For many people working in the contemporary cultural and knowledge economies, the ephemeral character of much of their labour can be problematic. Unlike the manual trades or some parts of the service industry, little of what they produce has a tangible, concrete reality. As well, the ways their output is measured are themselves ephemeral in the form of performance metrics like circulation figures and ratings. Some people thrive in this environment, where selling one’s success does not necessarily require you to have been successful.
In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft Matthew B Crawford draws on his experience running a motorbike workshop and as an electrician to reflect upon the workplace cultures of the knowledge economy.
After completing a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, Crawford took up a prestigious position as the executive director of a Washington think tank. The money he was earning was good — but felt more like compensation than pay. He abandoned the think tank for the motorbike workshop and the result is this book.
The core argument is that work in the knowledge sector cannot provide the sense of mastery that manual work does through agency and competence and the satisfaction that goes with them. In his politics, Crawford is a progressive Republican, which means he believes in and argues for the ideal of personal freedom expressed as individual "agency". In this context, that (almost existential) agency is found in the problem-solving intellectual disposition that a good tradesperson needs.
One of the key aspects of Shop Class as Soulcraft is the way it presents two dimensions of Crawford as a person, expressed through the curious status it sees for the nature of "knowledge" and "experience". Crawford argues that knowledge and experience are related in positive ways through manual labour whereas they are related in negative and often inverse ways in the knowledge economy. There are forms of cultural work that are much more like the work of a creative mechanic than that of the sausage-factory abstract writer.
Crawford writes about his abstract writing for a journal index company, a method of reading and writing that was simply applied. This application of method is separate from a competent understanding of the article being indexed. The character of competency becomes corrupted as a metric of abstract output rather than scholarly comprehension.
In the workshop workplace — or on a site or wherever — however, competence is being able to rise to the challenge of a given technical task. The problem of the specific task can be isolated and its totality eventually uncovered by deploying the clarity of experience. Absence of managers from the production process is reasoned by Crawford as a question of accountability. If managers do not take part in the labour of workers, they can deny involvement when something goes wrong.
To explain the distinction in different kinds of competency, he provides a biographical account of what he describes as his education as a "gearhead" and how he developed a practical habitus; a way of engaging with socio-technical objects. The practical knowledge acquired by the gearhead builds on the sense of satisfaction that one experiences as an effect of carrying out practical work, a response Crawford dwells on throughout the book.
He is keen to emphasise the moral dimension of how the worker chooses to use this experience of satisfaction and redeploy it in other contexts. In the early stages of learning how to be a gearhead, the gearhead’s moral integrity is measured according to how well he services the needs of the technical object.
Crawford reflects upon the way gearhead subjectivity develops through a practical engagement with technical objects — and how this translates from the space of the personal garage into the professional workplace. Crawford engages with the problems that emerge in the workplace in a similar fashion to the way he engages with the technical objects. When talking about fast bikes or cars or plumbing mishaps, personal experience is used to translate the conditions of a socio-technical problem into the easy-to-understand general coordinates of technical knowledge.
Crawford compares the workplace labour relations between the manager and the office worker to the relation between a tradesperson and the shop boss — and they are found wanting. Management books, following Crawford’s analysis, are a subcategory of "self-help" books in that they seek to reconfigure the subjectivity of workers. He suggests that what is at stake here is being ensnared in the ideology of the micro-social office workplace environment. This, he sees as a loss of worker agency — but there are other power struggles at stake and I think Crawford could have pushed this analysis further.
In workplaces where there is some modicum of creative output, such as journalism, the displacement of managers from the everyday process of those who produce works creates another moral hazard. Workers and (middle) managers need to pre-think what the upper (middle) managers expect of a given product or outcome. The workers need to pre-think middle managers who need to pre-think upper middle-managers in a movement of pre-thought that must end somewhere but not before the expectations of those removed from the creative process pollute the practices of those actually working within the constraints and opportunities of the creative process.
The liquidation of the challenge of creativity, like the socio-technical challenges valorised by Crawford as part of his gearhead education, is damaging to the creative process and diminishes the value of creative commodities produced. In other words, it is bad business.
Crawford’s proposal for retrieving something from the capitalist enterprise that allows workers to experience the same satisfaction as the tradesperson involves a reconfiguration of the workplace from teams to "crews". He isolates a tension between workers knowing their own capacities and having the confidence in themselves to work independently — as opposed to the command structure of the office workplace where the measure of success is seemingly as ephemeral as the products produced.
The unknowingness of one’s place in the office workplace is likened by Crawford to being part of a clique of girls. Whether or not the explicit feminisation of the office workplace is warranted, Crawford’s point is that there is a certainty in the tradesmen’s workplace determined by the practical knowledge one has of one’s self and one’s capacities to carry out a job. There is little "management" of subjectivity, everything is plain and in the open.
Crawford doesn’t simply use his personal experiences as anecdotes to illustrate his points. Instead the examples drawn from his personal experience have value in the economy of respect that operates in the workshops and sites of manual work that Crawford is writing about. He uses these experiences to effect a subtle mediation in Shop Class as Soulcraft between knowledge acquired through the experience of delineating a mechanical problem, how this knowledge is communicated in the real world, and the discursive character of the book itself. In other words, the very dual character of knowledge Crawford is discussing and engaging with throughout his book is evident in the very discursive texture of the book. For example, the affective timbre of Crawford’s writing moves from "high scholarly" to over-the-counter speed shop "straight talk". Crawford is an interesting character in his own right, and partially what makes Shop Class as Soulcraft successful is the charismatic dimension to his writing.
Crawford’s book is definitely essential reading for the managers of boutique enterprises that operate within the knowledge/cultural economy. He seeks to resuscitate the satisfactions provided by work and this should be an exemplary model for any manager. There may be some tradespeople who will read and appreciate Crawford’s text, but most will not. This is unfortunate, because Crawford has constructed a monument to labour and the social efficacy of practical knowledge. If you are a worker in the knowledge/cultural economy, then only read Crawford’s book if you are willing to accept the challenge he poses to your everyday work life.
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