Review of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).
by Nathaniel Bates
Matthew Crawford is a candidate for the most interesting man in the world. He is certainly one of the most interesting writers I have read in a while. He is the son of a Physicist who ran off to a hippie commune as a teenager, worked as an electrician, went to India as a 16 year-old and instantly bonded with electricians there, studied Physics, joined an academic think tank, and now fixes motorcycles for a living. Somewhere along the way he developed a take on vocational arts that is intellectually complex and at the same time deeply lived. Shop Class as Soulcraft is a plea for the unity of the head, hands and heart that defends the Aristotelian pursuit of knowledge in the world as against the modern Think Tank’s Platonic exaltation of the Ideal against the actual. I have never read a polemic against Ohm’s Law and the mathematics of knot theory as interesting as the one Crawford gives. One wonders how philosophers of science would deal with the question of whether the experience of an electrician or a motor cycle mechanic in a repair shop might be the test of a theory’s falsifiability!
To be fair, Matthew Crawford does not actually doubt Ohm’s Law or Knot Theory. Nor are his iconoclastic attacks on Henry David Thoreau meant to be taken too harshly. He is an intellectual gadfly and this is what makes his book interesting. On one level, Crawford is a Philosopher Mechanic of the old school, a mechanic intellectual. Unlike the worker intellectuals of the eighteenth or the nineteenth century, however, Crawford is not a radical. He is on the conservative end of Christopher Lasch’s populist economic moralism. Crawford made an apologia for the experienced over the educated, but not for the wage earner against the owner. His voyage to India and his experiences on hippie communes left him as disaffected with radicals as his life in academia left him disaffected with the educated echo chambers that rule Universities. Academia and the dream life of a radical were both dead ends for him. What mattered was the hard physical pounding of a nail, the soldering of a wire, the heat of a motor, and the texture of rubber used in fixing tubes. Crawford left academia for the hard world of fixing motorcycles, not for the dreamlife of adventure. The experiences of his youth on communes and traveling the world in India while relatively poor made the romance of adventure all too real and somewhat unappealing.
Crawford wants a revival of manual labor as a respectable path. He sees himself as someone who is up against both the economic abstractions of conservatives and the cultural abstractions of liberals. The intellectuals in both camps are insulated against the harsh outcomes of their own theories, particularly when ideas become more important than outcomes. Crawford’s book should have been written in the nineties when the deindustrialization of America began in earnest and free trade captured the allegiance of conservative along with liberal intellectuals. Globalization’s opponents were cast as either fringe activists of the Left or cultural Neanderthals of the Right. Its proponents anointed themselves heroes whose immunity to suffering was evidence of a meritocracy presumably imbedded in the structure of social reality. Those who suffered under the downsizing of corporations presumably deserved their fate precisely for letting themselves be driven by fate. They should have educated themselves in the abstractions required to survive in a post-industrial America! This line of reasoning led to a decline in the teaching of the manual arts and an increasing reliance on academic standards. Belying such an emphasis was the unstated assumption that those who could not adapt to the changes were deficient either in personal morality championed by conservative believers in the market, or the intellectual sophistication championed by liberal elite sycophants for globalization.
This particularly American defense of wealth inequality, one that preaches “individual responsibility” for the poor while ignoring privileges for the rich, was dealt a healthy blow by Crawford’s intellectual blowtorch and was shorted out by his deft cognitive wiring. Crawford demands that we see community as a concrete reality. His views are, again, Aristotelian. The community is where there is a stone’s throw between citizens of the Polis. The circle of workers is a circle of acceptance earned through the successful completion of tasks. For Crawford, the post-modern intellectual world, like the abstract corporate world of the Office, cannot substitute for mastery of skills and the easy going life of a blue collar philosopher. It is in Crawford’s generalized view of blue collar life that avoids the darker side that my review must become something of a critique, a friendly critique of an excellent book but one that is firm and on point. To begin my critique, it must be noted that Crawford engages in some idealizations of his own. The central reality of globalization is a class reality much more than a cultural reality. The privileges enjoyed by Tech CEO’s, elite intellectuals, bankers, and senior scientists are economic privileges and not simply cultural privileges. Crawford’s narrative of out-of-touch coastal intellectuals who do not understand Middle America is the least original part of his book, having been explored by less creative and original thinkers than Crawford to a dead end. It has played itself out in the 2016 election and has produced no intellectual fruit. Crawford himself left academia for the life of a business owner, not a mechanic who works for wages. His experiences under capitalism have been those of a small proprietor and not a wage earner. The world of manual labor is not simply one of freedom from the conventions of the Office. Like the Office, manual is a world of hierarchy and privilege. Neither are that different in that respect. In non-unionized environments both have their brutal natures.
The Philosopher Mechanics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Crawford channels were radical. They were themselves internationalists. They believed in an internationalism of workers from below much more than any cultural populism that would glorify their lives as more “moral” than those of foodies in San Francisco or artists in New York. Few of the older worker intellectuals would idealize the Shop Floor, even if they would have shared some of Crawford’s critiques of the Office. Crawford himself draws on the traditions of both the Right and Left counter-cultural critiques of the Office culture as inorganic and abstract, while he avoided their brutal critiques of factory conditions. Too much can be smoothed over when one writes a cultural critique of elites, while ignoring economic structural realities that elites have done so much to help create. The decline of the working class in America is also a decline of Unions, a decline of political unity among working people, coupled with the substitution of both conservative and liberal forms of identity politics for the hard work of building coalitions among the powerless. Professor Crawford shows his own class bias when he blames the decline of manual education on economic globalization while simultaneously, in a seeming contradiction, blaming it on the fear among egalitarians that manual education tracked students to be in the industrial working class. While I agree with the first part of his critique, the second part of his argument ignores the fact that “shop class” often was a track created by school Principals and Guidance Counselors for poorer students and those who did not fit in to the culture of upper middle class education. Blaming both equally may be somewhat accurate but it runs the risk of being misleading and blind to the real power that is wielded in capitalist economies not so much by those who live by abstractions, but by those who successfully co-opted those abstractions in their think tanks and foundations.
I can go either way with my critique of Crawford. I can be offended by the somewhat class biased way Crawford glamorizes the old system of manual arts education. Or, I can praise him for being so iconoclastic that even I, who liked the book, was offended. I prefer the latter route. I do not want to read material that is easy on me. I need perspectives that beat me up a little. There was enough in this book that was enjoyable that I do recommend it very highly in any discourse around globalization, deindustrialization, working-class culture, and the sociology of intellectual life that Crawford has witnessed from within. Professor Crawford writes in the same populist conservative style that Eric Hoffer wrote in many decades ago. Unlike Hoffer, however, Crawford does not cling to the illusion that it is only the radical intellectual who is lost in abstractions. He sees clearly that neo-conservative and paleo-right intellectuals are lost in abstractions. It is my hope that a third voice might arise after Hoffer and Crawford who could revive the older worker philosopher critique of abstract society in a way that also critiques class society. I await that revival in a time in which the left is out of touch with working people as a class to a much greater extent than in Hoffer’s time. Until a reconnect can occur, I will enjoy cultural populist critiques for what they are worth. In Crawford’s case, the critique was well worth the price of the book and well worth the time spent reading it.