Shop Class as Soulcraft

I just finished reading Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s a rare thing: deeply reactionary, yet (mostly) well argued. Here’s its central complaint:

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... Too often, the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men.

Crawford’s believes that removing the experience of working with things from everyday life hasn’t just deskilled us; it has demoralized us. The modern knowledge worker is just as alienated from his or her labor as any other assembly line worker; the gradual substitution of algorithm for judgment may increase profit, but only if pride in one’s work and connection with one’s peers is left out of the equation.

Crawford is most definitely not playing the “dignity of manual labor” horn once blown by the Arts & Crafts or back-to-the-land bands: he is coolly scathing when discussing their cuddly inanity. Nor is he any kind of leftist: he views big government and big education as equally complicit with big business in sucking the meaning out of everyday work. Just to take one example, Chapter 6, “The Contradictions of the Cubicle”, is a brilliant deconstruction of how the ever-provisional nature of right and wrong in modern management has turned managers into ersatz therapists. Here is its take on higher education (Crawford himself has a Ph.D.):

Maybe we can say, after all, that higher education is indispensible to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy. Not for the usual reasons given, namely, that there is ever-increasing demand for workers with more powerful minds, but in this perverse sense: college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representation and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensible to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.

Like all reactionaries, he does tend to idealize the days of yore: his description of the pride a Rolls Royce panel beater of the 1970s took in producing something distinctively English bears little relation to the reality of the day. But he makes a convincing case that skilled trades are not only better paid and steadier occupations these days than most so-called “knowledge work”, they also demand more intellectually, and are more personally rewarding.

Crawford’s emphasis on self-reliance, and his love of all things automative, doom him to being labeled a conservative. He isn’t, at least not as that word is currently used in English-speaking countries. Like Andrew Bacevich (whose The Limits of Power I discussed briefly back in June), he thinks we have taken a wrong turn, and need to back up before we can move forward. He doesn’t pretend to know how to do this, but I defy anyone to come away from this book believing that we shouldn’t try.

Later: see also this CBC story by Richard Handler, which includes a link to a video interview with Crawford.