On the Value and Degradation of Manual Work

When the economy is working against you


Tuan Lima

3 years ago | 8 min read

Sometimes the march of humankind towards progress gets off the track. When the system we’ve built for ourselves changes course and defines its own priorities, we should consider taking back the driver’s seat.

That’s how a tragic story about manual work and how we perceive it starts: human beings giving up on the labor that feels close to their heart in exchange for dematerialized piecemeal jobs.

The American economy has gone through some significant changes throughout the past century, mainly fueled by Taylorism, Fordism and the unrestrained competition that drove the economy later to conceive the consumption-oriented society we know so well.

The main trend of change, which has become increasingly difficult to ignore, is about agency.

This unexpected commodity, which borrows a lot of its importance from the same source as liberty itself, has been redistributed across the population in undemocratic ways since scientific management has had a full grip on the way companies were doing their business, which dates to about Ford’s time, the 1900s onward.

A nefarious consequence of these new schools of thought (more of that in a minute) is the considerable loss of prestige manual work has suffered over the past century.

Manual competence is a former ideal that has become out of favor. As Matthew Crawford writes in his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”:

“Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past.

But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”

To make things worse, not only manual work supporters are ostracized by the wrong impression people have of them, but also the job has been altered to be associated with the material benefit it engenders.

According to such logic, the advantage of being a carpenter is as good as the furniture he builds, and motorcycle maintenance is only a good job in as much as motorcycles are repaired.

Such a rationale fails at considering the thought processes required to do the job. One cannot compare assembly line jobs with trade jobs even if their end products were alike (to consumerism purposes). One has to put into the equation the effect the work has on the hands and minds performing the work. Mike Rose writes in the Mind at Work:

“Our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission […] It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.”

I bring a historical example to illustrate what is happening and what share of responsibility scientific management bears on the impoverishment of manual activities.

Taylorism, thanks largely to our educational system, is often associated with more efficient management and the ensuing economic growth. We are rarely given the opportunity to ponder on its impact on well-being and work-worker relationships. Consider this passage from Frederick Taylor himself about his technique:

“The managers assume …the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae.”

To reinforce the same point, Crawford quotes a French sociologist writing in the 50s, pointing out a resemblance between the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc with regard to work: “both rival civilizations were developing that separation between planning and execution which seems to be in our day a common denominator linking all industrial societies together”.

The consequences were apparent right after the new polices’ implementations.

Henry Ford’s innovation of the assembly line epitomizes the unhealthy impact the new manufacturing processes were having over the workers.

The aforementioned managerial paradigm goes hand in hand with the nature of the work performed at an assembly line driven factory, where the severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution is not only paramount but designed for that purpose, with all the likely pernicious consequences well-considered and approved beforehand.

Such a partition of tasks into thinking and doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of “white collar” versus “blue collar” work, corresponding to mental and manual labor. The division was such an economic success that it took no time for the innovations to kill all competitors who did not give in to the new model.

Feedback incentives coming from all over the industry made sure to intensify the new logic towards ever more centralization and the consequent greater alienation of the physical work from its mental counterpart.

In spite of the economic success, the new division found no shortage of resistance among the new working class. One of Ford’s biographers wrote (Crawford’s citation): “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers. The maneuver worked. Workers were now showing up and the concept of wage as compensation was reinvented.

The impact the new production model had on the culture is incalculable. Every time the “blue collar” stamp found a new host, one person more had succumbed to the crazy idea that some are made to think and others to execute.

See what John Gatto had to say about the change of culture brought about by the new economic model. For him, “the transition from an entrepreneurial economy to a mass-production economy […] wrenched the country from its freedom-loving course and placed it along the path toward industrial capitalism — with its need for visible underclasses and a large, rootless proletariat to make it work. — Weapons of Mass Instruction.

Alienation did not stop there. The new managerial class was also being deprived of the benefits of execution, which made them increasingly alien to the nature of the work they had control over and to the impact it had on the worker’s lives.

Aristotle had something to say about this distancing from experienced reality:

“Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.”

The Fordism-Taylorism tandem is still at work these days, engulfing larger and larger portions of the working life. The greater are the technological advancements the greater is the power to strip complexity from work and concentrate it in the hands of an ever smaller management group.

It won’t take long until a huge crisis of meaning hits us. The mental-physical dichotomy is too poor an understanding of the nature of working to sustain society’s workforce motivated for a long time. We need to restore the original value and richness of old school craftsmanship. Certainly not to bring back old customs and old activities, but to better understand our needs and maybe improve the way the job market currently works.

Craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake. One can think of guild associations, their work ethic and quality goals to remember what it is about.

Remembering will be necessary as the culture of crafting is no longer present as it once did. The new consumption-based economy has worked hard to make every citizen as helpless as possible with regards to crafting their own stuff, leaving him to find solace in material consumption.

What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part. Crawford says:

“Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it because one wants to get it right. In management-speak, this is called being ‘ingrown.’ The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out, and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry”.

We’ve abdicated our right to know how things work. The car engine that was once accessible by just lifting the hood is now protected with shimmering covers of plastic, discouraging further inspection. Electronic devices, such as TVs and video game consoles, have become black boxes that you do better by never even considering what is inside.

It doesn’t stop there. Recent advancements in computer science are bringing opaqueness and consumer side simplification to new levels.

The problem of the oversimplification of work and subsequent oversimplification of things we interact with is an escalating issue that will ultimately lead to the oversimplification of our own minds. Or, in the words of Harry Braverman, “the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter”.

Although our goal for the future shouldn’t involve a naive attempt to restore guild associations and the culture that went along, we do need to acknowledge the sacrifices of well-being and sense of purpose that were made in the name of efficiency and purchasing power. The negligence of our natural need to shape the world with our own hands is going to have consequences both for individual and social stability.


Created by

Tuan Lima







Related Articles