When Marx wrote about the alienation of labor, he was thinking of former craftsmen shunted onto assembly lines and hating what they were doing. But Matthew B. Crawford, a University-of-Chicago-Ph.D.-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, argues that alienation is increasingly a feature of the white-collar world, too. There are few objective standards by which office work can be judged, no way to make a distinctive contribution to the world at large.
Skilled trades, Crawford argues, in his new book "Shop Class as Soulcraft," offer an escape hatch from an alienated work life. True, many G.M. jobs won't be coming back. But consumers will need their hybrid cars fixed at some point, and neither plumbing nor plumbing problems are going away anytime soon. (No one in India can unclog your sink.)
What's more, Crawford contends, the satisfactions of attacking a broken-down engine can be every bit as rich, including intellectually rich, as those much-hyped "information age" jobs we're all supposed to be steering our children towards.
Crawford's own view of the world may be unduly Manichaean: he's as airily dismissive of office work, or the work of professors, as office workers or professors can be of people with grease under their nails. Nor is it precisely clear where women fit in his view of the working world. (The world of garage savants he describes is almost exclusively, and aggressively, male.) But he's written a usefully contrarian polemic, one that's been hailed by such unlikely right-left bedfellows as Harvey Mansfield, Jackson Lears, Richard Sennett, and Rod Dreher.
The New Yorker has more on "Shop Class as Soulcraft."
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.