[Cross-posted at In Medias Res]
Let’s pause a moment and be grateful that the job market for political theorists is so bad. Because if it wasn’t, Matthew Crawford, who received his Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious programs in the country (the University of Chicago), might have found a position that had him teaching and researching about political philosophy, in which case he wouldn’t have had the time or the experiences which allowed him to write Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, one of the finest, most philosophically informed and challenging books I’ve ever read. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but producing provocatively imperfect books like this does, I think, far more for the life of the mind and the life of our society than teaching Plato and Hegel at institutions of higher education ever could (and I say that as someone whose work responsibilities includes not a little of just such teaching). We owe Crawford a debt of thanks.
An intellectual work, written by a diploma-carrying member of the intellectual elite who also happens to be a small business owner and a motorcycle repairman, which praises the intellectual virtues of the sort of manual trades (automobile and appliance repair, plumbing and electricity maintenance, building construction, metalworking of all sorts, and more) which intellectuals of all sorts usually either are bemused by, openly look down upon, or try to condescending relate to (all while unknowingly–or perhaps knowingly–striving to socialize their children away from having any attraction for them), will correctly strike most people as a fairly original prospect. The interest shown by book reviewers has certainly proven that point. Some of the reviews (see here and here) have been almost entirely positive, praising the book for identifying and condemning the separation between knowing and doing which privileges certain kinds of “knowledge work” over others, ignoring the legitimate and deep thinking that goes along with the manual trades, with results that skew a mostly self- or school-sorted, supposed cognitive “elite” away from working with their hands, thus depriving our society of more sensible and virtuous civic and economic relations. Other reviews (see here and here), by contrast, are suspicious of Crawford’s claims and of the borderline exclusive way he sets up his argument, as much as they agree that his critique of late capitalist managerialism and of the cramped, artificial world of the office has a lot of bite. For myself, Crawford’s book had me nodding from the second paragraph of his introduction, where he makes a simple, trenchant point about the disappearance of tools, and of arenas of action wherein we can make use of them to accomplish our goals, from the lives of us middle- and upper-class consumers: “The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or angry from interrogating the innards” (pg. 2). So true! Any parent–at least, I would insist, any remotely financially responsible parent, one who wouldn’t just throw away a toy or toaster as soon as it stopped working without a second thought–who as ever tried to replace some batteries or change a setting on a common household item, only to find to their frustration that there’s no way to get into the damn thing without breaking it, knows exactly what Crawford is talking about. From that point on, he takes us on an intellectual survey of, and defense of, his chosen world of motorcycle repair, contrasting it all the while with the assumptions, pretensions, and limitations of the world he left behind.
The primary points of that contrast are restated in different ways throughout the book. At a couple points, he borrows from Aristotle to speak of the difference between the work done by what we call today “knowledge workers” or “symbolic analysts,” versus the work encompassed by the “stochastic arts”–those that “diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making.” He includes in this category mechanics and medical practitioners and those with other occupations which, because of the constant risk of failure, at least potentially prevent self-absorption, and instead “cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness” (pg. 82). Such arts are worlds away from the often abstract (and therefore, Crawford suggests, often meaningless) tasks taken up by “creative professionals,” the disciples of Richard Florida and other babblers of the postindustrial knowledge economy, where human potential is supposedly liberated by the opportunity to think about advertising displays or sales outreach, all of which are apparently “fully compatible with near-minimum wage” (Crawford’s cruel, arguably unfair, but devastatingly funny take-down of the apologetic cult of creativity which sells upper-level managers on the idea that they are actually free-spirited bohemians while they manipulate the movement of consumer goods, is one of the highlights of the book; see pgs. 47-52). Another, simpler way he makes the same general claim is to quote economist Alan Blinder on the contrast between “personal services” and “impersonal services”: the former “require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site” (hammering a nail, checking a patient’s breathing), while the others are essentially tasks that, because they can be “conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way” (processing tax forms, correcting HTML codes, relaying doctor’s prescriptions), are not, and thus face a constant threat of transfer, outsourcing, and a “downward pressure on [their] wages,” to say nothing of their larger moral consequences (pgs. 33-35). And it is those larger consequences that most concern Crawford. While he clearly thinks highly of his own profession as a motorcycle repair shop owner, grounds his analysis of work in numerous anecdotes drawn from his own life, and frequently slips into a very specific praise of his own life choices, throughout the book Crawford nonetheless continually links all such arguments to his broader and widely-applicable concern–the “struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the center of modern life” (pg. 7).
While there are many enemies of that agency, perhaps the most pervasive one, the one which is most implicated in the spread of the kind of “intellectual” and “social” technologies that which, through their organization and streamlining of the material world which necessarily prompts and shapes our thinking (Crawford strongly believes that all of us, even intellectuals like myself, whether we know it or believe it or not, are born to be tool-users, “inherently instrumental, or pragmatically oriented, all the way down”–pg. 68), preempt much of our ability to act productively via “a certain predetermination of things from afar” (pg. 69; think here again of the toys and appliances designed not to be opened, inspected, or fixed by consumers), Crawford calls “absentee capitalism.” By this he means the concentration of capital–and the concomitant control of much of the material infrastructure of our lives–into the hands of individuals and corporations committed to economic growth along lines that exists in the world of numbers and margins, and has little patience for the joys that workers who discipline and submit themselves to a difficult trade, one which requires them to slowly, attentively, work out the problems of our stuff for themselves:
Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility….If occasions for the exercise of judgment are diminished, the moral-cognitive virtue of attentiveness will atrophy….These thoughts should inform our choices as consumers. It may or may not make sense to have an engine rebuilt by your local mechanic, in narrow economic terms. You may be better off buying a rebuilt engine from one of the chain auto parts stores, which get them from high-volume remanufacturing operations down in Mexico…But a more public-spirited calculus would include a humane regard for the kind of labor involved in each alternative: on the one side discipline attentiveness, enlivened by a mechanic’s own judgments and ethical entanglement with a motor, and on the other synthesized carelessness. Further, the decision is inherently political, because the question who benefits is at stake: the internationalist order of absentee capital, or an individual possessed of personal knowledge. Given the ever-bolder raids of capital into the psychic territory of labor, our consumer choices contribute to a land war, on one side or the other, whether we are aware of the fact or not (pgs. 100-102).
Towards the end of the book, Crawford returns to this theme, arguing that “we [in the West] have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible,” adding that “[i]t is time to dispel the long-standing confusion of private property with corporate property,” and recommending “a progressive-republican approach to the problem” (pgs. 208-209). But fundamentally, Crawford’s aim in this book is not polemical; he’s a mechanic, and a Stoic, trying to understand the problem, not play judge with it and assign blame.
Not to say that he doesn’t cast blame around; he does–as I said above, he identifies many enemies to human agency. But what he spends most of his pages addressing is not what lays behind the corruption of the value of work in its relation to people engaging productively with their stuff, but rather with how that relationship is corrupted. This is the point at which many critics of modern capitalism and the world it has made start blaming technology and praising the simple, direct, agrarian life of the yeoman farmer and landowner; investigating (often in Marxist language, whether they realize it or not) the alienation which individuals feel from the products and environments of their labor when technology takes away from us a sense of productive immediacy in our work. But Crawford does not follow this path, at least not exactly. For one thing, Crawford has no affection for the “simpler” life (pg. 6); on the contrary, he is a self-confessed gearhead, a fan of metal and power tools and powerful machines and speed (which means, among other things, that despite hanging out with various anti-moderns, he’s probably not advocating for a withdrawal from the oil economy and the surplus technology it has made relatively cheap in the United States, as Conor Williams notes in his FPR review of the book). For another thing, he is dubious that our psychological or philosophical or moral association with the products of our own hands is truly disturbed by the technologically-enabled marketing of them to someone else (“If I am a furniture builder…what am I going to do with a hundred chairs?…I want to see them in use“–pg. 186). But he is concerned about technology–specifically, he’s concerned about those aforementioned “social” and “intellectual” technologies, those ways of thinking about and codifying the world which he sees as germinating in the schools of our credential-happy society, where every task is more prestigious if it can be theorized and taught as content in a classroom, and be written about by perfect idiots who have nonetheless mastered the “technology” of writing:
Service manuals were once written by people who worked on and lived with the machines they wrote about….The writers of modern manuals are neither mechanics nor engineers but rather technical writers. This is a profession that is institutionalized on the assumption that it has its own principles that can be mastered without the writer being immersed in any particular problem; it is universal rather than situated. Technical writers know what, but they don’t know how. They can be housed in an office building, and their work is organized in the most efficient way possible….This is my surmise, based on the nonsense these books usually contain. [Need I shout out the obvious, much-hated and always inadequate phrase known to everyone who has ever read an instruction guide: “Some Assembly Required”?] You parse nonsensical or mutually contradictory sentences over and over again, trying to extract meaning from them by referring them, somehow, to the facts before you. If there are drawings involved, they will have been made by a person certified in a computer-aided drafting software suite, not by someone who knows what he is looking at….As an intended substitute for personal knowledge, the division of labor predicated on an “intellectual technology” presents a false pretense of rationality, one that the mechanic sometimes has to work around in order to do his job. It would be a mistake to suppose that this is a superficial problem that could be fixed by, for example, better training procedures for the technical writing staff. What they need is experience as mechanics. Otherwise what they produce is “a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things,” as Heidegger wrote in another context. Where the rubber meets the road, the mechanic is still responsible for the thing (pgs. 176-177, 179).
Heidegger, along with Arendt and Kojève, are not the most cited philosophers in the book, but they lurk throughout it, their constant inquiry into matters of phenomenology and how we “appropriate” the world (and who, in fact, it is who does the appropriating) guiding how Crawford reads the ancient Greeks as well as interprets his own introduction to the world of motorcycles. The constant lesson is that unless one is engaged in a task with real limits, boundaries, and ends to it, a task that, because it has such parameters, can be pushed against and thus be authentically understood as making use of the full resources of a person, then one can never really see such work as cultivating virtue or making one happy. Of course, most people, most of the time, are just going to be happy with their paycheck (or not, as the case may be); what does it matter that they only work in the artificial world of the cubicle or the office, dealing in words and ideas? Moreover, for a great many of us intellectuals, whether lawyers or academics or sociologists or whatever, the words and ideas we work with are real, and we do push ourselves against them, and have to submit to the forms of our discipline if we desire excellence and satisfaction. All well and good, Crawford might say. But his narrative makes it clear–especially the portions which entertainingly describe his own apprenticeship as a mechanic–that environments of work that consist of only words and ideas are less likely to provide the sort of concrete poles, as it were, around which communities of workers can form. And those communities, those associations shaped most commonly by a mutual engagement with “durable objects of use” (or, as he quites Arendt as saying, “things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced”–pg. 16), is where the real sources of content are to be found. (Which all suggests that there are ulterior reasons why academics go to conferences and hold office hours and debate each other online–we have to encounter real people, and real resistance to our ideas, for our engagement with our tasks to have anything like genuine material satisfaction.)
But, as always, the invoking of community strikes some as risking nostalgia. One might snarkily ask, can “community” survive work that takes place outside of the simple, immediate world of the farmer in his village–that is, can it survive technology at all, even excluding the kind of warped “intellectual technology” that convinces folks to leaves realms of discipline in favor of airy organization make-work? Crawford thinks so. Neither a romantic nor a strict localist, he defends instead the place and value of the “political community, distinct from the market, where we locate a common good” (pg. 188). As part of an intriguing discussion of Marx at this point, Crawford observes that the experience of alienation–the core of Marx’s analysis of capitalism–is in part of function of our perception of the use of the things we contribute to. Polities like states can serve to resist and contain the economic spreading (and consequent unevenness) which makes the worker’s perception of the use of the goods he or she has helped to make less direct. “It is now the capitalist,” Crawford writes, “who says, ‘Workers of the world, unite!,’ the better to dissolve those ‘inefficiencies’ in the labor market…that arise from political boundaries. The slogan once expressed a hope to organize a body of workers who were dispersed and hence exploitable, where now it captures the desire for a mass of ‘human resources,’ exploitable because undifferentiated” (pgs. 188-189). The res publica or common wealth which Crawford talks about needs to be able to resist being “scaled up”; there is a limit to how far that which begins, or ought to begin, with a personal and communal education (in a shop class, as an apprentice, or just learning from a friend) in the particular obduracy of things (or people, or the natural world, or whatever) can or should be taken. That is not, for Crawford, necessarily an opening for a political solution–subsidiarity! federalism! protectionism!–to all the issues he raises, though as I noted above, the stance he takes is a political one. Ultimately, whatever policy or ideological platform might be constructed out of his concerns, Crawford plainly states that fulfilling communities of work and action and use must begin in the “cracks” of the modern world (pgs. 189, 210).
This reference to the small-scaled particularity of communities will, additionally, invariably invite questions about exclusion. Might it be argued that the move to technologies and forms of work and organization that are not tied to specific and personal interactions as a basis for their relevant communities–technologies that are not sited, but rather are pliable, abstract, and make the metrics by which the work done can be assessed entirely disconnected from tangible, resistant nature–was an egalitarian move? And that, therefore, as one who argues against such technologies, Crawford’s language of independence doesn’t add up to much, as he actually doesn’t think all actors can or should be equally admitted to the support structures of independent work? There is some truth to this. Crawford is rather contemptuous of any kind of easy universalism, preferring the humbler feeling of solidarity to Kantian imperatives. He insists, however, that equality is a worthy, because aristocratic, ideal–“it is the ideal of friendship–of those who stand apart from the collective and recognize one another as peers” (pgs. 201-202). There is a lot good thought to that conceptualization of modern human relations, but some real limits to it as well, as it seems completely oblivious to the power it hands to those originate, or constitute a majority of, that group which “stands apart.” Crawford doesn’t appear bigoted or discriminatory in any sense, and yet his own language betrays the sexist perspective that dominates amongst his preferred community. This is not a major, or even a minor theme, in the book, but it is there, what with Crawford speaking dismissively of “cheap whores,” “senior harpies” and “cliques of girls,” and openly admiring the reactionary environment of dirty jokes and sexual insults that prevail in the garage. Should anything be made of this? At one point Crawford does admit that he doesn’t want to “idealize the trades,” allowing that “there is probably more abuse of workers by other workers in the trades than in the office,” and that “the new guy, the nonwhite guy, and the woman are especially likely to incur extra hardships” (pg. 230). But neither does he consider the harms that communities of practice can suffer when their forms of apprenticeship seem to be constructed so as to divide possible practioners right from the start. (Samuel Goldman, in his FPR review, touches on this issue as well.) Perhaps this ultimately points us towards the irreconcilability of goods. A way of thinking and working which does not countenance arbitrary and often cruel judgments (because the “natural order” which such judgments unthinkingly appeal to is, more often than not, the result of mean-spirited social power and nothing more) could, of course, succeed in making things difficult for the sort of enclosed communities of work wherein such vicious judgments often multiply…but it could also complicate the passing along of a personal education in trades that know the reality of the things they are engaged with, and as such truly value and teach human agency. (One might argue that there are two forms of egalitarianism in conflict here.) Crawford’s inquiry into the nature and value of work cannot resolve the tension between the universal and the particular, between fairness and belonging; it only contributes to our awareness of that tension, by somewhat irritatingly bringing it up without ever seriously considering it. But the book does so many other things so well, it seems churlish to make too much of this one complication in his presentation.
There is much more than could be said about Crawford’s argument(s). The book adds something to our debate over education and the meritocracy, over political leadership and double-talk, over the way the mind works and how it solves problems; even when it does not treat these themes thoroughly or develop them fairly (and it doesn’t always), Crawford’s anecdotes and observations are worth consideration, just as much as George Orwell’s partial and often splenetic comments in Down and Out in Paris and London nonetheless revealed much truth about daily working life in Western Europe in the early 20th-century. If the many and various non-liberal critiques of modern conservatism and capitalism that have emerged in recent years could all be assessed according to a single standard (exactly the sort of list-making job that some college-educated knowledge worker of Crawford’s description would likely have!), then Shop Class as Soulcraft would be easily ranked one of the very best. It is a book, I think, that will last.