Nazism and fascism, in the popular imagination, are associated with evil, immoral, inhumane treatment across conquered groups and their own subjects alike. These evil actions loom even larger because the thought of an entire society dedicated to military industry, extending its reach across and beyond Europe, inspires ghastly fears not only of evil intent but also astonishing military might that could overwhelm the Allies with the technological wonder of the V2 rocket, the deadly and ever-present U-boat threat, and the German “Royal Tiger” tank that was so well armored that Sherman-fired shells literally bounced off of it. This vision of the Nazis as conquering through technological and industrial superiority is not just a mistake of modern historians, but is actually based on the overestimation of their foes by the Allies and on the disastrously misplaced overconfident messaging of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese that their technology, industrial power, and elan gave them even a chance of victory. The miscalculation of the Hitler in extrapolating his successes in Poland and France to assuming his alliance could overwhelm the combined defenses of over 1.5 billion people represents the most astonishing delusion in military history.
The inspiration for this comes from Victor Davis Hanson’s fascinating economic and industrial history, The Second World Wars. One of his major arguments is that the Axis leaders lost because their commitment to their ideology became a fantasy that they had abilities that directly contradicted the reality of their actual abilities and those of their opponents. I heartily recommend the book and this shorter interview where he lays out the book’s central concepts. My major takeaway was that this fantasy has gone beyond the minds of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, and the vision of a vast industrial empire looming over the world is now imprinted on our memory of World War II. I think it is past time that we recognize Nazism as not only immoral but also incompetent. Below, I hope to share some astonishing statistics that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the modern concept of Nazi military might is a myth.
- The Allies rode in cars, the Germans rode horses. In 1939, the only transportation available to 85% of German infantry other than walking was horses. By 1945…it was still 85%. In total, the US and UK produced almost 4 million general-use vehicles, compared to 160,000 German vehicles. That is a 25-fold advantage. The Allies also had 1 million infantry-supporting artillery compared to less than 100,000 for all of the Axis.
- Where were the supplies? The Allies had 46 million tonnes of merchant shipping vessels to the Axis’ 5 million, five times as much aluminum (key for engines and planes), and by 1943 had cut off all German access to rare metals such as tungsten, one of the key metals used in munitions, manufacturing, and electronics. The US supplied Britain and the USSR through the Lend-Lease Act with almost $700 billion (inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars) in supplies throughout the war, which is roughly double the entire German annual GDP in 1939.
- The Allies swam to victory on a sea of oil. Though Rommel came within a battle of accessing the British Middle-Eastern oil fields, the Axis still had astonishingly little fuel (which they needed to power their King Tiger, which drank a gallon of gas every 700 yards, the vast Luftwaffe that put over 130,000 planes into action, and their gigantic battleship Bismark). The Axis as a whole used 66 million metric tonnes of oil, while the Allies used a billion. A 15X advantage.
- The panzers were neither numerous nor superior technologically. The Mark 1 and 2 panzers that conquered France were actually less numerous and less technologically advanced than France’s. While blitzkrieg and elan overwhelmed the French, even the Mark 4–the most commonly used panzer in the late war–underperformed Shermans in infantry support and reliability and were even considered inferior to the Soviet T34 by Hitler himself. Even including the outmoded Czech tanks repurposed by the Germans, they fielded only 67,000 tanks on all fronts to face 270,000 Allied tanks (with no help from Italy, with a pitiful 3,300 tanks, and Japan largely ignored mobile land armor and created only 4,500 tanks). The environment of idealogical zeal in Germany prevented a military researcher from telling Hitler about the true tank numbers of the Soviets, as Hitler himself recognized later in the war by repeating that if he had known the true number of T34’s he faced, he would never have invaded. The US and USSR deployed massive numbers of upgraded Shermans and the workhorse T34s, while Germany sank huge investments into specialized and scary duds the Royal Tiger–300,000 man-hours and ten times as much as a Sherman. Only 1,300 Royal Tigers were ever produced, and their 70 tonnes of weight, constant mechanical issues, and cost undercut their supremacy in tank-on-tank duels. The US and Britain used precision bombing to inflict major tank losses on Germany, and while German tanks outfought Soviet tanks roughly 4:1, by 1945 the Soviets still had 25,000 tanks against the Germans’ 6,000.
- Collaboration helps both tech and strategy. The Allies worked together–the Sherman’s underpowered 75mm (corrected) could be upgraded with a British gun because of interoperability of parts, and the US and Brits delivered over 12,000 tanks and 18,000 planes to the Soviets under Lend-Lease; the Germans did not even have replaceable parts for their own tanks, and the Germans never helped their Italian allies (who had lost a land invasion even to the collapsing French) develop industrial capabilities. Bletchley Park gave advance warning to US merchant convoys, but the Italians and Japanese found out that Hitler had invaded the USSR only after troops had crossed into Ukraine.
- Fascism is not industrially sound. Even though the Nazis put an astonishing 75% of their GDP toward the military by 1944 and despite taking on unsustainable debt to sustain their production, their GDP in 1939 was $384 billion, roughly equal to the Soviets and $100 billion less than the UK and France combined. By the end of the war, this fell to $310 billion, compared to a whopping $1.4 trillion US GDP. However, even these numbers do not fully represent how non-mechanized, non-scalable, and non-industrial Germany was even under military dictatorship. While German science and engineering had been pre-eminent pre-WW I, the central control and obsession with infeasible, custom projects before and during the war meant that the Germans had a lower percentage of their population that could be mobilized for wartime production than their opponents, not to mention that their GDP per capita was half of that of the US, and yet the Axis still took on opponents that had productive populations five times their size.
- The V2 was a terrible investment. After losing the Battle of Britain (largely because of inferior training, radar, and plane production), the Nazis tried to use ballistic missiles to bomb the Brits into submission. The less technologically sophisticated V1 delivered a respectable 1,000 kg of explosives, but despite launching over 10,000, by mid-1944 the British countermeasures stopped 80% of these, and many misfired, failed to explode, or had guidance system malfunctions. The V2 was more sophisticated, but was never mass produced: only 3,000 were launched, and more Nazis were killed as part of the development of the rocket than Brits by their launch. The V1 and V2 programs combined cost 50% more than the Manhattan project, and even compared to the US’s most expensive bombing program (developing the B29), the cost-per-explosives-delivered was thirty times higher for the V2.
- The Luftwaffe was completely overmatched even by the RAF alone. Before the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe (2,500 planes) outnumbered the RAF (about 1,500), and the RAF was using more outdated Hurricanes than they were the newer Spitfire; however, the Brits scaled up training and production and even put novel innovations into their manufacturing within the 3 months of battle.
- The Germans underestimated the scalability of their opponent’s production. By the end of the war, the Brits manufactured 177,000 planes, 44,000 more than Germany. Crucially, though they started the war with far fewer experienced pilots, the Brits used this production advantage to train their pilots far better (in fact, the Brits had over 40,000 training aircraft). The US was similarly underprepared in terms of both aircraft production and training, but within a year had increased production from one B-24 every two weeks in 1940 to one every two hours in 1942. The US manufactured almost 300,000 planes by the end of the war, with far superior bombers (the figher-resistant B-17 and the giant, sophisticated Super Fortress B-29). However, the German air force personnel still needed to be more numerous than either the US or Britain because of the lack of mechanization.
- The Germans could not replace their pilots. By early 1945, the Germans were losing 30% of their pilots every month, even after giving up on bombing campaigns because of high pilot and plane attrition. They never scaled training and were sending completely green pilots against well-trained Allied opponents who had numerical, technological, and experience superiority by 1943 and air supremacy by 1944.
- The Germans did not deploy new air technologies to their advantage. While the jet engine and V2 rockets would revolutionize air power after the war, they did not impact the outcome of the war except to drain German R&D. Germany also failed to develop a functional heavy bomber, did not update their fighters’ technology during the war, never fully or effectively deployed radar, and never matched the Allies’ anti-aircraft defenses.
- The Allies could win through strategic bombing, but the reverse was not true. Both sides targeted industry and killed civilians en masse in strategic campaigns, but Germany never had the ability to strategically reduce their enemies’ production. Though Germany dropped 760,000 tonnes of ordnance on the Soviets and systematically destroyed production west of the Urals, the Soviets moved their industry to the East and continued outproducing their opponents with respect to tanks, vehicles, artillery, machine guns, and munitions. The Germans never produced a functional 4-engine bomber, so they could not use strategic bombing to undercut industry beyond this; the Blitz killed 40,000 civilians and destroyed over a million homes, but never developed into a threat against British military production. This also cost the Luftwaffe over 2,200 planes and 3,500 of their best pilots. However, nearly every major German and Japanese city was reduced by an unbelievable 3.5 million tonnes of ordnance dropped by the Allies, which killed over 700,000 German and Japanese civilians and destroyed the majority of both empires’ military production.
- The U-boat campaign became a colossal failure by 1943. Though the unrestricted submarine warfare of 1940-41 was sinking enough merchant vessels to truly threaten British supplies, Allied countermeasures–code-cracking, sonar, depth charges, Hedgehogs, Squids, and the use of surface aircraft to screen fleets–systematically destroyed the U-boats, which had losses of over 80% by the end of the war. In fact, the Germans barely managed to exceed the total merchant losses inflicted in World War I, and in May-June 1943 only sank two ships for every U-boat lost, ending the Battle of the Atlantic in just two disastrous months. The US was producing ships and supplies so quickly and in such vast quantities that the U-boats needed to sink 700,000 tonnes of shipping every month just to keep up with this production, which they did in only one month (November 1942); this number sank to less than a tenth of that by early 1943.
- The US actually waged a successful submarine campaign. Unlike the Germans, the US completely neutered the Japanese merchant fleet using submarines, which also inflicted over 55% of total Japanese fleet losses during the war, with minimal losses of submarine crews. Using just 235 submarines, the US sank 1,000 ships, compared to roughly 2,000 sunk by Germany (which cost almost 800 U-boat losses).
- Naval war had changed, and only the US responded. After the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales near Singapore, all nations should have recognized that naval air forces were the new way to rule the waves. And yet, the Germans only ever built a single aircraft carrier despite their need to support operations in North Africa, and built the Tirpitz, a gigantic Bismarck-class battleship (that cost as much as 20 submarines), which barely participated in any offensive action before being destroyed by successive air raids. Germany never assembled a fleet capable of actually invading Britain, so even if they had won the Battle of Britain, there were no serious plans to actually conquer the island. Japan recognized the importance of aircraft carriers, and built 18, but the US vastly overmatched them with at least 100 (many of them more efficient light carriers), and Japan failed to predict how naval air supremacy would effectively cut them off from their empire and enable systematic destruction of their homeland without a single US landing on Japanese home soil.
- The Nazis forgot blitzkrieg. The rapid advances of Germany in 1939 is largely attributable to the decentralized command structure that enabled leaders on the front to respond flexibly based on mission-driven instructions rather than bureaucracy. However, as early as Dunkirk (when Hitler himself held back his tank forces out of fear), the command structure had already shifted toward top-down bureaucracy that drummed out gifted commanders and made disastrous blunders through plodding focuses on besieging Sevastopol and Stalingrad rather than chasing the reeling Soviets. Later, the inflexibility of defenses and “no-retreat” commands that allowed encirclement of key German forces replayed in reverse the inflexibility of the Maginot line and Stalin’s early mistakes, showing that the fascist system prevented learning from one’s enemy and even robbed the Germans of their own institutional advantages over the course of the war.
- Even the elan was illusory. Both Germany and Japan knew they were numerically inferior and depended on military tradition and zeal to overcome this. While German armies generally went 1:1 or better (especially in 1941 against the Soviets, when they killed or captured 4 million badly-led, outdated Soviet infantry), even the US–fighting across an ocean, with green infantry and on the offensive against the dug-in Germans–matched the Germans in commitment to war and inflicted casualties at 1:1. At the darkest hour, alone against the entire continent and while losing their important Pacific bases one by one, the Brits threw themselves into saving themselves and the world from fascists; only secret police and brute force kept the Nazis afloat once the tide had turned. The German high command was neutered by the need for secrecy and the systematic replacement of talented generals with loyal idiots, and the many mutinies, surrenders, and assassination attempts by Nazi leaders show that the illusory unity of fascism was in fact weaker under pressure than the commitment and cooperation of democratic systems.
- The Nazis never actually had plans that could win an existential war. Blitzkrieg scored some successes against the underprepared Poles and demoralized French, but these major regional victories were fundamentally of a different character than the conflicts the Nazis proceeded to start. While the Germans did take over a million square miles from the Soviets while destroying a 4-million-strong army, the industry was eventually transferred beyond the Urals and the Soviets replenished their army with, over 4 years, a further 30 million men. But most of all, even if Hitler somehow achieved what Napoleon himself could not, neither he nor Tojo had any ability to attack Detroit, so an implacable, distant foe was able to rain down destruction without ever facing a threat on home soil. The Nazis simply did not have the technology, money, or even the plans to conquer their most industrially powerful opponent, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of the entire war is that 60 million people died to prove something that was obvious from the start.
Overall, the Nazis failed to recognize how air and naval air superiority would impact the war effort, still believed that infantry zeal could overcome technological superiority, could not keep pace with the scale of the Allies’ industry or speed of their technological advances, spent inefficiently on R&D duds, never solved crucial resource issues, and sacrificed millions of their own subjects in no-retreat disasters. Fooled by their early success, delusions of grandeur, and belief in their own propaganda, Hitler and his collaborators not only instituted a morally repugnant regime but destroyed themselves. Fascism a scary ideology that promises great power for great personal sacrifice, but while the sacrifice was real, the power was illusory: as a system, it actually underperformed democracy technologically, strategically, industrially, and militarily in nearly every important category. Hopefully, this diametrical failure is evidence enough for even those who are morally open to fascism to discard it as simply unworkable. And maybe, if we dispel the myth of Nazi industry, we can head off any future experiments in fascism and give due recognition to the awe-inspiring productivity of systems that recognize the value of liberty.
This is in no way exhaustive, and in the interest of space I have not included the analogous Italian and Japanese military delusions and industrial shortcomings in World War II. I hope that this shortlist of facts inspires you to learn more and tell posterity that fascism is not only evil but delusional and incompetent.
- One thousand years of labor: the evolution of work Gabriel Winant, the Nation
- Why didn’t ancient Rome industrialize? Mark Koyama, NOL
- Productions, and the threshold of industrialization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
- Rationalization of production and changes in the nature of work Jacques Delacroix, NOL
But is it a good one? Is it even made in good faith? I need help.
From American anthropologist John D Kelly’s The American Game…:
Ronald Coase’s theory of the nature of the firm rescued, for neo-classical economics, the existence of firms or corporations as rational entities […] Markets always come first, and the problem of the existence of firms is depicted as the problem of why a rational manager would rely on employees rather than markets. State planning and private firms are taking over what already exists, integrated by the price mechanism of markets, and are successful to the extent that they lower costs, since there are a variety of costs involved in market transactions. Thus marginalist analysis implies that an equilibrium will always be found between planning structures and integration by price mechanism, especially since, as Coase says in “The Nature of the Firm,” “businessmen will be constantly experimenting, controlling more or less” and “firms arise voluntarily because they represent a more efficient method of organizing production.” The rise of the firm, as Coase imagines it, is always a movement from many pre-existing contracts to a controlling structure, “For this series of contracts is substituted one.” (94)
The emphasis is mine. Kelly continues:
This imaginary fits poorly the situations that were precisely the actual origins of firms, as when banks gave mortgages to planters, or stock markets funded companies of young agents, prepared to cut plantations into captured wilderness for tropical commodities […] usually employing labor moved long distances and disciplined by direct violence. There is more in the universe than Coase’s imagination, more motives for controlling powers of firms than their cost efficiencies. (94-95)
Kelly goes on to give a brief account of 1) how corporations created commodity production out of thin air, 2) how these corporations were tied to European imperialism, and 3) how they used slaves and indentured servants even when it would have been cheaper to hire the locals.
I want to address Kelly’s summary of Coase’s paper (here is a pdf, by the way, in case you want to follow along), mostly because I’ve never read it although I know it’s important, but first I want to make a couple of digressions. Libertarians would more or less answer Kelly’s three charges listed above as follows: 1) yes, and this is a good thing, 2) state-sponsored corporations and private firms are two distinct entities with two very different incentive structures, and 3) see #2. There is also an issue of accuracy in regards to Kelly’s brief summary of world history since 1600. I don’t want to get into the details here, but I do want you to recognize that I am reading Kelly critically. My last digression is simply to point out that libertarians and Weberian Leftists like Kelly have more in common than we think.
To get back to Coase’s paper, and Kelly’s critique of it, I want to highlight one sentence from Kelly’s book in particular and then turn it over to the peanut gallery in the hopes of gaining some insight:
Markets always come first, and the problem of the existence of firms is depicted as the problem of why a rational manager would rely on employees rather than markets.
Is this the puzzle Coase was trying to grapple with in his paper? I ctrl+f’d Coase’s paper (“employe” – not a typo) and couldn’t find anything that actually confirms Kelly’s summary, but it would be an interesting project (if I am right in stating that Kelly’s summary of Coase’s paper is not accurate) to follow this line of thought and delve into Kelly’s insight about the reliance that entrepreneurs/firms have on employees (rather than markets)…
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.
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“.