Tuesday, May 13, 2008

5 O'CLOCK WORLD. Rod Dreher is inspired by Matthew Crawford's 2006 essay "Shop Class As Soulcraft," which traces the "degradation of blue-collar work" (and white-collar work) to the efficiency movement of the early 20th Century, and proposes turning young minds and hands to the pleasures of craftsmanship as a spiritual remedy. At National Review Online a few writers pick up the theme.

The overall idea seems to be that modern man took a wrong turn way back when, via consumerism, Marxism ("Stalin was a big fan" of Frederick Winslow Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management, notes Crawford), and the removal of women from the home ("Cooking may not leave you with some exquisite, handcrafted thing to show for your labors," observes NRO's Lisa Schiffren, "But it is certainly hands on, physically real, often a source of pleasure..."), and that a revival of craft will help bring us back around, spiritually speaking.

Getting kids, and adults too, interested in doing things that yield pleasures beyond profit is not a bad idea all around, but I think these authors are missing a step, which was picked up in 2006 by James Kurth in The American Conservative:
The conditions of the working class, including the conditions conducive to political organization, are one thing in an industrial economy and a very different thing in a post-industrial, or information, economy such as our own... When we remember that unions of industrial workers were a fundamental and major pillar of the Democratic Party in America, the Labour Party in Britain, and the socialist and Marxist parties in continental Europe, we can see how, by itself, the shift to an information economy has removed the most powerful political constraint on growing economic inequality.
Our big switch to an "information economy" dovetailed with the decline of American manufacturing, and part of the upshot was that pushing paper came to be seen as a better bet for someone who wanted to earn a living than engaging in manual trades that were considered moribund. Those who did not wind up in the cubicle farms -- soul-killing though they may be -- found themselves in a new kind of working class, with fewer protections and opportunities than it once had.

Needless to say, the authors are not agitating for the revival of industrial unions, or anything else that might tangibly assist working people in finding and learning a trade. It's all about soul.

But when we discuss the "soulcraft" fallout of economic shifts, let's not forget that money is involved. The prospect of a sustainable livelihood will do more to encourage people to get busy with their hands than any exhortation to spiritual revival.

When he tired of his think-tank work, Crawford was able to open a motorcycle repair shop, and God bless him. Other folks, in different conditions, may be taking a long look at mastering a craft as an alternative to the increasingly expensive educational ticket to corporate life, but they are probably also looking at the odds. If they can go somewhere to learn to make something and at the same time afford housing and groceries, that would help. They might consider apprenticing as tool and die makers: 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, 144 hours of class, and a decent living at the end. But even the U.S. Department of Labor warns that employment in this trade "is projected to decline because of strong foreign competition and advancements in automation."

Opportunities do exist; some will find them regardless, and no doubt be held up as exemplars to remind less fortunate working stiffs that only their own lack of luck, pluck, and virtue holds them back. Maybe eventually they'll be told that they lack soul, too, or else they'd be profitably running a suitably soulcrafty business. See, modern conservatism isn't out of ideas; it's still finding ways to instruct working people in their deficiencies.

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