This is the fifth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a short story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on.
This is also the second of three posts exploring the topic of work within the story and we are using William Morris' three requirements of meaningful work; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself. If you missed the first one you can read it by clicking here, otherwise it's on to hope of product...
The twin concepts that Morris gives us of hope of product and hope of pleasure in making that product are, for him, closely related; in fact we could say that it is this very closeness that is at the heart of the arts & crafts movement, and which strikes so many of us as so radical even now. Nonetheless in this article I want to try and tease them apart a bit and focus on hope of product, the idea that our daily efforts should result in something meaningful and useful, which helps meet our needs.
What did you make today I wonder? What will you make tomorrow? The answer to these questions might be quite simple; perhaps you made a loaf of bread or a chair, if you’re a baker or chairmaker. If it isn’t bread or furniture, perhaps you made something else useful, a lamp or a book, a film or a bowl. Maybe you did. But I suspect you didn’t.
On the other hand you could be a nurse or doctor and so you made someone better or comforted them. But even this is quite rare.
Instead I wonder if you did what most people do? Make money; not for yourself, but for the person or persons who employ you.
We all know that someone who works in a high street clothing store doesn’t make clothes, instead their job is to sell clothes or, to be more precise, to encourage you to buy clothes from their shop, rather than the one next door. Think about it next time you go into a clothing shop; what does the assistant actually do, other than encourage you to buy, ensure the clothes are on the rack for you to buy and then take your money?
The same is true for Hugo in our story of course. He doesn’t make mobile phones, he may pretend to advise customers based on their needs, but actually his job is to persuade the public that they should buy from his shop rather than the other three down the street and that you should spend as much as you can. His product is profit for a group of people he is unlikely to ever meet.
What a market economy does (even in its most basic form) is replace the link between what you need and what you then produce. So if I needed a bowl, in a non-market, non-exchange society, I have to make one. And of course for most of human history this is how life worked, but slowly over time (long before capitalism) people started to specialise in making certain things, like bowls, and it maybe that they would make them for certain part of the day/week/year and then exchange the bowl for food or other essentials. However, I think it is fair to say that it was a very, very long time before this transformed into a situation where people only made bowls and never made things or grew food to meet their own needs, which of course is where we find ourselves now.
Another crucial difference is that the bowl maker has need of his bowls – nothing leaves his hands that he could not use or own for his own use. Compare this with the current situation where so many workers are producing goods they could never afford to own or have no use of.
And so we move onto a capitalist system, where the average worker has two products; whatever it is they do or make and the products that they buy to meet their own needs, with the money they are given for their work. This ever increasing disconnect between the two – the genuine needs you have and the tasks you perform on a daily basis – was a concern to Morris and should be a concern for us now.
Morris, in a wonderfully Victorian passage, describes the situation Hugo find’s himself in:
‘…living as they do on wages from those whom they support, [they] cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them…’
Even if we follow this thinking of a market economy and call the product of Hugo’s labour the money he earns with which to buy a jumper, that is only enough to buy one of poor quality. The jumper is entirely constructed from cheap materials (e.g. cotton) and hence quickly becomes misshapen and worn. The stitching is perhaps weak and done in such haste that it did not catch all along the seams. Because it is mass produced it is made to ‘fit’ as many sizes as possible and so hangs a little on him. But the alternative, a properly fitting jumper, of good quality, made over time from excellent materials would be unaffordable to Hugo. And this is exactly the point Morris is making. He continues:
‘…[they] must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with course food that does not nourish, with rotten rainment [clothing] which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of nomad tribe, or the cave of the pre-historic savage.’
The language has changed, but sadly the situation Morris describes has not. Our Bangladeshi worker will almost certainly live in substandard housing, that may well make a tent look plush. She may well be clothed in, at best, her traditional clothing made in a sweatshop in her own country or at worse second-hand clothing the west no longer wants, and yet each day she walks to make jumpers she could never afford. Her actual product (the jumper) is poor and her rewards so meagre that her own living (her product) is pitiful.
Her housing is not made from scrap because it is effective at keeping out the weather and elements, it is because it is cheap. It is cheap housing, because that is all she can afford. It is not unheard of for those in developing countries to have to raise a mortgage to afford a few sheets of corrugated iron to use as a roof.
As ever Morris describes it best:
‘But it is a waste of time to try and express in words due contempt of the productions of the much praised cheapness of our epoch. It must be enough to say that this cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.’
How often have you bought something, only for it to break, not work or just be horrible to use, or been constrained by money to buy something you know will not last? True quality is such a rare thing in our societies that it is almost impossible to find, and, when we can, the market system makes the time and care it requires unaffordable. This is one of the key problems that craftspeople face; how can their product, which often takes so many hours to produce, ever be affordable to the general population? And so instead we are presented with cheaper imitations to help us make believe that our lives are richer than they are. Some of this we can counter ourselves; buy less and buy quality, make it yourself so that you don’t have to pay for the time it takes and buy second-hand – where quality doesn’t often reflect the price. And we should do these things, but let us be clear that this is tinkering at the edges, our current system cannot allow us all to reverse this system of cheap manufacturing it relies on.
Planned obsolescence has become a much more widely understood term since Annie Leonard’s excellent ‘Story of Stuff’ (if you haven’t watched it do), but it’s true that in a consumer society, that works by citizens buying new products constantly, the idea of something of quality, that lasts, is against the very principle of the system. And so in short, things have to brake, have to be cheaply made, so that you buy new ones. This is also the reason for constant innovation, as it brings new products to the market – replacing those before. Considered refinement of quality and reliability is much lower down the pecking order than “new!”.
Let us come back to our story and just review where we are. Our Bangladeshi woman’s hope of product is extremely poor, whether we are talking about the poorly made jumper she could not afford, and which she has no emotional attachment to or the meagre shelter, food and clothing she can afford with the money she makes from working at the factory.
Hugo, of course, doesn’t actually make anything, his product is simply profit for his ultimate employers; his ultimate personal product is the jumper that will last one year, which he has no input into the making of and which he has very little emotional attachment to.
And what of Mary? Well her product is very different to the others, because she is able to meet her own needs, through her own effort and skills. The end product is one of excellent quality, fitted to her size and shape, of her own design and suited to her needs. Because of this she has an emotional tie and investment in it, which enriches her experience of owning and wearing it.
Morris isn’t saying (and neither am I) that each of us should be capable of making everything and meeting our every need. In fact Morris berates the fact that he has to learn so many crafts, a situation he blames on the way society is constructed. And this leads us nicely into the next blog post, hope of pleasure in the work itself, because we need to reconnect our work with the needs we are trying to meet and create a society where people can develop their skills to create beautiful products, of real quality, for their communities own needs.