Inspiration, Productivity, Wellness

Back to the future: Artisan work and the return of the labour theory of value, pt. II; By Hung Lee


What is an artisan?

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

An artisan is a skilled craft worker who makes things by hand that are functional as well as decorative, for example furnitureclothingfood items, household items and tools or even mechanisms such as the handmade clockwork movement of a watchmaker. Artisans practice a craftand through experience and aptitude reach the expressive levels of an artist, though differ from artists in that their output is intended for practical use. 

In modern parlance, “artisanal” is commonly used to describe hand-processing what had become an industrial process. Food processing, furniture manufacture or making textiles – all long since mechanised and automated in the factory system in the developed world – are being revived as artisanal crafts by smallholders or individual craftsmen.

Demand for these products has been on the upward curve for the past two decades. At least this is true amongst the W.E.I.R.D (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). The rise of the craft beer movement in the US is perhaps the totemic example of the demand for ‘better, smaller’.  It seems for consumers who can afford it rejecting big brand / mass market in favour of no brand / small market is the way to go. And not only are the WEIRD tolerating higher prices, but demanding them as a signifier for the artisanal method of manufacture. 
Crafting A Life You probably already know someone who is an artisanal worker. Likely, he or she is someone from your personal or professional life who has ‘dropped out’ of the ‘rat race’ to become a beekeeper, craft beer importer, vegan baker or other such activity which may be described as artisanal.
In a brilliant recent essay, ‘Crafting A Life’, Ryan Avent interviewed several former white collar professionals on their decision to change up their careers and start something entirely different and new. The common themes in each case seemed to combine disillusionment with the corporate world of work, with the promises of artisanal way of working. All that people found to be missing in the white collar economy – the mastery of the craft, the provision of service ahead of profit, control over the means of production and distribution, control over the work environment, the working relationships, the tangible impact of individual effort made – was to be found in ‘no collar’ economy.

There was clear symmetry too, in the motives of the artisans and the WEIRD consumers that they service, coming as they do from the same demographic; a rejection of the relentless rational calculation of ROI, the Smithian, and the return to valuing the human made.

Nearly all interviewed workers claimed to be making less money than they would had they stayed on the corporate ladder – some significantly so – but were satisfied in their decision as they lifestyle gains which made the move worthwhile; control over work, time, environment and relationships.

  These values that people ascribe to both the production and consumption of artisanal goods feature heavily in modern job design. We are beginning to understand the human need for autonomy, influence, congruence and simply being great at the work you want to do. So far, we have focused on the analogue artisans – the craft beer brewers, organic bakers and craft shop retailers. In part III, we will conclude by discussing their digital counterparts and asking the question, who exactly are the artisans in the digital economy?