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"Better Work" by Joshua Habgood-Coote (Keywords: Reality TV; Gig Economy; Manual Labour; Anti-Work)


White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

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In 2021, the word “Umarell” was listed in an Italian dictionary for the first time. Literally meaning little man, the word derives from Bolognese, and was first used by Danilo Massotti to refer to the retired men who choose to spend their days watching construction sites and roadworks on the streets of Bologna and surrounding towns.


The Umarell has a characteristic appearance: he has grey hair, smart trousers or pressed jeans, and a coat. Often, he wears a hat. In photographs (see the twitter account @umarell_culture for examples) he leans slightly forwards as he watches, arms held behind his back, ready to intervene with unsolicited advice. Although initially ironic, the term has become increasingly affectionate, and over time Umarelî have carved out a functional niche in street life. There have been several schemes to recruit retirees to various roles in civic life. In 2018 a square in Bologna was named Piazetta degli Uramells.


Why would someone who has retired chose to spend their time watching others work? Perhaps they want to interfere, to check things are being done properly. Perhaps they simply want to get out of the house. Perhaps there just isn’t very much going on in Bologna. I want to suggest that there is something deeper and more interesting about the choice to watch others work: Umarells feel a sense of nostalgia for manual work which visibly improves their community. By offering advice, they position themselves as informal supervisors, levering themselves into a role in the collective activity of resurfacing a road or building a new apartment block.


The Umarelî are not alone in feeling a sense of nostalgia for manual work.


***


In Wikipedia’s helpful typology of reality television shows, Job Search shows are programmes which depict an extended job interview, typically with one contestant being voted off each week. The first Job Search shows focused on modern professions: business (The Apprentice), modelling (Project Runway), and high-end cooking (Top Chef). However, following the success of the Great British Bake Off in the 2010s (in the US known as the Great British Baking Show), more and more shows focused on traditional manual activities. In the UK, on any given winter evening one has the choice of the Great Pottery Throw Down, the Great British Sewing Bee, Blown Away, Interior Design Masters (which is really about building), and Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker (initially called Good with Wood).

What is attractive about craft-based reality television is not simply the intrinsic pleasure of watching craftspeople at work that draws us towards videos of people making pots and wooden spoons. The contestants on these shows are skilled amateurs, who develop their skills through the show. For them, winning the show means gaining the chance to change their career, changing a hobby into a vocation. Coming first in the Great British Bake Off (or acquiring the status of fan favourite) is a short route to a book deal for a book about pastries, and a recipe column in a newspaper. The promise of these shows is that you too could have a job which is organised around skills you value, which produces physical things, not Word documents.


Once you recognise that craft-based reality shows are tapping into a frustrated desire for skilled work, it is difficult to fully enjoy these shows. You stop focusing on the winners, and start thinking about the runners up who will go back to their ordinary jobs once the show is over. Even for the winners, the standard reward is not a career working as a baker in a restaurant or bakery, but the opportunity to write recipes and columns for enthusiasts. In short: more Word documents.


In Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1972), Harry Braverman offers a critique of contemporary work that helps to shed light on the desires of Umarelî and reality TV audiences. Braverman started his career as a coppersmith in a naval yard, moved into steel layout – with a sideline in journalism – before moving into publishing. In this book, Braverman offers a detailed account of the degradation of work that transforms skilled into unskilled work.


Through the application of the stopwatch and the slide rule, the management consultant transforms workers’ practical knowledge into managers’ theoretical knowledge.

The villain of his story is the management consultant. Braverman argues that from its earliest iterations in the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Gilbreths, management consultancy has involved the cheapening of both work and workers. The job of management consultants is to make a labour process more efficient. In order to do this, they need to know how that process works, before reorganising that process to maximise efficiency. Various techniques exist: Taylor focused on timing workers and intensifying the speed of work, while the Gilbreths analysed workers’ actions, attempting to minimise the amount of effort (measured in units of Therbligs). Braverman argues that the gathering of knowledge about the labour process by management consultants amounts to a kind of epistemic extraction. Through the application of the stopwatch and the slide rule, the management consultant transforms workers’ practical knowledge into managers’ theoretical knowledge. Once management know how a process can be performed most efficiently, they can systematise that process into clear repeatable steps which amount to a scheme for the division of labour for that task. As a consequence of the simplification of the labour process, they are able to hire a smaller workforce which is both less skilled and more easily replaced. Rather than employing workers who each know the whole process in and out, they can hire non-specialists who are quickly able to learn how to perform their allocated part of the labour process. There are two connected processes going on here: the extraction of knowledge from workers, and the fragmentation of work processes. The combined effect is to reduce the need for workers who know things.


Braverman is careful to avoid universal claims about the degradation of work. He acknowledges that some kinds of work may resist fragmentation or avoid it for contingent reasons. Rather, the claim is that there is tendency in work, first seen in the move towards factory work, then in the progressive influence of management consultants, towards the degradation of work: a process whereby professions are slowly leeched of their skill-base, either laying off workers or forcing them into repetitive and simplified tasks. Braverman follows these tendencies to the beginnings of office work, arguing that the sedentary desk-based job is motivated by a concern for efficiency, and chronicling the burnout in female computing workers who describe themselves as working for the machine. Tracing these developments forward in time from the 1970s, we might think about the way in which platform work, algorithmic management, and gig work intensify these tendencies towards fragmentation and extraction, fragmenting work into microwork, all the while gathering data and maximising the efficiency of the work process.


Although Braverman’s critique of contemporary work starts from the dignity of traditional manual work grounded in substantive practical skills, he is careful to avoid the conservative politics which can follow from defending the value of manual work. It would be easy for this nostalgia to retreat into a kind of reactionary politics which valorises not only the skills of traditional crafts, but also the social structures and values within which they were historically embedded. We can see this tendency clearly in the work of Matthew B. Crawford, who in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), weaves Braverman’s critique of Taylorised work into a paean to motorcycle and car repair and maintenance. For Crawford, our best bet for avoiding the mental harms of Taylorised work is to check out of – in order of increasing generality – office work, the knowledge economy, and Enlightenment modernity. How are we to do this? By immersing ourselves in the practical and social world that surrounds manual trades. Crawford’s idea seems to be that by immersing themselves in the social norms and hierarchies of traditional manual, masculine-coded work, men (and he does mean men) will be able to anchor themselves to the world through meaningful practical engagement. There is something undeniably appealing about this view, but its conservative orientation means that it pulls the culture, hierarchies, and exclusionary politics of traditional manual work through with the desire for manual work. It also leaves unasked the question of how women are to avoid the harms of Taylorised work.


Braverman does his best to head off this reactionary politics. In a passage which resonates with Mark Fisher’s idea of a present haunted by dreams of the past, Braverman writes: “[M]y views about work are governed by nostalgia for an age which has not yet come into being, in which for the worker, the craft satisfaction that arises from conscious and purposeful mastery of the labor process will be combined with the marvels of science.”


A worry one might have is that this story about the deskilling of contemporary work obscures the complexity and mental agility required by poorly paid work. As the slogan goes: there is no such thing as unskilled work. I think that properly understood, this slogan is compatible with a critique of deskilled work. I take it the point of this slogan to be that employers often obfuscate the skills which workers in “unskilled” occupations need to possess to do their job well. A picker in a supermarket’s online shopping department needs to have a developed knowledge of the locations of items around the store, and sophisticated judgement about what counts as an appropriate substitution; a delivery gig worker needs to have detailed knowledge of the shortcuts across her city, and folk knowledge of the quirks of the platform that structures her work. The word “skilled” is a context-sensitive adjective, and any history of work classifications will show how it has expanded and contracted over time to meet the needs of management and shareholders.


While even deskilled work requires complex capacities, we shouldn’t think that these kinds of work are skilled in the full-fat sense.

While even deskilled work requires complex capacities, we shouldn’t think that these kinds of work are skilled in the full-fat sense. Gig work simply requires less skill than building a house or playing an instrument at a high level. Furthermore, many of the capacities inculcated by contemporary work are what Karen Gregory and Jathan Sadowski call perverse virtues: traits like industriousness, flexibility, and predictability which make one a good worker, but not necessarily a good human. While these capacities might sometimes be called skills, they don’t involve the satisfaction of progressive improvement in performance alongside the development of one’s character which is distinctive of craft skills.


***


How should the frustrated desire for skilled work inform our thinking about the present and future of work?

At present, there is a tendency towards a view which we might call work minimalism. Calls for the four-day week, the anti-work movement (part of which takes place on the subreddit, r/antiwork) and an accelerationist tendency in leftist theorising all present work as an evil which is increasingly unnecessary. According to work minimalism, society ought to be organised to minimise the amount of work which people need to perform, opening up space for rest and leisure activities. In Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, and Nick Srincek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, we find a vision of the future without work, in which automation paired with a post-capitalist economic system allow us to develop hobbies and unproductive pursuits. What might post-work theorists think about the desires of the Umarell and the viewers of Job Search reality television? From their perspective, both seem to have adapted to an unjust world organised around work by developing preferences to fill their days with work. In a better world, these adaptive preferences would no longer be functional. This is a possible interpretation of the psychology of the Umarell and Job Search viewer, but to my mind a more charitable interpretation is to view their desires as latching onto an important human need. What the Umarell wants is something which would be good for them: meaningful work that improves them and their material surroundings.


To make sense of these desires, we can pull on an older and less fashionable tradition of work critique, which we might call work maximalism. Whereas work minimalism claims that we ought to minimise work in order to decrease the amount of aggregate pain caused by work, work maximalism claims that we ought to maximise the opportunities for particular kinds of work in order to increase the amount of pleasure which people derive from their work. Work maximalism plays an important role in the history of English Socialism. We can find the beginnings of this view in John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic, which combines a critique of industrial work – characterised by the division of labour and the fragmentation of tasks into their smallest constituent parts – with a somewhat speculative analysis of medieval craft labour through the aesthetics of Gothic architecture. Ruskin presents work as a key location for the pursuit of human happiness. Ruskin’s discussion of the separation of head and hand work anticipates Braverman’s discussion of the harms of separating thinking from doing:


We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.


The idea of work as a central site for human pleasure is developed by William Morris across a series of essays, and his utopian 1890 novel News from Nowhere. Morris distinguishes two kinds of activity: useful work and useless toil. While he agrees with the work minimalist that we ought to minimise useless toil, he argues that in the pursuit of human happiness we ought to maximise the amount of useful labour – within the constraints provided by human nature, our need for rest, and our desire for variety. In News from Nowhere, Morris colours in this picture, presenting us with a post-capitalist utopia in which life is organised around work rather than leisure. In this novel, every adult has at least two trades and an academic interest, and people swap jobs in order to get the variety that they need. In this fiction, concern about the scarcity of goods has been replaced by concerns about the scarcity of work, and various schemes are employed to keep people supplied with useful work.


We should be concerned not just about the quantity of work which we are forced to perform, but also about the character of this work, and the role it plays in shaping the mental lives of workers.

Whether or not you find Morris’s utopia or Ruskin’s view of Gothic craftspeople attractive, the existence of the work maximalist position highlights an important point which has gone missing in discussions of automation and the future of work: that we should be concerned not just about the quantity of work which we are forced to perform, but also about the character of this work, and the role it plays in shaping the mental lives of workers.


***


In 1983, the folk singer Bob Watson learned in a radio interview about the desire for new songs in the style of sea shanties. After a year of writer’s block, he wrote a series of new old songs. The best known is Shanty Man, which was made famous by the Cornish folk group, Fisherman’s Friends. Here’s one of the later verses of the song:


Now modern ships carry mighty funny gear;

And away, get away, you shantyman.

Ain’t seen a halyard in many’s a year;

An’ they got no use for a shantyman.

Slick new fittings are all your style;

And away, get away, you shantyman.

All very clever, but it just ain’t right;

An’ they got no use for a shantyman.


In style and content, the song is nostalgic: calling back to an era of human navigation before boats were – in the words of the song – “crewed by a microchip.” But we don’t have to see this nostalgia as either conservative or defeatist: it is driven by a desire for skilled work, for work that has a use for people.


The essay is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 818633). Thanks to Alex Douglas, Dominic Habgood-Coote, C. Thi Nguyen, and Alessandra Tanesini.


Joshua Habgood-Coote is a research fellow on the GROUNDS project at the school of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science at the University of Leeds. His research sits at the intersection of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of technology. Website: joshuahabgoodcoote.com Twitter: @impractknow

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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