Real men use their tools

by Rob Horning

4 July 2009


I’m all in favor of championing meaningful work over bureaucratic paper-pushing or assembly-line tedium, but nonetheless, I was a little skeptical of Matthew Crawford’s thesis in this New York Times magazine essay, adapted from his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. (A more philosophical version of the essay’s ideas is here.) He certainly has a point in detailing how mechanics are presumed to be less intelligent than office workers and information workers, but he tends to err on the other side of the equation, painting those who don’t work with their hands as deracinated half men. In championing “real” work as tinkering with tools and fixing engines and rewiring houses and that sort of thing, Crawford seems to have in the back of his mind the supposed threat of boys being neutered and pussified by modern education techniques—namely they are being medicated so that they won’t be aggressive and so that their rambunctious curiosity is stifled:

There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.”

That sounds very reminiscent of this sort of thing: “Consider, for example, the fact that we still expect our six- to-eleven-year-old sons to sit for hours at a stretch, reading and writing, at a time in their lives when adventure calls.” Of course, girls can be expected to sit around a school; after all they need to get used to sitting around at home waiting for their men. But boys are special. Crawford tries to be a bit more gender neutral than that, but you can’t help but feel that he’s motivated by a sense that masculinity is bound up with a certain sort of tactile manipulation of the world. Those without handymen skills are hardly men at all; they are at the mercy of the social order and economic division of labor instead of being rugged individualists.

Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic, so you can throw in the gratuitous machismo of revving engines and indulging dangerous pursuits in search of kicks. His economic exchanges then, instead of being suspect and shamefully interlocking him into the system, are saturated with manliness, trading in a testosterone currency:

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

Fuck yeah! Woo-hoo. One bro helping another bro out, just how the world should be. None of that impersonal faceless corporate world or the cash nexus for him.

As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community.

That repairmen and such are undercompensated compared with bankers goes without saying, but in many respects this is because of what Crawford points out—those jobs can’t be outsourced, so they are paid in security; and those jobs are absorbing and immediately rewarding (you get to see what your work has wrought), so they are paid in satisfaction and integrity. They are motivated to work for reasons other than money, and thus by the inexorable logic of capitalism, they are underpaid.

Crawford rhapsodizes how the real men who do real work draw not on institutional information but informal networks of semi-arcane lore, sometimes resorted to brute trial and error or a mystified sort of intuition that comes from long practice.

The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Yes, it is thinking, but must he call it real thinking? Real thinking takes place outside of machine shops too. But he tends to be suspicious of any job where knowledge production or dissemination is the purpose, and regards jobs that require coordination as inherently stultifying. Crawford declares, “There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well”—hoping to put a rhetorical stake in the heart of middle managers everywhere. If only everyone would stop being so insistent on the rules and started generating ad hoc procedures as they went along, then everyone would feel so much more creative and fulfilled. We all would be allowed to reinvent the wheel.

But Crawford’s point about the middle manager’s moral maze is right on:

A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

That’s a good explanation of weasly corporate-speak, which is not the product of ignorance but instead of the need for plausible deniability. But that also means that they are thinking on their feet, albeit verbally. Crawford assumes there can be no satisfaction in this, that it is automatically born of desperation and squirming. That is the same mistake as assuming that the dirty work of mechanics is stupid.

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