Friday 23 July 2010

Gets your motor running

The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford (Viking, 2010)

It’s a good story: a disillusioned policy wonk and former cubicle drone forgoes the certainties of highly-paid intellectual work to find fulfilment in his own motorcycle repair shop. He muses about why this makes him feel better and writes a book about it that charts in The New York Times bestseller list and influences governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Case for Working with Your Hands is an entertaining ride. Crawford’s strange life, from his childhood in a nomadic commune and his formative years hanging at the tune-up shop, to his academic career and subsequent success in think tanks, has equipped him with contrasting views of working. The book is a brief history of work and education from what he calls a ‘progressive republican’ standpoint woven into a concise and unusual autobiography. It might sound like a smug, inspirational text for the self-help shelf; the kind of thing where some idiot gives up the rat race and then finds himself through becoming a puppy chiropractor, but it’s nothing like that. Whatever satisfaction Crawford has gained he has tried to share and explain, making an effort to engage with many other people’s ideas on many subjects. You might not agree with a single one of his conclusions but you can enjoy the polemic nonetheless. He bolts on his experiences of different kinds of labour to critiques of thinking about work that include the ancients, Karl Marx, Iris Murdoch, Frederick Winslow Taylor, Silicon Valley management gurus and Charles Murray, to name a very few.

We’re taken on a disciplined, whistle-stop tour of work and its human consequences from the pre- to the post-industrial, from the societal down to the individual cognitive scales. He comes to what he describes as radically conservative conclusions about the expectations and rewards of work and education and the relationships we have to each other through these. Among the many high points are his merciless contempt for concepts such as the creative economy and corporate culture and its practices, the funny anecdotes driving pithy interpretations of Tocqueville and Socrates, and all with an ongoing critique of Fordism.

Crawford’s well-aimed blows at scientific management principles, staff team-building exercises and the resistance of modern machinery to home servicing will strike chords with many, and he synthesises a fresh and thought-provoking outlook from his experiences. However, alongside the ambition of his remit (especially so in only 210 pages), his basic argument - that we can make the world a better place by fixing stuff - is pretty modest. Published originally in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, the English edition’s more demure title describes the work better.

Some really timely and interesting questions are asked. Why do we educate people the way we do? What, exactly, are we preparing them for? Not everyone is an academic, so why is that virtually the only form of higher education? Do you want to work in a cubicle pretending to be someone else your whole life? Haven’t we imported the soulless drudgery and alienation of the assembly line into the culture of the office in the so-called knowledge economy? Aren’t so many of the so-called creative jobs just badly paid processing? Crawford starts off all these debates imaginatively and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, returning frequently to the camaraderie of the gear-head community and the satisfaction of knowing the people for whom he provides a service.

Restoring the connections and responsibilities between people that have been stripped away by corporatism and the globalisation of labour, in direct economic ways, underpins the modest proposals. Along the way he builds cases for reconsidering how we value all kinds of work that cannot be done online, from being a doctor or firefighter, to a construction worker or mechanic. He is concerned with the cognitive drawbacks of living in a culture where we can make few of our own decisions in our lives, whether it’s because we have to maintain a company line at work or because new cars don’t even have dipsticks for their owners to check the oil level. The re-engagement that his motorbike repair shop has brought him, with both the world of objects around him and with a broader community of their users, motivates his critical appraisal of alienation, both from products of our own labour and those of others.

The skilled mechanics Crawford has learned from and the customers who bring him their bikes comprise a sort of circle of life, where knowledge that can only be learned and put to use through experience of interacting with the material world is passed down and exploited for the general benefit. Crawford describes an antidote to the ephemeral and essentially parasitical activities of America’s post-industrial economy, trading in intangibles that can nonetheless destroy real economies, as with the US sub-prime credit crisis. He believes private property to be the cornerstone of liberty but says this does not square with the greater concentration of property in fewer corporate hands. The isolation of workers both from their customers and their employers further encourages, he says, the solipsism of the consumer, the ‘sovereign individual’, and the eroding of the relationship between people and between people and their material lives.

So fixing things doesn’t just feel good, it presents creative possibilities, easily and objectively judged, where we can take control of our own stuff. Controlling this stuff also takes us out of the realm of pure, abstract thought - where all double-knotted shoelaces can be untied by pulling on one end because it’s the only place where pure, perfect shoelaces exist. Hard science and theory are important, but a motorbike built on such has to contend with the dirt and grime of real roads. The mechanics who fix them get better at it as they experience more of the ways of the real world, developing cognitive functions that deal with realities. Humans, Crawford says, have a need to interact with the problems of objective things.

For Crawford, craftsmanship and the useful arts are distinct from the experience of consumers because, as Richard Sennett argues, the craftsmen is attentive to the particular thing while consumers must focus on the cultural back story used to persuade them to buy (p17). Factory farming methods idealise and standardise the earth while organic farmers must concern themselves with their particular piece of land to increase its yield. The useful arts that service and repair things like motorbikes are a kind of crack through which individuals may escape some of the consequences of the consumer society. Even if youngsters are not going to work as carpenters, mechanics, electricians or plumbers, they should at least spend some of their time learning those skills in shop class (that’s American for metal work, woodwork and design and technology fabrication skills). While we all rely on these sorts of skills as never before, while we are connected as never before, we seem to be more isolated from each other as we lose our connections with the things, and skills with those things, that make our society what it is.

Many will sympathise with the problems Crawford identifies and you can see the book’s appeal to politicians, both in the US and here in Britain, in a period of austerity. But Crawford isn’t in the make-do-and-mend camp; he believes positively in improving people’s lives through their striving for excellence gained by experience. He is convinced of the social benefits of the entrepreneurs who feel a moral responsibility to their customers, the way he does when he rides behind his own costumers, enjoying themselves on their newly fettled machinery. Small-town banks who knew what houses people could really afford would never have plunged the world into a mortgage assets crisis. Crawford’s emphasis on self-reliance, social responsibility and independence from state and corporate interference also has clear attractions for those, such as the coalition government here in Britain, who believe they must roll back expensive state machinery, but that’s not really where Crawford is coming from.

Useful arts and crafts can be used, he says, to encourage the rugged individual, to establish standards or work, behaviour and achievement that are organic to society and require no committees. The new kind of self that could emerge has a positive sense of agency, beyond the isolated consumer that seeks solace in shopping and can challenge the old-fashioned revolutionary with big plans for everyone. Finally, he concludes that: ‘The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings’ (p210).

The trouble is, he hasn’t come up with a real alternative to the consumer, let alone the revolutionary. Crawford describes the community of car-tuners, or riders of old motorbikes as people who have put some distance between themselves and the ordinary consumer. He is scathing of the kind of car enthusiast who just bolts on so-called high-performance parts to his machine without working on it themselves or having proper tuning work done. First, the tuning shop community and the solidarity of owners of old and foreign motorbikes are all very culturally specific things to the US and not obviously transferable. Second, I am not convinced that the gear-head community of counter-consumerists he has joined is not really that different from the rest of us.

The US makes its cars and bikes very cheap in the home market, offering very basic models that buyers are then encouraged to personalise through their dealers and through a huge network of tuning shops. Once this pattern was set early in the last century, the then minority of foreign machinery enthusiasts set up their own shops as a sort of alternative but complementary auto culture. It is still relatively rare in the US for dealers and auto shops of any kind to sell or service both US and foreign machinery. This kind of auto market is virtually unique in both its immense size and style of local organisation (although parts of Australia have similar car consumption habits and Jeremy Clarkson often road-tests Aussie-tuned versions of American cars). There’s not really anything similar anywhere else except in terms of enthusiasts’ clubs and groups for particular marques, styles of machine or the communities around different kinds of racing.

Moreover, why is a person who buys an old machine, tunes it and then gets people like Crawford to fix it not a consumer like anybody else? Granted, such a person is an enthusiastic consumer and they may take a special interest in the manner of their consumption, but it is still only a manner of consumption, a definition of oneself by the product one chooses for one’s spare time. I have been riding for more than 30 years and own an old bike and a modern one (both modified with bolt-on parts). I do a bit of maintenance and enjoy some tasks very much, although I haven’t noticed any cognitive benefits. The brief escape from society in my garage is entirely private, and aimed at maintaining the pleasure I get from using a bike. I used to have a lovely old car (a VW Golf GTi Mk1 with the bigger engine) but I had to sell it because it kept needing the expensive attentions of independent mechanics like Crawford. Consumers and suppliers of goods and services seem to comprise the community Crawford says we can learn from; they are just a bit more enthusiastic and have deeper pockets.

In the notes of this well-referenced book, Crawford enlarges his explanation of the consumer with a long quote from Josie Appleton’s spiked review of Benjamin Barber’s book, Consumed (p216). In it Appleton argues against an ethic of consumption as such, and instead emphasises the tangible expressions that shopping and consumer choices can give to our personalities. I think Crawford has moved on from being a consumer, like me, on the outside of a commercial social elite that knows how to appeal to its consumers, to become a worker in an industry, someone on the inside of an informal trade club. He may enjoy the companionship of like-minded enthusiasts, but he is actually no longer one of them - he is a mechanic, dependent on consumers for work and upon suppliers and other mechanics for goods and services. This mode of living may indeed be Stoic, but is it an alternative to the revolutionary, or even to the radical?

What’s good about The Case for Working with Your Hands is the way he arrives at his conclusions and the description of the journey he has been on, both in his life and in terms of the many ideas he has grappled with. I think anyone could intellectually riff on the observations and analyses offered and the book could be as potentially valuable to the radical, or even the revolutionary, as it is to the Liberal-Democrat apologist for austerity.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.

Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.