Review of Matthew B. Crawford's "Shop Class as Soulcraft"

tags: reviews

James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of Against Thrift.

An excerpt from this quietly beautiful and deeply reactionary book has already appeared in the New York Times Magazine.  The publisher, Penguin, stands ready to sell a million, even though the modest, “inconspicuously fit” author resisted a book tour, preferring instead to get back to the motorcycle repair shop he runs near Richmond, Virginia.

Does this sound like Robert Pirsig redux?  Well, yes, and everybody, particularly the publisher, wants you to remember that occasion, because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sold 4 million copies.  What I remember most from reading it back in the day, alongside The Fountainhead, is the sense of dread that saturates the prose, as if the ghost lurking at the edges of the narrator’s consciousness was a personal demon, not the more famous one who inhabits the terrible machine of western metaphysics.

The same sense of dread animates Matthew Crawford’s jeremiad, just as it animated The Crafstman, Richard Sennett’s book of last year on the very same topic (which I reviewed, quite angrily, in these very pages).  The same sense of dread unites the Left and the Right in its critique of—or rather its flight from—the dreary, apparently mindless work of the proletarian, which is now summarized by reference to The Cubicle or The Office as well as the assembly line.

It unites the Left and the Right?  What is it they dread so uniformly and energetically?  How can it be that both sides of the political divide cherish the real work of the artisan—poiesis—as against that of the clerk, the machine herd, and the assembly line automaton?  How can everyone still hope to carve out an ideal zone of use value, a social space free from the atrocities of the commodity form, particularly if the neo-liberals and the neo-conservatives converge on a faith in free markets and globalization?  Is this the hope that keeps all of us tacking toward the coast of Utopia?     

I got to know Matthew Crawford the author through the profile of him broadcast by PORTSIDE, the left-wing site.  But his original manifesto on behalf of real work was published by a conservative blog, and then touted by David Brooks of Weekly Standard and New York Times fame (Crawford’s book contract came soon after).  His first job out of graduate school was at the Marshall Institute, where he compiled facts to accord with arguments against the scientific claims of global warming.  And so on.

From the glowing profile, worshipfully written by Margaret Wheeler Johnson for www.alternet.org, then taken up by the ultra-left www.truthout.org, and now distributed by PORTSIDE, we learn that Crawford earned a PhD in Political Thought from the University of Chicago two paragraphs before we are allowed to notice that he’s a regular guy: “There is a line of dirt and motor oil under his fingernails.”

This is “the real deal,” as his editor puts it, a real man.  He works with his hands, and he values manual labor, so he must be a man of the people, right?  Well, all right, some of the people.  Crawford’s attitude toward women does seem to stem from a plaintive, nostalgic view of masculinity and how it might be salvaged from the clutches of the passive, consumerist self by strenuous exertion in the vicinity of master plumbers and mechanics who are themselves a kind of hard reality.  Old Volkswagens “tend to get passed around like cheap whores,” you see, so “it is rare to find one that hasn’t been pawed at by a train of users applying more urgency than finesse.”  But let’s leave aside this strange and anachronistic language.

Let’s also leave aside the story Crawford tells about why he decided against pursuing a career in academe:  “I once attended a conference entitled ‘After the Beautiful.’ . . . Speaking up for my own sense of enchantment, I pointed out, from the audience, the existence of beautiful human bodies.  Youthful ones, in particular.  This must have touched a nerve, as it was greeted with incredulous howls of outrage from some of the more senior harpies.” 

Let’s concentrate instead on his left-wing credentials.  This is a genuine man of the Left because he’s against the consolidation of economic power that puts us all at the mercy of the corporate chieftains who install those awful work spaces—The Office, The Cubicle—in which all we can do is push paper and watch pornography on our computer screens. “But Crawford does break with the right,” Johnson suggests in an interestingly defensive rhetorical move, “when, in promoting the course [sic] of the industrial craftsman [notice the singular], he rejects the big-business model that has dominated American capitalism since Henry Ford [sic].” 

Crawford himself puts it better: “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 take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (it is never guaranteed).  The consolation we seek in shopping serves only to narcotize us against a recognition of these facts.” 

In this poisonous retail environment, where “defenders of free markets forget that what we want is free men,” there’s no “space for entrepreneurship.”  For when conservatives equate corporate holdings and private property as such, or when they analogously equate consumer choice with freedom as such, “they become apologists for the ever-greater concentration of capital.”  Their defense of liberty as a function of property rights and freedom of choice only enlarges the scope of corporate power, and the “result is that opportunities for self-employment and self-reliance are preempted by distant forces.” 

The bottom line, the Populist moment where Crawford aligns himself with the likes of Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone, William Greider at The Nation, and Richard Sennett of the New School—radicals all!—comes early on, when the author measures his argument against the background of the economic crisis that still lingers, puncturing every hope of “individual agency.”  Without a trace of irony, he suggests that real work might be our salvation: “The scope of the economic crisis is still uncertain as I write this, but it appears to be deepening.  We are experiencing a genuine crisis of confidence in our most prestigious institutions and professions. . . . Wall Street in particular has lost is luster as a destination for smart and ambitious young people.  Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding of career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity.  The meta-work of trafficking in the surplus skimmed from other people’s work suddenly appears as what it is, and it becomes possible again to think the thought, ‘Let me make myself useful.’” 

You have to love that formulation, because it is so exquisitely old school American.  It’s exactly what the Loco-Focos and the National Labor Uunion and the Knights of Labor and the Greenbackers and the Populists—not to mention the Social Credit crowd from the 1930s that included Ezra Pound—claimed about productive labor as against mental labor.  “Jay Gould never earned a great deal, but he owns a terrible lot,” as one of their number explained to a Senate Committee in 1884.  An official of the Knights of Labor put it this way at the same hearings: “If he has accumulated money to build the machine, it must have been taken from labor, because the capitalist performs no productive labor himself.”  Like Crawford, he and his comrades hated bankers, lawyers, capitalists, middlemen, all of those liminal figures whose income was deducted from the sum of value created by men—yes, men—who produced real things, useful things.  They especially hated bankers because these types were inconceivable in the absence of a surplus of signs that had no objective correlative in real and useful things.

In the absence of that surplus of signs, our thoughts and symbols can—indeed must—correspond to real and useful things out there in the world.  That grounding, Crawford insists, is essential training in becoming a rational human being.  “The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie,” he suggests, “in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.”  So the “things themselves” soon take on meanings that are not supplied by any human convention or instrument—a carpenter’s level or a machinist’s micrometer are mere registers of laws and relations that human beings did not invent but rather discovered.  These laws and relations are the “immutable judgment of reality” because they constitute a community of practitioners which agrees on this reality, but, more importantly, a world outside and independent of the private, arbitrary opinions of the self that consumes rather than produces.   

This is where Left and Right still converge, on the notion that without the “objective” standard of an external reality that impinges on us as a non-human truth, the logic of material cause and effect is uprooted and with it any legible, proportionate, and justifiable relation between effort and reward or crime and punishment.  This is where Left and Right still converge, on the notion that post-modernism or post-structuralism dislodges that material anchor and leaves us rudderless in a sea of contingent, plural truths.  This is where Left and Right still converge, on the notion that there is an ideal zone of use value where artisanal work yet prevails, where extensions of the human  body—mere tools—still regulate the encounter between Man and Nature, where knower and known are placed in a transparent relation that reveals a universal Truth.

No wonder the blurbs come from all across the political spectrum, from academics and intellectuals engaged in current controversies, every one of them looking for some way to reinstate the things themselves in our orientation to the world.  Even so, it is astonishing when Crawford proudly says “’It’s nice to have written something on a topic people care about rather than some ancient Greek crap.’”  

This is astonishing because Crawford was trained by a Straussian, and had a post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought—there is no escape route from the classics in this curriculum.  He should know better, anyway, since Aristotle’s ideas about real work and his endorsement of the stochastic arts compose the presiding spirit of the book (the ancient philosopher is the ghost in this narrative machine).  Above all, Crawford should understand that the ideal of craftsmanship which informs real work as he has defined it here is the ancient ideal of poeisis, a word that means something like “composition” and that is, not surprisingly, the root of the modern word poetry. 

He should know that he’s peddling the same ancient Greek distinction between real, artisanal work and mere drudgery which Hannah Arendt, a close reader of both Aristotle and Marx, used in The Human Condition (1958), her brilliant, poignant rehabilitation of the classical republican tradition and her brave, though understated, defense of Marx at a moment when his intellectual legacy seemed to matter most to well-organized factions on the sectarian Left (and indeed both Sennett and Crawford cite Arendt, although the former doesn’t quite grasp the distinction she was making)..

Arendt was hardly dealing in “ancient Greek crap.”  She was trying, at a moment when the modern liberal tradition was still in crisis—as witness the contemporary meditations of C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, Philip Converse, and Lionel Trilling—to sketch an alternative to the unbound individualism, and the attendant anomie, which produced cynicism and even despair among her fellow intellectuals.  She was trying to rewrite the rules of political engagement when the game itself was in question, in play.  In this sense, her project was conservative—it was, after all, an alternative to modern liberalism—but it was not reactionary.  Like Sennett’s, Matt Crawford’s project is profoundly reactionary.  Here is why.

First, he assumes that work is the site of self-discovery and thus a real identity.  Like the modern moralists enfranchised by the Reformation, who demoted reason and claimed that one’s calling was the medium in which the faithful would come to know their maker, he believes that character is built on this site.  It is where you learn punctuality, regularity, discipline, control, restraint, respect, and so forth, and without it you would never be able to meet your obligations outside of the workplace, whether private and familial or public and political.

This idea of work is something that social movements since the 19th century have been desperate to displace, because it reduces society to the workplace—everything must be measured by the rules of work—and thus defines leisure, life beyond necessary labor, as mere idleness, the Devil’s playground.  These social movements, from the woman movement and the anti-slavery concert of the 19th century to the labor unions and the civil rights movement of the 20th century, have always tried to designate their members as something more than workers, as something no less than multifaceted individuals and omni-competent citizens with ideas and interests that transcend their occupations or their places of work.  They have tried to reduce the burdens and the hours of labor in the name of an existence not constrained by the imperatives of necessity—they have refused to equate their lives and their work.  In doing so, these movements have remapped the modern moral universe by finding new locations for character-building. 

Second, the artisanal ideal Crawford refurbishes is necessarily nostalgic.  It describes work that is, and will remain, unavailable to the vast majority of people on the planet, let alone in the United States.  It treats the division of labor, whether domestic or international, as something that requires revocation, as if we want to inhabit a world in which we must understand internal combustion before we can drive the car.  It allows for dependence on others, but only on those who are like-minded, those who are already schooled in and disciplined by the local knowledge, the face-to-face lessons, and the inarticulate practices of the people who share your vocation.

Accordingly, it assumes that unskilled manual labor or merely instrumental mental labor is mindless, thus unsuited to serve as the educative medium through which we learn to cope with reality.  Like Christopher Newfield, Richard Sennett, Christopher Lasch, Jackson Lears, and almost every other anti-corporate critic of late capitalism, Crawford assumes that the universalization of his artisanal ideal must mean the triumph of democracy because it equips all workers with the means of production—either that, or because bureaucracy is bad, small is beautiful, alienated labor is intolerable, and utopia is what’s left.

When they adopt this utopian mood, they are reproducing an agenda of the young Marx, who wrote about the beauty of fishing in the morning and writing symphonies in the afternoon (we might notice, however, that Marx later insisted that the address of true freedom was in the neighborhood where socially necessary labor had been reduced to an absolute minimum, and where, accordingly, work as such could not be the site of self-discovery and self-determination).  But they are also reproducing an agenda of reaction—at any rate it is an agenda of abstention from the world as it actually exists—by excluding mere proletarians from their field of dreams, where the soul subsists on meaningful work, and only on meaningful work.

Third, Crawford’s artisanal ideal reinstates the kind of bourgeois individualism that resides in a proprietary model of selfhood—a model that posits self-ownership as the condition of self-mastery.  The logic goes like this.  I own my capacity to produce value through work because I own productive property, with which I mix my labor: I don’t have to sell that capacity to an employer, thus relinquishing control over what makes me human, because my income-producing property makes me economically independent.  I am not a proletarian, therefore I am free.

This model has of course been losing its traction on the modern mind since the late-19th century, when the industrial revolution made us all proles—when artisanal labor became quaint (the village blacksmith and all that), and a permanent, propertyless working class became a fixture of all advanced capitalist countries, indeed defining them as such.  But it will never be eclipsed because it makes so much sense in a market society.  We still worship on the artisanal/entrepreneurial altar because we know that the man who is “his own boss” is a real man.

The demand to relinquish this illusion is perhaps as pointless as the demand to relinquish our religious urges, because our worship of the self-made man is a kind of religious urge.  It rests on faith in things unseen.  But we might learn to live more easily with our necessary dependence on others if we could understood that self-reliance of the kind Crawford advertises is, like authenticity, impossible as well as overrated.  We might learn, accordingly, to question the pioneer individualism that comes with the territory of 18th-century forms of labor, and to understand that the self has a social history that didn’t end with the completion of proletarianization..

Finally, Crawford’s notion of genuine selfhood—as something rooted in the kind of craft work that must conform its practices to a given material reality, the “things themselves”—reinvents the invidious, ontological distinctions between production and consumption, or work and leisure, which have disabled serious thinking about consumer culture for a generation.  The so-called critique of this culture, always animated by the platitudes of the Frankfurt School and always offered as a covert endorsement of real work by real men, has by now passed from the tragic to the farcical—we know this because David Brooks, Tyler Durden, and Harvey Mansfield envision moral renewal in exactly the same way, as a recovery of the manliness erased by consumerism—and yet it is here restated so earnestly that you have to wonder if Matthew Crawford just doesn’t get the joke.

Maybe he does.  He goes over to the dark consumptive side twice, toward the end of the book, precisely where he waxes very eloquent on the goods that are internal to practices in classical fashion, in a manner that recalls the Marx of the Paris manuscripts.  The intrusion of money as a goal on work, he explains, is a problem because it superimposes a value extrinsic to the work itself.  This is quite true.  It’s like superimposing the value of winning on sandlot baseball, where the goal is not a final score but playing the game.  When you’re a grownup, however, it’s more like superimposing the values of fame, influence, and book sales on writers.  So work is a hard sell as the crucial theater of moral significance, because who doesn’t let these external goods corrupt the work they do for a living?  Who’s an exception to the rule aside from tenured professors who don’t publish?  And then again, who wants to be a child again, playing just for fun?

To his credit, Crawford almost asks these questions, and in almost doing so he makes his utopian argument pathetic in the old-fashioned sense.  I mean that he enacts the “pathos of authenticity” in words that are so brave and sincere that they make you want to believe him. 

Here is how he impales himself on the jagged edge of consumption/leisure, where people do things for the reasons he wants us to go back to work, for the fun of it:  He quotes a famous gymnast to the effect that she wasn’t even aware of the score her routine had elicited from the judges, and then says: “These remarks highlight an important feature of those practices that entail skilled and active engagement: one’s attention is focused on standards intrinsic to the practice rather than external goods that may be won through the practice, typically money or recognition.  Can this distinction between internal and external goods inform our understanding of work?”

My answer is Probably not, unless you can afford to lose money on the job or at the shop because you have another source of income.  My answer is, look outside the workplace.  But Crawford answers the same way: “It may be telling that it is leisure activities that come first to mind when we think about intrinsic satisfactions—athletics, for example, or hobbies that we enjoy.”  

It gets worse.  Crawford quotes a philosopher friend’s book manuscript—forthcoming from Oxford University Press—to the effect that if you’re not paying attention, your mind is probably elsewhere (only philosophers get to say these things as if they just figured it out): “If one were struck only by the instrumental value of the activity . . . one’s evaluative attention would be directed not at the activity but at its expected results—that is, at something other than what one is doing.”

And then we get this startling conclusion, not from the philosopher but from the motorcycle mechanic who’s been telling us all along that we better get back to work if we don’t want to be sucked into “this weird moment of passivity and dependence” organized as a cultural system by the “consumerist Self” who chooses but never creates: “This line of reasoning [the friend’s] suggests that the kind of appreciative attention where one stays focused on what one is doing can arise only in leisure situations.  Such a conclusion would put pleasurable absorption beyond the ken of any activity that is undertaken for the sake of making money, because although money is undoubtedly good, it is not intrinsically so.”

For those of us who think of a rubber hammer as a speed wrench, or of duct tape as a decorative accent—we are the unskilled, and we have no intention of acquiring any skills—this line of reasoning suggests three other conclusions.  They follow directly from Matthew Crawford’s heartbreaking presentation, but I’m pretty sure he could not acknowledge them as logical corollaries of his premises or arguments.  To begin with, even small measures of consumption are as phenomenologically dense and complex as seemingly strenuous acts of goods production undertaken by artisans.  Just think of how people buy and wear clothes, think of how the use values they want are always already complicated by what Marx called the “expenses of representation.”

Moreover, these small measures of consumption are just as morally significant as any act of production, and we know this from observing the tactics of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and, more recently, the movement for environmental integrity.  Hands-on production of goods in grudging accordance with the laws of an external, material reality is no more replete with meanings than the personal, particular uses to which we put the things we buy—or abstain from the things we won’t buy.  

Finally, once upon a time, in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was incendiary, even revolutionary, to assert that freedom was a function of necessary labor, but to restate the logic of bourgeois opposition to the unproductive, parasitic presence of aristocratic rulers who subtract their incomes from the sum of value created by others is, at this remove from the heroic scene of yeoman sacrifice, just embarrassing.  Who’s not pushing paper?  If we’re all confined to The Office and The Cubicle, why do we have to yet again defend mental labor as against the more palpable, measurable manual labor of tradesmen whose work has yet to be transformed by the technological advances of the 20th century?
Or do we?  Is this book so utopian that it’s not even athwart the realities of our time?  Is it so obtusely unaware of our common experience that it can’t make sense of anything except the very few of us who want to carve great meaning from our jobs, or from the set of unforgiving, “non-human truths” we call external reality?

The short answer to the last two questions is Yes.  It seems that only a much longer answer would staunch the flow of books like this one.  But then what makes us think it will ever end?   

comments powered by Disqus