you compare Morris's optimistic vision of the future in this work with Orwell's own pessimistic vision as depicted in 1984, then it's probably not surprising that old Eric wasn't too impressed. I suppose in terms of predicting the future, Orwell wins that particular battle, although he did have the decided advantage of seeing the ugly rise of totalitarianism in his own lifetime. Still, as you say, Morris was one of the good guys.