‘Useful work v. useless toil’ by William Morris


This lecture from 1884 is a clear and powerful statement of Morris’s political and economic manifesto, which also informed ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890) his visionary fable of life after a revolution. His critique of the waste and inequality inherent in capitalist production and his call to rethink labour from the point of view of need, usefulness and pleasure are still relevant today. His vision of the workplace as a place of study and intellectual activity (and we might add to this the educational setting as a place of creativity and production) helps us reflect on the relationship between ‘life’ and ‘work’ at a time when the boundary is more blurred than it was 130 years ago. Morris also understands that there are limits to growth and is moving towards the notion of a sustainable economy well ahead of his time.

In his suspicion of the impact of machinery, mechanisation and urbanisation, Morris idealises manual labour and this leads him to what seems like a rather static semi-rural idyll which will fail to satisfy the modern reader as a serious aspiration for a better future. He sees that technology can enslave but is hesitant about its potential to liberate. This is understandable given the 19th century experience of industrialisation and urban poverty. His scorn for the ‘middle class’ will seem harsh to us as it fails to fully acknowledge the vital social contribution of workers in public and other service industries: education, health care, transport, utilities, distribution etc. Even without wasteful competition, a complex economy needs management and co-ordination and it is hard to imagine Morris’s craft-based artisan economy providing the necessary incentives for technical and social experimentation and innovation. On the other hand it may be exactly where we are heading if technology allows us all to be designers and manufacturers of our own bespoke goods.

I have taken the liberty of abridging and adapting the lecture a little while trying to preserve Morris’s key arguments. All errors and misunderstandings are mine. The full original text can be read here (about twice as long as this abridged version). There is also a good analysis of both Useful work v. useless toil and News from Nowhere in Part 3 of Hassan Mahamdallie’s excellent Crossing the ‘river of fire’: the socialism of William Morris.


Useful work versus useless toil

Lecture given to the Hampstead Liberal Club by William Morris (1884)

Abridged and adapted (2014)


1. All work is not intrinsically good:

Most people nowadays assume that all work is useful and desirable and that even when someone is doing work which seems useless, they are earning their livelihood and deserve congratulations and praise. It has become an article of faith that all labour is good in itself; a convenient belief for those who live off the labour of others.

First, we need to acknowledge that humans must work or perish. Nature does not give us a free ride and we can’t achieve our livelihood without working. So what do we get from our compulsion to work? It is in our nature to take pleasure in work and yet there is some labour which feels like a curse rather than a blessing.

2. Distinguishing between good work and bad work:

I believe there are two kinds of work; one good – which lightens life, the other bad – which burdens life. The difference is that one has hope in it and the other hasn’t. It is right to do the one and right to refuse to do the other. The hope which is present in work and makes it worth doing is threefold: hope of enough good rest, hope of a product worth having and hope of pleasure in the work itself.

The hope of rest is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. There is some pain in all work and while we are working we need to know that the time will come when we can stop. The compensation for physical pain is physical rest.

Regarding the hope of product, we feel compelled to work but it is up to us to make sure that we really do produce something that we want to use. This makes us better than machines.

The hope of pleasure in the work itself may seem a strange idea but I think that all living things get pleasure from exercising their energies. Someone making something they have willed into being is using their mind and body with the help of memory and imagination. They are creating as part of the human race and are guided by the thoughts of people from the past as well as their own thoughts. Work makes us human and makes our lives happy and eventful.

So work of value carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in using what is produced and the hope of pleasure in our own creative skill. Any other kind of work is worthless; toiling to live so that we can live to toil.

So now that we have criteria to judge the worth of the work currently being done in the world let us examine its value after so many thousand years of deferred hope, progress and civilization.

3. The unequal distribution of labour:

The first thing to notice is that it is shared very unequally amongst the different classes of society. First, there are people who do not work and make no pretence of doing any. Next, there are those who work fairly hard but with abundant holidays and leisure. Lastly, there are people who work so hard that they do little else and are accordingly called ‘the working classes’ to distinguish them from the middle classes or the rich. This inequality presses heavily on the ‘working’ class and tends to destroy their hope of rest but this is only the beginning of our folly of turning useful work into useless toil.

As for the class of rich people doing no work, they consume a great deal and produce nothing so they clearly are a burden on the community; being kept at the expense of those who do work. Many people see this but haven’t worked out how to get rid of this burden. They may have some hope that voting for a member of parliament might help but we needn’t trouble ourselves with such hope. This class, the aristocracy, has no power of its own and depends on the support of the middle class.

As for the middle class, including trading, manufacturing and professional people, they work hard and might be thought to help the community rather than burden it. But most of them do not produce and when they do produce they often do so wastefully and also consume more than their fair share. The commercial and manufacturing part spend their energies fighting amongst themselves for their share of the wealth which they force genuine workers to provide for them. The others are mainly the hangers-on of these and do not work for the public. They are a privileged class, the parasites of property, professing to be useful but generally with one aim in view; not the production of utilities but the gaining of a position for themselves or their children in which they will not have to work and will be a burden on the community. Other than a few enthusiasts, people of science, arts or letters, they care nothing for their work in spite of the sham dignity with which they surround it. So this is a large and powerful class which produces little and consumes enormously and is mostly supported by the real producers.

The class that remains produces everything and supports itself and the other classes although it is in an inferior position to them. Many of these workers are not producers and are merely parasites of property such as the military who are kept to perpetuate national rivalries and enmities, domestic servants, the army of clerks and shop assistants who are engaged in the service of the private war for wealth which is the occupation of the middle class. This includes those who are engaged in competitive salesmanship or the puffery of wares which has now got to such a pitch that there are many things which cost far more to sell than to make.

4. The waste of consumerism:

Next there is the mass of people employed in making articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which comes from the rich non-producing classes and which most people would not dream of wanting. These things are not wealth but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us: sunlight, fresh air, the unspoiled earth, food, clothing and necessary housing; the storing and dissemination of knowledge, the means of communication between humans and works of art created when humans are most aspiring and thoughtful – all the things which serve free people. This is wealth and I cannot think of anything worth having which doesn’t come under one of these headings. Are you not as bewildered as I am when you think of the mass of things which no sane person could desire which our useless toil makes and sells?

Beyond this, there is an even sadder industry forced on many workers and that is the making of goods aimed at them and others like them because they are an inferior class. As most workers are too poor to access those goods they naturally want, they must put up with miserable substitutes; coarse food that does not nourish, rotten clothing which does not shelter, wretched housing which makes a tent or a cave seem better. Workers are helping to produce for themselves these shams and mockeries of the luxuries of the rich; for the wage-earners must always live as the wage-payers bid them and their very habits are forced on them by their masters.

The much-praised cheapness of our era is necessary to the system of exploitation on which modern manufacturing depends. In other words our society includes a great mass of slaves who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves and this compels them to make the slave goods whose use perpetuates their slavery.

To sum up then, civilized states consist of three classes; one which does not even pretend to work, one which pretends to work but produces nothing and one which works but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive.

Civilization therefore wastes its own resources and will do so as long as the present system lasts. These are cold words to describe the tyranny we suffer, so consider what they mean.

There is only so much matter, energy and human labour power in the world. Driven by their needs and desires, people have turned these into useful things. Because we can’t see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over with human victory nearly complete. Looking back through history, that victory has been faster and more dramatic in the last 200 years than ever before.

However, no one can deny that most humans are poor; so poor that it’s hardly worth asking whether they might be a little better off than their ancestors. This is not the poverty of someone who knows nothing else. For us, civilization has bred desires which it then forbids us to satisfy.

In this way the fruits of our victory over Nature have been stolen from us and the natural compulsion to work in the hope of rest, gain and pleasure has been turned into a human compulsion to work in the hope of living to work!

5. A prescription for change:

So what should we do? Can we fix this?

Well, we need to remember that our victory over Nature was achieved mainly by our parents and indeed by us so it would be folly to sit hopeless and helpless. We can fix this. So what is the first thing to be done?

We’ve seen that modern society is divided into 2 classes, one of which is kept by the labour of the other, forcing it to work and taking from it everything that it can using the wealth to keep itself in a superior position. Also, it can’t use this labour power fairly to produce real wealth but wastes much of it in the production of rubbish.

It is this minority’s robbery and waste which keeps the majority poor. This is not necessary for the preservation of society. It’s been shown by incomplete experiments in co-operation that the existence of a privileged class is not necessary for wealth creation as it only serves to uphold its own privilege.

Therefore, the first step is to abolish the privileged class which forces others to do the work they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability and produce what they consume. Everyone should work as well as they can for their livelihood and their livelihood should be assured and include all the advantages which society can provide for each and every one of its members.

And so, at last, we could have a true society based on equality of condition. No one would suffer for the benefit of another or for the benefit of society. In fact it can’t be called society if it does not benefit every one of its members.

Given that people do live now while so many do not produce at all and so much work is wasted it is clear that if everyone produced and no work was wasted, everyone could gain a due share of wealth and of rest. These are 2 of the 3 kinds of hope previously mentioned. When class-robbery is abolished everyone will reap the fruits of their labour, have due rest or leisure. Some socialists might say we need not go any further than this but I would demand compensation for the compulsion of nature’s necessity. Burdensome work will still mar our life even if the hours are short. We want to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes part of the pleasure of our lives.

Freeing people from the compulsion to work unnecessarily will put us on the way to this happy end. As things are now, between the waste of labour in idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that civilization is supported by a small proportion of its people. With everyone working usefully for its support, the share of work each would have to do would be small and our standard of living would be about the same as what well-off people now think is desirable. We will have labour power to spare and will be as wealthy as we please. It will be easy to live.

6. How to make labour pleasant for everybody:

When revolution has made it ‘easy to live’, everyone is working harmoniously and there is no one to rob workers of their life, we will no longer be compelled to produce things we don’t want and we will be able to consider carefully what to do with our labour-power. I think the first thing we should do should be to make all labour pleasant for everyone. Modern civilization entirely forbids this; how rare for us to feel part of nature, unhurriedly, thoughtfully and happily connecting our lives with those of others and building up the whole of humanity.

Our lives could be like this if we resolved to make all our work reasonable and pleasant. Under the current system of wages and capital, the manufacturer is the master of those who are not so privileged and is able to make use of their labour-power which is the only way that their capital (which is the accumulated product of past labour) can be made productive. They buy the labour power of others with the aim of increasing their capital. If they paid their workers the full value of their labour, they would have failed and so they force a bargain which is better for them than for their workers and which ensures that the larger part of the surplus they produce becomes the manufacturer’s property and is jealously guarded by army, navy, police, prison, fear and ignorance.

7. The impossibility of attractive work under this system:

I am simply pointing out the impossibility of achieving attractive work under a system which robs the civilized world of its available labour-power and forces many to do nothing and many more to do nothing useful while others are overworked. The manufacturer aims primarily to produce profits not goods and it matters nothing to them whether the wealth produced is real or sham. If it sells and yields them a profit it is all right. Because there are rich people who have more money than they can reasonably spend and who buy sham wealth, there is waste. Because there are also poor people who can’t afford to buy things they need, there is waste there too. The ‘demand’ which the capitalist supplies is a false demand. The market in which they sell is rigged by the miserable inequalities produced by the robbery of the system.

This is the system we must get rid of if we want to achieve happy and useful work for all. The first step to making labour attractive is to place capital (land, machines etc.) into the hands of the community and make labour fruitful so that we can work for the good of all and supply the real demands of each and all, in other words to work for livelihood instead of for profit.

When this first step has been taken and we no longer allow some the option of stealing, we will be relieved of the tax of waste and find that we have a mass of labour-power available to allow us to live as we please within reasonable limits. We will no longer be hurried and driven by the fear of poverty. The most obvious necessities will be easily provided for in a community where there is no waste of labour and we will have time to look around and consider what we really want.

In my view the first thing we will feel it necessary to devote time to will be the attractiveness of labour. People who have just waded through a period of strife and sacrifice will not want to put up with a life of mere utilitarianism. On the other hand, the ornamental part of modern life is rotten to the core and must be utterly swept away before the new order of things is realized. None of it could satisfy the aspirations of people set free from the tyranny of commercialism.

8. The ornamental part of life:

We need to start building up this ornamental part of life; its pleasures, physical and mental, scientific and artistic, social and individual, on the basis of work undertaken willingly and cheerfully to benefit ourselves and our neighbours. Such absolutely necessary work as we have to do would take up only a small part of each day but all labour must be made attractive.

How can this be done? This is the question I will try to answer in the remainder of this talk. I know that socialists will agree with many of my suggestions but some of them may seem strange. I am only expressing a personal opinion and not being dogmatic.

For labour to be attractive it must be directed towards some obviously useful end, unless it is being undertaken as a pastime. This usefulness will sweeten otherwise irksome tasks as a social morality will replace theological morality in the new order of things. The day’s work can and will be short and much work which is now a torment will be easily bearable if shortened.

9. The variety of work:

To make someone do the same task day after day without any hope of escape or change turns their life into a prison-torment. It is only the tyranny of profit-grinding which makes this necessary. A person could easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying the sedentary with the outdoor. For example many people would want to spend part of their life in the most necessary and pleasant work – cultivating the earth. The thing which will make this variety of employment possible is a different form of education. At the moment all education is directed at fitting people to take their place in the economy as it is – either as masters or as workers. The education of the masters is more ornamental than that of the workers but both are commercial. Education should be concerned with finding out what people are fit for and helping them along the road which they want to take. In a duly ordered society young people would be taught the crafts with they have an interest in and adults would have the opportunity to learn in the same schools. The aim of education would be chiefly to develop individual capacities rather than to aim for ‘money-making.

Speaking of variety, one product of industry which has suffered so much from commercialism that it can hardly be said to exist is the kind of popular art which is, or should be, done by ordinary workers going about their ordinary work. It flourished until the rise of capitalism but has been killed by commercialism. The craftsperson fashioned and ornamented the things they had in their hands so naturally and without conscious effort that it was difficult to distinguish where the ornamental part ended and the utilitarian began. This came from the need for variety in work and while the beauty produced was a great gift to the world it also stamped the labour with the mark of pleasure. Now, if you wish to have ornament, you must pay for it and it is produced like any other thing. The worker is compelled to pretend happiness in their work but this has become another burden on them.

10. The need for pleasant surroundings:

Besides the short duration of labour, its usefulness and variety, something else is needed to make it attractive; pleasant surroundings. The misery and squalor which we civilized people bear so complacently as part of manufacturing are acts of folly as great as if a rich person allowed a toilet to be set up in each corner of their dining room, cinders to be spread all over their drawing room and made their family sleep five in a bed. Our present society does this daily as a supposed necessity.

All our crowded towns and bewildering factories are the outcome of the profit system. Capitalist manufacture, landowning and exchange force people into cities to manipulate them in the interests of capital and contracts the space available in the factory for the same reason. This is not necessary, except in order to grind profits out of people’s lives and produce cheap goods for those who grind. There is no reason why people engaged in labour should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, industrial colleges, small towns or wherever they find themselves happiest.

11. A vision of the workplace as a place of study and intellectual activity:

As for that labour which has to be organised on a large scale, the factory system could at least offer opportunities for a full social life with many pleasures. Factories might become centres of intellectual activity and the work could be varied with tending machinery only a short part of the day’s work. Other work could range from raising food from the surrounding country to the study and practice of art and science. The people engaged in this type of work could not be forced into enduring dirt, disorder or want of room. Science, applied properly, would enable them to dispose of refuse and minimize the inconveniences of factory life; smoke, stench, noise and ugly buildings. Start by making factories decent and convenient like a home and then go on to make them beautiful.

I claim that work can be made attractive by variety, by the awareness of its usefulness and by being done intelligently in pleasurable surroundings. But also, the day’s work should not be wearyingly long, doesn’t this mean that the goods made will be very expensive?

I admit that some sacrifice will be necessary to make labour attractive. We should be content to make the sacrifices needed to raise our condition to the standard desired by the whole community. We should be prepared to sacrifice more of our time to raising the standard of living. People would freely produce those ornaments of life for the service of all, which they are now bribed to produce for the service of a few rich people. A civilized community has not yet lived without art or literature but we could afford to wait a while until we are purified from the shame of past corruption for art to arise again among people freed from the terror of the slave or the shame of the robber.

12. Labour-saving machinery:

In the meantime, the refinement, thoughtfulness and deliberation of labour must be paid for, but not by long hours of labour. We have machines which would be wild dreams to people of past ages and we have not yet made use of them. They are called ‘labour-saving’ machines, but we do not get what we expect. They reduce skilled labourers to unskilled ones to increase the reserve army of labour, increasing the precariousness of life and intensifying the work of those who serve the machines while also piling up the profits of the employers of labour. In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be used to minimize the amount of time spent in unattractive labour so as to be only a very light burden on each individual.

The use of machinery might well reduce as people learned to take an interest and pleasure in deliberative and thoughtful handiwork which could be made more attractive than machine work. As people freed of the daily terror of subsistence found out what they really wanted and were no longer compelled by anything but their own needs, they would refuse to produce the inanities now called luxuries or the trash called cheap goods. No one would make high-fashion clothes when there were no flunkies to wear them or processed foods when everyone had access to natural, healthier alternatives.

Socialists are often asked how the hardest and most repulsive work would get done in the new order of things. To try to answer this would be to try to build the new society out of the materials of the old but it isn’t hard to imagine an arrangement where those who do the toughest work should work for the shortest time and what I have said about variety also applies. So that no one is hopelessly engaged in performing a single never-ending repulsive task. And yet, if there is any work which is nothing but a torment to the worker then let us see if we can leave it undone, the product of such work cannot be worth the price of it.

We have seen that the dogma that all labour is a blessing to the worker is hypocritical and false and that on the other hand, labour is good when the hope of rest and pleasure accompanies it. We have weighed up the work of civilization and found it wanting but we have seen that the work of the world could be carried out in hope and with pleasure if it were not wasted by folly and tyranny, by the perpetual strife of opposing classes.

So it is peace we need in order to live and work in hope and with pleasure. Peace which is so much desired, if we believe people, but which is so continually and steadily rejected by them. Let us set our hearts on it and win it at whatever cost.

Who knows what that cost could be? Can it be won peacefully? We are so hemmed in by wrong and folly that we must always be fighting against them, apparently with no end in sight. It may be that the best we can hope to see is the struggle getting sharper and bitterer every day until it breaks out openly.

Whatever the nature of our struggle for peace, if we aim for it steadily and single-mindedly, a reflection from that piece of the future will illuminate the turmoil and trouble of our lives and we shall, in our hopes at least, live the lives of human beings and our present lives cannot give us any greater reward than that.

Adapted from a lecture given to the Hampstead Liberal Club

by William Morris, London, 1884

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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1 Response to ‘Useful work v. useless toil’ by William Morris

  1. Pingback: Aesthetic Movement and Willam Morris – Art 2130

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