Politicians, writers, and policy intellectuals talk a lot about “good manufacturing jobs” and how much “working families” have been hurt by the decline in the availability of such jobs. But back when such jobs were much more plentiful as a proportion of the total workforce, the social critics of the time were by no means uniformly enthusiastic about them.
Indeed, hostility toward mass-production manufacturing goes back to its earliest days. Remember Blake’s “dark satanic mills?” And then there was the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin (circa 1850), which was partly a reaction to the perception that mass-production methods created a dreary uniformity among everyday objects.
There was certainly some validity in many of the critiques. But there were also threads of criticism which were driven by an aristocratic contempt for people doing useful tangible work…an attitude that goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Whereas Morris/Ruskin respected the craftsman, there were others who regarded anyone working with his hands as a “menial”…and often extended this attitude to the owner or manager of a large factory. To many aristocrats, banking and trade were considered inferior to land-owning…and manufacturing was considered inferior to banking and trade.
My perception is that by 1900 or so…at least in the United States…mass-production methods were increasingly accepted by the Criticizing Classes, and the focus of criticism moved more exclusively to wages, working conditions, and ownership. Many socialists were quite happy to see the continuation and expansion of mass-production manufacturing as long as it was run by the workers or by “society”–indeed, Lenin was a strong supporter of Taylorism. And the famous Fabian socialsts Sidney and Beatrice Webb were very strong supporters of what they called the Machine Age.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this attitude among intellectuals and social critics–general support for technology in general and mass-production manufacturing in particular, combined with a desire to change the ownership and control of those activities–largely continued. But in the 1960s, something changed. Technology was now often regarded as threatening or outright evil, and mass-production manufacturing was viewed as “dehumanizing.” The term “anomie,” popularized by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, was frequently used to describe the spiritual environment created by industrialization.
A revealing and bizarre example of this hostility to industry is provided by the fate of the GM-Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. This was a nationwide contest which encouraged boys to make a model Napoleonic-era coach(during the first phase of the program, 1931-1947) or a model car (1947-1968). Substantial prizes, including college scholarships as well as cash amounts up to $5000 (in 1933!) were awarded to those judged to have done the best work. Ruth Oldenziel describes the kind of craftsmanship that was involved:
Contest rules demanded that all parts be handmade, which necessitated the ability to build a miniature Napoleonic coach..from scratch, to read complicated patterns, to draft accurately, carve wood painstakingly, work metal, paint, and make upholstery with utmost care…(a typical model) demanded an extraordinary amount of dedication and time–about three hours a day over ten months…
By 1960, eight million American boys and young men had participated in this contest. GM undertook this effort for PR reasons, of course, but also as a sourcing vehicle for the skilled workers that they needed. Schools were heavily involved in promoting the activity.
But in the mid-1960s, many schools became hostile to the program. One winner recalls that “when GM came to my high school principal and requested permission to make a presentation to an assembly of 2000 in my honor, the corporation was turned down.” Oldenziel:
By the sixties male teenagers no longer projected their future years into corporations, as canvassing corporate representatives were shocked to find out. Someone close to the organization remembers that “in the late sixties, [GM's] presentations at inner-city high schools were not that well received.” He thought that “often the disillusioned, turned-off young of that era felt little motivation to exercise the kind of self-discipline required for the creativity and craftsmanship it took to win even a college scholarship” and concluded, “I hate to say it, but I think a few of our Field Representatives felt fortunate to escape from some of those school assemblies in one piece–it got that bad.”
The program was terminated in 1968.
While the were certainly things to criticize about this GM program…the exclusion of girls, the total focus on styling/appearance rather than mechanical aspects of the auto industry…it’s pretty clear that the hostility that killed the program wasn’t driven by anything so specific–rather, by a broad-spectrum hostility toward business, industry, and technology. Indeed, the idea of having large numbers of teenagers spending long hours working on something other than “social change” was probably a threat to some leaders of the “counterculture.”
I have also read that circa the same period, there was considerable worker sabotage in the auto assembly plants (for example, dropping bolts in places where they shouldn’t go in order to create a hard-to-find, hard-to-fix rattle.) Some of this was certainly a reaction to the antediluvian and obnoxious management practices that were then common among U.S. auto manufacturers, but it’s hard to believe the hostility wasn’t also driven by the overall change in the social climate.
Generalized hostility toward industry, or at least a complete lack of appreciation for same, has certainly driven many public-policy decisions. For example, here is a story about people in the towboat industry in Seattle who have had to wait between four and five years to get permits for minor facilities improvements. This is not just about bureaucratic delay and inefficiency–there is something else going on.
“It’s all cultural,” says Eugene Wasserman, executive director of the Neighborhood Business Council. If it were biotech, it would get the green light.
“Biotech is cool. Propellers and pilings are uncool,” is how the government’s attitude is summed up by columnist Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times.
Several years ago, I observed a local example of the cool/uncool phenomenon noted by the columnist above. A county government had an “incubator” program for new, technology-oriented small businesses..free or low-cost office and lab space, that sort of thing. Someone who was starting a metalworking business to make a new product applied…he was turned down, because the county government wanted “cool” computer-related businesses. (There were no environmental issues: this was clean light manufacturing.) Government officials, who most likely knew very little about any technology whatsoever, chose the currently-fashionable technology, which was web sites, not lathes and milling machines. (Wonder how many of the companies that they did sponsor are still around?)
In her interesting book My River Chronicle Jessica DuLong (who became ship’s engineer on an old restored fireboat running on the Hudson) describes a bitter fight about the proposed construction of a large cement plant on the river. She herself sounds a bit ambivalent about the matter, as she is both a lover of the river’s natural beauty and a strong supporter–I almost said a lover–of industry. Here, she quotes another writer on just how bitter things became:
Plant supporters were portrayed as being less intelligent, less educated, or having a ‘bizarre nostalgia’ for the days of industry. Plant opponents were often stereotyped as being rich, gay antiques dealers from New York City.
The fight lasted six years, and the plant lost. (DuLong notes that opponents of the plant frequently mentioned the painting of the Hudson River School, and points out that many of these painters had in fact elided then-existing industry from their works, so that the “pure” image of the river drawn from these paintings was in fact partially a mythical one.)
Stopping the plant was another watershed event in Hudson River history, solidifying the shift away from the river’s industrial past and toward a future economy based on landscapes, heritage tourism, and a deep sense of place.
I wonder how many among the fervent opponents of the plant are now among those calling for a restoration of “good manufacturing jobs?”
Manufacturing in the United States has been harmed not only by certain top-level Federal and State government policies (the treatment of capital investment and depreciation in the tax code, for example) but by thousands and thousands of local conflicts and decisions like those mentioned above–and these, in turn, have been driven by cultural factors.
A couple of days ago, our blogfriend Bill Waddell wrote about public attitudes toward manufacturing. Excerpt:
A guy I met in Australia a few months back who has spent his lifetime in manufacturing, mostly in engineering products and devices that bring electric power to millions of people, told me that Down Under, when he and his wife attend social events as soon as people find out he works in manufacturing, they change the subject. They don’t even ask whether he is the janitor or the CEO. Knowing that he works in manufacturing triggers either scorn or pity – but either way his career is not perceived to be something worth discussing any further.
I mentioned a while back some comments from the former CEO of one of the big auto-parts manufacturing companies (I think it was Eaton) who noticed that people he met at cocktail parties tended to be turned off by his occupation and much more interested in discussing his long-ago college experiences. And someone recently told me that women surveyed about their preferences in men (on a dating website) listed “works in manufacturing” as a dealbreaker second only to “is bald.”
Culture matters. These pervasive negative attitudes toward manufacturing have been inculcated by many prominent and influential voices over the past four decades, and they will not be easy to reverse.
(The information about the GM Craftsman’s Guild is from Boys and Their Toys? Masculinity, Class, and Technology in America, edited by Roger Horowitz. Ruth Oldenziel is a professor at the University of Amsterdam.)