by James A. Bacon
I’ve been giving some thought to why I’m so fascinated with the maker movement, and I think I’ve finally found the answer. As a self-employed writer I identify with other artisans and craftsmen who make a living through their creativity and hard work. Marx and Lenin might refer to people like us as the “petite bourgeoisie” — a class distinct from the propertiless proletariat, the landed gentry and the wealthy capitalists. We value grit, hard work, self-sufficiency and independence. We don’t ask much from government; we just want to be left alone. We worry about the corrupting influence of the welfare state on the work ethic of the underclass, we resent how the rich use the power of government to augment their wealth, and we are suspicious of do-gooder crusaders who use government to coerce us to conform to their latest enthusiasms.
Yesterday my family and I visited the Spring Jubilee in Goochland County, west of Richmond, set in the beautiful Rassawek Vineyard. There were wine tastings, musicians, hay rides, boat rides, painters and artisan exhibits. I found myself drawn to the artisans — not just to see their work, which was uniformly interesting, but to hear their stories. Most exhibitors have reached a point in their lives where they can make a living following their passion. A few work regular jobs and pursue their crafts as a serious hobby or in the hope of transitioning to a self-supporting endeavor.
The post-World War II age of mass automation was cruel to the petite bourgeoisie in America. Giant companies with national brands backed by massive advertising campaigns obliterated the small craftsman. But tastes have changed. The 21st century is experiencing a “maker” renaissance. People are rebelling against the national brands. They don’t want the same thing everyone else has. They want unique possessions that no one else has; they want to know the story behind the chair they’re sitting on or the wine glass they’re sipping from; and they want a personal relationship with the craftsman — whether he or she is brewing beer or converting junkyard metal into art.
Pundits on the left and right fret about the “decline of the middle class” as robots and artificial intelligence puts millions of Americans out of work. Searching for a livelihood and meaningful existence in a robot/AI-dominated world, millions will turn to the maker movement, giving rise to a modern American analogue to Merry Olde England’s independent artisans and yeoman farmers. None of these people are celebrated by the chi chi fashion centers of New York and Hollywood. If anything, their tastes and creations are likely to be derided as plebian and unsophisticated. But the makers could very well grow into a social movement that will transform the nature of the economy and, if they ever develop an awareness of their common values and interests, the political arena.
The bearded fellow atop this post is Clyde Jenkins. He was born and raised in Page County, in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where he picked up the old-time craft of basket weaving. He makes the baskets from white oak, from which he makes the “splits” that he weaves into baskets, as seen in the photo. Jenkins has split so much wood for so many baskets over the years that the knife has created a permanent dent in his thumb. He also does stone masonry and claims he has a ten-year backlog of projects, which suggests a significant pent-up demand for his skill. If I had a ten-year backlog of writing work, I said, I’d double my rates and settle for a one- or two-year backlog. Why doesn’t he raise his rates? He couldn’t really explain why he didn’t. It just didn’t seem to be right, he said.
Hiroshi Awano was born and raised in Japan, where he learned the craft of traditional Japanese woodworking. He married an American gal and settled in Fluvanna County, where he works in wood, creating everything from intricate panels like the once seen at left to entire Japanese-style gazebos. Even his tools are works of art. Instead of marking lines by snapping a string laden with chalk, as many American craftsmen do, he draws the string through elaborately carved pots of ink made by previous masters of wood working.