This is an essay with a strange origin. My friend Peter Miller, an artist and a craftsman, is also a trained sociologist like me. He posted an essay on his blog about crafts. It’s a sophisticated and unusually perceptive essay. He asked me for comments. I begun answering him in a letter and then, quickly, I thought both his essay and my comments might be useful to others. I think anyone interested in the nature of work and changes in the nature of work should read both Peter’s essay (see above) and mine. I don’t know exactly in what order but it seems to me that my essay is easier for the non-specialist who pays a mortgage or who studies for his Calculus finals. It would not be hard to make me change my mind on this though.

Dear Peter:

This is a thick narrative that demands a lot from the reader. Those are separate and additive reasons to turn it into a book. It would benefit by being watered down; some of the things that you say in one sentence would be better said in three. Just an unsolicited opinion on form. (Lack of solicitation has never stopped me before.)

It seems to me that your argumentation is not finished, that you have not looped the loop. I explain.

The pilot automation that is the pretext for your essay seems to me to be only a special and late instance of a process that began massively and kind of suddenly in the late 18th century. I mean the rationalization of work associated with the Industrial Revolution, of which it is only one facet, I think. I think this because, if nothing had changed in the realm of production but the capture of large amounts of inanimate power, the world would have still experienced a big economic growth spurt. The rationalization of production supplied additional economic benefits.

“Rationalization of production” means the specification in advance of the one best way to achieve a well defined end. It’s not “whichever way works” but “the exact best way.” Nearly always, it involves the decomposition of a task into smaller components most of which are easier to complete than the whole, usually, much easier. This is contrast with crafts production which involves a trained worker doing a job from beginning to end.

Note: This contrast is overdone as far as many crafts are concerned. Craftsmen did not wait for the 18th century to rationalize their methods. They did it in small steps that spread slowly or not at all. (Ask me how we know this.) For every single instance of production the comparison between crafts and rationalized production is often exaggerated. This is in the nature of contrasts. The real difference on the ground is a matter of emphasis, of course.

Until recently, the rationalization of production was a pre-condition to mechanization, the replacement or, usually the partial replacement of human workers by machines. Mechanization is another source of enlarged societal wealth because machines are, on the whole, less expensive to employ than people. Machines don’t get sick; they are maintained at predictable intervals. They don’t take vacations. They don’t retire with benefits. They never feel lazy. They are never reluctant to do the work assigned to them. With machines, the same number of people can do more than without machines, other things being equal. The cost of machines plus their human tenders is normally lower than the cost of people plus people.

Rationalization does not require mechanization. It just makes it easier. Many clerical jobs were rationalized in the 19th century without benefit of any mechanization.

The rationalization of production, and of work that may or may not be considered production (rearing children, for example) is, to a large extent, an attempt to separate every job into parts each of which can be handled on a routine basis. This allows for production to increase seemingly while reducing the level of competence required of the line producers. (Yes, it sounds familiar to you, Peter, because I am paraphrasing someone; his first name was Charlie, his buddy was Freddie.) I mean by “level of competence” three things: specific job training, general education, intelligence and other otherwise desirable personal features. As the level required in all three for a given job drops, the cost of securing workers of the requisite competence also tends to decrease. At least, it drops at first. Over time, the story is vastly more complicated than this. (See below.)

The average worker of the early twentieth century was probably less skilled – any way you define skill – than his 17th century counterpart. He also needed less intelligence to do his work properly.

Here is an illustration of these basic ideas. Today, one can buy shoes made by machine in South Korea or by hand in India. That is, modern mass production along rationalized lines, in the world, exists side by side with craft production fairly similar to all shoe production before 1750. The average line worker in a Korean shoe production does not need to be very bright, and he can be satisfactorily trained in a month or so. By contrast, a traditional Indian shoe-maker is apprenticed for four to five years, or more.** He cannot be stupid and he needs patience, perseverance, and a superior ability to focus, among other personal traits. It’s true that today’s unskilled Korean worker probably has more formal education than the Indian shoe-maker. That’s not because he needs it to do his job but because he lives in a rich society where formal education is a consumption item. It may also be to enable him to spend rationally. It may make him a better citizen. It’s not required by his job beyond basic literacy, if that.

Historically, this rationalization of work driven by the search to save on production costs had an unexpected positive downfall: In many cases it reduced defects in the final product as well as accidents during work. These facts would have been enough to move forward the general movement toward rationalization wherever defects in the product were costly, as with steel, or silicon, or where human life was valued,* wherever the old process was dangerous.

The movement of rationalization of production never stopped; it continues as I write. Fast food restaurants modeled after McDonald are one of the most visible fairly recent results of this process. And some of us remember the days when service stations were staffed with adult men who actually knew how to check your oil and your tire pressure. Automatic piloting is just another instance of the same long societal process of rationalization. (Incidentally, I would guess that if you could compare the dangers of flying with or without automatic pilots while keeping everything the same – you can’t – you would find the former much safer.)

With every tiny step in the rationalization of work voices were raised to regret the crafts methods the new techniques were destroying. A few of those voices belonged to people who were fully qualified to pass judgment. I mean, individuals who had worked both in craft and in the corresponding rationalized industry, home weavers working by hand converted into weaving machine tenders, for instance. I am guessing there would have been and there are still few of those. Many more, like the artist and print-maker Peter Miller, know only the crafts side of things. (I don’t know this for a fact but I imagine that Peter has spent little time in a factory of any sort. He will correct me if I am wrong.) I can’t imagine that there were many who wrote on the lost world of crafts who also possessed both industrial experience and craft experience. Those imagined or proceeded from more or less distant observation. Others, a third kind of commentators, the loudest voices by far, belonged and still belong to professional intellectuals who have known neither craft nor modern industry. Karl Marx is the chief, the best known of those.

Digression: Pseudo “Marxists” in universities and elsewhere have derived a whole quasi-scholarly industry for fifty years from a few paragraphs in Marx’s youthful 1848 Manuscripts that have the merit of being easy to read. In one of those, Marx wrote of the “alienation” of the worker from his work contrasting the inherent pleasure of craft work with the sort of coitus interuptus of factory work. The fact that generation after generation of sociologists have failed to find empirical confirmation of such alienation among real live workers never stopped this industry from expanding. The best treatment of the topic comes the 1964 thin book by the French anarchist Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. It provides a more sensitive, better informed, detailed, and of course, much more thorough view of the lost world of crafts than does anything in the Marxist tradition. End of digression.

Much of the nostalgia for a pre-rational world is simply mistaken, sometimes grossly mistaken. I sometimes overhear discontented, intemperate comments about the coffee shop chain Starbucks, which has managed to systematize the preparation and serving of coffee products while enlarging their scope. More often than not, I read between the figurative lines of the complaints a longing for the good old days when coffee in America was prepared and poured by real people in real places. In fact, I knew America well before Starbucks and I can assure you that nearly everywhere, the coffee was bad and bitter, the pouring sometimes surly, and the sitting stools hard. It is as if the Starbucks haters remembered their childhood in charming, civilized Florence or Rome, rather than in the real Fort Wayne and Buffalo where they grew up. Nostalgia will do this to you, the lying bitch!

When all is said, I am not attempting here to argue against the merits of crafts activity. Anyone who has even built and painted a garden fence he was not forced to make for pay knows that there is pleasure in making things from beginning to end. It does not take even long before one learns the difference between a well built fence and an ugly one. Craft work is learning work. And millions of what the French call “Sunday painters” (like me) are well aware of the fact that their artistic creations give them more pleasure than almost anything else on earth except babies (and sometimes, making babies). I mean both the result on canvas and the process itself. By the way, “Sunday painters” are amateur artists who know their work has no economic prospects and may not even deserve to be shown. I don’t have a survey in mind but I suspect that even those who are aware of committing frankly bad paintings love their art. Activity that links the senses, brain, and hands is often a labor of love. That’s why we miss the crafts.

Not surprisingly, nostalgia for the crafts era is all around us and it’s in most of us if not in all of us. My house was built in 1906 of planks that were probably hewn with primitive tools. That’s one (one) of the reasons my wife and I bought it. When I made some repairs on it I found hand forged nails that I put away like treasures. If I am told that a pot was hand-made I become immediately willing to pay a premium for it over a machine-made pot that looks identical to me. Examples are legion. Most of us have an addiction for an “authenticity” that is often the product of selective ignorance. The magnificent Gothic cathedrals, built largely by hand, survived; the clay and straw hovels that abutted them did not. Neither did the results of the lack of toilets immediately at the foot of the great cathedrals. Crafts nostalgia may even taken tragic forms and yet survive.

In France, every year, several people die from eating “artisanal” cheese. It’s labeled by the government according to specific rules. (This is France, after all where the government does almost everything!) One component is that it’s made from unpasteurized milk; another is that it’s shaped by hand. The first feature probably accounts for all the deaths. Some consumers no doubt want unpasteurized milk because it’s more “natural.” Others and some of the same, chose cheese made by hand for aesthetic and sentimental reasons. They get the deadly bacteria as a bonus. The striking thing is that French society broadly defined appears to consider a few deaths an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of consuming cheese issued from a crafts process. The consensus includes those who would never touch artisanal cheese with the business end of a fork.

So what to do with our nostalgia for the crafts and for their more or less imaginary era?

First, we must all admit that we don’t wish to go back to the days when every nail was forged by hand and cost $5.99 retail! Poverty does not mean not earning enough money; it means not earning enough money to buy the things you need or want. If your income is stationary but the price of bread shoots up to $10 a pound, you are poorer. If lettuce is $5 a pound, – as with organic lettuce – you are poorer than if it costs $1.50. We should not allow our nostalgia to drive us into poverty.

Second, we must recognize that the rationalization of production – together with mechanization and reliance on fossil fuels – have made us rich beyond belief, rich to a degree that I, myself, couldn’t have believed fifty years ago. (Good point to plug my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography – which goes in detail over the poverty of everyone fifty and sixty years ago.) We are richer because we have become collectively enormously more productive in the past 150 years and accelerating in the past fifty years. We are more productive because of fossil fuels, because of mechanization but also because of the rationalization of production alone. The higher productivity is obvious in the manufacturing fields but I can’t go into it here because of the complicating factor of outsourcing. Let’s take agriculture because Americans import relatively little by way of agricultural products. Here are some numbers that are easy to remember to implant the facts firmly in your mind:

In 1860 about 60% of the American workforce was employed in agriculture and in lumber. Today, the percentage is less than 3% (three per cent). We are not worse fed than in 1860, food has just dropped in price. No catch!

Let’s go back to our shoe workers. Rationalization of much production has made all of us very rich by historical standards irrespective of our individual merits. The low-skill, borderline idiotic shoe machine tender in South Korea earns ten times more money than the skilled, smart, attentive shoe craftsman of India. One lives in a society where rationality of production prevails, the other, not.

The cheapness of the things we need is such that we are not forced to work very long to secure them. In addition, a very large fraction of our society does not work at all (children, many adolescents, middle-class wives and ex-wives, retirees with thirty more years before them). Collectively, we have enormous leisure as compared to our ancestors, even our near ancestors.****

Wealth gives us, with leisure time, the luxury to experiment and schools of all kinds (including California community colleges). Wealth even makes it easy to preserve old traditional techniques as in Peter’s examples: Am I willing to spend pennies each year to support the preservation of craft techniques of Japanese pottery I have never even heard about? Yes; why not? Those who are so inclined can become craftsmen in the broadest sense of the word because we can afford to try and fail. I would bet that there are more painters in Santa Cruz County (“Silicon Valley Beach”), population 50,000, today than in all of Paris in 1880. Are they any good? Not my topic; my topic is nostalgia for crafts production. It’s not art criticism. Crafts are here, in abundance, where I live, no doubt about it.

Note: I understand that real craftsmen in the traditional mold, such as Peter, may argue that I stretch the meaning of crafts beyond recognition because it does not incorporate the common notion of a long, supervised apprenticeship. I think they are wrong. I suspect they confuse “craftsman” and “good craftsman.” (I don’t know exactly, in fact, what Peter would argue; I am just guessing on this. We will find out, I hope.)

Here is my third proposal about what to do about our nostalgia for crafts: We can believe that we have entered  the age of post-rationalization of production. Manufacturing is under control, agriculture too, as I pointed out. Such a belief would not be completely absurd. Today, the amorphous category “Services” accounts for about 70% of American GDP, (the sum total of the value of what all Americans produce in one year at home). The percentages are similar for other developed, rich countries. But, “Services ” is a bad category; it was invented more than a hundred years ago to mean: “everything but agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and manufacturing.” It did not amount to much at the time. “Services” was a sort of residual category. Nonetheless, on the face of it, it’s possible to believe that in a short time, almost all of us, will be teachers, brain surgeons, professional poets, software “architects,” brewers, not to forget waiters – excuse me, “waitpersons.”

All these occupations have in common that they rely on tacit information. That’s information that is not well understood by the user himself. For that reason, it’s also difficult to transmit that kind of information deliberately to others and in a systematic manner. It’s normally communicated to others through more or less formalized apprenticeship arrangements favoring direct observation of more senior workers.

My own position about this belief in a world of production changing in that direction is like my attitude toward Sasquatch***** I don’t believe in it but I would like to be wrong.

I am not sanguine no, I am rather cautious for two reasons. The first is that the least likely industries have been rationalized in my lifetime; burger making is a strong case in point. The second cause of my cautiousness is that I am witnessing right now, as I write, massive rationalization taking place around me in another unlikely industry, the practice of medicine. I can already see the day when we will be remembering with longing the Bill’s Burger days of medicine when the doctor knew our name and used mostly his intuition to diagnose us. (Sometimes with fatal results, of course.)

A final note in passing. Being beyond the age of rationalization would have serious benefits in terms of power relations in general. Hierarchical arrangements are much less useful, or more difficult to implement when the work process is not rationalized. We see see this in Silicon Valley every day. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it’s the wave of the future. This is yet another story, of course.

* Yes, I mean Christian and, especially formerly Christian regions of the world well on their way to secularization. (This means more or less endowed with some degree of religious indifference.)

** I suspect that the apprenticeship time could be cut in half without damage to competence but that’s another story and it would still remain a long time.

*** “Artisan” just means “craftsman.” “Artisanal” means produced according to a more or less crafts method rather than in a plant with machines. Saying it in French in the US allows for a higher profit margin by exploiting the naive and pretentious.

**** It’s true that traditional peasants have much down time but it’s mostly not leisure because they are lacking the other ingredients of leisure. As I write, I realize I may be overstating my case on this. More thinking needed.

***** Also known as “Bigfoot” and, “L’ Abominable Géant des Forêts“.


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