EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay, originally published in May, 1985 as “Unemployed to Self-Employed” in Art & Design magazine, contains some thoughtful observations about human nature and the place of the craftsman. We think these thoughts are important for musicians and orchestral leadership to consider. The push to adopt technology as our savior (or replacement, as in “the virtual orchestra”) is not a new one and in many ways we are, as a society, trying to recover from the effects of our unconsidered rush to modernize.
After spending the first three years of my adulthood in an office, I became convinced that this was not to be my kind of life. Liszt had been my first hero and by comparison, my achievements seemed bleak. I dreamt of performing some heroic deed and then laying down arms because, like so many, I thought that regular work would mean more pain than pleasure. If I was any good, where was my princely protector now?
Rather than continue to force upon people ideas which nobody save me was very keen about, I felt I owed myself an early retirement. I would do what I fancied; read a lot, paint a little, travel most of the time and, best of all, play my grand piano in a lofty room with a fine view of the Mediterranean Sea somewhere in the hills above Portofino. It didn’t happen exactly that way, for I soon found out that doing nothing but reading for more than six months at a time, albeit in elegant conditions, is a trial on one’s sanity, that traveling for pleasure is a nightmare, and that, given the state of the industrial world, early retirement is not unlike playing golf between lines of battle.
I had no qualms about staying out of the fight, but the general unpleasantness surrounding the violent action rendered my youthful dream quite absurd. The prospect of wasting the rest of my life in shallow pursuits held little excitement: it is true that anyone following his vocation, be he an artist, a statesman, or a craftsman, abhors the mere thought of retiring at whatever age.
“Retirement from active life” as a mass phenomenon is largely a product of industrial society and the “civilisation of leisure,” a fantasy of thinkers and the alienated industrial masses. Marx promised them heaven on earth; their toiling lot reduced step by step through systematic mechanisation. With the exception of Ruskin and Morris most thinkers of the industrial era turned out to be “industrial” thinkers. Refusing to consider industrialism as a mere ideology, they posited it as an irreversible fact of history and progress, as unquestionable as the laws of nature, as irrevocably useful as the discovery of the wheel. Confusing the ideas of work effort and toil, they assumed that all forms of production were in unresolvable conflict with the idea of pleasure and liberty. In that line of thought the realm of liberty – meaning leisure time – could easily be expanded at the expense of the realm of necessity – meaning production time. With industrialism promoting itself as the ultimate form of civilisation, this mere hypothesis has become an imperative justifying the relentless industrialisation of all extra-productive branches of life: culture, leisure, education, sports, etc.
Everyday experience, however, tells us that the sensation of pleasure is inseparably linked to the idea of effort.* Ironically, the demands of industrial man’s brain and muscle are generally higher on weekends and holidays than on workdays. For then and there he undertakes deeds which no employer could persuade him to suffer, which no union could dissuade him from sustaining. He indulges freely in the sheer expansion of effort. He deploys anachronistic artisan, moral, and gastronomic activities; he preferably works manually; he climbs mountains without shying hardship; he goes on marches to support lost causes; he fancies dancing, fighting, running, and fishing without apparent gain. Regardless of whatever ecologically, aesthetically, or morally doubtful job he may be doing to earn a living, he becomes, in his leisure time, a devout ecologist, a conservationist, a samurai, a pacifist, a christian, a poet, a craftsperson, socialist, an antifascist, and what not? Instead of earning a livelihood by following his vocation, he wastes energy and savings doing just that in his leisure time. Whenever he feels free to do what he thinks right, homo industrialis turns into his own negation.
Cultures of the past have only been great when they have educated people to become independent and earn a living by doing what they were good at. There are born hunters who are deaf to music, there are unsuccessful bankers who make excellent cooks. All great philosophers, teachers, and wise men have insisted on people choosing the profession which suits them best; they have even seen in the differing vocations a demonstration of divine providence, of nature’s harmony and miraculous equilibrium.
God creates men and women fit to shape their own destinies; to use His creation for their own advantage and pleasure. Thus humankind creates objects of stupendous beauty and celebrations of awesome majesty. Surely God would not give men and women five senses and a soul if He intended them to become occupational slaves; if He destined them to toil in office-blocks, to become fragments of machines and organisations, to live in rabbit hutches and travel in underground tubes – exchangeable, replaceable, and expendable.
All great cultures of the past used industrial processes to perform necessary and unpleasant deeds. Industrialism merely generalises these processes to the exclusion of higher, i.e., artisan and artistic, forms of work. I ask you, would it be any less cruel to let machines do work in which men take great pride and pleasure than to let them take care of our sexual and gastronomical functions?
It is no secret that the industrial system is going to employ fewer and fewer hands and brains. The chairman of ICI says that despite its increasing activities the company needs less and less manpower; that the purpose of such companies is not to employ people but to make profits. Why indeed should God’s proudest creatures be employed in doing dangerously boring jobs which machines are much better at? William Morris said as much a century ago.
All this, however, does not explain the central paradox of all industrial societies, namely, that the availability of handwork decreases and the cost of handwork rises in direct proportion to the number of unemployed hands. In the UK alone there are approximately seven million unemployed hands and half as many unemployed brains. I assume that the same numbers could be made redundant from overblown local and national bureaucracies without any loss of efficiency.
One of the most perennial subjects of high-minded Modernist blabla is to speculate about the forthcoming age of leisure, where happy folk are to work for two days at the most and spend the rest of the week and their luxuriant earnings on harmless nonsense.
Irrespective of political ideology, industrial systems produce, instead, a sizable nation within the nation, which is not only un- or ill-employed, but whose hands and brains have been permanently, and it seems irreversibly, put OUT OF WORK and OUT OF BUSINESS. Not only are they ill-educated and over-specialised, unfree and dependent – exactly what industries and unions have always wanted them to be – they are also, as a result, frustrated, helpless, angry, jealous, and vengeful. Like children they consider unions and industries, governments, and states to be Godfathers who should look after them from the cradle to the grave; Socialism and the Welfare State have promised them as much. To ask these people to become responsible therefore sounds like asking a drowning man to take up swimming lessons. It is painfully evident that the greatest achievement of the industrial system is not keeping such vast numbers away from the streets, away from rebellion and political mischief, but rather succeeding in holding so many hands and brains in docile submission; in anticipating and preventing them from ever entering serious competition with the industrial economy and ideology.
It would, however be short-sighted of any government to believe that the long term unemployed masses would be less dangerous politically than unionised masses, or that the problem could be solved by “new wunder-technologies.” The fact is that you cannot negotiate with the unemployed; their reactions are unpredictable. I find it more stimulating, therefore, to speculate on what these millions of hands and brains could be doing once they became apprenticed as competent and self-employed craftsmen, traders, and artists.
When Chartres built its cathedral it was a town of approximately 10,000 people; when Florence was the centre of the world it had no more than 60,000 citizens. In theory our unemployed nation could build, in the next ten years and with artisan methods, about 100 cities and 500 white cathedrals no less splendid than Chartres or Florence. It could plant forests where now there are poisoned wastelands, replace suburban sprawls with richly varied agricultural landscapes. It could build for all to see the true alternative to industrial mass society, to the bleakness of industrial parks and council housing, office compounds and comprehensive schools, university campuses and shopping precincts. Very soon it would down on us, on our dreary suburban masses, our silly entertainments, our crude sports and violent games, our depressing factories and offices.
The tragic effects of industrial modernism have not been limited to the spoiling of cities and landscapes; they have destroyed the educational, social, religious, and economic structures which had built, expressed, and maintained higher cultures. There exist, to this day, approximately 140 branches of traditional crafts, 40 of which have to do with architecture and building directly. A democracy dedicated to the regeneration of a dynamic and diversified economy will have to promote the reconstruction of self-employed and independent crafts with the same financial and legislative privileges that it now uses to lure industrial enterprise into action.
The immense success of the elite Akademie des Handwerks (Academy of Crafts) at Schloss Raesfeld in Westphalia shows the way. In this prestigious new institution the very last generation of masters has been brought from the remotest corners of the Federal Republic to teach the techniques and secrets of their crafts to “young” apprentices who must not only have the regular “master” title, but, in order to be accepted, also show evidence of ten years of self-employed professional and commercial success.
After only five years of intense activity, the Akademie has succeeded in training several thousand masters, thus laying the foundation for the reconstruction of traditional building crafts and apprenticeship.
I believe that, besides making long-due cuts, a visionary government has to promote at the highest level the establishment of such leading institutions. As HRH the Prince of Wales recently pointed out, small, efficient, and independent crafts and trades should not be located in isolated industrial zones but in the very midst of cities and villages. That is where they are needed, that is where they can offer their services most effectively. All this demands nothing less than the complete lifting of mono-functional and suburban zoning codes.
After the well-intentioned revival of the central city, after years of urban over-expansion and schematisation, a radical contraction of the cities and a parallel reconstruction of non-industrial agriculture has: 1, to be envisaged; 2, to be legislated; 3, to be promoted; and 4, to be effected. Only such a project truly transcends the accepted political and ideological divergences; positing organic growth against mechanical over-expansion; putting quality into competition with quantity. It is now a matter of ecological and cultural life or death. It may well be the only way to break the deadlock which paralyses and traumatises industrial man and society.
Craftsmen are needed everywhere all the time, and where there are great artisans, artists will inevitably prosper. It will be good for the arts, it will be good for the economy, and it will be good for democracy.
* This is one of Hannah Arendt’s main themes in The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958).