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A blue-collar renaissance?

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 23, 2009 01:14 PM

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A cry of protest from the motorcycle-shop floor

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."

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