Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford.

In short

Shop Class as Soulcraft explores the differences between office work and manual work and argues that blue-collar professions are worth pursuing as a career path. As an office worker you are (usually) removed from the material reality, and it’s difficult to say what exactly your job is. As a result, work often feels meaningless and excellence is arbitrary and subjective. Contrast this to a person who works with their hands: things either work or they don’t work (that is: it’s objective), and excellence is a skill that can be developed.

These are the sort of themes Shop Class as Soulcraft looks at, and Crawford questions how we can derive meaning and value from our work. You could argue that the book generalizes office and knowledge work a bit too much, and that there are exceptions to the rule as well. But overall, the important thing is that it does stir up a lot of questions about your own work and career path.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”

Crawford started writing the book to investigate the greater sense of competence and agency that manual work brings in comparison to knowledge work. He states that “[p]erhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually.”

As consumers and individuals things are moving in an impersonal direction – we don’t make our own things, cultivate our own vegetables, and we are becoming less self-reliant. If we don’t know how to handle tools and our environment how can we have individual agency? This self-reliance and the search for meaningful work are both linked to the agency question according to Crawford.

Useful arts

When something fails and we call a repairman it challenges our sense of freedom and independence. “People may inhabit very different worlds even in the same city, according to their wealth or poverty. Yet we all live in the same physical reality, ultimately, and owe a common debt to the world.”

“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear of acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”

Technological advances usually come before scientific understanding. In a way it’s tinkering before thinking, and a good example of this is the invention of the steam engine.

Blue and white-collar work was separated with the invention of the assembly line: physical execution and cognitive work. Our education system also followed this line, but there are two errors. 1) Not all manual work is on the assembly line and mindless, and 2) that white-collar work is still cognitive and mental. Crawford states that there is evidence that office work is also being stripped of the cognitive elements.

Thinking and doing

At the start of capitalistic society, labourers were often paid per piece produced. But when employers increased compensation the workers would actually produce less – they could meet their expenditures by spending less time at work. The way to increase productivity was not to increase production but to increase consumption. This is the start of the “management of desire” by marketers, who first called themselves “consumption engineers”.

Robert Jackall on the principles of modern management: “push details down and pull credit up.” Meaning that management should deal with the abstract, not the operational, and avoid making decisions because they can backfire.

“The trades are then 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. Freedom from hope and fear is the Stoic ideal.”

To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff

People don’t tend to fix or work on their own stuff due to “opportunity costs.” That is, the feeling that time is money and that it would be better to hire someone else to do the job But this takes away the entire human experience, and assumes that everything is reduced to time and, as a consequence, money.

“I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making.”

More and more consumers are not just unburdened from making something, but also from evaluating options – only decision making is left. A company creates a variety of safe choices (e.g. accessories for a car), and a consumer chooses from the options offered. “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.”

“The growing dependence of individuals in fact is accompanied by ever more shrill invocations of freedom in theory, that is, in the ideology of consumerism. Paradoxically, we are narcissistic but not proud enough.”

Cubicle life

White-collar work in the cubicle world is viewed – by the workers themselves – with a certain sense of absurdity, as shows like The Office and comics like Dilbert show. “Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life.” This indicates that there are contradictions that, if people would admit them, would bring about a kind of personal crises. One of those is that while companies claim to be performance-based, there usually isn’t actual production and so it’s difficult to set objective standards of performance. The manager judges the states of mind of his employees instead.

Joseph Schumpeter already wrote in 1942 about the growth of education systems, and the issues it would bring for the labour market. One of which is that if the market doesn’t demand higher education, the white-collar workers would be employed “in substandard work or at wages below those of better-paid manual workers.” And also that “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes physically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

“Managers are placed in the middle of an enduring social conflict that once gave rise to street riots but is mostly silent in our times: the antagonism between labor and capital. In this position they are subject to unique hazards.”

Sociologist Robert Jackall studied this phenomenon and found that while people respect a modern bureaucracy, the authority of the manager is very personal. They have to manage up and down, and their career prospects are based on personal relationships and so they spend a lot of time “managing what other people think of them.” They’re vulnerable, anxious, and any change or reorganization could upset their careers.

“It is in this two-tiered system of language – direct in private, empty in public – that the world of managers resembles that of Soviet bureaucrats, who had to negotiate reality without public recourse to language that could capture it, obliged to use instead language the whole point of which was to cover over reality.”

“When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: “All human beings by nature desire to know.” Students become intellectually disengaged.”

You could argue that the education system prepares students for the information economy – but not because it helps to create smart people, but for a more perverse reason. Namely that “college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.”

“Here we see the utility of the idea of corporate culture. The corporation has to become in the eyes of its employees something with transcendent meaning; something that can sustain the kind of moral demands normally associated with culture. Some notion of the common good has to be actively posited, a higher principle that can give people a sense of purpose in their work life. And indeed “organizational citizenship behavior,” including a readiness to put “team objectives ahead of personal interests,” is the new favorite personality measure of industrial psychologists. This higher purpose typically remains on a meta-level, vaguely specified. Managers are instructed to generate it by talking about “higher purpose.” But the absence of specific content to this higher purpose is its main feature. All the moral urgency surrounding it seems to boil down to an imperative to develop a disposition of teaminess.”

Since performance cannot be measured objectively for most office workers, managers instead focus on “workers’ mentalities,” personalities, and higher purpose. Against this “moral training,” the worker cannot do much – in contrast to blue-collar worker, who has objective measurements. Hence, “[h]is only defense is a kind of self-division – he armors himself with the self-referential irony supplied to him by pop culture, pinning Dilbert cartoons to his cubicle wall and watching The Office every Thursday night.” Other than that, the office worker will be deferential to management in the end “since the organization is that which gives meaning to his work.”

Our education system prepares the office worker for this lack of objective measurements and focus on group performance and purpose. For instance, psychologists have found that the more children are praised, the more likely they are to defend that image of themselves. If they say they are smart, they’re more likely to pursue the easier option in the next task. They’re risk-averse and becoming dependent on others for their self-esteem. This is exactly what happens with students as well: “the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.”

Work and leisure

When we think about leisure we usually think about activities that have intrinsic satisfaction (playing an instrument, or sports, for example). With work, it’s all about external reward, mostly in the form of salary. “It’s common today to locate one’s “true self” in one’s leisure choices. Accordingly, good work is taken to be work that maximizes one’s means for pursuing these other activities, where life becomes meaningful.”

“Can the speed shop teach us anything about the tension between work and leisure, and how it might be eased in the direction of a coherent life? It is a community of consumption that overlaps with a community of work. The overlap takes place within the life of each participant, and the shop is the site where the overlap becomes social: no one working there isn’t also an enthusiast, and no customer isn’t deeply involved with the nuts and bolts of his own car.”

This overlap of the community of work and the community of use, offers meaning, and is not scalable and thus doesn’t attract outside investors.

“The work cannot sustain him as a human being. Rather, it damages the best part of him, and it becomes imperative to partition work off from the rest of life. So during his vacation he goes and climbs Mount Everest, and feels renewed. The next summer, he becomes an ecotourist in the Amazon rain forest. It is in this gated ghetto of his second life that he inhabits once again an intelligible moral order where feeling and action are linked, if only for a couple of weeks.”

“[A]n external reward can affect one’s interpretation of one’s own motivation, an interpretation that becomes self-fulfilling. A similar effect may account for the familiar fact when someone turns his hobby into a business, he often loses pleasure in it. Likewise, the intellectual who pursues an academic career gets professionalized, and this may lead him to stop thinking independently.”

“This line of reasoning suggests that the kind of appreciative attention where one remains focused on what one is doing can arise only in leisure activities. Such a conclusion would put pleasurable absorption beyond the ken of any activity that is undertaken for the sake of making money, because although money is undoubtedly good, it is not intrinsically so. It represents a generic potency; the goodness of money floats free of any particular evaluations that could engage our attention and energize our activity.”

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