Hand Crafted

Can a return to manual labor fix our ailing economy?

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work | By Matthew B. Crawford | The Penguin Press | $25.95, 246 pages

These are hard economic times, and the recovery, whenever it comes, may also transform the way we think about free markets, and about the nature of work itself. After all, we’ve just watched the global economy come undone at the hands of bankers wielding thoroughly abstract financial instruments. It would be reasonable to emerge from this recession hungry for a more tangible economic reality. These are the anxieties that Matthew Crawford attempts to address in his first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft.

Crawford’s premise is simple enough. There are myriad reasons for Americans to consider careers in the “useful arts,” also known as blue-collar work, also known as manual labor. For one, our society’s fixation on a college diploma for everyone has created a supply-and-demand imbalance, with too many grads competing for too few white-collar jobs. Mechanics and other manual laborers have more job security in a global economy, because tasks that must be performed face-to-face cannot be outsourced. What’s more, these jobs are a direct and necessary answer to a consumerist society that’s tired of binging on new things.

In addition, says Crawford, there are philosophical advantages to working with one’s hands. “Manual labor,” he suggests, is something of a misnomer, given the high level of intellectual engagement offered by such tasks. In his view, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics all enjoy a rare degree of professional satisfaction, because they can see the direct the results of their labors. “I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch,” Crawford writes. “The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well.” Possessing this power over the physical world gives workers a kind of prominence, and a peculiar autonomy, unknown to the rest of us, who are mostly at the mercy of our mechanical devices.

Crawford speaks from experience. He is that rare motorcycle mechanic with a doctorate in philosophy from University of Chicago. And his book shines when he weaves together philosophical texts from Aristotle and Hannah Arendt that articulate, for example, the central nature of durable objects. “The reality and reliability of the human world rests primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced,” Arendt wrote, “and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” Crawford has more in mind than freeing repairmen from the customary snobbery and derision. He means to elevate their work, treating it as a necessary conduit between the permanent world of objects and the temporary world of individuals.

Alas, Crawford’s fluency as a mechanic is thoroughly lost on the novice reader. While gearheads may revel in his technical explanation of a particularly vexing clutch-rod oil seal—and how that challenge speaks to the larger satisfaction of mechanical work—many will be lost amidst the jargon.

In other ways, too, Crawford chooses the path of least resistance. He spends most of the book arguing that meaningful, satisfying work can be had in the trades. It’s an easy assumption to swallow; more vexing, however, are the practical questions. There are substantial obstacles built into our education system, public policy, and health care that must be overcome before Crawford’s vision can become reality. And, as any woman who has walked past a construction site knows, there are also massive cultural challenges that stand in the way.

The author brushes the latter issue aside, praising the freedom of speech on a job site. “You can tell dirty jokes,” he writes. “Where there is real work being done, the order of things isn’t quite so fragile.” The office is, by contrast, a prickly environment that “has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation.” Without tangible tasks, argues Crawford, “there is no basis for social relations.” But here his enthusiasm for concrete and calluses has led him astray. The challenges for women in the workplace are simply too real to attribute to a “fragile” environment, and a freer atmosphere for dirty jokes will do little to address discrimination, inequities in pay, and the like.

Crawford concedes that a massive shift over to the useful arts might put a crimp in America’s entrepreneurial style. He notes that “it remains for others, better versed in public policy and shrewder about its unintended consequences, to suggest ways in which the space for entrepreneurship can be protected.” Indeed, it will take many others to consider the wider scope of the book’s implications. But cultural norms that assign low worth to trade professions, and those that make women feel unwelcome on job sites, will present much bigger obstacles than the rather mundane question of how tax policy should treat small-business owners.

Still, Crawford sketches out an appealing future, which has some parallels in the local food movement that Michael Pollan and others have popularized. Might a new generation of craftsmen (and craftswomen) thrive not in factories, but in local communities, where their work puts them in direct contact with their customers, and earns them the esteem of their peers? Crawford could certainly provide a little more guidance about how to achieve his vision. At its core, though, his brand of localism presents a welcome alternative to the abstract global economy that gotten us into the current, machine-tooled mess.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.