“We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power, with such devices as the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions. 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).”
That is Matthew Crawford’s concise, and devastatingly accurate conclusion. There’s more in his final chapter, but these few lines are the inevitable climax of his warm and cleverly argued book “The Case for Working with Your Hands”, published in the USA as “Shop Class As Soulcraft”.
Crawford’s book ranges from childhood memories, motorcycle repair to philosophy. In retelling his own unconventional career, Crawford examines what Taylorism and now the ‘knowledge economy’ have done to working people.
He draws interesting comparisons between managers lost in a world of unmeasurable, soft tasks and tradesmen who can clearly see when their work is ‘good’ and when repairs actually fix something. Out of necessity generalisations must be used, but certainly there is some large kernels of truth in Crawford’s reflections.
When someone feels in command of their trade, there is an inherent satisfaction in their work being completed: The motorbike is fixed, the lights are working in the room that has been wired. Or, as I saw in Berlin last week where bartenders took great pride in their work, the drink has been served correctly.
Throughout my working life I have felt a deep sense of unease about corporate life. From my earliest work experience in the banks of the City of London there has been a sense that office work could be somehow dehumanising. This is not to point the finger at any specific employer, or colleagues, because most were undoubtedly kind. But there is a systemic issue in how the layers of corporate power affect the average office worker. Matthew Crawford addresses much of this modern issue.
It’s notable to me that in Brighton & Hove City Council there’s a different feel. Despite being a large organisation with thousands of staff, I think the common theme of public service motivates us all. So while Matthew Crawford’s arguments feel valid in general, a sense of mission can perhaps trump them.