Let's put it this way: if David Harvey (The Enigma of Capital) was the Architect, Matthew Crawford would be the Bricklayer. There is no evidence of a connection, but there is quite a resonance. Why am I saying that? Well, because a few months ago, while zapping during ads' time, I was caught by this beautiful, ancient, philosophical face coming out of from the TV screen, on BBC International. The face belonged to this venerable Aristotle 'restored' to life who was having a Hardtalk with the editor of the program Sarah Montague, on the need to rethink the economy as continually growing since it is no longer a viable option. The argument struck me so much that I began taking notes in front of my mother's disbelieving eyes.
Firstly, they were stating that the path we are into now is not a development, even though it is called a growth: no one is investing in real things, and everyone produces money out of money.
Then, when challenged by the interviewer on the statement that an excessive and unethical capitalism will never fail on its own, but will have to be pushed 'downhill', the clear-minded Harvard professor was asked a pertinent question: Is it a call for a revolution? And the answer was: Yes, if we mean it as a call for people to wake up and have conversations about what the alternatives should be; or, otherwise conceived: a call to get the arms of critical reasoning with respect to money and production in the conduct of everyday life.
On the bedside table I had, at that time, a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft. After a brief contemplation of the cover, I opened the book and started studying it, in the light of the above. The perception of a nearness to the broadcast that I had suspected was soon confirmed. One feasible answer to the 'Do what?' question was to be given in a volume whose subtitle is An Inquiry into the Value of Work. As the reading proceeded, I was more and more persuaded that Crawford was indeed going further with the call for a discussion on the rise of alternatives: he was calling to the use of one's own hands in order to challenge cognition. Literally.
The first bricks in order to imagine an alternative society are to be laid on a personal level, and what is to be done is building new habits.
The 'autobiographical arguments' of the book make topical a receding experience: the instruction and/or self-tuition of making and fixing things with our hands. PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago, currently fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia, the author also runs a rather small motorcycle repair business in Richmond, Virginia.
In this book, he attempts to speak up for the ideal of manual competence and its value in a material world that is a world made of things. It is concerned with the 'experience' of making and repairing things, in the face of the decline in tool use in our relation to our own stuff, definitely more passive and dependent than it used to be: what people once made it is now bought, what once was fixed it is now replaced.
The philosophical (and as such 'economical', in the Aristotelian sense of the good management of an oikos) defense of the honor of manual trade in common life lays on the following question: How do the use of tools and a renewed cultivation of manual competence affect the prospects for a full human flourishing? And the author's biographical answer sounds as follows: The wad of cash in his pants, he states, at the time a motorcycle leaves his shop under its own power, feels differently than the checks he used to cash when he was working as executive director of a Washington 'think tank'.
It is not said better, it is said differently. The key issue is: usefulness. As he tells of his previous job, he felt always tired, while he could not see tangible goods or useful services: the sense of uselessness is described as discouraging.
The story of the author is not offered as extraordinary or to be taken as a receipt for a happier life, it is given as an example of a feeling sensed as common, both for men and for women: the greater sense of agency and competence which is felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs officially categorized as 'knowledge work'. Why? Because it is more engaging 'intellectually' or, otherwise said: cognitively challenging.
Far from any 'mysticism of the craftsmanship', as well as from an apology of a 'simpler life', the author explores the benefits of what he calls an 'ethics of maintenance and repair'; rehabilitating the honor of the trades, Crawford does not imagine a new economy made of traders, but devotes his reflections as a strive for some measure of self-reliance, the one that is required from a focused engagement with material things. Or, in other terms, 'a struggle for individual agency'.
The detailed history of the consequences of the separation of thinking from doing in the modern times, leads the book to a clear definition of what it is to be master of one's own stuff. That is an attempt to imagine an alternative society made of alternative habits: the exercise of judgment in the practice of manual work.
I finish with Crawford's conclusion: "The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks when individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one's own life".
© 2010 Paola Teresa Grassi
Paola Teresa Grassi, PhD, Philosophical Practioner, Italy