Useful Work versus Useless Toil

sisyphus130 years.  130 years (roughly), and it’s the same old shit.  William Morris’ lucid commentary on meaningful work is just as relevant today (almost moreso) as it was when he wrote it in 1884.  It’s a long-read, and the beginning bits don’t do it justice, but here’s how the roller-coaster climbs:

Useful work versus useless toil – William Morris

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself – a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

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 of 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.

You may be sure that she does so, that it is of the nature of man, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions. And, yet, we must say in the teeth of the hypocritical praise of all labour, whatsoever it may be, of which I have made mention, that there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; 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.

Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.

Keep  reading…

7 Comments on "Useful Work versus Useless Toil"

  1. Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm |

    Its not easy, that’s sure. Much easier to get a jaerb than create a livelihood for yourself in line with your values.

    You might like this:

  2. kowalityjesus | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm |


    To sum up, then, concerning the manner of work in civilized States,
    these States are composed of three classes – a class which does not even
    pretend to work, a class which pretends to works but which produces
    nothing, and a class 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 with which to
    describe the tyranny under which we suffer; try then to consider what
    they mean.

    • >tldr:

      >To sum up

      Methinks you have to read something before you can sum it up.

      • emperorreagan | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm |

        That’s a direct quote out of the linked piece about a third of the way through. A good one, in my opinion. I guess that’s where kowalityjesus gave up on the piece?

  3. Haystack | Sep 6, 2013 at 6:08 pm |

    I like William Morris a lot and I think his ideas are in some ways more relevant today than they were in his own time. The Internet is affording us opportunities to work outside of hierarchical organizations, in our own businesses or as freelancers, etc., The Arts & Crafts Movement is a useful model for us to look to as the old job market ceases to afford people the same odds of fulfilling work.

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