BOOK REVIEW Make Yourself Useful

A Stoic Vision of the Good Life

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Matthew B. Crawford stands next to a 973 Ducati 750 GT in his motorcycle service shop in Richmond, VA. The portrait on the wall is of Winston Churchill.
Courtesy of Ariel Skelley

Shop Class as Soulcraft:

An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

By Matthew B. Crawford

The Penguin Press, $25.95

Released May 28, 2009

What is the good life? More to the point, what is an attainable good life given our current cultural and economic circumstances? How do we develop and practice what is best in ourselves despite the forces arrayed against us?

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford outlines one vision for human flourishing, based on an understanding of human nature as fundamentally instrumental — that is, engaged in active and physical manipulation of our surroundings. In a lucid account that owes as much to Marx as it does to Heidegger, Crawford advocates the value of labor in fully engaging our human capacities and decries the degradation of the manual trades. He argues with humor and conviction that fulfillment is to be found in the admiration and pursuit of excellence as an intrinsic good, measured not by how much money we make, but in what we literally do. From the privileged position of one who has made a living in some very different ways — from wiring houses to writing philosophy to following the Kafka-esque directives of his employer as a cubicle lackey — Crawford concludes that skilled labor is something like the best of all possible professions.

What is special about manual work? Crawford argues that a mechanic is not really so different from a doctor: Both must try to understand situations not of their own making, drawing on factual knowledge reserves, but more importantly, a kind of personal knowledge or intuition that is uniquely human. They must enlist cognitive skills and exercise creativity in their search to first understand the problem and then create a solution. In a sense, the philosopher’s love of knowledge and the mechanic’s desire to know what is wrong and how to fix it are one and the same. (It is also an apt description of much of experimental science and engineering.)

Furthermore, embodied and essentially human expertise represents tacit knowledge that cannot be replaced by algorithms, and so defines a refuge from the instabilities of a global economy: jobs that are physical and inherently situated cannot be offshored; jobs that require human kinds of understanding and dexterity are not easily automated for machine implementation.

A recent Associated Press rundown of growing areas in this economy provides evidence for Crawford’s pragmatic thesis: Engineers, nurses, skilled and unskilled manual labor were among the most-sought hires, while auto repair shops, building contractors, and trade and technical schools saw increases in demand.

Crawford writes as well as anyone about the phenomenal experience of actually working on a physical project. His frustrations and triumphs are clear. There is the occasional hand-drawn illustration of the object at hand. There are cam lobes and cylinders and goo, rubbing up against verbs like “gall.” But even with the vivid descriptions of his mechanical work, it’s sometimes hard for a non-mechanic to understand exactly what Crawford is doing — perhaps demonstrating that some kinds of personal knowledge are so embodied in experience that they lose their meaning in the abstraction to words.

Meanwhile, those jobs that can be reduced to mindless routine have been, and even many of those that cannot have been corrupted in the attempt, resulting in a general “stupidification.” It is in his biting criticism of the wresting of abstract process from concrete action (thinking from doing) that Crawford is most eloquent. “The activity of self-directed labor, conducted by the worker, is dissolved or abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management — a labor sausage.” But it is not just the private sector’s “monster of profit maximization” that is to blame for this alienation; in the public sector, Crawford says, liberalism is a “politics of irresponsibility,” destroying individual agency by removing authority from individuals in favor of a “neutral process.” In the white collar professions, “expert systems,” however unreliable, are replacing human judgment — and, this relinquishing of judgment, Crawford argues, is at least partly responsible for the financial mess we have experienced.

How did we end up in this mess? By structural necessity, capitalism must “assiduously partition thinking from doing” in order to lower costs and raise efficiency. Over time, mainstream perceptions of blue-collar work have come to depend on a false dichotomy between cognitive work and manual labor. With their associations of grime, sweat, and plumber’s butt, these paint a picture of the trades as inferior to the “mind work” of the spotless cubicle with its suit-and-tied inhabitant. But we all know the cubicle is no picnic either — witness the popularity of Dilbert or The Office. Crawford one-ups these familiar scenarios in a chapter that is both funny and vicious, combining his own experiences with Harry Braverman’s and Robert Jackall’s observations to conclude that the average mid-level white-collar worker resembles none so much as a Soviet bureaucrat, who must exercise absurd moral acrobatics in order to survive, and then only in a state of severe existential anxiety. Mere cogs in a machine have it easier.

Not only are we compromised as workers, but we have also been brainwashed as consumers. Crawford points out that “too often the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men.” We now mistake consumption of goods for fulfillment, confuse picking between trivially different pre-determined options with true freedom of choice, and extoll lack of rigor in place of creativity. But some niggling doubt remains, and Crawford argues that despite what we have been led to believe, we long for responsibility. We want to exercise our judgment and seek out excellence; we want to create and renew and repair. True freedom is found in the context of a community’s shared idea of the good. Knowing the man who will use and appreciate the product of my labor — being responsible to him — gives value to my work, even as appreciating someone else’s job well done creates a feeling of solidarity and mutual respect.

In Crawford’s account of his trade, it becomes clear that he has found a particular, perhaps boutique, brand of manual labor, one very different from the assembly line or janitorial beat. The rewards of his work include doing a job from beginning to end, face-to-face interaction with customers, and the feeling of being embedded in a community — not to mention being his own boss. But most laborers are not as lucky as Crawford, and many of these satisfactions will be missing from other manual jobs, even skilled ones. And the economic viability of manual labor as a livelihood depends at least partly on supply and demand. If everyone decides to become a plumber, will that job market start resembling the one facing freshly minted humanities PhDs?

What, then, is the spirited human to do? Crawford acknowledges some of the difficulties when “opportunities for self-employment and self-reliance are preempted by distant forces,” in an economy dominated by what he terms the “Giant Pool of Money.” But where Marx called for revolution, Crawford settles for Stoicism. “Every job entails some kind of mutilation,” but some jobs are worse than others. The electrician may suffer bruises and shocks, “but none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.” Learn a trade, Crawford exhorts the new graduate. Find good work in the world we have (not the world we want). Seek out a crack in which to flourish.

There is much to like in Crawford’s vision, but also some blind spots. He doesn’t give much consideration to the moral dimensions or larger consequences (social, environmental) of what we choose to do. Must the Stoic be as resigned to work in the skilled construction of a better landmine or private jet as in the skilled repair of useful things? And if true understanding is in use rather than theory, then what is the role of philosophy?

Compelling and occasionally cranky, Crawford’s writing is reminiscent of Fukuyama’s and Bloom’s, coupled with the accessible clarity (but also occasional facileness) of a Gladwell. He also riffs on Pirsig’s Zen, but handily avoids the mystic mumbo-jumbo of that earlier “inquiry into values.” Anecdotes and illustrative elaborations nestle amidst the sources in footnotes well worth going through (it is here that we learn the author grew up in a commune). In a way it’s ironic that reading this book is such a pleasure. Because, of course, if Crawford had devoted himself completely to the art of motorcycle maintenance, it would never have been written.

An excerpt from Shop Class as Soulcraft was published in the May 21 issue of the New York Times Magazine: