The consolations of manual work

By Martin Vogel


Book review: The Case for Working with Your Hands, by Matthew Crawford

There’s an old joke about a banker whose plumber charged him £250 for a two-minute job to fix a leaking tap.  “I don’t earn that kind of money in the City!” the banker told the plumber.  “Yeah!” replied the plumber, “I didn’t either.  That’s why I switched to plumbing.”

The joke spoke to a pervading anxiety that the financial rewards of white collar work may be meagre compensation for the costs it exacts.  Now, along comes Matthew Crawford to rub salt in the wound with his thesis that the manual trades may also be more intrinsically rewarding.

The Case for Working with Your Hands (published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft) owes more to Marx than I had appreciated from reading reviews of the book. Crawford provides a critique of the alienation of work in corporate capitalism. He extrapolates the trends that Marx identified in 19th Century manual labour to show how so-called ‘knowledge workers’ in contemporary capitalism are subject to the same phenomenon. The argument is not new. What differentiates this book is that, while Crawford writes from the perspective of an academic philosopher, he builds his argument from his own direct experience in the manual trades (electrician, motorcycle engineer) and desk work (a writer abstracts of academic papers, a research fellow for a Washington think tank).

Crawford finds that his experience of manual work is more intellectually challenging and more intrinsically satisfying than his experience of knowledge work. As an electrician and running his own motorcycle repair shop, he finds engagement in problem solving, in creating something and working to demonstrable and tangible standards. There is holistic pleasure in working with both hands and brains, and daily experience of failure from which one learns, accumulates tacit knowledge and acquires mastery.

He contrasts this with our normal experience of alienation from work both as workers and as consumers. At work, jobs have been overwhelmed by bureaucracy and the stripping away of much of their intellectual content as the focus of corporations becomes the creation of maximum value for shareholders rather than for end-users. As consumers, we have no interaction with the products that we purchase which are designed to ‘free’ us from the need to fix or maintain them ourselves. He cites a model of Mercedes car which does not include so much as a dipstick to check the oil. The car still needs its oil levels to be topped up regularly but the owner is expected to leave this to the service engineer.

Crawford laments that in most organisational settings, work is not so much about mastery of craft but mastery of the dynamics of the team. He argues that the focus of management is to foster a certain sensibility in employees rather than require high standards in the application of skills. He gives a powerful account of his disappointment with his first job after completing his master’s degree. Employed to write abstracts of papers, he found that this was far from being the journey into knowledge that he had imagined. It turned out to be a mutilated form of intellectual work where the quality of his output — the integrity of his summarising of authors’ work — mattered less than the number of abstracts that he could produce in a day. His colleagues were damaged people — including one who used heroin on the job and took pleasure in sabotaging his work by including in his abstracts outrageous material which his employers, none the wiser, would subsequently publish.  Crawford asks:

“How was it that I, once a proudly self-employed electrician, had ended up among these walking wounded, a ‘knowledge worker’ at a salary of $23,000? I hadn’t gone to graduate school for the sake of a career (rather, I wanted guidance reading some difficult books), but once I had the master’s degree I felt like I belonged to a certain order of society, and was entitled to its forms. Despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as a manual worker.”

Crawford finds it perverse that Western democracies are alert to the dangers of a concentration of political power but not to the risks of concentrated corporate power. He advocates that, as consumers, we should show apply to our purchasing sensitivity to the impact of the production of goods and services on human dignity — in the same way that many routinely consider environmental issues. At work, he favours occupations which offer face-to-face interactions rather than control by remote forces, responsibility for one’s work, and solidarity between colleagues.  Such solidarity, he argues, is derived from the respect for each other which comes from working to clear standards and seeing colleagues do the job well.

Crawford offers nothing constructive for the masses of people who work in large organisations. The consolations of the trades cannot be readily established in the office.  Crawford himself acknowledges that to address the problems he identifies would require a revolution in the regulation of large corporations. Rather than hope for this, he suggests, individuals would do better adopting a ‘Stoic’ attitude — seeking out “the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.” For many people, those cracks are to be found mainly in their personal space away from work  — which is a measure of the very alienation that Crawford seeks to highlight.

The Case for Working with Your Hands provides a thought-provoking critique of how we work. It offers a glimpse of a more sustaining alternative.  But it strikes me as the beginning of a discussion rather than the last word.

The Case for Working with Your Hands, by Matthew Crawford

The Case for Working with Your Hands, by Matthew Crawford.  Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive.