In this book I would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails towards the built, material world.
And so this philosophy book begins, using the backstory of an author who got tired of his job in a political think tank to become a motorcycle mechanic. From the title you can already guess the satisfied result. He goes on to explain the causes and effects of the decline in manual ability.
This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as “knowledge work.”
Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.
A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption.
The decline of work started in the early 20th century with the introduction of scientific management, where knowledge was concentrated in the hands of the managerial elite and then doled out in tiny parts to workers who barely had to think when completing tasks. Once you remove need for a worker’s judgement, you can pay him less and control him better.
The result has become a culture of workers who use a narrow spectrum of knowledge in their jobs. We’ve become generalists with no redeeming skills, and the more abstract our work, the more it must be judged subjectively by the emotions and whims of managers. We get less fulfillment from it as a result. The education system today does nothing but prepare students for a monotonous life of glorified clerkdom while wood shop classes of yesterday prepared the proles for Ford’s assembly line.
White-collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers—clerks—who replace the professionals.
The idea of opportunity costs presumes the fungibility of human experience: all our activities are equivalent or interchangeable once they are reduced to the abstract currency of clock time, and its wage correlate.
…self-estrangement… arises from a work pace that ruthlessly subordinates the intrinsic goods of the job to the extrinsic metric of profit.
The author also describes the overreach of corporations in our lives, where we must submit to the monolithic “corporate culture” whether we’re on duty or not. It’s not even a shock anymore if someone gets fired from their job for something they did in their personal lives or for something they wrote on the internet. In fact, job advice articles tell you specifically how to be an obedient peon that will not get turned down for a job due to having a life.
Shop Class as Soulcraft clearly shows how work affects life and vice versa, similar in flavor to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. Perhaps you can call it a more readable version of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. It advocates for tradition, for fixing things, and for solving problems using our brains and hands instead of being mindless consumers. All I know is that after reading it, you’ll get the urge to make something. Recommended.
…once I had the master’s degree I felt like I belonged to a certain order of society, and was entitled to its forms. Despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as a manual worker.
Read More: “Shop Class As Soulcraft” on Amazon