Revisiting William Morris & What Makes Good Work

Cover of News from Nowhere by William Morris

Morris’ novel News from Nowhere remains a fascinating look at a utopian Britain in which work is a pleasure.

Do an internet search for “future of work,” and you’ll find offers to make your business more agile or research into trends such as contingent labor. Those activities matter, but here I want to talk about what work should be. In a truly healthy society, what would our work be like?

British author and activist William Morris tackled this question in his 1884 essay “Useful Work versus Useless Toil.” Though he was writing in response to the egregious factory working conditions that arose out of the Industrial Revolution, his core contentions about work are worth revisiting. Morris distinguishes “good” from “bad” work by applying three “hopes.” “Good” work promises “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” Here, “rest” refers to time not only for sleep but for recreation. “Product” refers to outcome of the work. A driving force in the crafts movement, Morris clearly had physical products in mind, but he also applies “product” to services, such as a medical practice. Pleasure in the work itself means it should not be onerous and, where possible, should include experiential rewards, such as creative stimulation, pleasant contact with colleagues, and so on. This kind of work, he argues, should be our goal. “All other work but this,” he asserts, “is worthless; it is slaves’ work.”

Now, as a 19th-century Marxist, Morris’s solution to “useless toil” is a utopian socialist revolution. Looking back with the hindsight of the 20th century, we may find this solution naive. But whatever the best path, I’d argue that the goal is worth pursuing. Who would not want work that provides ample rest, helps the world, and is stimulating to do?

Morris’ adherence to Marxism, however, may also explain one notable omission in his “hopes”: remuneration. As a utopian socialist, he assumes that each will be cared for “according to his need.” This is dubious plan, but it leads in an interesting direction. What we consider the fruits of remuneration essentially fall under “rest.” Morris notes that for rest to be genuine “it must not be disturbed by anxiety.” In other words, we cannot truly rest if we are worried about affording food, shelter, healthcare, and so on. Rest implies an adequate standard of living. I’d like to close on that thought: remuneration (or other basic income) as a subset of rest. Imagine a society where remuneration exists so that people can rest, where rest, not consumption, is a key reward of work. Now that is a radical utopian vision, one I would invite us all to seriously contemplate.

Posted in Blog, Workable Utopias