Throw away the manual

From the ashes of MG Rover, the curmudgeons have risen in startling numbers to lament not just the loss of thousands of jobs, but the far greater loss they represent: the death of ‘proper’ jobs making ‘proper’ things.

How can it be right, they ask, for a society to employ huge numbers of people in roles where the worker is deprived of the sensation of touching tools and materials, and at the end of his labours, beholding a tangible artefact? The economy of solid, physical objects will always trump the ephemeral, thin-air service economy that is replacing it.

In the curmudgeonly world view, there is poetry in the sublime relationship between labour and material substance. “How beautiful it is/ That eye-on-the-object look,” gasped WH Auden. Not being able to turn one thing into another thing robs the worker of a fundamentally transporting human experience.

“It is easier to feel satisfaction when you can see and touch a useful object you have made, or a useful job achieved,” wrote Libby Purves, a columnist with The Times recently. “Everybody needs this feeling. Something very deep is answered by this visibility of product: proof of skill and reward of effort,” she wrote.

That ‘something very deep’ was described by philosopher Hegel as “exteriorization”: through shaping the objectivity of material artefacts, humans were able to stamp themselves with that same reality. But it’s dying now. Poetry, craft, pride, satisfaction, and perhaps even exteriorization are all dying. How can anyone feel such things in the curmudgeon’s favourite temple of atomised servility, the call centre?

The curmudgeon’s case proceeds from the core belief that jobs supplying useful services are just not as good as jobs making useful things. And it is not merely about pay and status; it is about the intrinsic worth of manufacturing. This was the belief expressed so forcefully in The Full Monty. Making steel may have been a tough job, but it was a proper man’s job; stealing and stripping for a living were better than working in a supermarket.

All those millions of service workers hunched over their computer terminals will never, ever have the prospect of saying what workers have said all down the ages: ‘Look, here is what I have done’. Their ‘products’ are evanescent – production and consumption are indistinguishable. One of the very earliest definitions of the word work was ‘to transform matter’; but it just won’t do any longer, because all those billions of keystrokes affect nothing tangible or visible.

But enough curmudgeonly woe. The loss of thousands of good jobs is indeed very sad, but the rest needs exposing for the nasty blend of unreasonableness and sentimentality it represents.

First, let us marvel at a supreme irony: the curmudgeons do not seem to understand that it was manufacturing, and the division of labour into minute, routine operations that went with it, that prevented workers from having a relationship with the end-product in the first place.

Whole-task job satisfaction was the casualty of mass production. Many centuries ago, the ancestral curmudgeons resisted factories on these same grounds – that they were tearing the worker away from his life of contentment on the land, milking cattle near tinkling brooks. They are also hopelessly late. There is not a developed country in the world in which manufacturing employs more than a sixth of the workforce.

In the UK, de-industrialisation has been particularly sharp since 1970: about 3.5 million people are employ-ed in manufacturing in a workforce of more than 28 million. Yet an error that is often made is to believe that the decline of manufacturing means the end of manual work itself.

The Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Future of Work’ programme – which is researching the future prospects for paid and unpaid work for the DTI – has firmly established that this is just not so. Some 10.5 million people, or about 40% of the workforce, are engaged in manual work, many of them displaced from low-skill manufacturing into jobs stacking shelves, caring for children, gardening, driving, cleaning, cutting hair and housekeeping.

But aren’t these new jobs inherently inferior? Shouldn’t the long, slow death in the UK of homo faber, man the fabricator, the maker of things, be a source of despair?

No to both questions. Every age likes to despise the jobs it creates. Newer jobs are not necessarily inferior in their content to jobs in manufacturing – only in the sense that they don’t pay so well. If they did, I’ll wager their reputation would change. The real superstition that needs laying to rest is that the dignity of labour depends on producing something tangible, visible and durable – like a car, for instance.

This idea may sound like the curmudgeon’s strongest one, but it’s really quite preposterous. It implies that any occupation whose product does not outlast the activity which created it, cannot know pride in a task, satisfaction, or the relief of a job well done.

However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. What about public service workers? What about the Army, lawyers, caterers, doctors, musicians, actors, consultants and shop workers? For all of them, their work perishes in the instant of its production – just as happens in a call centre. It takes a certain kind of fundamentalist curmudgeon to suggest that none of them can ever know “proof of skill and reward of effort”.

The truth is that the exaggerated respect for old-style physical labour and the equally exaggerated terror of modern emotional labour are essentially just two sides of the same reactionary coin.

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