Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shop Class As Soulcraft: Critiquing Crawford

Crawford's critique of the modern working world is quite good, in my view. Unfortunately, I think that Crawford begins to stumble when he moves from critique to prescription, which at the risk of some oversimplification boils down to “big is bad, small is beautiful.” He calls for a widespread return to localized, face-to-face economic exchanges through more small entrepreneurship, a vision based in part on an overly romanticized concept of the good old days and of manual labor generally that’s probably not possible for many people to pursue.

Before I detail some of specific criticisms on this point, I'd like to pose a few questions:

1) Why do you think that the interest in manual labor that seems to have gripped the reading public is occurring now?

2) Do you think it's possible or desirable for more people to go into business for themselves as a way of avoiding the ills of modern white-collar life?

3) What about labor unions and other worker organizations? How could they help to address some of the issues Crawford addresses in his book?

4) What might citizens organize for politically in order to make work better?

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.

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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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that what used to be glowingly described as the Great American Jobs Machine may be beyond repair. The state of job market is so devastatingly bleak that pundits and economists celebrated when the economy shed 247,000 jobs in July, instead of the 600,000 to 700,000 jobs per month it hemorrhaged earlier this year. While I suppose it’s good that the economy sucks somewhat less these days, all signs point toward a jobless recovery. The official unemployment rate remained steady at just under 10 percent, but the Labor Department’s broader and less heralded measure that takes into account the underemployed and “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for jobs is over 16 percent. Even more discouraging is the news that the problem of long-term unemployment is sharply intensifying. The number of Americans unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 7.88 million, the highest figure ever recorded, and the average unemployed person has been jobless for over 25 weeks. Giddy talk about “green shoots” has obscured the fact that even if the recession ends on paper in the next couple of months, its effects are going to linger in the everyday lives of (possibly) working people for years to come.

But even if Team Obama can restore the status quo ante and succeed in getting the Great American Jobs Machine going again, would that be such a great thing? After all, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and the pre-recession boom, many of America’s fastest growing occupations were the kind that Barbara Ehrenreich took on in her book Nickel and Dimed - highly precarious service sector jobs that pay little, provide minimal or no benefits, and are physically and psychologically enervating. Even many of us fortunate enough to have made our way into the cadre of white-collar “symbolic analysts” at the heart of an information-driven economy became subject to the same deskilling and off-shoring that has decimated the ranks of America’s blue-collar working class over the last three decades. The lean, mean Great American Jobs Machine of business press lore tended to resemble a meat grinder more than anything else for most of us.

The time is ripe for a wide-ranging reevaluation of the ways in which we go about securing our livelihoods in the world, and the book publishers of the English-speaking world seem to agree. In recent months, a spate of books on work has hit the shelves, including Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.

By now, anyone with any exposure to Crawford’s book probably knows at least something of the man’s background. The marketing department at Penguin Books certainly won’t let us forget. Educated in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he renounced his sinecure as the head of a Washington think-tank (as far as I can tell, it was related to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in some fashion) to retire to Norfolk, Virginia to open his own vintage motorcycle repair shop. While many reviewers have conceived of the book primarily as some sort of self-help or career advice manual, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an engaging, fairly serious work of ethical and moral inquiry and sociopolitical criticism.

Crawford’s position is deeply conservative, but unlike many contemporary conservatives he has a deep skepticism about the goodness of modern corporate capitalism. He seeks to conserve what he sees as the best aspects of work generally and the manual trades in particular from the relentless onslaught of corporate power and the culture of consumption, which he sees as the most dangerous current threats to individual liberty rather than the state. Don’t fret, however. The book is not always as heavy as my description so far might make it out to be. There are a number of entertaining discussions of the life and work of a mechanic, and of the absurdity of Crawford’s previous incarnations as a harried cubicle dweller.

We will explore various aspects of Crawford’s book this month, but before we get to some of his specific arguments I would like to start the discussion by inviting you all to share some of your thoughts about the nature of the modern workplace. What do you find to be the best and worst aspects of work? How do you find meaning in your work (if any)? If you could change one thing about work, what would it be? Don’t worry, I won’t share the comments with your boss!

If you can't get the book right away, I recommend checking out this recent author talk:


or this recently published article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.