crawford

If Herbert McCabe is right, that to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is not only a battle over abstract philosophical ideas, but as “a tiny contribution to the liberation of our world from bourgeois presuppositions that have quite definite oppressive economic and political correlatives,” then it would seem that Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft’s is onto something.

In his NYT article, Crawford contrasts his time as a “knowledge worker,” a euphemism for exploited labor if there ever was one, with the “soulcraft” he was able to cultivate in motorcycle repair. Yet it’s not the case that Crawford is simply contrasting manual labor with office work; rather, he’s contrasting the difference over what type of work builds character and leads to moral excellence. In a word, Crawford is harkening back to Aristotle: moral virtue has to do with the formation of certain habits. Crawford is also challenging the entire modern edifice of efficiency and effectiveness.

Unlike his soul-sucking office job, “mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about.” Crawford asks his readers to consider the character of work over and against something as nebulous as “jobs.”

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

So, how do we reconfigure our sights on the character of work – especially when so many are being left behind in the global workforce? There’s a temptation, as Justin McGuirk writes in Dezeen, to simply focus on what is close-to-hand when our capitalist economic system breaks down. “It seems that when industrial capitalism is in crisis we fall back in love with our tools,” writes McGuirk, “there is something steadying about the feel of the screwdriver in our hand. It makes us feel in control again.” The problem, however, is that there are structural and political issue at play beyond what takes place in the private garage or studio.

In light of our many problems, Crawford is onto something in attacking the idols of the left and right; something that appears to be theological in nature. To get back to McCabe’s point above, to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is to resist the modern binaries that plague our dominant political paradigms. Good old fashion communal-based moral formation might be the best way out of this mess.

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