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Review of Matthew Crawford: “Shop Class …”

Matthew Crawford: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009, Penguin. $25.95

I figured that after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book with a motorcycle on its cover either had to be a knock-off derivative, or something genuinely new and good. Matthew Crawford’s book quickly revealed itself as in the latter category. Crawford earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. Along the way, he worked as an electrician, and later, with his masters degree, as a “knowledge worker” in a cubicle, indexing and writing abstracts of scientific papers. After receiving his Ph.D., Crawford landed a job as executive director of a Washington think tank.

Crawford became as disillusioned with the think tank as he had been with his abstract work in the cubicle. In the cubicle, he and the other abstract writers were forced to produce so many abstracts per day that the results were often shoddy. In the think tank, it became apparent that the thinkers were up for hire to produce corporate propaganda, such as debunking climate scientists. So, as an honorable man, raised with integrity, Crawford became a motorcycle mechanic—work he found intellectually demanding and rewarding in a number of ways, which he relates in his story.

Crawford makes a good case to show that the degradation of work—blue-collar workers paid to act like automatons, white-collar workers pushed to rubber-stamp for quantity—has negative effects on the politics of the culture and the psychological well-being of the citizens. Not knowing how the gadgets around us work, or how they could be repaired other than by buying new ones add to our estrangement from the world. Shop classes have been cut from most high schools, yet, as Crawford points out, knowing how to fix things is one of the few jobs that can’t be sent overseas. Solidarity and self-reliance, “bedrock values of republican democracy,” are common and are nurtured in the fraternity of those who know how to fix things.

Crawford is a very smart guy and the craftsmanship he lauds is apparent in his own writing–mostly by its invisibility. This book is about a lot more than fixing motorcycles: it’s about character and citizenship. As an example, Crawford points out that the degradation of work and the recent “mortgage crisis” are directly related. other topics include “Taylorism” (the drive for efficiency over all human costs), and the rise of management theories aimed at eliminating all decision-making from the workers. Some chapters will be less interesting to readers than others, but don’t miss the last one., where Crawford seek an alternative to revolution—an alternative he calls “Stoic.” An economy must also be humane.

Too often the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men. Having a few around requires an economy in which the virtue of independence is cultivated, and a diversity of human types can find work to which they are suited. It is time to dispel the long-standing confusion of private property with corporate property. Conservatives are right to extol the former as a pillar of liberty, but when they put such arguments in the service of the latter, they become apologists for the ever-greater concentration of capital. The result is that opportunities for self-employment and self-reliance are preempted by distant forces.
–Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

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