Kraft Werk

I have a friend who was born and raised in Germany who is very German.  I say “very German”, because being German is a touchy subject with him since he happens to be Jewish.  But he is one of the most German people I have ever met, with an ethic of excellence, perseverance, and attention to the rules.  He also loves to eat.

Some years ago he bought a beautiful condo in a large brick apartment building that had been built in the 1920’s.  It had a rather grand working fireplace that was in terrible shape.  So he decided to have it torn out and entirely rebuilt.  He looked around for a good bricklayer, preferably a German, and found one through German friends of his.  When the man arrived to tear down and rebuild the fireplace, my friend insisted on sitting in the living room and watch the poor man do his work.

The result was beautiful.  But even more beautiful in my friend’s eyes was how the man had built it.  Apparently, each time he laid a brick, he took out a level to see how it was set.  He did this brick by brick.  Since he was being paid for the whole job rather than by the hour, he was not trying to pad his time.

I have heard of bricklayers who will (sometimes) check the level of a row of bricks, but never one who did this with each brick.  This bricklayer was a craftsman.

I think that in the whole of the United States, we have lost this sense of craft, which I will say used to be related another thing we have lost, which is the idea of a calling.  When we hear occupations being discussed now, it’s all about “jobs”.  The relationship between labor and management has become entirely contingent, with devalued “at will” contracts that can be easily broken.  (Craft has been continually devalued since the 19th century, but we don’t even pretend that it exists anymore).  People think in terms of high paying jobs rather than craft or calling.  Senior workers (i.e. the ones who should be the most skilled) are now the most expendable, since they tend to be paid more. Now they are often sent to the knackers in order to be replaced by younger workers who are seen to be more flexible.  At a corporate level, we have fetishized “fast-paced change” and what now passes for bookstores in America have large “business” sections groaning under the weight of books about the latest management fads, since if executives are not constantly turning things over with “innovations” they aren’t earning their fat salaries.

The destruction of craft and calling has even infected art and scholarship.  Fine arts training used to begin with learning how the past masters did things.  This was required even if the budding artist was planning to do something entirely new.  Now there is a tendency to skip the skill part and proceed directly to the new.  In scholarship (where graduate students used to be few and highly selected, where scholars knew foreign languages, and where good scholars wanted to teach) an industrialized academic proletariat has emerged assembling quantifications of crap publications that are counted but not read.  The self-devaluation of scholarship has led to the destruction of tenure and the creation of a helotry of “adjunct professors” who are paid the same starvation wages as the rest of the industrial labor force, while the fat profits drawn into the colleges are sunk into high administrative (executive) salaries and the physical plant.

The loss of craft and calling is a spiritual disorder.  We have redefined alienation as a necessary part of work.  Alienation is now part of being modern, to be dealt with outside of work by pleasures, therapy, and drugs.  The savvy kids are now all careerists trying to conform to whatever makes themselves “salable” for the current season.  Are no longer aspire to obtain fulfilling jobs.  We just aspire to get a job.  And like all aspirations, millions are falling short.

 (For those who thought that this thread might be about the German rock group Kraftwerk, I link here to their song The Robots, which goes perfectly with what I have written above).


unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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