Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gear-Heads Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Cubicles!

“Shop Class as Soulcraft – an Inquiry into the Value of Work,” by Mathew B Crawford, 2009

This book can be seen as a continuation and addition to Robert Pirsag’s odd but memorable book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which was, at bottom, a meditation on quality. Pirsag wrote that book in the 60s over Robert’s Shoes on Lake and Chicago here in Minneapolis, and it went on to make millions of dollars. Crawford’s title however is misleading – it is not the value of ‘work’ that is at issue in this book, but the value of blue-collar, or physical / mechanical work, over paperwork. Crawford is also concerned primarily with motorcycles – and at present owns an antique motorcycle repair shop. He’s been in various other roles as a car gear-head, philosophy PHD at the U of Chicago, think-tank employee, carpenter and now, motorcycle mechanic. Brought up by a hippie mother in a commune and a mathematician father, both imprinted themselves on him as something ‘not’ to do. He has an odd antipathy to ‘hippies’ (always a conservative red flag…) and also combats his father’s purely theoretical relation to reality.

Crawford is a materialist – and someone conversant in Marxism will have no trouble following his arguments against various forms of idealism. He points out that the shutting down of shop classes in high school in the 60s and 70s was a huge mistake, because it meant that everyone was being funneled into colleges to get white-collar jobs in the ‘post-industrial’ society, as Daniel Bell so badly put it. Crawford makes the point that someone doing blue-collar tradesman work – skilled labor – can make more money than a paperwork drone in a corporate HR department, or an actual clerk in a law firm. He also points out that the blue-collar work that cannot be digitized will survive. And while many people are not suited for the deadening work experience of corporate life, they are still shuffled into colleges!

The cube versus the shop – that is the topic here, and Crawford does a great job of showing the value of ordinary mechanical work as an intellectual discipline. Why this needs to be done is probably for the benefit of academics or middle class people who don't believe it. Of course we know the shutting-down of shop classes was not only an attack on the working-class through de-skilling, but also was preparing the population for the out-sourcing of blue-collar work to other countries.

Crawford, however, is really an advocate of skilled labor, and more specifically, small entrepreneurship. He finds Marx’s position that labor under capitalism can be alienating to be partly untrue, as he, as an antique bike mechanic and small businessmen, wants to give people their bikes back, so to speak, to further the thrill of the ride. I think he misreads Marx here, as he insists Marx’s alienated workers do not want others to ‘use’ their products. This, or course, is not really what alienation is all about. He does find paper-shuffling and semi-skilled / unskilled labor to be alienating though. He calls his time as a tie-wearing cube denizen to be more proletarianizing that almost anything else he’d done. Crawford uses Pirsag’s story of the idiot worker who did not care about what he was doing, and who damaged Prisag’s motorcycle as a result, as another example of alienation. Beware of the repair shop where the radio is louder than the thinking.

The book is full of funny stories about what it takes to do real things – and the superiority of actual experience and practical knowledge to poorly written maintenance manuals (written by technical writers, not people who actually do the work), erroneous electronic systems on cars and purely theoretical ‘scientific’ knowledge. He praises thinking as doing, and various older workers he learned from. Those who do, think, those who don’t, do not.

This brings to mind a story a co-worker of mine told me. She bought a GPS unit for her car, and on a trip to Colorado, she put it on the ‘shortest route’ setting, which she thought would get her there the quickest. It took her about 6 hours longer to get to Denver by this method, as the ‘shortest route’ setting will take you down dirt roads, through virtual alleys and around many tiny corners. Instead of applying practical experience – is a shorter route always the fastest? - she trusted the GPS unit. Workers with practical experience know when the computer or the manual or the ‘advice’ is wrong. Those who don’t, don’t. The word ‘bullshit’ describes that moment. As Crawford points out, reality is far more complicated than that. His favorite example is having to drill out a broken bolt from a metal head, or drill out a broken tap. Or dealing with rusted parts, dirt, poor fits or metal fatigue. None of which are provided for in manuals.

Crawford makes the ridiculous point that the slogan for the new international capitalists is “workers of the world, unite!” because the capitalists are not ‘nationalists’ anymore. He bases this on an analogy of Rolls Royce workers having pride in their ‘national’ work or BMW workers in theirs. However, more carefully, the real slogan should read: “Capitalists of the world, unite! - except they can't.” Capitalists, while international, always base themselves on a national unit to protect their interests, or a fake ‘international’ unit like the IMF, run by the US and Wall Street. Their ‘internationalism’ is only of the exploitative kind. Of course, a proponent of local small business has no need for internationalism anyway. Which is why he looks down his nose at 'elite' Marxism.

Crawford’s book is a valuable contribution to the debate over class and over work. He wants people to overcome their alienation towards their own ‘stuff’ and to become self-reliant in the physical world, instead of hiring someone else to do everything for them. While marred by his small businessman view, (after all, is the low-end motorcycle mechanic at the factory shop who’s in charge of oil changes and tire replacements as thrilled as Crawford?) he still gets to the heart of the matter over the deceptive lies of the white-collar world, and societies propagation of it.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, June 30, 2010


AA said...

I have a copy of the book. I would say he's an advocate of craftsmanship and the "way of being" that involves -- contrasted with the sterility of white-collar work (which Crawford, as a Ph.D. foundation official, knows something about). The book is roughly along the same lines as Richard Sennett's "The Craftsman." Pirsig was talking more about the elusive notion of "quality" which he saw in Plato but not Aristotle.

The boom originally began as an essay, which can be found here:

I recommend both the essay and the book.

Renegade Eye said...

I enjoyed that post.

Crawford has some good ideas, mixed up with his confused ideas as on alienation. I liked the part about non-digitalized labor. That is also becoming extinct.

Nations today are moving towards protectionism and exporting unemployment.