New Works on Work - Do They Work?


The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton Pantheon, 2009, 336pp, $26.00

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford Penguin, 2009, 256pp, $25.95

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that what used to be glowingly described as the Great American Jobs Machine may be beyond repair.

The state of job market is so devastatingly bleak that pundits and economists celebrated when the economy shed 247,000 jobs in July, instead of the 600,000 to 700,000 jobs per month it hemorrhaged earlier this year. While I suppose it’s good that the economy sucks somewhat less these days, all signs point toward a jobless recovery. The official unemployment rate remained steady at just under 10 percent, but the Labor Department’s broader and less heralded measure that takes into account the underemployed and “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for jobs is over 16 percent. Even more discouraging is the news that the problem of long-term unemployment is sharply intensifying. The number of Americans unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 7.88 million, the highest figure ever recorded, and the average unemployed person has been jobless for over 25 weeks. Giddy talk about “green shoots” has obscured the fact that even if the recession ends on paper in the next couple of months, its effects are going to linger in the everyday lives of (possibly) working people for years to come.

But even if Team Obama can restore the status quo ante and succeed in getting the Great American Jobs Machine going again, would that be such a great thing? After all, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and the pre-recession boom, many of America’s fastest growing occupations were the kind that Barbara Ehrenreich took on in her book Nickel and Dimed - highly precarious service sector jobs that pay little, provide minimal or no benefits, and are physically and psychologically enervating. Even many of us fortunate enough to have made our way into the cadre of white-collar “symbolic analysts” at the heart of an information-driven economy became subject to the same deskilling and off-shoring that has decimated the ranks of America’s blue-collar working class over the last three decades. The lean, mean Great American Jobs Machine of business press lore tended to resemble a meat grinder more than anything else for most of us.

The time is ripe for a wide-ranging reevaluation of the ways in which we go about securing our livelihoods in the world, and the book publishers of the English-speaking world seem to agree. In recent months, a spate of books on work has hit the shelves, including The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton and Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford, both of which offer a critique of the modern working world that is alternately illuminating and disappointing.

In recent years, Alain de Botton has emerged as something like the Malcolm Gladwell of philosophy. Like Gladwell, his prose style is engaging (though much more ironic and arch and therefore more enjoyable in my book) but he also can be guilty of dressing up relative banalities with pretty language. His primary format is more feuilleton than essay, and in the case of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work his writings are accompanied by a number of photographs taken during the course of his wide-ranging investigation of the meaning of work in the contemporary world.

The common thread running through all de Botton’s work is the experience of modernity, and in this book his ruminations are guided by the modern workplace’s “extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.” To investigate this claim, he travels around the world to observe and report on the inner workings of a logistics center in northern England, the process by which a tuna is caught and killed in the Indian Ocean and processed for sale in London, the marketing and manufacturing operations of an international biscuit making conglomerate, a satellite launch in French Guyana, and a painter in the English countryside, among others. His dispatches are frequently wry, ironic, funny, and picaresque, but a deep sense of bemused melancholy over the contradictions and absurdities of modernity as experienced through work pervade the book and constitute its moral core.

The division of labor is arguably the single most important historical factor in the making of modernity, and it’s what makes the engine of the global capitalist economy going. It has facilitated the generation of fabulous riches and freed millions from the yoke of scarcity, but as de Botton observes, it’s taken an enormous social and psychological toll on the human beings within its grasp. While considering the world of modern international biscuit production, he captures these contradictions in crackling prose that’s worth quoting at length:

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

This relentless division of work into ever-smaller tasks prevents many of us from seeing the larger significance of our jobs (if indeed there is one). Given our limited cognitive capacities, it’s very hard for human beings to derive meaning from activities that go beyond a fairly limited scale. It also threatens to degrade our moral and intellectual faculties, as Adam Smith observed over two hundred years ago in a passage that the modern libertarians who love him seem to have just skipped over:

The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are, perhaps, always the same, has no occasion to assert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

In capitalism, the thing being produced tends to become more valued than the human beings responsible for its production, even among those “knowledge workers” lucky enough to avoid the assembly line. As de Botton observes at the offices of the biscuit conglomerate, “there was a marked imbalance between the importance accorded to the supposed centres of interest – the biscuits – and the neglected value of humans like Renae who laboured to meet their demands. I wondered whether the biscuits might not be part of the very problem that they had been designed to address, whether their production and marketing was not indeed contributing to precisely the feelings of emptiness and nervous tension which they claimed to alleviate.” Of course, these observations merely echo those made by the Old Man himself about the degradation of work and the alienation of workers way back in 1844, but it’s nice to see the ghost of Marx make an apparition in a bestseller.

While he has an acute sense of the losses incurred in the transition to modernity, one should not confuse de Botton with either an anti-modernist reactionary or a socialist revolutionary. To him, the alienation of workers and the degradation of work may be bad, but necessary: “there has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives on the development of innovative marketing promotions: they have been poor, so poor as to be unable to guarantee political stability or take care of their most vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost to famines and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.”

Now, this is good prose, but bad analysis. The poor countries are not poor because they are “high minded” but in large part because their natural resources and labor forces were exploited by the rich countries. Perhaps I’m being a bit priggish in taking issue with de Botton here, but while there’s a grain of truth in this passage most people living in countries that were on the receiving end of colonialism and imperialism would likely beg to differ.

Along with the division of labor and all its attendant effects, another crucial aspect of modernity addressed by de Botton in his chapter on the Japanese television satellite launch is the increasingly social and collectivized nature of economic production and knowledge creation. While watching a team of scientists meticulously prepare the satellite for launch, he notes that “there were no opportunities for individual glory here, no prospects of biographies or street names to be remembered by. This was a collective project of which no one person, not even any single commercial or academic organization, could take the commanding credit.” Here we have scientists and technicians in the employ of the French government, educated in public institutions of higher learning, making use of what was likely publicly-funded research and development, putting all of these socially created resources to a mind-numbingly trivial and private use – “ensuring that Japanese viewers would be able to enjoy the uncut version of the anime film Cowboy Bebop even during the worst downpours in Japan’s rainy season.” Behold, the fruits of Progress!

This is the “asocial socialization” inherent in capitalism that Michael Harrington and other socialist thinkers have identified and condemned through the years. They have tried to democratize this process to make it truly social and more responsive to human needs, but de Botton is just sad about it. Access to the latest in Japanese cartoon entertainment may be a human need on some level, but it would be nice if more of that social knowledge went into eradicating global poverty or creating a clean energy system.

This sense of bemused and ultimately resigned melancholy helps to make de Botton’s book a pleasure to read, but the analysis and prescription that issues from it can be problematic. There’s certainly plenty to inspire existential despair in work, but his attitude ends in a form of quietism that recognizes many of the less savory aspects of working life but accepts them as necessary evils. “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.” Perhaps it’s not possible to create a world in which everyone can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” as Marx would have had it, but there’s got to be a better arrangement than what we have now.

De Botton seems to recognize this possibility in his chapter on an English painter, where he sees something of an escape hatch in the working life of the craftsman, whose agency and autonomy seems to set him or her apart from the rest of us. “How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object – whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug – and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see.”

It’s this possibility of gaining meaning in work in the modern world through manual, tactile labor that Matthew Crawford investigates in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

By now, anyone with any exposure to Crawford’s book probably knows at least something of the man’s background. The marketing department at Penguin Books certainly won’t let us forget. Educated in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he renounced his sinecure as the head of a Washington think-tank (as far as I can tell, it was related to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in some fashion) to retire to Norfolk, Virginia to open his own vintage motorcycle repair shop.

While many reviewers have conceived of the book primarily as some sort of self-help or career advice manual, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an engaging, fairly serious work of ethical and moral inquiry and sociopolitical criticism. Crawford’s position is deeply conservative, but unlike many contemporary conservatives he has a deep skepticism about the goodness of modern corporate capitalism. He seeks to conserve what he sees as the best aspects of work generally and the manual trades in particular from the relentless onslaught of corporate power and the culture of consumption, which he sees as the most dangerous current threats to individual liberty rather than the state.

I make no claim to be able to offer knowledgeable criticism of his discussion of the mechanic’s work process or his views on cognitive psychology, so allow me to focus on the book’s political and cultural arguments. For Crawford, the central problem of modernity is a struggle for individual agency, that is, the capacity of human beings to have some sort of control over the things that have the biggest impact on their lives. Work definitely falls into this category, as we spend most of our waking hours engaged in it, preparing for it, and recovering from it. But the nature of the modern world constantly undermines this goal. “Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces,” Crawford observes. “We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

Because many of us in advanced capitalist countries are engaged in occupations that don’t involve the production of any tangible, material goods, we often don’t know exactly what is expected from us in our work or what its larger purpose is, and this situation can create serious psychological and social trauma. As Crawford observes of young people entering the working world, “the college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asks him about his grades and doesn’t care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all his hard work in school somehow just for show – his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy? There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”

For decades, we have been told by supposed experts that to avoid a life of mindless toil and the possibility of deskilling and offshoring, pursuit of a college education and a white-collar, “knowledge work” is necessary. But scientific innovation has made any job that can possibly be done remotely through advanced communications technology subject to export and to relentless deskilling and degradation, not just blue-collar manufacturing work.

Somewhat surprisingly for a conservative, Crawford draws on the work of Marxist economic historian Harry Braverman to analyze the way capitalist industrialization has effected the separation of thinking from doing wherever possible and to provide caution to those who don’t see the value of work that can’t be outsourced or deskilled. “If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help," Crawford notes impishly, “because they are in China.”

Paradoxically, by promoting a vision of liberation from responsibility through technologically mediated production on one hand and rampant, compensatory consumerism on the other, contemporary society actually makes us less free by subordinating us to the power of the market. As Crawford argues, “the activity of giving form to things seems increasingly the business of a collectivized mind, and from the standpoint of any particular individual, it feels like this forming has already taken place, somewhere else… But because the field of options generated by market forces maps a collective consciousness, the consumer’s vaunted freedom within it might be understood as a tyranny of the majority that he has internalized.”

If anything, the critique of commodity fetishism advanced by Marx one hundred and fifty years ago and echoed here by Crawford has only become more relevant and terrifying. All this has a literally demoralizing effect on working people, and educates us into a certain way of looking at the world and our jobs. “Degraded work entails not just dumbing down but also a certain unintended moral reeducation…We have all had the experience of dealing with a service provider who seems to have been reduced to a script-reading automaton. We have also heard the complaints of employers about not being able to find conscientious workers. Are these two facts perhaps related? There seems to be a vicious circle in which degraded work plays a pedagogical role, forming workers into material that is ill-suited for anything but the overdetermined world of careless labor.” Needless to say, this moral and intellectual degradation makes many of us ill-suited to participate fully and effectively as citizens in a supposedly democratic society that is less responsive to the needs of its people as it becomes increasingly dominated by corporate power.

This is all very good critique, and it’s quite refreshing to know that it appears in a bestselling book and in a very popular New York Times Sunday Magazine article. Unfortunately, Crawford begins to stumble when he moves from critique to prescription, which at the risk of some oversimplification boils down to “big is bad, small is beautiful.” He calls for a widespread return to localized, face-to-face economic exchanges through more small entrepreneurship, a vision based in part on an overly romanticized concept of the good old days that’s probably not possible for many people to pursue.

Crawford correctly identifies the corporation as the biggest threat to individual liberty in the modern world, but his advocacy of small entrepreneurship in the trades and other fields leaves something to be desired. Echoing Tocqueville’s championing of the small businessman as the bedrock of a democratic society, Crawford insists that this vision “remains valid, especially if the enterprise provides a good or service with objective standards, as these may serve as the basis for social relations within the enterprise that are nonmanipulative in character.” He maintains that the necessity to explain his labor bill to his customers prevents him from manipulating and exploiting them, and that may indeed be true in his case. But how many of us can attest to being ripped off by an unscrupulous mechanic who hasn’t received a rigorous education in moral and ethical philosophy? I get fleeced by my corner bodega owner on a regular basis, and it’s not somehow nobler because it happens face-to-face rather than being mediated through some global mega-corporation.

Small businesses also tend to pay less in wages and offer skimpier benefits than big companies and are usually rabidly hostile to unions or any form of worker self-organization. Small is not always beautiful. It can be downright ugly.

Crawford’s endorsement of the virtues of the local seems based at least in part on a rather rosy view of the past, as his rather risible defense of the supposedly more virtuous bankers of the 19th and early 20th centuries shows. He uncritically quotes the testimony of Thomas W. Lamont, an executive at J.P. Morgan during the 1920s, who waxes eloquently about the ostensible honesty and public spiritedness of his profession. In fact, Lamont was an outspoken supporter of Italian fascism and secured millions of dollars in loans for Mussolini. There’s a reason why both small town and Wall Street bankers were objects of hatred in the political imagination of Populists, Socialists, and millions of other Americans around the turn of the 20th century. It’s because they were just as greedy and exploitative as Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley is now. So much for the good old days.

Crawford also falls into the trap of placing too much faith in ethical consumerism as a way of resolving the crisis of work. He argues that “the decision [of whether to support corporate chains or local independent businesses] is inherently political, because the question who benefits is at stake: the internationalist order of absentee capital, or an individual possessed of personal knowledge…If the regard that many people now have for the wider ramifications of their food choices could be brought to our relationships to our own automobiles, it would help sustain the pockets of mindful labor.” Of course one should patronize a good local business instead of a corporate chain whenever possible, but ethical consumerism is easily cooptable by big capital. Ethical food consumerism in particular is not a very good example for him to choose, as the organic food craze has been captured to a significant extent by the big agriculture companies. Besides, it’s very hard for small businesses and other alternative enterprises to survive in a world of corporate gigantism without becoming more and more capitalist in orientation. Just look at the history of many cooperative businesses and the Israeli kibbutzim, for example.

Crawford does indeed recognize that the problems that he identifies ultimately find their origins in a political economy that must be reorganized in a more humane fashion. As he notes, “we in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power…But we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (it is never guaranteed).” No argument here, but while he recognizes that the problem is fundamentally political, he seems to reject politics as a means of solving it. “A heady vision of the progressive hereafter in which economic antagonism has been overcome may come in to stand for, and distract from, the smaller but harder work of living well in this life. The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.”

That sounds great, but outside of the cramped and fevered quarters of the sectarian far left, does anyone seriously think that a world in which “economic antagonism has been overcome” is possible to attain? Not anymore, as far as I can tell. There’s nothing wrong with people seeking out alternative lifestyles wherever possible, but there’s no need to draw a strict distinction between such pursuits and the need for political action. And besides, lifestyle-ism can’t do much on its own to alter the larger political economy that generates the social and psychological ills that Crawford rightfully deplores.

It’s certainly true that the political realities of the global economy make it harder for national governments and other entities to regulate economic activity in the interests of working people, and that the idea of being one’s own boss at work and in life is very attractive. But the world in which the small property holder of Jeffersonian republican mythology could plausibly be identified as a model to be widely emulated is dead and gone. Calling for a return to the local and to small-scale entrepreneurship is no solution, at least for most people. As a venture capitalist interviewed by de Botton in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work notes, out of 2,000 business plans, only about two ever wind up becoming even modestly successful businesses. You can’t responsibly rail against current work arrangements and then encourage people to pursue a course that will likely end in failure.

As for entering the trades, this entails years of training, many people return to the conventional workplace once they find out how hard the work is, and besides, who wants to be doing hard, dirty manual labor in their forties, fifties, or sixties? I know I don’t. I’ve seen my father do this kind of work for most of his life, and there’s really not much that’s romantic about it. The last thing he wanted to see me become is a manual laborer of some sort because it can be a very hard life, even in the skilled trades. It seems to me that many of those caught up in the current glorification of manual labor come from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds where most people don’t really know what working with your hands is really like.

While also a rather daunting prospect, people should be encouraged to organize for better conditions in their current jobs and in the public sphere for a more democratic and humane economy. To me, it’s a more plausible and attractive vision than one that rather literally tells people to mind their own business.

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