Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft - Is America a nation of clerks and automatons?

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Opinion Zone,Lachlan Markay

Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Hard Work (Penguin, 2009) aims to discredit and discard the false dichotomy of office jobs versus physical labor. The notion that the former is knowledge-oriented while the latter is devoid of knowledge and deals only with ‘things’ is just plain wrong, he argues.

Crawford’s background is well-suited to examine the white-collar-vs-blue-collar paradigm. He received a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and briefly worked at a Washington think tank before opening his own motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA. So he has been a white collar worker and a blue collar worker, and believes firmly the in latter’s superiority as a physically and cognitively demanding—and rewarding—pursuit.

An electrician’s assistant throughout high school, Crawford learned the “social currency” of physical work. He lauds the personal satisfaction from a hard day’s work, while avoiding the “mysticism that gets attached to ‘craftsmanship.’ ” The elation he describes as he finishes a day’s wiring, flips the switch, and sees the light go on venerates the simple yet profound nature of a functioning electrical circuit. “And there was light,” he says, recalling his joy at displaying the result of his hard work for the world to see.

Crawford insists that the enlightening nature of the manual trades comes from the objective nature of the work. If the mechanic makes a mistake or forgets a step, the bike does not start, the light does not turn on; the thing simply does not work. Crawford contrasts this refreshing clarity with his think tank gig and of the corporate world generally, which, he argues, are too reminiscent of an episode of “The Office” or a “Dilbert” comic strip. The monotony and anonymity within the white-collar world overshadow any creativity and individual responsibility.

However, contemporary “knowledge workers,” as society has termed them, are separated by layers of corporate bureaucracy from the products on which they work. Whereas the craftsman is solely responsible for his product, he argues, the corporate worker fits into a maze of specialized tasks, and has little investment in the finished product.

Much like the industrial assembly line of the early 20th century, argues Crawford, the “cognitive elements” of corporate work “are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals.”

He worries that knowledge is institutionalized in a highly specialized corporate hierarchy through prescribed processes that do not require lower-level workers—the clerks—to know why something needs to be done, only that it needs to be done. Once this knowledge is established and prescribed, workers no longer feel the need, Crawford argues, to explore the intricacies of a given product. They are told what to do and they do it, by his account.

Crawford argues for an extreme individualism. The truly satisfying work, he suggests, must involve both knowledge and practice. The individual must learn by thinking and by doing. The technical knowledge that Crawford advocates requires one to think about a problem, and to apply that knowledge to the actual situation to achieve a suitable result. True professional success—in the economic and philosophical senses—can only come from this practically applied knowledge, and not from formulas or manuals that apply prescribed solutions to theoretical problems.

Crawford seeks to discard the solely theoretical knowledge he sees as the foundation for corporate production. This type of information—the type that fosters an economic culture of clerks—has little basis in reality and does not inform individuals as to how things actually work. Neither does Crawford advocate an economic culture based solely on manual labor, such as the assembly line. A combination of thinking and doing comprises the knowledge for which he argues.

“Theory and practice need each other,” Crawford told an audience at The Ethics and Public Policy Center last week in speaking about the book. Whether blue or white collar, he argues, work that requires production without knowledge or critical thinking, or abstract policy formulations with no basis in empirical reality cannot satisfy the human need to create.

Beyond his abstract philosophical objections to the declining stature of physical work in American society, Crawford argues that this decline has made Americans less self-reliant and independent, a fact he laments. He insists that consumer culture has fostered this mass passivity by encouraging people to buy new goods, rather than fix the ones they have, and to reserve repairs for so-called professionals.

In writing Shop Class, Crawford hopes not only to promote the philosophical good of manual labor in the satisfactions it imparts on those who engage in it, but also to show that physical work has tangible economic and social benefits, creating as it does independent, autonomous, and critical citizens.

Though stimulating, Crawford’s argument seems to assume a static un-dynamic corporate culture, in which few new ideas are introduced, and in which the institutionalized ideas (embodied by the clerks) will continue to dominate. While it is true that many Americans feel helplessly trapped in a faceless corporate culture, the corporate world is more than just a set of established processes. It may be imperfect, but the creative destruction of the marketplace builds and shapes an ever-evolving corporate ethos.

Crawford seems almost to forget the value of the entrepreneur as a builder and cultural actor. Steve Jobs could come to mind for many. As the first mover, he creates the equations and templates that Crawford so despises, and hence allows others to build upon the progress he has made. He expropriates the theoretical basis for a new product to allow others to produce and improve upon that product.

Although businesses institutionalize the processes for the creation of their particular goods—and create a class of, in Crawford’s words, “clerks.”—the business world is constantly devising new products, and new processes. Theory and practice are necessary components of any profitable business strategy. Crawford’s argument falls short, in that it does not acknowledge that there are different corporate cultures that do fit his model of cognitive and labor-intensive work.

Crawford fails to recognize that the same skills he lauds as the tools of the craftsman are also tools of the businessman. That the latter employs “clerks” to carry out the specialized tasks of his business neglects the fact that each one of those clerks could be the next businessman, devising a novel idea, and applying the practical reality of his abilities and that of the market to create a profitable good.

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