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Deskilling and the Terrain of Social Justice

My uncle Carl was a tool-and-die maker. He once told me, with all due affection, that I wouldn’t make a pimple on the ass of a good machinist. I was leaving for college and wanted him to know that, wherever college took me, I wouldn’t end up a mechanically helpless middle-class paper pusher. And so I had boasted that I knew how to operate every machine in his shop. This was true, but what my uncle said was truer, and we both knew it. There is a big difference between the skills of a machine operator and those of a machinist.

Few people these days know what I mean when I refer to a hierarchy of industrial skills in which tool-and-die makers are at the top, machinists in the middle, and machine operators at the bottom. In fact, few people, inside or outside academia, know much about these trades, let alone what distinguishes them. Which isn’t surprising, given that most Americans, even among the working class, no longer work in factories and machine shops. More surprising is that many are either unable or unwilling to think about skill and why it matters.

As a boy growing up in a working-class family in Milwaukee in the 1960s and 1970s, I understood my adult job options to fall into three broad categories: a skilled trade, a semi-skilled trade, or unskilled labor. The men in my family were skilled tradesmen, and I expected, before college loomed as a possibility, to follow suit. My dad might have been happy if I’d become an electrician, like him. Though I can’t recall anyone telling me explicitly that skill was important, I understood intuitively that having a hard-to-acquire trade skill was the key to good pay, security, and dignity on the job.

The trade-and-tech high school that I attended reinforced this message. Students were given to understand that education meant learning to do things that other people couldn’t, things for which an employer would pay a high wage. Students on trade tracks learned to become carpenters, welders, machinists, plumbers, sheetmetal workers, auto mechanics, printers, and draftsmen. Students on technical tracks learned to become architects, chemists, and electronics technicians. I was on the pre-engineering track, one that required brief exposure to all the others, plus more college prep courses.

Owing to my unusual high school training and part-time jobs in machine shops, I learned to run a lathe, a milling machine, and a radial arm drill press. One summer, while working in a metal fabrication shop, I learned to weld and use a gas torch. I also observed that some people were far better at doing these things than I was or ever would be. There were other people whose skills surpassed not only mine but those of everyone else doing similar work. Only an ignoramus would have failed to recognize these differences in skill. I’m pretty sure that most of my high school peers would have felt the same way.

My students today (and this has been true for years) are uncomfortable when I try to engage them in a discussion of skill and why it matters. Part of the problem is simply that they haven’t thought much about the matter. When I ask, What is skill? the modal response is a blank stare. When I ask, What’s a job that requires skill? the most common answer lately is “barista,” though occasionally someone will say, “brain surgeon,” implying appreciation for arcane knowledge and fine manual dexterity. Almost no one ever cites a traditional blue-collar trade.

Another part of the problem is that students sense that skill is a desirable quality, and it offends their multicultural sensibilities to say that some people have more of it than others. To students steeped in principles of liberal inclusivity, pointing out differences in skill seems like saying that some people are better than others. The idea that skill is acquired, or denied, as a result of opportunities and demands created by larger systems of inequality thus does not cross their minds. Even those who rail against capitalism’s unequal distribution of income or wealth seem reluctant to examine the unequal distribution of skill that capitalism imposes.

It’s not only undergraduates who think badly about skill. In her popular book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich describes her experiences as a food server, house cleaner, and Wal-Mart worker. “The first thing I discovered,” she says, summing up her experiences, “is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly ‘unskilled.’” Every job she held “required concentration,” and most demanded that she “master new terms, new tools, and new skills.” As examples of the latter, Ehrenreich cites placing orders on a restaurant computer and using a backpack vacuum cleaner.

While it’s clear that the jobs Ehrenreich held were exhausting and required her to learn new things, her claims about skill are exaggerated. In a matter of days or weeks, she was able to master every job she took. Had she gotten into an apprenticeship program to become, say, a cabinet maker, machinist, or certified construction plumber, it would have taken her years.

Ehrenreich is of course right that every job requires some know-how, and if we equate skill with possessing even the lowest level of know-how, then it follows that no job is truly unskilled. And as the comparable worth movement of the 1980s taught us, it’s important to avoid the mistake of assuming that jobs traditionally associated with men and machines require more skill than jobs traditionally associated with women and people. Still, it is analytically and politically costly to reduce skill to any form of job-related know-how and thus to reject distinctions about skill levels as elitist.

In Labor and Monopoly Capital Harry Braverman argued that the capitalist drive to cheapen labor degrades work. He described the historical process of deskilling: organizing work such that jobs require minimal creativity, judgment, problem solving, and knowledge of tools, materials, and processes. He also argued that as work is deskilled, “the very concept of skill becomes degraded along with the degradation of labor, and the yardstick by which it is measured shrinks to such a point that today [1974] the worker is considered to possess a ‘skill’ if his or her job requires a few days’ or weeks’ training.” Ehrenreich falls into this trap.

Sociologists have argued for over forty years about whether Braverman was correct. Some research has found deskilling in older industrial trades, just as Braverman described. Other research has found that new technologies create demands for higher skills in entirely new fields (e.g., Web design, computer programming), thus offsetting what is lost elsewhere. Across the board, however, the trend seems to be for both traditional industrial skills and computer-age skills to become concentrated in relatively fewer hands. One reason it’s hard to arrive at a definitive answer is disagreement about how to define skill.

Based on years of interviewing craftspeople about their work, I have come to define skill as consisting of the theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, and manual dexterity needed to turn raw materials into objects that meet the standards of appearance and functionality established by a community of experienced makers. This definition must be adjusted to accommodate “objects” as diverse as houses, poems, and apps. Nonetheless, this definition makes it possible to distinguish between jobs that require a great deal of knowledge, judgment, dexterity, and practice to achieve mastery, and those that require relatively little.

Why does it matter how we think about skill? If we say “there are no unskilled jobs” and leave it at that, then dispute over the issue is moot. We should just be happy that everyone is getting a chance to develop their potentials through enriching, skillful work. But this is a fantasy. A capitalist economy locks many people into boring, mindless, repetitive, meaningless work. This is not work that develops potentials but stunts them. Without a concept of skill and an understanding of its importance for human development, we lose the ability to make this critique.

Inequalities in wealth and income are the most obvious injustices perpetrated by capitalist economies. But there is a deeper one. As Sam Gindin says in his 2002 essay, “Anti-Capitalism and the Terrain of Social Justice,” a just society is “one that fosters and encourages the full and mutual development of all the capacities” of its members.  He goes on to say that the crime of capitalism is not only economic but is “based on a systematic frustration and underdevelopment of those same popular capacities needed to transform society.” It is, in short, a form of economy that wastes a vast amount of human potential. That is its essential injustice.

This is not a view that romanticizes craftwork or artisanship as a path to human liberation. It is a view that holds, more modestly though with radical implications, that the acquisition and exercise of skill, combined with the freedom to imagine and create, is how our human capacities are most fully realized. It is to say that this kind of experience is crucial to realizing what Marx called our “species-being.” A concept of skill helps us to see more clearly what it is that work under capitalism so often excludes. A concept of skill can also help us see what we stand to gain, what we can become and accomplish, after the chains are thrown off.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.

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Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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