In 1974, the year I turned nineteen, I took my first real job in the goods store of a railway station in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland. I was pleased to be off my parents’ hands, but uneasy in my position. The tiny goods office was an anthill of activity, with a constant flow of locomotive engineers, lorry drivers, forklift operators, milesmen, checkers, shunters, and inspectors—muscular, perspiring males who carried their ill-kempt clipboards with nonchalant disdain. And then there were the clerks, of whom I was one, nominally supervising the chaos but, in reality, remote from the dirty and dangerous work of packing, stacking, counting, booking, charging, discharging, wagon-decoupling, gantry-unloading, and cleaning up after pilferage and damage-in-transit. Our hands were as soft and clean as our speech when we joined in with the dirty talk of our “subordinates.”
I had grown up in a world in which the division of labor still derived from biology: Women bore children and men did hard labor of a different sort. I was aware that some men worked in offices, yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the jobs we clerks did were dispensable. If I went AWOL for a month, there might have been a tailback of paperwork, but no crisis. If the signalman failed to show, the trains would be left hooting for the road at the outer home. Truth to tell, in a different part of my head, I felt a little superior to all these bustling, grumbling, swearing men, but still there was this unease. I did not grasp that I was experiencing the psychic disintegration of the culturally displaced, the alienation of those unaware they have been born at the end of an epoch.
With both my parents emerging from long lines of small farmers, I was the first male from either side to end up in sedentary work. My father had in his twenties moved inland from County Sligo to take a job as a mechanic. Two of my uncles spent their lives building the motorways of England. Two more served in WWII, one with the British and the other with the U.S. army. All these men had made their livings from physical exertion, strength, and sweat. They had remarkable talents for making and fixing things, for using their hands and their senses to intervene in the world in real ways and leave concrete traces behind. My father was a self-taught carpenter, electrician, draughtsman, and mechanic. He had green fingers and calloused palms; my hands remain as crushed velvet. He once built a wheelbarrow entirely out of wood, including the wheel. If you had placed it in a gallery and run a red rope around it, the world would have called it art. I grew up with all this, doing the donkey work on some of his horticultural projects, lying on the tarmacadam beside him on a Sunday, handing him wrenches and gauges as he did battle on his back with passive-aggressive internal combustion engines.
Now, here I was, a pen pusher for life, but still unaware of what that might mean. I understood that my parents were trying to boot me up from the stratum of society they belonged to. Education was the thing, and education meant stuff you learned from books rather than at a bench or atop a ladder.
These trends coincided with the widespread absorption of women into the public workplace. The conventional wisdom had it that this had to do with feminism, or “women’s lib,” as men and dissenting women called it. In reality, it had much more to do with the dissemination of technology, which opened the world up to the physically delicate. Factory work, in which human skills had been coded, tabulated, and redistributed as a set of mechanistic functions, could be carried out by machines or relatively unskilled personnel. Working as a tradesman was becoming increasingly undesirable, if not actually scorned. The wages of skilled employees, including locomotive drivers and signalmen, were forced down, while the salaries (the distinction was critical) of pen pushers went up. It was as if those who had become “educated” were entering into a conspiracy to render themselves relevant. They downgraded those who actually did things, while valorizing their own “supervisory” functions.
In the new dispensation, consumption supplanted personal creativity as the measure of identity. In the old order, a man trained as a carpenter was more than a man. A woman entitled to call herself a dressmaker was someone from whom a judgment emanated in an elevated way. Now, identity could be purchased rather than earned: What you lost in human dignity and self-realization in the rat race, you bought back in the boutique or the motor showroom.
“Creativity” became the capacity to operate various systems, processes, and technologies and to switch between equally mundane and unsatisfying functions under the illusion of mastery. The machines needed to be “clever” to carry out their allotted functions, so their operators, though no more than button pushers, were enabled to feel smart. This, together with the even deeper illusion of autonomy conferred by individualism, convinced the post-1960s generations that they were not merely the most free but the most creative ever to grace planet Earth. In truth, creativity had been surrendered with the skills, trades, and crafts that now belonged to the machines.
I inherited few of my father’s talents. I could plant a drill of spuds, paint a gate, and set the contacts in my car, but I was not what he would have called “a tasty man.” I often look at rows of buildings on a streetscape or motorway and think that all this, one way or another, is the outcome of interventions by other men. Each piece—building, bridge, or flyover—is perhaps the conception of one or two men, but has been executed by dozens or hundreds of other men working together toward a common goal. Sometimes, walking down a street, I am overcome by shame that there is no place on the face of the earth, aside from the occasional library shelf, which contains any analogous contribution of mine. For all my pride in transcending the menial, something in me believes I have a duty to make some kind of contribution to the construction of the world. Perhaps this is the true “god particle,” some ineradicable and unacknowledged element in my humanity that insists on being useful, on building and making and doing, on leaving a mark on the world that others can stare at, or walk upon, or drive across, or shelter under long after I have departed.
For the past forty-odd years as a journalist and writer, I have felt myself part of, and complicit in, an increasingly unreal world, in which the means of my existence are generated by others, while I simply comment and observe, a pitcher on the ditch. I have felt myself drifting away not merely from the concrete world of my father, but actually from reality itself.
Most of the people I meet in my work these days resemble me in this respect. We live in cities and judge ourselves superior to those who get their hands dirty out in the sticks. But really we are slaves of a new kind: indentured to technologies that steal our time, creativity, and imagination. Technology is actually the “new religion,” not least in the sense that it compels us to believe in things we do not understand.
Every so often, in a café or restaurant in one of the great cities of the world, I have that same sensation I had in that railway goods office in County Mayo nearly forty-three years ago. I look around and realize that all those present, male and female, make their livings from secondary or tertiary economic activities, unproductive in any fundamental sense—you might even say parasitical on the main business of wealth creation. Yet, invariably, these people—young, well-to-do, fashionably dressed—convey an air of indispensability. If you drive out fifty or a hundred miles and visit a diner or fast-food restaurant, you will be struck by the fact that the very different clientele to be seen there—laborers, miners, tradesmen, factory workers—have about them an air of humility, if not defeat. Those who continue to man the real world are on the wrong side of history, facing obsolescence in an era in which the real is no longer what it says in the dictionary.
The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in a passage about the modern “subject” in his book Impossible Exchange, talks—ironically, one hopes, but perhaps not—of the “liberation” of the subject through technologies, networks, and screens. In this brave new world, the individual becomes fractured, “both subdivisible to infinity and indivisible, closed on himself and doomed to endless identity.” At some uncertain point of rupture, man ceased to live in reality but moved unknowingly, as though sucked into a black hole, into a “simulacrum” of the real. In this virtual world constructed of circuits and networks and pixels and memes, man ceases to be a subject in the old sense, with an “I” and a soul, and becomes as a unit of the crowd. The “perfect” subject today is an individual who has also a mass status—as a particle of the mob outside his window. He is “the dispersal of the mass-effect into each individual parcel. . . . Or, alternatively, the individual himself forms a mass—the mass structure being present, as in a hologram, in each individual fragment. In the virtual and media world, the mass and the individual are merely electronic extensions of one another.”
The shifts, then, are not just social but existential. We have crossed the road into the simulacrum, carrying all our clutter and kit, sleepwalking through the night and awaking in the morning with the vague sense of having moved from someplace else. We enter the simulacrum and become its citizens, and instantly take it for the real. We are as avatars, facsimiles of ourselves, standing outside our own beings and moving them about as though pieces on an electronic chessboard or symbols on a handheld video game.
Baudrillard thinks we have entered a kind of pratfall paradise, crossed the line into a catastrophic dream. His later work seems to balance on a thin thread between nostalgia for a lost paradise and nihilism predicated on his fascination with the illusion of the simulacrum. His tone moves beyond didacticism and exposition to a kind of celebration of the chaos that obtains, as though in comprehending our new home, we might learn to live in it. “Too bad,” he declares. “It’s Utopia.”
With all these thoughts congregating like chapel latecomers at the back of my mind, I think of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency as having started on July 13, 2012, the day President Obama, campaigning in Roanoke, Virginia, paused to speak to supporters. Addressing the subject of government spending, he explained why he opposed reducing public investment in favor of tax breaks:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
President Obama didn’t realize the nerve he was hitting. Afterwards he claimed, with some justification, that his words were manipulated to suggest that he was saying that people’s creativity and efforts were as nothing compared to the collective contribution, in effect, a communist manifesto. It seems clear that the assertion “you didn’t build that” relates not to the word “business” in the same sentence, but to “roads and bridges” in the preceding one. But his rival, Mitt Romney, exploited the slip with enthusiasm to suggest that Obama was claiming success was due to government, not hard work and resourcefulness. At a fact-checking level, Romney may have been cynical and opportunistic, but deeper down he was tapping into a simmering sense in America and elsewhere that a pincer movement of technological progress and ideological redefinition is not merely remaking reality, but pursuing a vendetta against the concept of individual creativity and sovereignty. For up to half the population of America, Obama was attacking the very essence of their humanity.
According to Trump Revealed, the instant biography of Donald Trump by Washington Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, the idea for a wall along the Mexican border came from the floor of an election rally in Phoenix, Arizona, in July 2015, just a month after Trump announced his decision to run. The candidate was letting loose about immigrants flooding into the U.S. and was promising to “take our country back,” when a man in the crowd shouted the solution: “Build a wall!”—possibly a belated unconscious response to Obama’s misheard call of 2012. Sometimes history shifts on the banal.
Many formulations are employed by implacably hostile scribes to describe Donald Trump’s alleged constituency: white-nationalist, redneck, uneducated, forgotten, middle American, and so endlessly forth. As with Brexit, the underlying divide can be tracked in terms of wealth and privilege, but that leads into an ideological cul-de-sac. There is another way of seeing it: Trump represents people who relate to the world in concrete ways, but no longer recognize the world that is presented to them; they are discounted when the big decisions are being made. They are people who know how to build walls, among other things—people who fix things, nurse people, bake bread, clean toilets, dig holes in the road. Deep down, the divides exposed by Brexit and Trump are between those who are handcuffed to the tangible and those who have grown up thinking that the virtual is the only reality.
In a recent book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, although unemployment in the U.S. has been falling in what he calls this “second Gilded Age,” there is simultaneously a “flight from work” by men in their prime. Even while manufacturers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies, the percentage of working men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four is now lower than it was at the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Approximately one in eight men in their prime has left the workforce altogether, and about one in six is without paid work, a trend that has been visible since the mid-1960s. The graph of this male exodus from the workplace is an almost straight upward line, regardless of booms or recessions, indicating that weakening market demand is not the critical factor. Nearly seven million American men in their prime have left behind—it seems of their own volition—the idea of trading their skills and talents in the marketplace, and many have turned their backs on all forms of commitment and responsibility. Some are ex-cons, but the greater part is composed of single men without parental responsibilities and with limited formal education, a significant quotient of these being African Americans. Marriage trumps race as an indicator of employment, as does being a recent immigrant. For every man in his prime deemed unemployed, there are three others who are neither working nor looking for work. Almost three in five of these men are receiving at least one disability benefit, a factor that Eberstadt concedes may not be driving the phenomenon but is certainly financing it.
We observe, then, the depths of an existential rather than an economic or purely social crisis, with most of these men wasting away for an average of 2,100 hours a year in front of screens, binging on TV, pornography, sugar, and painkillers, no longer feeling that America has a place for their humanity. They don’t do civic society, religion, or volunteerism. If 1965 work rates pertained in the U.S. today, Eberstadt maintains, there would be approximately 10 million more men with paid work than there are now. He professes to find this baffling, given that national wealth has doubled since the turn of the millennium. He expresses similar incomprehension about the fact that, globalization and deindustrialization notwithstanding, this precise syndrome has not afflicted other Western societies to anything like the same extent. He calls it the “quiet catastrophe,” ignored by politicians and commentators.
Perhaps what drives men into themselves is not the lack of work but the nature of the work on offer, which simply does not satisfy. This would not be new. In 1913, when Henry Ford launched his first fully automatic production line, based on the methods of Frederick Taylor, pioneer of the “one best way” of mass production, he encountered something he had not expected. In The Legend of Henry Ford, Keith Sward wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that towards the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.” Why? Because men who had been used to being the masters of their own hands and creativities could not bear the idea of tightening a particular nut on a cylinder head, over and over again.
More than forty years ago, when I departed the Irish education system, I thought nothing of the fact that I was coming away without a tradable craft. Had I considered this at all, I would probably have regarded it as close to a virtue. In this sense I was pretty typical of the late twentieth-century school-leavers. If I felt deeper down that I was missing something, I had no inkling of what it might be. I now sense what I lacked: my father’s capacity to integrate his view of reality with the objects he manipulated with his hands. In him, the processes of thinking and doing were fully integrated; in me they were separated. His view of politics and economics was rooted firmly in his sense of how a door frame should be mortised together, how a valve should be ground, how a tree should be pruned.
The philosopher Matthew Crawford proposes that human realization and freedom, properly understood, repose in what he calls a “situated self,” in concrete interaction with the world, with the specificity of objects and contexts, through the medium of physical skills. Something fundamental and indispensable, he argues, has been lost by virtue of the decline of skilled working with the hands. In his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, he demonstrates how physical skills allow for the development of more holistic and concrete—and therefore more reliable—forms of thought. His more recent book, The World Beyond Your Head, places these ideas in the context of the dissociation of post-Enlightenment thought, proposing that the loss of reason in our times is rooted precisely in the detachment from reality of the greater part of human work.
Crawford writes about working on his motorcycle, about being “drawn out of oneself and into a struggle, by turns hateful and loving, with another thing that, like a mule, was emphatically not simply an extension of one’s will.” You have to conform your will and judgment to certain external facts of physics that remain nonnegotiable. A repairman of the old kind needed to develop a relationship with objects involving a real understanding—not ownership or a claim of dominance, but a sense of how these objects fitted into the logic of the world. “The repairman,” he writes, “has to begin every job by getting out of his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.” The “repairman,” then, represents a threat to the modern narcissist: “The problem isn’t so much that he is dirty or uncouth. Rather, he seems to pose a challenge to our self-understanding that is somehow fundamental. We’re not as free and independent as we thought.” And, as it happens, the approach outlined by Crawford is closer to Obama’s 2012 speech in Virginia than to anything Donald Trump has yet uttered: To work is to be part of something greater than oneself.
I had spent my childhood in the midst of this logic without remarking on its significance. The thinking of my father and uncles was true because it was trained by reality itself. It derived from their physical engagement with the world rather than arriving as a series of signals they had learned to receive. For them, fixing things was compatible with a modest ambition to adhere to the laws of reality, not to set themselves above it, and so their judgments tended to be balanced, aphoristic, and persuasive. But they worked together with other men because they knew that shared wisdom was more reliable than the ego.
To be an apprentice to a master is to be guided along a path of learning. To practice the craft is to enter into a relationship with a world that exists independently of oneself. To get better at something is to be drawn closer to an understanding of how the world works in practice. As Crawford reminds us, a carpenter is bound by the evidence of his level, an electrician by the irrefutable witness of the circuitry he has assembled. His refreshing thoughts—rooted in the real—draw our attention to the point where the either/or of ideology gives way to a clearer set of perceptions arising from physical engagement with reality. Somewhere in there is the possibility of escaping also from the redundant idea that the good belongs exclusively to one side. As a child, I often watched my father examining the work of someone else: the attention he paid to the feel, the action, the detail, brushing his hand along the line of a finish to see how true it was. He used the same head for politics, and for this reason his thoughts exhibited a coherence that nowadays I note missing almost everywhere.
I cannot be the only man who feels less at home in the world than his father did. Perhaps this is the deepest meaning of Trump’s election: the back answer of the dispirited men of America who still want to build and fix things but have gotten on the wrong side of a cultural wrecking ball.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.