The new system

modern-timesI have said that the eighteenth century perfected the system of labour which took the place of the mediaeval system, under which a workman individually carried his piece of work through its various stages from the first to the last.

This new system, the first change in industrial production since the Middle Ages, is known as the system of division of labour, wherein, as I have said, the unit of labour is a group, not a man,; the individual workman in this system is kept life-long at the performance of some task quite petty in itself, and which he soon masters, and having mastered it has nothing more to do but go on increasing his speed of hand under the spur of competition with his fellows, until he has become the perfect machine which it is his ultimate duty to become, since without attaining that end he must die or become a pauper. You can well imagine how this glorious invention of division of labour, this complete destruction of individuality in the workman, and his apparent hopeless enslavement to his profit-grinding master, stimulated the hopes of civilization; probably more hymns have been sung in praise of division of labour, more sermons preached about it, than have done homage to the precept ‘do unto others as ye would they should do unto you’.

To drop all irony, surely this was one of those stages of civilization at which one might well say that, if it was to stop there, it was a pity that it had ever got so far. . . .

. . . However, civilization was not going to stop there; having turned the man into a machine, the next stage for commerce to aim at was to contrive machines which could widely dispense with human labour, nor was this aim altogether disappointed.

William Morris, “The Hopes of Civilization,” News from Nowhere and Other Writings (1993) p.316-7.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 28, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see you’re back and posting this type of commentary again Jeff. I’m really enjoying reading these Morris excerpts. Another side of him I was unaware of, and of course a politics I agree with.