Friday, September 08, 2006

In Defense of Skilled Labor

Several sites have been buzzing about Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft, a defense of blue-collar labor against the technology-worship of the dominant educational regimen.

Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor; the consumer is more free, more imaginative, and so more valorous according to those who would sell us things. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands. Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent. The tradesman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer; he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more autonomous.

I must admit some displeasure with the choice of the word "utilitarian." Whenever utilitarian appears in ethical essays, it's almost always pejorative. It is commonly used to mean precisely a subjective standard issuing from the self, or society, and its desires. Crawford uses the term in opposition to imaginative of course, but "practical" or "pragmatic" seems to be the bon mot here.

But besides this one hitch, the piece contains many gems:

The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the distinction between the Right Way and the Wrong Way. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life—a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills.

Finally, one passage invokes a contrarian interpretation to the economics of self-interest:

Contradicting the assumptions of "rational behavior" of classical economics, it was found that when employers would increase the piece rate in order to boost production, it actually had the opposite effect: workers would produce less, as now they could meet their fixed needs with less work. Eventually it was learned that the only way to get them to work harder was to play upon the imagination, stimulating new needs and wants. The habituation of workers to the assembly line was thus perhaps made easier by another innovation of the early twentieth century: consumer debt.

One of my college professors once touched upon this interpretation of the rise of capitalism, but I know neither its provenance nor its fundamental soundness. Should any reader know, please enlighten me.

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