Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Love Thy Labor

Two books explore the individual and cultural meanings of work

Andrew Ross


If work were a good thing, the rich would have found a way of keeping it to themselves." This Haitian saying is an evergreen response to evangelists preaching the moral virtues of hard work. But in times of high unemployment, any kind of work is a lifeline, and managers hardly need resort to gospel to suck extra effort from those who are hanging on to a paycheck. The number of monthly layoffs is still elevated, and a prolonged season of chronic joblessness looks to be a certain outcome of this recession. Putting food on the table will be the top priority in the coming years, and it will seem graceless, under these dire circumstances, to be debating the nature, let alone the ethics, of work. Who would dare quibble about the quality of employment when work itself is so scarce on the ground?

Yet there has seldom been a better moment to question the fundamentals of how we make a living. The banner of neoliberalism is in tatters, and everywhere we hear the call for the creation of green-collar jobs that will rebuild the depleted middle class. This is a laudable goal for any economic-recovery effort, but only if the new work is well paid—many jobs in the solar and wind industries pay less than half the average manufacturing wage, and there is little point in pouring federal subsidies into these industries to generate even more substandard jobs. Consider the organic sector in agriculture: Small growers are lionized for adopting green methods, but the conditions of workers in the fields are neglected by natural-food advocates and generally no better than those in agribusiness as usual.

These days, people are savvier about what they put into their mouths and about how they process their trash. But what will it take for corporations to stop treating workers like so much waste disposal? To what extent are employers capable of creating sustainable livelihoods? For those who have concluded that the ownership class is not up to the task, Shop Class as Soulcraft, gearhead philosopher Matthew Crawford's argument for self-ownership of work, should be a bracing read (especially if you are a fan of Car Talk). We're not talking about abandoned workers collectively taking over factories, as the employees of Republic Windows and Doors famously did late last year. Crawford's champions are the useful tradesmen—electricians, plumbers, mechanics—whose proprietary workshops he upholds as ethical paragons of commercial enterprise. Unaccountable to what Crawford calls the "internationalist order of absentee capital," these self-directed manual workers are living proof that one can still be "master of one's own stuff," exemplars of the kind of boss-free labor that was supposed to be the birthright of the American republic.

In making the case for this "yeoman aristocracy" of independent producers, Crawford strikes a Jeffersonian chord that has been heard quite consistently since industrialists invented factories that stripped artisans of their freedom of movement and mastery over their time. Nostalgia for the craft ideal has driven a steady succession of commentators to declare that certain kinds of employment have reunited what the Taylorists rent asunder—the conception and execution of tasks. In the 1990s heyday of small Web shops, there was a lot of talk about a new generation of "digital artisans" in command of their own tools, skills, and scheduling. When IT jobs were subsequently packed off to Asia, the torch was passed to the self-employed alchemists of the "creative class," whose designer touch was heralded as adding value to almost any product, but most especially to real estate in the urban neighborhoods where they took up residence.

Crawford, who has no time for the "mystique of craft" that has seduced so many arty utopians from William Morris onward, reminds us that the manual trades have endured through many a nationwide bubble and bust. In fact, they may be the best bet right now for young people looking for a livelihood that cannot be sent overseas. Learn a manual trade during the summer, he advises college students (though, since the artisanal profile in the book is unashamedly masculine, one wonders whether this includes women). The trades, lacking the sex appeal and the prestige of "knowledge work," are "a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life." Inside this haven in a heartless capitalist world, the model apprentice will find a master craftsman to learn from, a community of peers and users who practice mutual respect, and a set of objective standards to live up to in life as well as in work.

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Richard Baker

Much of the strength of Crawford's book comes from the interweaving of his own experience in various workplaces with the enduring value to himself of the motorcycle-mechanics milieu into which he was initiated as a teenager and in which he now plies his trade in Richmond, Virginia. The prototype for this kind of commentary is Harry Braverman's classic 1974 account of the degradation and deskilling of work, Labor and Monopoly Capital, in which the author draws on his career as a metalworker. As it happens, Crawford leans heavily on Braverman for his general complaint about the routinization of both blue-collar and white-collar occupations. With the cold war "safely decided," he concludes that "we may consider anew, without a sense of mortal political threat, [Braverman's] Marxian account of alienated labor." There is no irony in this suggestion—Crawford's tone throughout is disarmingly honest, in keeping with the ascetic, or Stoic, ideal he espouses. Yet part of the book's appeal lies in watching someone with a classic neoconservative training (through the Straussian school at the University of Chicago) succumb to so many observations that are indebted to a Marxist analysis of the labor process.

Crawford grounds his argument, wherever he can, in his own daily wrestling with dodgy clutches and defective oil seals (the book's illustrations include a sketch of how to grind an intake manifold). Repairing old bikes is his chosen vocation, and in this regard, it is fair to point out that he is engaged in one of the more environmentally dubious trades. According to some studies, motorcycles emit sixteen times more hydrocarbons and three times more carbon monoxide than passenger cars. The older the model, of course, the larger the carbon footprint. Crawford is arguing for a worthy ideal, but it's too bad that his own labor, presented as exemplary of his arguments, is helping to poison the planet.

No such charge can be laid at Alain de Botton's door. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he makes no pretense to being anything other than a writer, albeit one with a conscience and an eye for arresting details conjured up by other people's work lives. Though he shares Crawford's general distaste for alienated labor, his diagnosis stems not from the loss of hands-on control but from the perception that we are "imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods." By contrast, our distant forebears "would have known the precise history and origin of nearly every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned." Accordingly, de Botton sets out to track the journeys taken by some of the commodities that end up in our possession or on our plates. His goal is to write a "hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace," and his method is to investigate some of the more marginal, and distinctly unglamorous, occupations in the global economy: "shipping wood pulp across the Baltic Sea, removing the heads of tuna, developing a nauseating variety of biscuit, advising a client on a change of career, firing a satellite with which to beguile a generation of Japanese schoolgirls, painting an oak tree in a field, laying an electricity line, doing the accounts, inventing a deodorant dispenser or making an extended-strength coiled tube for an airliner."

These scattershot inquiries are presented as snapshots of a civilization in fatal thrall to the "division of labor, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago" but which has intensified under the globalization of economic operations. De Botton is an accomplished stylist with a taste for the absurd. Mandarin, if not patrician, in his attitude toward those he meets en route, he is especially fond of analogies with the past that would make a historian's knuckles tighten: A receptionist at an accounting firm is "no less aware of the solemnity of her role than a priestess at the Temple of Delphi," while those waiting for an appointment are like "merchants lined up to see the caliph in the marble-lined palaces of medieval Córdoba." A whimsical observer, he does not share Crawford's earnest philosophical bent and prefers to conclude, after all his travels, that however irrationally organized modern work has become, at least it has "kept us out of greater trouble." What those grievous alternatives might be—an increase in mass slaughter or ethnic cleansing?—is left to the reader to ponder.

Notably, de Botton records no evidence of rage or resistance by workers against this widespread irrationality, the capricious exception being "alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings." There is no place in his overview, or in Crawford's, for that matter, for those who have devoted their lives to the labor movement or, say, to anti-sweatshop and fair-trade activism, no recognition of the human worth of on-the-job sabotage, slowdowns, strikes, and other forms of organized opposition to the brutality of work. It is an unfortunate comment on the generous intellects of these two authors that they do not see fit to acknowledge, in their respective surveys of the working life, the nobility of those who resist.

Andrew Ross is the author, most recently, of Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Press, 2009).

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