William Morris saw a future where there was hope. He loathed the effects of capitalism on every aspect of life, and wrote prolifically and passionately on the topic. But imbued with every essay, every speech, every manifesto, there was a radical and indefatigable hope.
In his writings, he questioned the roles of Work, Leisure, and Education in society. Little has changed in the 135 years since, and in many ways the aspects of life he interrogated have gotten worse.
In a world where these three pillars of life are each becoming more challenging for the working classes, 2020 forced us to do all three in our homes (if you were lucky enough to keep your job or have a space to call home). Prior to the pandemic, the spaces in which we participated in these activities remained discrete and physically separated from each other. But an experience like lockdown forced us to experience a blurring of these boundaries physically, mentally, and emotionally like never before.
Bedrooms became offices, kitchen tables became schools, sofas became spaces where we looked at one screen for hours to work followed by another screen for hours to rest.
How will an experience like that change our relationships with ourselves, our lives, and the spaces in which we live, learn, and work?
This manifesto invites the reader to intentionally continue to challenge the boundaries of these elements of life. We have an opportunity to unlearn broken systems, to uncover new and old ways of living, learning, and working. To find hope in the in-between.
What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing? It is threefold, I think - hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself." (Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1885)
Spend a moment and think on this. Imagine a job that you enjoyed doing, were genuinely proud of the work you did, and could rest easy at night having worked both your mind and body - but not too much. What might that look like in 2020? Is it even possible? How do you rest when your work is in your home?
Today, just as he wrote 135 years ago, very few of us live a life where we can find work that satisfies all three elements of Morris’ view on work worth doing. Why do we do the work we do? Is it a personal drive for improvement of ourselves and our communities? Or is it a systemic pressure from the internalization of capitalism to be a productive cog in the economic machine? Are these things mutually exclusive?
With the world of remote working upon us, how does our experience of and relationship to work change, and the spaces in which we work? It is time to think and make meaningful change not just in the work that we do, but how, where, and why we do it.
What if the work we did was genuinely good for our bodies, our minds, our communities, and not for the benefit of our superiors and the organizations who systematically take advantage of us?
Capitalism tries to manipulate and destroy our hope for rest. And that conditioning begins not at adulthood, but is actively extinguished by an education system that does little for the cultivation of wisdom and self awareness in favor of conditioning for a life of thoughtless and hopeless work. Children in a post-colonial capitalist education system are indoctrinated to retain information, to conform, and to produce work to a standard set by faceless superiors - “At present, all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their place in the hierarchy of commerce." (Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1885)
Children are naturally curious, compassionate, and hopeful beings. But the machine of education, as we know and live it systemically and mechanically drives these traits out of young people for the benefit of the production of labourers who, by design, do not have the intellectual means to challenge the system, nor the leisure time to do so if they wanted to. “Capitalism will not allow us the leisure, either for education or the use of it." (Thoughts on Education Under Capitalism, 1888) Our education system produces doers, not thinkers.
When lockdown hit, this system temporarily broke. Our children were home. We had the chance to encourage them to learn to love learning, to explore their world at their pace, to produce work not for an objective standard, but for a personal subjective improvement. To learn their own value, their own rhythms, their own self. We were able to realize a vision Morris had of education over a century ago:
“The whole theory of their so called education was that it was necessary to shove a little information into a child, even if it were by means of torture, and accompanied by twaddle which it was well known was of no use … All that is past; we are no longer hurried, and the information lies ready to each one's hand when his own inclinations impel him to seek it. In this as in other matters we have become wealthy: we can afford to give ourselves time to grow." (News from Nowhere, 1892)
Young people have learned through play and leisure longer than they’ve learned through being talked at. This experience of “unschooling” is not new, and not ours to take credit for. To find hope in the in-between of leisure and education we do not need to look any further than the cultures and societies that colonialism fought to destroy. We must actively participate in the decolonization of our learning environments to make the space and realize the hope in the in-between.
How do we create an world where children love to learn? What does education look like when schools are shut? What is the point of education if not for the production of labourers? What would our world look like if we cultivated natural thinkers and learners? When the spaces where adults work and children learn are not distinct and separate - what can we all gain?
If these spaces weren't distinct from each other - if children learned in the same spaces adults worked - how would that change what both education and work looked like?
If work is to become an experience that is fulfilling for the body, the mind, and the community, and if education allows us the time and space to explore and develop at our own pace, then it’s not difficult to see the in-between of work and education - because both will lend themselves to each other. Education will be an activity that is undertaken proactively by both children and adults, with an authentic motivation to improve ourselves. “Young people [are] taught such handicrafts as they had turn for as part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies, and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education." (Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1885) Practical education must come to the fore in ways education severely lacks today. Young people today learn information for no other reason than to show they've learned it on a test but don't know how to mend trousers, grow a carrot, or think critically - because those skills don't serve capitalism.
The distinctions between work, education, and leisure start to become harder to define if we do them in similar spaces and with fewer external influences on what each activity is and means.
This pandemic has brought to light not just the failings of capitalism, but the hope that lies in the cracks of a crumbling system. We've been forced to think about the things we do and the spaces we do them in differently. As hard as it is for everyone, it's a chance to see the previously impossible, to challenge these systems, and to realize meaningful change in our world. We have an opportunity to re-establish systems that benefit ourselves and our communities, that join up the emotional and physical spaces in our lives. I challenge every reader to not just find, but to actively explore and expand the in-between - because that's where the hope for tomorrow lies.
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