Nice work if you can get it

Books Caleb Crain surveys the history of labour's diminishing returns - and wonders why we do the jobs we do.

Homo cathectus: the monkey mascot of London's Crystal Palace Speedway helps a mechanic tune a motorcycle belonging to a member of the 1932 English motor racing team.
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Caleb Crain surveys the history of labour's diminishing returns - and wonders why we do the jobs we do. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work Matthew B Crawford Penguin Press Dh104 For millennia, most human beings had to work as hard as they could to survive. If by luck they managed to earn more than they needed, they had more children than usual, and in the next generation, with more mouths to feed, a greater number of people were again working as hard as they could to survive. The predicament was famously described by the English cleric Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century, when, ironically, it began to cease to be the case. The British found that coal could do some of their work for them, if they burnt it in simple engines. Soon they were devising more complex engines, and adapting other fossil fuels to the same purpose. Britain was industrialising. The transformation gradually spread to other countries, in its wake lightening the workloads necessary for subsistence and also (somewhat mysteriously) lowering birth rates. A virtuous circle was about to set in, creating wealth faster than people could reproduce to consume it.

There was, however, a hitch. People accustomed to working for subsistence reacted in an unexpected way to higher wages. Once they earned enough for food, shelter and clothing, they felt satisfied, and they quit to enjoy their leisure, which was, after all, a novelty to most of them. It had to be taken away if capitalism was to grow at top speed. What if people were given motives to buy luxuries - things they didn't absolutely need? Then no one would ever feel content. Who would eat with a pewter spoon if he could aspire to a silver one? Who would wear linsey-woolsey if she could toil a few hours longer and buy silk? Work could again be endless.

But luxuries are not a matter of life and death, and they left room for a new kind of doubt. Freed from absolute necessity, the growing middle classes were able to consider work for its own sake. Was it good in itself? If it seemed tedious, was a nicer spoon sufficient compensation? A few philosophical types objected that it wasn't, notably a surveyor and part-time pencil-manufacturing consultant in Massachusetts named Henry D Thoreau, who was willing to live in a shed and hoe beans so as to have time to read his beloved classics in the original Greek and Latin. "If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do," Thoreau wrote, "I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for." According to Thoreau, "the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it." In the service of thrift, he claimed to be able to digest board-nails; not many had the stomach to follow him. Perhaps they were unsure whether they would be able to make as much out of the classics as he had.

So the treadmill continued to turn. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, businesses began to swallow one another - swelling in size and reducing in number - which concentrated social and political power in the hands of factory owners, at the expense of factory workers. Moreover, because the peaks and troughs of oligopoly capitalism were extreme, jobs could appear or vanish in massive numbers overnight, and a job no longer meant a living in a perdurable, existential sense.

Workers' confidence fell still further in 1913, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line into his automobile factories. Previously, even in factories, some traditions of craft had survived, and because employers needed workers who understood what they were doing, workers retained bargaining power. It vanished in the assembly line, however, which scientific managers created by analysing skilled labour and then distilling and extracting the skill - breaking complex behaviour down into small, simple tasks that could be repeated mindlessly. Craft was replaced by what Matthew B Crawford, in his new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, calls "a labour sausage."

Upon introduction, an assembly line might not save time, and it might not require fewer workers. It saved money, however, because it allowed employers to replace skilled workers with cheap, unskilled ones. Because assembly-line work demanded little of a worker other than submissive patience, it did not focus his attention and felt meaningless in the moment. In 1917, to combat the threat of demoralisation, the federal government began to sponsor industrial-arts education - shop class - which had a delicate mission. "The quandary was how to make workers efficient and attentive," Crawford writes, "when their actual labour had been degraded by automation."

By the late 20th century, fossil fuels had so lowered the cost of transport that manufacturing workers everywhere on Earth were competing with one another in every market, and even unskilled American workers were in most cases too expensive. Shop class was phased out of American schools in the 1990s, perhaps because there were fewer and fewer factory jobs left for students to graduate to; Crawford reports that online auctioneers are flooded these days with listings for machine tools formerly owned by schools. Recent advances in communication technology, meanwhile, have made it possible to co-ordinate the tasks of office workers across long distances, and computers have made it possible to automate them, so that workers at desks are now subject to the same downwards-dragging, hollowing-out forces that have degraded the lives of their colleagues in the assembly line for a century.

In our lifetimes, in offices around the world, managers who were once called upon to think have been replaced by clerks. Just as assembly-line repetition was cheaper than craft, pliability has turned out to be cheaper than judgment. Crawford reports that corporations today select recruits not according to their performance in school but for the kind of moral flexibility that makes it easy to get along in groups, and they subject their managers, once hired, to teambuilding exercises that remind Crawford of the tear-you-down-to-build-you-up encounter sessions of the 1970s. Corporate ideology has shifted in tandem. Instead of creating a mere thing, such as an automobile, the contemporary American corporation sees itself as pursuing a vague higher purpose, like "quality" or "excellence", devoid of specific content.

Crawford is both an analyst of this world and a refugee from it. Despite a PhD in political philosophy, he has held some rotten jobs. At one of them, he was supposed to write abstracts of 28 academic articles a day, and no one ever checked for fidelity. (One colleague invented freely, abetted by heroin.) At another, with a Washington, DC think tank, he was supposed to say things about global warming that sounded plausible and rational and "just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank".

Fortunately Crawford, unlike most PhDs, can work with his hands. He worked as an electrician's assistant at age 13 and in an auto repair shop at 15. As it dawned on him that he was unfit for academia - apparently he was tactless enough to announce at a conference on the post-beautiful that he personally still found young human bodies attractive - he found himself squandering much of a postdoctoral fellowship on the refurbishment of a 1975 Honda motorcycle. After he gave notice at the think tank, he rented space in a Virginia warehouse and started a motorcycle repair shop with a partner.

Much as Thoreau took to beans, then, Crawford has taken to motorcycles. Like his predecessor, Crawford is aware that his choice is eccentric for someone with his education, and unlikely to make him rich. (Like Thoreau, too, he provides his own translations when he quotes from the classics.) He has written his book to show that his line of work is nonetheless both steady and meaningful. His example gives the lie to the conventional hierarchy that places white-collar work above blue-collar, and it will make many readers wonder whether compromise and indignity are as inevitable in work as they have been led to believe.

The economic benefits he cites are real but limited. Globalisation, he points out, has not much eroded such trades as motorcycle repair, plumbing and carpentry, which have to be done on the spot. By now everything that can be outsourced probably already has been. Crawford therefore recommends the trades that survive as "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". On the downside, his example isn't "scalable", to borrow a term from the enemy. Vintage motorcycle repair can't save the world, any more than beans could. Crawford has found himself a niche, whose exceptional nature he recognises by describing it as "fixing bikes that are not worth the money it takes to get them running right". Riding such bikes is a luxury. Having them repaired is another. And in some ways, working as their mechanic is yet another. Crawford admits that he could double his income if he chose to wire houses instead.

The moral implications of his tale are nonetheless extensive. Since the industrial revolution there has been a little surplus in the human economy; Crawford is suggesting that it might be wise and pleasant to spend it on a purposeful career instead of more common luxuries. To explain what distinguishes such a career, he offers his own example. Some of its virtues hark back to the lost world of craft, when manual labour still required intellect, and maybe even art. When Crawford regrinds the tubes of an intake manifold so as to match a motor's intake ports, and thereby ensure that fuel flows more evenly, the reader appreciates the care and thought involved, and it's evident how engrossing such work must be. Crawford shows that a motorcycle mechanic must acquire a library of sensuous experience, draw on lore and history, understand how objects and processes may differ in the real world from their ideal forms, be able to sort through a chaos of symptoms to find the problem that really needs to be solved, and attend constantly "to the possibility that [he] may be mistaken".

The innards of most machines in our lives today are sealed off, Crawford laments, and we interact with them only by buying accessories, like children adding stickers to a toy. But humans are tool-using animals, and we miss "bodily involvement with the machines". Motorcycle repair offers this satisfaction. To describe intellectual absorption in work, Crawford refers to "focal practices" and "evaluative attention", terms he borrows from fellow philosophers.

Though Crawford is personally invested in motorcycle grease, such absorption is available in settings less besmudged. The writing of Crawford's own book, for example, must have demanded it. Indeed, many of the sources of his work's meaningfulness could be found in other vocations, so long as they allow for a balance of autonomy and society. Crawford describes, for example, the way his work as a mechanic is validated by a community of colleagues, customers and enthusiasts who share his belief in the Aristotelian good of an aesthetically superior motorcycle ride. More complexly, his work provides him with an ethical education. He notes that he is obliged to rein in his pure curiosity out of respect for his client's wallet; most self-employed people are familiar with a similar discipline. And he observes that there is something morally instructive in the nature of repair itself because, like medicine or teaching, it "is compatible with failure to achieve its end". Even the best doctors lose patients, and no old motorcycle can be perfectly restored. Vocations of this kind require their practitioners to understand and accept the limits of human endeavour.

So long as such work exists in the world - work that is morally complex and intellectually challenging, with "room for progress in excellence", as Crawford writes - then anyone who suffers with a lesser job must ask why he settles for it. Like Thoreau's writings, Crawford's may leave a reader restless, irritable and sceptical. If I take a pay cut for the sake of work that focuses my attention, will the meaningfulness compensate for my lost income? If, in pursuit of ethical instruction, I find myself working twice as hard to make the same amount of money, won't I have to wait until retirement to read Plato in Greek? Crawford makes no promises and offers no universal solution. He is merely saying that he found a loophole for himself - so it can be done. For this style of provocation, too, he has a precedent. "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account," Thoreau wrote in Walden. "I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible."

Caleb Crain is the author of The Wreck of the Henry Clay, a collection of posts and essays from his blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.