This is the sixth 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 final one 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 other two you can read the first one it by clicking here, otherwise it's on to hope of pleasure in work...
To say that work is good for us sounds worryingly like a right-wing newspaper’s headline and as though it should be followed by ‘and so is national service and the cane’, but in actual fact it is true, albeit for very different reasons than they might like to think. Inevitably many newspapers like to focus on the discipline it instils in our lives, the structure and order, which prevents society from falling apart from too much ‘free time’, the income (no matter how meagre) that means the state can be convinced that it does not have to provide support and the ability for each of us to ‘make something of ourselves’, as though a person doesn’t have innate worth whatever their position or talents.
All this is heavy baggage, to the point where I am almost scared to repeat again that work is good for us, or at least could be. We need to reclaim work from the right and draw on the positive aspects allowing us to show what work should and could be. Morris states that ‘it is of the nature of men, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions.’ Work, when allowed to be undertaken in the right way, under the right conditions and within a community, can be a source of great satisfaction and even joy. It is an outlet for our innate desire for creativity and provides the ability for us to make a contribution to the welfare of ourselves, our families and our communities.
However, this is very different to the jobs that most of us do on a day-to-day basis, whose usual sole aim is make money for the company that employs us, often working under unsatisfactory conditions. Morris, in a wonderful piece of hyperbole, is categorical in his belief that work like this is a such an affront to our humanity that ‘…it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison – which you will.’
This notion that our work should be pleasurable is so countercultural that to speak of it seem as though we are not grounded in the real world and instead hopeful of some fairy-tale land. It is an accepted truism of modern life that work for the most part is a chore, and we celebrate the heroic worker who each day rises to do battle in the name of commerce. Busyness is the great virtue. Ask someone how work is and watch as their face takes on the expression of great hardship as they tell you just how and why their work life is so busy. And no doubt it is true, but we celebrate this as virtue and something to be proud of, until the breaking point comes anyway. Try telling someone you are not busy and that work is pretty relaxed when they next ask and watch their reaction. Work has to equal suffering and noble is the worker who does not shirk.
But why shouldn’t work be pleasurable? What is stopping it? Morris suggests that actually true labour, as required by nature, is inherently pleasurable and satisfying and that anything less than that is distortion and corruption by those benefiting from our labour. To seek a new way of working is only to try and find the natural balance that nature provides.
Morris talks of the ‘ornamental part of life’ and it is easy to restrict our thinking to design or patterns or even craft, when actually I think he is trying to express something much broader; no less than the richness of life. It would be a richer experience to make a jumper than to purchase one, for all the reasons we have explored. To care about the materials and their source, to think about the design, to actually spend and invest time in making it, is all part of the ornament of life or to put it in fashionable language part of an authentic life. To engage with others in learning and sourcing or making materials, is part of the ornament of authentic communities. It is the rejection of the utilitarian, which argues with it’s own logic called economics, which says that it is easier and cheaper to buy one made using labour and materials sourced from abroad, utilising the differences in expectations or tolerances of living conditions.
An ornamental life is one where we live with fewer, but much more beautiful things, endued with genuine creativity and love. In a moving passage Morris tells us that we can judge the conditions under which something was made by it’s ‘mark of pleasure’ and that to return that to our work will shine through as a ‘gift to the world’ in the things we produce. This is the great gift of craft and perhaps it’s defining mark.
"Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure."
I think for me one of the most exciting things about Morris’ critique of society and our treatment of the environment is it’s ultimate positivity, which contrasts strongly with much of the current discussion, characterised (particularly by those opposed) in terms of what we must ‘give up’. There is no getting around this inconvenient truth, but what Morris says is that actually much of this isn’t as good as we think and that a rebalancing, far from being a negative asceticism, can lead us to a much richer future. It’s this promise, this focus on the positive changes we can make, that makes his writing so attractive and I think contemporary writers and commentators engaging in these issues could learn a lot from that; we have to pull apart the status quo, but we must also present a viable and crucially an attractive alternative. Morris does this and shows that by restructuring our societies we can ensure that everyone has equal share of true wealth:
“Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful - all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth.”