Repair as Resistance to Alienated Labor

Painting: Workers by David Burliuk (1925 – 1926) – Fair Use

Repair is an implicit rejection of alienated labor—the kind of labor performed under the dictates of an employer who treats workers as means to maximize profits. As Marx argued in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, such labor forcibly separates workers not only from the values embodied in the objects they create, but also from their own minds, from their potentials, and from their fellow producers. Repair, in the communal forms it is taking today, can help to mend these ruptures.

In a throwaway society, many people try to exercise their creative powers in other ways, ignoring what might be gained from repair. Hobbies, crafts, and side businesses are the usual outlets. All of these can give people pleasurable opportunities, ones not afforded by their day jobs, to think, design, invent, collaborate, and work unbossed. And so it’s no mystery why some people work harder on their own projects on the weekend than for an employer during the week. Compared to these alternatives, what’s so special about repair?

One answer is that repair starts with a problem that compels us to learn more about the material world we otherwise take for granted. When a thing or device upon which we depend breaks down, we’re stuck, unable to act as expected. It then becomes necessary to figure out what’s wrong and enter a new relationship with the broken object. We ask, How does it work? How is it supposed to work? Why isn’t it working? Now we need to awaken analytic faculties that a neatly functioning world has lulled to sleep.

The diagnostic questions prompted by repair engage us in other ways. We need to be curious as we dig deeper into the problem. We need to be tenacious in seeking answers to the new questions that arise along the way. Repair often demands improvisation, and so we might need to be creative in imagining possible solutions. It matters of course what has broken and how obvious the fix might be. But even simple repairs require some version of a process that nudges us out of our mental ruts.

Unlike the optional undertaking of hobbies or crafts, the demand for repair is ever-present. Things are always breaking down. Which means that if we commit to repair, rather than  defaulting to disposal and replacement, we will inevitably face challenges that stretch us, that require new skills and knowledge. This is in large part what it means to realize our potentials through a labor process. By engaging with the world in ways that force us out of our mental ruts, we become more than those ruts previously allowed.

Repair can also “de-thingify” the commodities that surround us, commodities that we might otherwise experience as non-human forces. When we take something apart to find out what’s wrong, we have to think about the people who designed and built the object we are trying to fathom. To diagnose a problem and find a solution, we often have to retrace their thinking and handiwork. Repair asks us, in other words, to engage not just with a material object but, by an act of imagination, with its makers. Even if we sit alone at a workbench, repair can connect us with those whose labor yields the object-world we inhabit.

When repair succeeds, we restore use value to the object. This experience reminds us that the value in objects derives from human labor—not only that of original designers and makers but, in the case of a successful repair, our own. Here again repair affords an opportunity to de-commoditize the world, to appreciate it as an expression of human values and interests, not as a force that stands over and above us. In opposition to this alienated view of the world, repair affirms our power to add value and meaning to the material world, to make it ours, to put our mark on it in a constructive way. Even when repair fails, the effort—just opening whichever opaque “box” no longer functions as it should—can leave us a little less mystified and intimidated by the world of things.

Another lesson repair teaches is about care. As Wendell Berry has said, a conscientious materialist would care about and want to preserve the good things of the world. Berry’s focus, in a lifetime of writing, has been on caring for land, air and water, useful tools, people, and communities. But there is value, too, in caring about commonplace objects. To discard an object at the first sign of wear or malfunction reflects a lack of caring—about the value remaining in a potentially reparable object, about the environmental costs of its creation and disposal, and about the meanings it has acquired. To at least consider repair, whether or not it turns out to be feasible, is to reinforce an impulse to care about objects and their human implications. Which is, by extension, to care about our connections and obligations to others.

Repair is clearly not something that everyone can do. It takes time, knowhow, tools, and manual skills. Repair can also require access to parts and diagrams and specialized software. Many repairs are forgone for lack of these resources. And it isn’t just that people today have failed to learn repair skills that were common, at least among the working classes, once upon a time. Many modern devices, from smart phones and computers to cars and tractors, are designed to make repair possible only by manufacturers or their authorized agents, or to daunt repair entirely. So even when people recognize the thrift and ecological wisdom of repair, it may be beyond their current capability.

One response to the anti-repair situation in which we find ourselves is what can be called the grassroots repair movement. This movement encompasses iFixitRepair CafésFixit ClinicsRestarters (in the UK), and the Culture of Repair Project. Although there are differences in emphasis, all aim to nurture repair skills and bolster the impulse to repair. Unlike old-school do-it-yourselfism, these efforts explicitly valorize communality—caring and repairing together. As many movement leaders see it, connecting people through acts of repair is no less important than actually fixing stuff.

Grassroots repair is an option for people who recognize the virtues of repair but can’t fix things themselves. Fixit Clinics and Repair Café events are typically free. Help is provided by “repair coaches” or “fixers” who might not be experts, yet often know enough to effect a repair or figure out what needs to be done. The alternative—still better than squandering the value that remains in reparable objects—is to pay a professional. By all means keep those independent repair shops, where they still exist, in business! But it’s one’s neighbors who will take time, and can afford to take time, to share knowledge and skills. The benefit can be more than reducing waste. It can be a community more able to shape its material base.

It would be claiming too much to say that every act of repair, every fixed smart phone or lamp, is a leap forward on the path to human flourishing. More realistically, grassroots repair can help us see where such a path begins. Some would say that a crucial step is to reestablish repair as the cultural norm. I agree, and would add that to make this happen we must also promote an understanding of repair as an expression of care for how the world is made and conserved, and for how we can participate responsibly in this making and conserving. Perhaps, then, more can come from fixing phones and lamps than it might first appear.

Alienated labor, the kind that most people must do to make a living in capitalist society, weakens us. It separates us from the human powers that are rightfully ours to exercise and develop. It separates us from the others with whom we might otherwise freely collaborate to nurture these powers. We can’t all resist the debilitating effects of alienated labor by becoming artists or artisans. But because the world is always breaking down around us, we can all, at times, take up the challenge of repair. In doing so, we can aim to make right not only the things and devices of the world, but ourselves and the only world we have.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at