Since going part time, I have enjoyed writing in the mornings, and then gardening, making things, and working on our house renovation in the afternoons. Spending some time with actual things feels important when I spend so much time on a computer, even if my handyman skills leave a lot to be desired.
The Case for Working With Your Hands, or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good is a book that reflects on this idea. US readers may recognise it under it’s American title Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work (The term ‘shop class’ would be unfamiliar to most British readers). It’s been a big seller in the US, and I can see why. This is a great book, timely, inspiring, and counter-cultural. And the UK edition has this lovely wood cover.
This is a work of philosophy, but Matthew Crawford is an unorthodox philosopher. He has the Phd and worked at a think tank, but quit to open up a motorcycle repair shop. The book references Aristotle, Hobbes and Heidegger, but is just as likely to discuss spring compression or clutch hydraulics. Like Alain de Botton’s writing, this is philosophy for real people.
In brief, Crawford’s point is that ‘manual labour’ has been devalued in an age of information. Schools tore out their wood and metalwork shops and brought in computer labs. Students were taught, implicitly or explicitly, that academic subjects and then college were the route to a successful career, despite the fact that there’s good money to be made in the trades, and a skills shortage. The result is that we have a generation of people equipped for office work, but lacking in practical skills.
This, says Crawford, is something of a tragedy, as manual labour is often more rewarding than office work. He found this to be true in his own work life, and the book explores why, critiquing our work culture and speaking up “”for manual competence and the stance it entails towards the built, material world.”
The great thing about manual work is that it deals with real stuff, it requires “focused engagement with material things”. Fixing things draws you out of yourself, forcing you to think and to care for something. You cannot be self-absorbed and be a good repairman. When you’re done and the object is made or fixed, your competence is evident to the world. A difference has been made in physical reality, and your work is “meaningful because it is useful”. Office work on the other hand is usually more nebulous. The results of our work aren’t particularly obvious, success or failure is more arbitrary, and that leaves people unsure where they stand.
Of course, some forms of manual labour are boring and stultifying, and here Crawford references a history of thought on what good work actually is. Henry Ford, for example, is credited with devising the production line. Where his cars were originally built by craftsmen from the coach-making trade, the line moved the car along, with each man doing just one simple task. Frederick Winslow Taylor was an influential industrial theorist who promoted this philosophy, arguing that reducing processes to the simplest possible tasks was more efficient. It was faster, but just as importantly, it allowed factory owners to use cheaper unskilled labour. When Ford brought in his new system in 1913, workers quit in their hundreds, because it was so boring.
Lewis Mumford pointed out the dehumanising effects of this way of working in the 1920 in his book Technics and Civilization, and E F Schumacher’s Good Work makes a similar case. Crawford updates this philosophy of good work by showing how the same processes that simplified industrial labour have squeezed the human factor out of other kinds of work too. Business processes, scripted responses and software formulas do the work for us, and we have “ever fewer opportunities for judgement”. In return, companies can hire less qualified staff and spend less on training, although the cumulative effect is that as a society we may be getting “more stupid with every passing year”. We all know what this looks like, the ‘can I interest you in any of our special offers today?’ at the chain store checkout, the ‘mortgage advisor’ who merely enters all your information and cannot explain why the computer says no.
Good work then, is work that “engages the human capacities as fully as possible,” despite the fact that this “humane and commonsensical answer goes against the central imperative of capitalism, which assiduously partitions thinking from doing.” People who fix things understand this, and so do doctors who see patients, farmers and gardeners, firemen, carpenters and electricians, craftsmen and builders.
The Case for Working With Your Hands is a call to rediscover good work, to take pride, to value excellence, and to change our relationship with our own stuff. It offers different perspectives on consumerism and the throwaway culture, on creativity, and on resilience. It is full of observations and insights, drawing on the author’s own experiences of fixing things, making things go faster, and running his own business. It’s funny, warm, and irreverent. I’m sure you’d enjoy it more if you like motorbikes, but don’t let that deter you if you don’t. I have zero interest in them and this is a contender for my favourite book of the year so far.