Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: Crawford's critique of modern work

I have summarized the main points in Crawford's critique of the nature of the modern working world below, with some of my own commentary. To help guide discussion, I would like to propose a few questions:

1) What do you make of his argument that truly understanding how things work in the world requires getting one's hands dirty, so to speak? Does this idea apply only to manual labor or to other fields as well?

2) Does college really serve much of a function today besides socializing people to be "good workers", as Crawford argues, or does it continue to educate students into being good citizens and well-rounded human beings as well? If you have attended college or are currently in college, does his criticism reflect your experience as a college student?

3) If you are or have been a white-collar knowledge worker, has your working life been impacted by the threat of outsourcing/offshoring or the process of degradation that Crawford describes? If so, how?

4) Is there a relationship between the degradation of work as Crawford sees it and the state of our polity and culture? What might some of the broader social effects of a degraded working life be?

5) What do you make of Crawford's critique of consumerism?

Feel free to comment on my commentary as well.


For Crawford, the central problem of modernity is a struggle for individual agency, that is, the capacity of human beings to have some sort of control over the things that have the biggest impact on their lives. Work definitely falls into this category, as we spend most of our waking hours engaged in it, preparing for it, and recovering from it. But the nature of the modern world constantly undermines this goal. “Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces,” Crawford observes. “We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

Because many of us in advanced capitalist countries are engaged in occupations that don’t involve the production of any tangible, material goods, we often don’t know exactly what is expected from us in our work or what its larger purpose is, and this situation can create serious psychological and social trauma. As Crawford observes of young people entering the working world, “the college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asks him about his grades and doesn’t care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all his hard work in school somehow just for show – his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy? There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”

For decades, we have been told by supposed experts that to avoid a life of mindless toil and the possibility of deskilling and offshoring, pursuit of a college education and a white-collar, “knowledge work” is necessary. But scientific innovation has made any job that can possibly be done remotely through advanced communications technology subject to export and to relentless deskilling and degradation, not just blue-collar manufacturing work. Somewhat surprisingly for a conservative, Crawford draws on the work of Marxist economic historian Harry Braverman to analyze the way capitalist industrialization has effected the separation of thinking from doing wherever possible and to provide caution to those who don’t see the value of work that can’t be outsourced or deskilled. “If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help, Crawford notes impishly, “because they are in China.”

Paradoxically, by promoting a vision of liberation from responsibility through technologically mediated production on one hand and rampant, compensatory consumerism on the other, contemporary society actually makes us less free by subordinating us to the power of the market. As Crawford argues, “the activity of giving form to things seems increasingly the business of a collectivized mind, and from the standpoint of any particular individual, it feels like this forming has already taken place, somewhere else… But because the field of options generated by market forces maps a collective consciousness, the consumer’s vaunted freedom within it might be understood as a tyranny of the majority that he has internalized.” If anything, the critique of commodity fetishism advanced by Marx one hundred and fifty years ago and echoed here by Crawford has only become more relevant and terrifying.

All this has a literally demoralizing effect on working people, and educates us into a certain way of looking at the world and our jobs. “Degraded work entails not just dumbing down but also a certain unintended moral reeducation…We have all had the experience of dealing with a service provider who seems to have been reduced to a script-reading automaton. We have also heard the complaints of employers about not being able to find conscientious workers. Are these two facts perhaps related? There seems to be a vicious circle in which degraded work plays a pedagogical role, forming workers into material that is ill-suited for anything but the overdetermined world of careless labor.” Needless to say, this moral and intellectual degradation makes many of us ill-suited to participate fully and effectively as citizens in a supposedly democratic society that is less responsive to the needs of its people as it becomes increasingly dominated by corporate power.

1 comment:

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