Artisan chocolate and social revolution

Colby Cosh explains what hipster candy bars, crazy beards and hucksterism have to do with the future of work

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This video was uploaded in 2010, but it is literally the most thought-provoking short documentary I’ve seen this year.

It would take a heart of stone not to find the Mast Brothers and their hand-made fleur-de-sel-dusted Brooklyn chocolate bars somewhat funny. The YouTube commenters have a laugh, seizing the opportunity to reach in and take the mickey out of a couple of enterprising, image-conscious hipsters. (“It would be much cooler if they had their cocoa beans delivered by bike powered zeppelins.” “it’s an obscure underground chocolate, you’ve probably never heard of it.”)

Indeed, the whole thing seems like it could conceivably be a sendup. It’s not. As New York magazine reported in April, the Mast Brothers are not only for real, they’ve made good on the promise in the video to have high-quality beans delivered across the Atlantic to NYC by sail. And they’ve become symbols of an artisanal/local food movement in Brooklyn, the borough that has emerged unexpectedly in the 21st century as a hated/loved cultural capital of the universe.

The business with the sailboats is pretty silly. But the Mast Brothers are a little bit more impressive if you know that “chocolatiers” on North American high streets don’t, in fact, make their own chocolate from cacao beans. A shop like Bernard Callebaut buys the stuff ready-made and rearranges it expensively. Making actual chocolate from ingredients is excruciatingly labour-intensive; it ain’t worth it unless you can charge $8 for a bar and the story that goes with it. This is a new business model—well, it’s P.T. Barnum’s business model, but it’s new when applied specifically to chocolate.

What we can safely conclude about the Mast Brothers, if we’re willing to set aside the crazy beards and the hucksterism, is:

(1) Their quality control is probably not up to the standards of an industrial-scale factory, but overall the product is probably pretty damn delicious.

(2) These guys are working their butts off. No part of their day can possibly be easy.

(3) They like what they do, and it makes them money.

So, sure, let’s all have a laugh along with the YouTube peanut gallery. Then let’s look at the stats on labour-force participation in America. In just two decades, youth employment has halved and the fraction of working-age adults on disability has increased 135%. Anyone for chocolate?

I don’t know much about the Mast Brothers and I haven’t sampled their product. But I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Pre-Raphaelite facial hair isn’t a total coincidence. In the 19th century, William Morris preached a social revolution in which exploitative “useless toil” would be replaced by “useful work”. He dreamt of a world that would reject shoddy mass-produced goods in favour of objects made with care and craftsmanship. Any business that sells “artisanal” goods, whether the goods be curtains or crumpets, is essentially quoting Morris and referring to his promise.

That promise, of course, failed spectacularly. It did not even survive Morris’s own time. His “libertarian socialism” of crafted objects and honest work found itself drowned out at every turn by leftist alternatives which, more sensibly, accepted the power and inevitability of mass production. 20th-century Marxism wasn’t opposed to factories; it worshipped them, fetishized them. The fatal problem with Morris’s appeal is that he was just plain wrong about mass-produced objects necessarily being unlovely junk. We have been to Ikea; we know better.

Morris felt very strongly about this, and from his own historical standpoint, he was certainly on to something. It’s impossible for us to imagine what kind of things factories suppurated into the marketplace before things like statistical control charts were invented, or before items like micrometers were themselves mass-produced to a consistent high standard. Morris lived in a world where individual masons and cabinetmakers and weavers really were losing their livelihoods to a tide of undifferentiated, undistinguished banality; his feelings of alarm now seem fussy when we read him, but that is because only the better-made Victorian objects have physically survived destruction or disposal and reached our time.

Soon enough, however, the art of industrial design would come to the rescue. If Morris could have lived long enough to see the Studebaker Commander or the IBM Selectric II or, yes, the furshlugginer iPhone, he would have packed in the Arts and Crafts talk and gone straight to work designing pickle-jar labels. (Morris was not too consistent when it came to the ultimate logical consequences of a world made by hand, anyway. The influential Kelmscott Press he founded in 1891 favoured early printing techniques and letterforms, but it was, at any rate, a press; unlike his spiritual ancestor William Blake, he didn’t set out to mimic the appearance of illuminated manuscripts by the actual method implied in the etymology of the term “manuscript”.)

And yet, and yet. There appear to be intractable limits to the amount of industrialized homogeneity that we individualistic, status-signalling humans are prepared to admit into our lives. Consider the story Tom Wolfe tells in his classic essay “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”. Wolfe describes the empowerment of the American working class in the wake of World War II as the Marxian dream turned on its head: the prole triumphant under capitalism, able to afford a decent home with good plumbing, and an education for his children, and durable, comfortable clothing, and, above all, a car to get around in. And what cars they were! Cars that still induce pangs of nostalgia and desire today, in the bosoms of people born 30 or 40 years after the last one rolled off the lot. Cars that, along with the aircraft of the same period, represent the absolute uppermost pinnacle of artistic achievement in American design.

And what did people do the minute they bought those beautiful cars designed by immortal gods of taste? Well, as Wolfe describes, an awful lot of them “kustomized” them. I.e.: they tore them apart and reconfigured their fuselages and messed with the engines and gave them paint jobs in inconceivable alien colour spectra and then, when they were finished with all that, covered them in bumper stickers.

And if that seems odd to you, take a look around in 2012: Steve Jobs and Jon Ive give the world the iPhone—they create the perfect pure unadorned Bauhaus object—and what do we do? That’s right: we race out to buy a leopard-skin case for it. People make near as much money selling the danged cases as Apple does selling the phone.

All this is fairly obvious. What’s not so obvious is what it implies for the future of work. We have learned to live with the fact of life that manufacturing jobs are inherently less labour-intensive as time goes by—well, everyone but Thomas Mulcair has learned to live with it. What the world seems less ready for is the automatization of service jobs: we talk of a transition to a “service economy” even as sinister computerized automata take over from door-knocking politicians, the Japanese put robots in senior-care facilities, and Siri gives every schmuck with a phone his own (clunky, first-generation) personal concierge. We don’t think of the decline in bricks-and-mortar retailing as part of a transition to a post-service economy, but that is exactly what it is; that’s why we don’t need record-store clerks anymore, as the record-store clerks found out. Machines have long since moved on from replacing muscles to replacing minds.

This, to me, is the fundamental challenge facing any young person entering today’s workforce: finding something to do that won’t be obsolete too soon. The scary part is that even casual temporary answers are going to keep disappearing. (Is “data entry” even still a thing?) How long do you really think it will be before most McDonald’s restaurants employ almost no human labour whatsoever? The McDonald’s business model already depends on the existence of workers who can be taught to imitate automata for a fairly low capital investment. When those jobs finally do disappear, it’s going to happen so fast it will make your head spin. One day, they’ll put an entire McDonald’s in a vending machine, and we’ll all think, “Wow, cool”. And within about ten years McDonald’s will mostly just be a vending-machine company.

That’s not so scary. What’s scary is that the same sudden automatization/annihilation is likely to happen in more complex fields of work like software and computer-interface design; nursing and medical diagnosis; teaching; even the more routine aspects of lawyering. And it probably won’t take the fifty years that someone now leaving school might want to plan for, either.

But the Mast Brothers, for their part, seem to have figured out a pretty good answer to this conundrum. What are they really up to? They’re turning a chocolate bar, something so familiar it practically denotes banality, into art. They’re artists. The secret is right there in the word “artisan”, even if it weren’t obvious from the care the brothers take over details like wrapping.

I quote one of Marshall McLuhan’s maxims a lot when I’m talking to people about the future of print media: “New media turn old media into art forms.” But the rule is really generalizable to the whole economy: art is what is left over after you have automated everything you can. Print media used to be a utilitarian means of getting information into people’s hands, fast and cheap; to the degree these media have any future, it will be as art objects, as non-utilitarian objects of contemplation and admiration and surprise.

So I tell young people who want to work in journalism that with every decade, artistic values will be privileged more and more. You had better be prepared to be a distinct individual, to treat your particular line of work as a craft rather than a job, to seek out the style or the method or the niche that no one else is in; nobody’s going to need you to knock out pyramid-style copy on deadline or take trite photos from accident scenes. There’s going to be a reversion to artisanship.

But the advice applies just as well everywhere; the urban food scene is only the most incredibly glaring example. When I go home to the farm to visit my folks, what do I see all around me in the eternally crisis-riddled agrarian economy? Some of these people are still in the serious business of feeding a nation (not necessarily our nation); but everywhere you look, someone or other is messing about with alpacas or wild boar sausage or lupins or hemp. These are artisanal goods, or goods ultimately intended for an artisanal market, as opposed to agricultural commodities. The idea that “family farms” are going to supply mere commodities profitably is already a couple hundred years out of date; automation of the harvest is increasing every year, bringing with it whispers of industrial logic and industrial scale, and public policy will eventually facilitate that if we have any sense. A family farm, if it wishes to survive for its own sake, should logically make something that only a family can make.

How do we picture a world in which the technological utopia has arrived and the necessities of living are supplied cheaply by intelligent automata? Surely it’s William Morris’s world, a world in which people pursue the making of things that are not mass-produced, specifically for their non-mass-producedness. Things, in short, that reveal the signature of the individual creative mind. Taken to the Napoleon of Notting Hill-esque extreme, it’s a world in which manhole covers feature intricate carvings of the Four Evangelists, and fire hydrants have elaborate brass accents, and neighbours compete to have the nicest bespoke mailbox. Morris’s socialist utopia of artisans was impractical, but note that the human appreciation for handmade things is strong enough and innate enough that his various workshops were mostly successful commercially, even as his misdirected anti-capitalist ideas fell flat. When he laboriously revived old typefaces and old forgotten fabric dyes and made strident arguments for their superiority, people responded with cash. Perhaps for no better reason than that some human voice was making the argument.