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Book review

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (Penguin, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin, 2009) by Matthew Crawford is a book with original and interesting things to say about what makes work satisfying or unsatisfying, productive or unproductive.

It is well-written and literate, with many fresh and funny insights about the modern workplace, along with careful references to what the great philosophers have said about the subject of work, citing Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger and Iris Murdoch. He makes a genuine contribution to the anthropology of work.

It’s also one of the nuttiest books you will ever read. Crawford, who has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, is an Aristotelian grease monkey: he makes a living, repairing motorcycles in Richmond, Virginia, while teaching culture at the University of Virginia. Much of the book is devoted to arguing that repairing motorcycles is a noble, uplifting profession, where a man can be a real man, do stuff worth doing, and uninhibitedly exchange dirty jokes with his mates.

By contrast, doing knowledge work or working in a large organization involves joining a sisterhood of sinister manipulators where all advancement depends on back-scratching and politicking. According to Crawford, higher education is for the birds. Big organizations stink. The only true happiness comes from getting inside the innards of a broken-down motorcycle and fixing it. In organizations, all teams are a sham; it is only on the shop floor where guys can be guys and true human solidarity can be found.

There are occasional hints that Crawford recognizes how wacky, strident and sexist this stuff sounds, but overall, the book is weird combination of brilliant insights and unapologetic polemic.

Crawford’s job as an analytst

Crawford seems to have had bad luck with the jobs that he has held. Take for instance his job as analyst.

On a sunny morning in 1992, Crawford took a job as knowledge worker in a subdivision of Ziff Communications in Foster City, California. His job was to read articles in scientific journals, index them in established taxonomies, and compose two-hundred word summaries of the articles. The summaries were sold on CD-ROM disks to subscribing libraries where they could be viewed on computer screens. He was full of hope and optimism when he joined.

Crawford had recently acquired a Masters degree and was relieved to have the job after an extended period of job hunting. As a young man, fresh out of school, he saw it optimistically as an opportunity to “survey the frontiers of knowledge and gain a synoptic view of the whole”.

As Crawford was shown to his cubicle on that first day, he “felt a real sense of being honored. They had made a place for him. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was his desk where he would think his thoughts… these thoughts would be his unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made him feel he had found a place in the order of things. He felt enlarged by the largeness of it.” Despite his low opinion of organizations, Crawford decided to wear a tie.

But Crawford’s feelings towards the job changed as he actually experienced the work, which entailed reading each article in its entirety and distilling it afresh. His initial quota was fifteen articles per day. By his eleventh month, his quota had been accelerated, according to a pre-determined schedule, to twenty-eight articles per day. The fast pace demanded full immersion in the task, yet the pace precluded fully absorbing and reflecting on the meaning of the material he was distilling. The work could not be done mindlessly—the material was too complex.

Meeting his quota required him to actively suppress his inclination to think or reflect on what he was reading. The pace of work also required him to suppress any sense of responsibility to the author of the article or to the eventual users “who might naively suppose that his abstract reflected contents of the article.” He came to see that the job required both dumbing down and moral re-education.

Crawford worked alone. His only respite from the daily grind consisted of lunches with his fellow-workers who were equally dispirited by the working conditions, and confessed on occasion to committing sabotage or taking drugs to relieve the tedium.

Crawford noted that there was no quality control of the work in the sense of anyone reviewing whether his abstract accurately reflected the content of the original article. The quality standards were generic ones of grammar and formatting, which could be applied without his supervisor having actually read the article.

Crawford’s supervisor, Carol, was a bookish person, who, he surmised, must have had some love of intellectual precision. But this would have been an inappropriate value to bring to the table when pleading for more attention to quality. Such a concern could only be supported if it contributed to profits.

The firm apparently continued in business for many years. Being an early entrant into the market the firm enjoyed a quasi-monopoly of article abstracts for libraries. It had apparently calibrated its production quota and the corresponding quality to some threshold of “good enough”, beneath which the user would walk away in disgust.

Crawford had taken the job in the hope that he would learn a lot. The job seemed to offer an intrinsic good to him as a worker and satisfying his idea to know. The standard internal to the job properly conceived was intellectual excellence. But this intrinsic good was incompatible with the metric of the pace of work that was imposed.

It was not that Ziff or the executives who ran were being in any sense greedy or immoral in pushing to maximize the surplus skimmed from his labor. Rather Ziff and those executives were simply playing their role in a system that inexorably pushed work beyond the limits of quality, and practically guaranteed that clients would eventually be exasperated.

Implications of the experience

Crawford has given us here a vivid account of a workplace is rotten at the core. This workplace is:

    • Not focused on delighting clients. When work isn’t aimed at the right goal, it should hardly surprise that we rarely attain the goal.

    • Not mobilizing the power of high-performance teams to deliver extraordinary levels of productivity in ways that are deeply satisfying to the participants.

    • Not working in an iterative fashion to progressively increase client delight

    • Not getting to closure in each iteration.

    • Not characterized by communications that open and genuine and interactive. This workplace is awash in a sea of bullshit—no radical transparency—where nothing is what it is said to be.

    • Not relentlessly improving; no traction to improve; improvement is sporadic at best.

    • A place where workers are dispirited; productivity is static or declining, clients are not being delighted; disgruntled clients are undermining the brand.
Crawford is thus right to conclude that there’s not one thing that is wrong here. There is a nested set of problems. There is no single fix, no magic bullet. It’s not about fixing “the system”. It’s not about engineering a new process.

If we are looking for a new system, we are already on the wrong track.

The system is the problem

This workplace is an instance of individuals caught in the grip of unproductive systems, that systematically dispirit the staff, dissatisfy the clients and make the firm less productive than it could be.

The problem is in thinking about work primarily as a system.

The problem is in thinking that people can be manipulated like variables, rather than being interacted with like human beings.

It’s a category mistake.

The problem is in thinking about work as the system of things, rather than an interactive group of laughing, thinking, feeling, weeping, dreaming, human beings.

When managers start talking about work as a system of a things that can be adjusted and manipulated, they are well on the way to reproducing or aggravating the problems they are trying to solve. They can easily lose sight of what work is really about, what it takes to make a truly productive organization, an organization that sings, and hums and is vibrant with life, that resonates with excellence.

The solution: go local?

Amid the growing suspicion that interesting jobs are a thing of the past, Crawford’s book represents a step toward a wider understanding of the world of work.

Unfortunately, one of the steps that Crawford recommends is to abandon the modern workplace, go local and crawl into a job as a motorcycle mechanic.

Crawford talks about “creating occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves”. Satisfaction, he notes correctly, comes from “the exercise of competence in service of something worthwhile”. Firms today offer a ghostly kind of work, which does not bode well for the prospects for full human flourishing. His book grows out of a sense that agency and competence are central to personal motivation at work. If we don’t feel in control or competent, it is unlikely that we are going to as productive as we might be. His book advances a nested set of arguments on behalf of work that meaningful, because it is genuinely useful to identifiable people.

He has attempted to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases, “meaningful work” and “self-reliance” in the belief that these ideas are tied to a struggle for individual agency which is at the very center of modern life.

“To live wakefully is to live in full awareness of this, our human situation. To live well is to reconcile ourselves to it and try to realize whatever excellence we can.”

All this is good stuff. But where does it lead? Unable to cope with the modern workplace, Crawford’s personal solution is basically to withdraw from it, and live “in the cracks” of the global economy, running a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

It lies “for others, better versed in public policy and shrewder about unintended consequences” to try to fix the bigger problem.


Nevertheless, despite its obvious flaws, Crawford has written an interesting book, even for those who don’t love motorcycles, or who don't think that the idea of a good time is to be lying under an old Volkswagen, covered in oil and grease. If we can see his polemic for what it is, we can sympathize with the angst of this Kantian motor mechanic, overlook his quirks and fetishes, and enjoy his insights into the modern workplace.

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