Alexandria, VA They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can sometimes tell how the book’s designers wanted the book to be judged at first glance. Shop Class as Soul Craft shows an antique BMW motorcycle casually parked in front of an old shed. On the back cover we see Matt Crawford with one hand casually holding the throttle of the motorcycle – which has been moved inside what can only be assumed to be the same building, housing what appears to be a motorcycle workshop – while, in the other hand, he holds a wrench. So now we know – this was a book written by someone who works with tools, who loves classy motorcycles, and who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

We should contrast this author’s photograph with the typical photo that will often grace the back cover of books by Ph.Ds in philosophy.

Many, if not most, of these photographs picture a learned scholar in front of a wall of books. Sometimes, instead of casually holding a wrench, they hold a book open to an important passage. These photographs are testimony of sorts – a visual cue that we are in the presence of a Learned Person. The photos that grace the front and back covers of Shop Class as Soul Craft provide a different sort of testimony: we are about to join the company of someone who can do things, and – just as importantly – can do things with motorcycles. And the emotional and cultural associations that accompany motorcycles are powerful: freedom, autonomy, sex, counter-culture, and so-on.

These two elements are important: one doubts the visual cues would have been as compelling if the book pictured Matt with a plunger standing next to an old toilet, or a conduit pipe next to a mess of wires. It’s also to be doubted whether the cover would have been as compelling had the book pictured Matt Crawford in front of his wall of books (surely he has a few bookshelves). It’s the fact that we know a few things about Matt Crawford’s life and career (literally, path or course) that informs how we, the readers, are to approach this book. And, I think, it explains in part a great deal of the amazing, widespread, and deserved attention that this book is receiving.

This is to say that the book derives a good deal of its persuasive force and power because of the personal biography of Matt Crawford – scholar, electrician, disgruntled office worker, motorcycle repair man. It’s a book that would have barely drawn the attention of the likes of NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Stephen Colbert had it been written by someone like me – a certified egghead who can’t fix his own motorcycle. Matt gets a pass on the first and generally successful “conversation-stopping” critique of books that praise handwork and craftsmanship – the charge of hypocrisy, that you aren’t living up the ideal that you claim is worth living. Moreover, he gets past some of the yawns that any such book would have produced if written by a plumber or electrician. Toilets are mundane; motorcycles are sexy.

We should notice something about the media outlets that have been drawn to the book – they are the redoubts of eggheaded intellectuals, more often than not liberal progressives. While I may have missed some other reviews and discussions, I don’t think the book has been as widely covered in magazines like Iron Horse or Workbench Magazine. While some, such as Kelefa Sanneh have tried to throw cold water on the modern romanticism for simpler times and especially the work of hands that informs the fascination with Matt’s book (or the works of Wendell Berry, another certified non-hypocrite), most of these outlets have demonstrated remarkable admiration for Matt’s argument (including the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who recalls with fondness the bygone days when he, too, worked with his hands). Clearly the response to this book says something about us, especially the “intellectual classes” who generally not only do not work with our hands, but are largely incapable of doing so.

It’s easy to make fun of this neo-romantic longing for simpler times and work of hands (even as one might, at the same time, feel a degree of self-indictment of the helplessness that comes from not being able to do things for oneself – and the guilty pleasure that comes with any such self-indictment). Our own Susan McWilliams noted with some bemusement the sometimes laughable efforts of young neo-agrarians who attempt to work farm implements in one hand while holding a Starbucks latte in the other. While it’s appealing to call to mind the virtue of working in the crafts, it’s also easy to dismiss these longings as an archaic and outdated, and one suspects that many of our best and brightest will still be drawn to apply to the best schools, will strive to get the right internships, and – if they are lucky – will be sufficiently successful to afford a “farmette” in the country that will assuage some of their white-collar, elitist guilt.

It’s because this book has been packaged and sold as a defense of crafts and handwork that accounts at once for its immediate appeal but, I think, constitutes a serious obstacle to discerning its more expansive and structural argument. Matt – understanding the needs of book marketers and, doubtlessly, the compelling nature of his personal biography – highlights his personal authority as a motorcycle repairman (most people will be impressed by, but not really understand, his discussions of rebuilding motorcycle engines), even as he strives to move it to the larger issues of which a life in crafts is a part. One fears, however, that – a bit like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind – many “readers” will come away impressed most of all with the personal narrative (just as they focused in on Bloom’s discussion of the sex and music preferences of college students) while neglecting its more challenging and deeper foundations.

A theme that runs through the book, but which may be easy to miss with all the praise of the manual trades, is that of alienation. Early in the book Matt discusses the development of scientific management by its greatest theorist, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor – the originator of “Taylorism,” an approach often criticized on the Left – sought to streamline various forms of industrial and even white-collar work into processes in which each worker was to concentrate on one portion or part of the process, often wholly unaware of what relevance or connection that work had with the overarching aim or outcome of the process. Following the logic elucidated by Adam Smith centuries earlier, Taylor laid out the practical blueprint for extreme subdivision of labor, in which those engaged in discrete jobs – whether “brain” or “manual” work – were increasingly to concentrate on narrow and discrete tasks, and thereby increase efficiency and profit, while also minimizing labor costs by making each cog effectively replaceable. Taylorism renders each worker increasingly ignorant, not only in the discrete job being done, but in regard to the purpose and meaning of the work as a whole. Henry Ford – one of Taylor’s greatest disciples – discovered that instituting industrial process following the tenets of Taylorism was not, at the outset, without its challenges: according to a biographer cited by Crawford, “every time the [Ford] company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963” (42). The new system, according to Matt, induced “natural revulsion.” It took a good deal of winnowing and transformation of the economy and society to arrive at a point at which people no longer minded an active inculcation of ignorance about their work.

No fan of Taylorism, Matt recalls the work of Harry Braverman, a Marxist critic of much of modern economics, whether capitalist or Marxist, and a particularly fierce critic of Taylorism. According to Matt, “Braverman gives a richly descriptive account of the degradation of many different kinds of work. In doing so, he offers nothing less than an explanation of why we are getting more stupid with every passing year – which is to say, the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing” (38; emphasis mine). What Matt here notes in a central argument of his book is that the degradation of Taylorism applies to “many different kinds of work.” The argument about our growing more stupid applies equally to blue collar industrial production line workers as it does to white collar office workers who effectively work under a Taylorian form of scientific management. While it’s easy to understand Matt’s argument to be a defense of the nobility of the manual trades, more importantly and fundamental to his argument is that we are generally becoming more ignorant because we don’t know why or for what purpose we are doing things. The separation of doing from thinking applies equally to people in offices as on assembly lines, inasmuch as all these forms of work increasingly require or encourage no thought to the implications or reasons of what one is doing. More and more forms of work require the wearing of blinders, a narrowing focus upon discrete jobs that are fundamentally disconnected from any broader understanding of how that work relates to, fits into, contributes to, or derives meaning from a concrete community of fellow human beings.

This central theme again becomes explicit toward the end of the book, when Matt discusses the way so much of modern work is degraded because of a loss of connection to a concrete community, and thereby the attenuation of responsibility, memory, gratitude and fidelity. He offers the example of banking as an exemplary case in which doing is separated from broader forms of thinking. Noting that in the 19th-century there was a prohibition on banks from opening branches in communities outside those where they originally operated, Matt calls attention to an ethic in which interpersonal knowledge of what we do requires a special form of thought that induces reflection on what we are doing, and for what reasons. He quotes Thomas Lamont, head of J.P. Morgan, who in 1923 told his colleagues “the community as a whole demands of the banker that he shall be an honest observer of conditions about him, that he shall make constant and careful study of those conditions, financial, economic, social and political, and that he shall have a wide vision over them all” (190).

We can contrast a time when a combination of social mores and political laws fostered a form of work – in this case, banking – in which that work was undertaken with an aim and purpose not only of money-making, but of contributing to the good of a concrete community, to our very recent past when the activities of banking became separated from the places of their origination, when loans and debts were packaged as abstract “investments” for people who would trade and re-trade the parcels of debt from everywhere and nowhere. Lenders had no responsibility for the loans they made; brokerage houses packaged good and bad loan together for sale to anonymous “investors” upstream; and, meanwhile, “homeowners” were flipping houses and talking about their “equity” as if their homes were the equivalent of a hot stock tip. Across the spectrum, the separation of “thinking” from “doing” in a much broader sense – that is, a situation in which we no longer gave any thought to the implications of our actions, so long as an immediate reward was expected by sundered individuals – was the underlying cause of our current financial crisis. The crisis was not cause by faulty regulation or Barney Frank’s legislative blunders or greedy Wall Street bankers: it was caused, above all, by a systemic sundering of thinking from doing, of having a concrete understanding of one’s work and its contribution to the good of an actual community of fellow people.

While Matt’s book has every appearance of being a paean to the work of hands, in fact it is, above all, a defense of the integration of work and place, a call to expand the temporal expanse of our work – to see our actions as part of larger history, with a past and a future – and a summons to reconnect whatever it is we do with a more concrete and evident capacity to think and understand why and for what reason we work. Writing in defense of a life well-lived – in which our working lives are not radically divorced from our lives as parents, children, worshipers, friends, neighbors, and citizens – he concludes with a call for a more “humane economy:

When the conception of work is removed from the scene of its execution, we are divided against one another, and each against himself…. A humane economy would be one in which the possibility of achieving such satisfaction is not foreclosed ahead of time for most people. It would require a sense of scale. We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power…; but we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or to take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (208-9)

What such concentration – and corresponding massiveness – tends to foster is ever-more pervasive forms of abstraction. Jobs are sliced up as neatly as the mortgages that were bundled into abstract financial instruments, and – wholly losing any sense of grounded commitment to place and people, every job becomes simply a way of making as much money in as little time and cutting as many corners as possible. An economy based upon such structural abstraction is ruinous – as we have seen – most of all, in its degradation of the humans who perform increasing numbers of tasks without knowledge or understanding of their meaning. I would include in this category – a vast one, to say the least – much of the work being done today on college campuses, in which faculty concentrate on ever-narrower slices of knowledge but persist in a state of radical ignorance about the actual object of their endeavors – the education of students. College professors may appear to be dominantly Marxist, but the truth is, for the most part we’re oblivious cogs in a Taylorist machine.

Also at the end of the book Matt notes that he would probably make more money as an electrician than a motorcycle repairman – but he chooses to repair bikes. Doubtless this is because he finds that work more satisfying. But, also in evidence throughout the book is a charming community of motorcycle enthusiasts, a stand-in for the more robust community of place and memory. What Matt’s admission suggests is that even the manual trades – absent such integration in the life of an existing, palpable community – can be degrading. An electrician who covers an expansive area, never meeting a client twice, would likely regard such work as job one does for the cash – nothing more. And then there is the example of the bad motorcycle repairmen related by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – people who couldn’t care enough about their work to do the job well and proudly. It is only when we care about the people with and, in great part, for whom we work, that we are likely to do good work. This book is, above all, an argument for doing good work – whether with one’s hands or with one’s mind – but, regardless of its form, undertaking work in which doing and thinking have been reconciled within the context of a human and humane community.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox July 15, 2009 at 10:35 am

Patrick, this is the best review of the book I’ve read yet. My (unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, quite lengthy) engagement with the book dances around some of the same central questions, but by latching onto Crawford’s indictment of “Taylorism,” and what that has to say about the scale of our economic relations with one another, really is the key that opens up his whole multifaceted argument. I wish I’d realized that before I’d read it and thought through my own response to the book. Great job!

avatar Patrick Deneen July 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Thanks Russell – it means a lot, especially coming from someone with as many books behind your head.

Just kidding – I look forward to reading your post.

avatar Anthony July 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

One thing I don’t understand. When I work with a computer, or when I am writing something with a pencil, I am working with my hands. When I write code, it is a craft. Similarly with writing. It is also a craft, and requires use of the hands.

avatar Casey Khan July 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

“The argument about our growing more stupid applies equally to blue collar industrial production line workers as it does to white collar office workers who effectively work under a Taylorian form of scientific management.”

This is true. One of the great problems with Enron is that it was Taylorism run amok. Here you had a company filled with highly paid, highly skilled traders, analysts, quant PhDs, and yet none of them had a coherent understanding as to how the whole entity worked. It took short-sellers with a big picture view, who were maligned as charlatans by Enron and the mainstream media, to show us just how diabolically fraudulent the enterprise was. Meanwhile the brilliant traders, analysts, and quant PhDs, all with top pedigrees, had their 401k’s maxed out, losing big time on Enron stock. Even the white collar, intellectual elites, are still mere cogs in the machine.

avatar Ken Harris July 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm

@Anthony: I feel differently about emails I’ve written explaining solutions to problems and working in my yard. When the email is gone and that problem is solved, I don’t feel emotionally connected to my work. When I’ve finished planting or mowing or moving dirt and laying a path, I feel my work in my bones and flesh and understand (and am satisfied with) my fatigue at the end of the day.

Crafting code and words are work, difficult work, but they are the work of the mind, for the mind. That work does not exercise the body in the same way that a landscaper or factory work might. Again, I know that such work IS work and IS tiring, but the feel of it is different. (Not better or worse, just different.)

I also wonder if the difference for me lies in the visual changes that I have made to the world at the end of the day. At work, I type emails and replace parts and solve technical problems. But at the end of the day, there is no visual indication that my work has changed or improved my world. Sometimes it is exactly the opposite; my work is to keep things running in the same manner as they were yesterday, with (perhaps) the only change being that things are done more quickly.

If I mow my lawn or build a fence or help to build a house, it results in an observable change in my environment that is good for the soul. I can see my work and feel it in my body. Rest is deserved as much as it is needed.

avatar Anthony July 19, 2009 at 12:26 am

Thanks Ken, some interesting distinctions.

avatar Carl Scott July 19, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Nice essay, Pat. I keep thinking of the wonderful J. Turturro film MAC.
And, to be my annoying self, does anyone have ideas on the sorts of laws that could encourage non-Taylorist methods? Without, you know, interferring too much with right to property, the right to associate, and the proven-very-useful-if-not-one-demanded-by-right institution of the limited-liability corporation?

avatar Matthew Gerken July 20, 2009 at 5:44 am

As usual, there’s a relevant Wendell Berry essay in which he defends his decision to write with a pencil rather than a computer. He notes that writing with paper and pencil allows him to see the whole process- the mistakes, the side notes, the corrections (both by you and by others), and the unique handwriting in a way that the computer, which leaves no record of change (unless, of course, you take pains to instruct it to do so). If one is inclined to give weight to these distinctions, then there may very well be important ways in which writing may be more like working with our hands than, say, sitting in front of Microsoft Excel all day. So perhaps it is best to think of these things in terms of a sliding scale.

avatar Bob Cheeks July 20, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Carl, “right to associate?” Are you going to expand on that?

avatar Carl Scott July 21, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Bob, okay…the right of the people to assemble for political purposes is guaranteed by the first amndmnt; and more generally, most common law (Blackstone) interps of the general right of liberty would allow an individual to form informal or formal associations with whomever he wished. Limited of course, by things like curfews, quarantine laws, etc. And the general limitation against association for treasonous or criminal purposes. As Judge Harlan says in Plessy v. Ferguson, the limitation of this individual liberty is part of the reason why the majority’s decision allowing segregation laws is wrong, morally and constitutionally.
But as to the range of formal associations allowed, that can get complicated. Both marriage and limited-liability corporations are examples of formal (i,e. law-recognized) associations that do impose some costs upon other members of society (e.g., upon the non-marrying kind, and–most obviously in the second case–upon creditors), whatever the collective benefits they bring. And for some tyrannical liberals, even allowing the Boy Scouts to not hire gay scoutmasters is “complicated.” That last issue, BTW, would not be complicated for the founders, for Tocqueville, nor for Berry. If you can’t organize a group that is permitted to govern itself, you are not free.

How does this apply? Deneen is “against” Taylorism. This means we as a society should ‘re-examine it’ and read books like Crawford’s and see movies like MAC. It also means Deneen will NOT APPROVE OF YOU if you implement Taylorism in a company you own. I will in many if not most cases join him in this DISAPPROVAL. But would Deneen and I be ready to call for LAWS, local or federal, that would prohibit Taylorism? Or make it more difficult? Now I assume we both have no problem with laws that limit work hours, demand safety regulations, etc. We are willing to mess around with, i.e., give democratic majorities control over, the “right to contract”; that is, we do not think there can be a natural right of contract that allows anything voluntary under the sun to occur within a corporation.(Nor do we think such a right is implied by the 14th via the due process clause.) Absolute individual rights to contract are not a good way to negociate/determine the bounds of the individual’s real right to liberty.
Now, if a two-hundred-person company somewhere decides that, due to some unusual opportunity or crisis, it has to temporarily shift production into a basically Taylorist mode, note that any law on the books against Taylorist practices would prevent that. And note that enforcing any law against Taylorism would insert either local or federal government officials into the company books and onto the company floor on a regular basis. I can hear the govt. agent now: “Uh, Mr. Manager, I notice that Joe here is spending 85% of his work time on one simple task, and that’s not allowed acc. to section 17C of…”

So probably, most conceivable laws against Taylorism would be impossibly harmful. And since some humans would always have good reasons for employing Taylorism, and many others, not-so-good reasons, this means that FPR preaching against it can only limit it so much. Not that you stop such preaching, but your expectations do change. Thus, it really might be the case that while many in FPR are officially “against” Taylorism, most will find they cannot be SERIOUSLY against it, since they cannot see how to prohibit it without ruining necessary liberties. Moreover, since they will surely understand that many businesses that would like to do without it might feel obliged by the bottom-line to utilize it, even their moral disapproval of it might have to be adjusted.

And as with Taylorism, so with many other things.

avatar Anthony July 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm

@Matthew,

Thanks, that’s an interesting point. There are also different kinds of uses with a pencil … all with different strengths and weaknesses vis a vis hand-eye craft.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: