Artisan chocolate and social revolution

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

by Colby Cosh

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.

Artisan chocolate and social revolution

  1. Although I have not been around for as long as some (only dipping my toes in my 30s) have been, it has already been both interesting and admittedly, somewhat frightening, to see the transition from we’re in the midst of a transition to a service economy to we’re moving out of a service economy and we don’t know quite where we’re going to land yet.

    I can say that I agree with the thrust of all of the above. Even when the path to a career or the job market was more clear and easily understood, it was still important to be able to distinguish your skill set, stand out, and ensure that the value of your labour was higher than those around you.

    It’s refreshing to some degree to see some writing that’s both optimistic and consciously avoiding the usual journalistic (editorial?) habit of inspiring fear or provoking people with statements that question the worth and validity of people who are caught up in (and on the losing end of) the transition. Our focus on identifying and analyzing macroeconomic changes has a blind spot for the individual (that’s why it’s macro) and it seems that too often those that do study the shifts too often have little patience for those individuals who are caught up in a transition and their complaints about it.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that a shift to specialized artisan or craft-driven production (of goods) or provision (of services) will be sufficient to absorb the number of workers that we have available on the market, but I suppose that declining birth rates will help to take care of that in the future.

    It does make me wonder if we will find a way around the clear hostility towards low/no growth economies as a concept, let alone to the point where we’ll be content to sit still and not lash out madly in all directions (demanding governments, businesses, “do something”) when yesterday’s 4% and today’s 8% expectations continue to not be met.

    Of course, I only bring up low/no growth, however, on the question of what’s next for us to shift into. Perhaps the shift from industrial production to services wasn’t well-understood either and the contemporary angst and projected fears will turn out unfounded (after all, the transition from the factory to the cubicle began long before North America’s factories began to shutter). Without some sort of production to shift into and earn wages (good ones, bad ones, any wages really), it will be awfully difficult to afford artisan/craft goods, let alone the inexpensive mass-produced goods available.

    • The standardization of the manufacture of guns, which is discussed briefly I believe by Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower, ala Samuel Colt and others, enabled interchangeable parts and stock ammunition to be used to greater killing effect than the world had ever seen. Colonials didn’t have the uniform ammunition and the rifled barrel and cannon added greatly to the toll in the Civil War. The wartime economies of design in ensuing conflicts made it possible to mass produce many of the modern conveniences of the 1950s. While cottage industries do arise, sooner or later the conglomerates buy them up. Just sayin.

  2. The trick is, how do we survive long enough as a people to get there? It’s all wonderful to point to these guys and say “Hey look! Here’s how we do it!” but we forget that for every one of these type of things, there’s another nine groups of people who risked everything for their own something like this and didn’t make it. And there’s probably another 50 or more who looked at doing something like this, but don’t want to become one of those nine failures so didn’t take the risk.

    If we’re really going to become an artisan society, we need some way to mitigate that risk. To ensure that people have the time and resources to stretch out like these guys without putting their homes and their families on the line.

    This is where those “socialist” ideals come in. Mandated shorter working hours. Guaranteed shelter and food. No financial barriers (in either affordability or debt) to successful education. And a stronger tilt toward income/resource equality. In short, give people the time, the security, and the skills to enable them to take a risk, and then spread the resources more evenly so that a disproportionate few don’t tend to make or break who the “winners” are.

    • We can learn an awful lot from Star Trek.

  3. “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.”

    Creative pursuits could occupy the right half of the bell curve. The majority of the population are not talented and will have nothing to contribute to a world that no longer values rote work.

    • Not all “artisan” type jobs are creative, however. That type of human care and attention to detail can apply to all sorts of positions. For instance, no matter how automated we get, there will always be jobs for waiters and waitresses. True, they may be relegated to the more up-scale restaurants, with fast-food going the full automat route.

      Sales positions would be similar. Or really, any job that involves dealing with humans will retain human employees — at least at the up-scale level. Why? Because at a fundamental level, many people simply like being served by other people.

      • This is true: service won’t entirely disappear (the “it will become an art form, or more of one” paradigm almost certainly applies). And if you look at the kind of craftsmanship Morris advocated for, how much of it is really right-tail in nature? You don’t need a 120 IQ to be a good stonemason, or to help make nice handmade carpets. Craftsmanship (or even creativity) doesn’t strictly imply originality or brilliance, just sustained attention, training, and deep involvement.
        Moreover, there’s the Flynn Effect to consider. For better or worse we appear to be gradually creating a civilization in which absolutely everybody is right-half compared with the world of 1900.

        • Interestingly though.. I think craftsmanship itself can be accomplished by automation as well in most cases. Handmade carpets, for instance, could certainly be automated in creation, and it wouldn’t even take a lot of effort to program the computer to randomize each design slightly as well as the tightness of the weave or whatever so as to create the handmade look and feel.

          Computers are also fast making strides in adaptive tech. So the expertise of the stone mason — not only being able to cut the stone well, but being able to apply the right type of cuts for where it’s going to be situated could also be duplicated.. and duplicated with such a high degree of precision that we might even intentionally introduce a little bit of imperfection so as to mimic the actual mason better.

          When we can even automate art.. where does that leave us?

          • Well, the “art” is the part that resists automation. Maybe, rather than handmaking objects at all, we all end up as Etsy.com sellers availing ourselves of computer assistance, 3D printing, etc.

          • Heh. “These are the kinds of things I find and like. If you like them too, subscribe to me for $39.95 a month and I’ll find more of them for you to create on your Make-o-matic”

            An odd future where we find ourselves essentially subscribing to each other to edit our worlds down to a manageable size.

          • Check out Regretsy.com. The guy behind that site has a major beef with Etsy, contending (and proving) that some, or perhaps a lot, of the “unique, handcrafted” items for sale were handcrafted in a factory in China. Etsy is where “artisanal” goes to die, it looks like.

  4. Wow. This was a really great post! I’ll be chewing on this for a while.

    We discussed the changing economy a lot this year in my public policy program at U of T. We talked a lot about deskilling of jobs, off-shoring, outsourcing, unfavorable demographics, fragmentation of firms, etc., but the big unanswered question remained: where does productivity come from now?

    Or more simply… the economy: what’s next?

    This Colby post attempts to answer that question in a way I hadn’t really thought of. I’m not sure what the model looks like from a mathematical perspective, but intuitively his argument is very appealing.

  5. Excellent post. We must toast it with my homebrew (I’ve been honing my artisanal skills in preparation for the imminent white collar Apocalypse).

    • Tired: home brewing. Wired: home distilling.

  6. Very enjoyable, Cosh.

    I am not parent but my sister has two kids under 10, is divorced and dad lives in dif prov now, so I am de-facto father because I see them often, we live around corner from one another. About a year ago my sister decided that my niece and nephew needed to learn hobbies now that might turn into a career when they are adults.

    Public school system is dire – education system for project managers or bureaucrats – and my sister and I are keen to resist the government’s desire to stupefy everyone. Canada very corporate/conservative culture, very stultifying, and creativity needs to be learned over time, just don’t take a course or two in university on how to think outside the box or somesuch.

    This spring summer, we have a veg and herb garden and I am teaching my niece/nephew basics of cooking. My sister has them doing other things as well and presumably some of these activities will develop into a passion when they are older. It is impossible to predict what job market of the future looks like, so my sister decided it was best to have her children do a wide variety of hobbies and let them find out what they are interested in.

  7. That is a good essay. Thank you!

  8. What an interesting essay! I’m intrigued by the aspect to artisan resurgence that has to do with the joy and ongoing challenge of mastering a craft, whether it’s the Mast Brothers example or the 85-year old sushi master in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Seems like these folks are onto something…

  9. Very interesting Colby. Although we cannot see into the future, I am going to have to disagree with you about robots taking over for human nurses and physicians. When people are ill, they are vulnerable and they crave the company and compassion of human beings. Nurses and physicians do much more than diagnose or treat, they provide reasurance, empathy and consolation. Not everyone has a supportive family close to them when they fall ill. Medicine truly is an art. I honestly cannot image a dying person or a suicidal person getting solace from talking to a robot.

    • Sure. The issue is that in a profession like nursing, how many of the human jobs will be left once we automatize the cleaning and the paperwork and the taking of vitals and the sticking with needles and all the other work that can be handled by an intelligent agent?
      The jobs that are left will, again, be handled by dedicated true “artists” of compassion who enjoy the improvisatory, human aspects of the work very deeply. (Perhaps you sense the irony that the whole game may revert somewhat to its pious, compassion-oriented, non-technical origins.) The Japanese idea appears to be that some of the very basic human-interaction aspects are actually among the easiest to automate: a robot can certainly read and bring news to a lonely patient, for example. The Japanese are a little weird, but they are also at the front edge of the issue that labour is forever increasingly expensive relative to chips.

      • I am sorry but I cannot think quite as a sad as a lonely old person counting on a robot to read to them. How is that any different than listening to the radio or a book on your mpv player? I know we have marginalized the elderly but geez can’t we dig up some volunteers who will provide some human contact?

  10. Funny. Watched that Mast Bros. vid several times for a work related thing. Really liked it. Kinda reminded me of that Portlandia “Remember The 90s…the 1890s?’ retake of the original series trailer. And while the beards and such are easily mockable (Hello, Andrew Potter), there’s no denying that there’s a hard-won future to be mined in the past. It’s likely valuable to an increasing many.

    On the main street of our ‘neighbourhood, there’s an ‘artisanal’ preserves joint. They’re canners, basically. But they’re popular. And there are now also nostalgia-for-un-remembered past restaurants, post-modern cup-cakeries, ethical fishmongers etc. Alll of which are fun and good and delicious. Thing is, though, they exists cheek-by-jowl with the old n’hood folks for whom none of this is novel, it’s just ‘what they’ve done’. Sadly, the new joints are forcing the rents up and thus driving the old-timers out.

    The old-timers were neither fashion- nor price-conscious about their steam-trays of beets and phalanxes of smoked meat. The new faux-bos, on the other hand, charge pretty pennies for their artisanal pickled beets, mortar and pestle grained mustard and ‘charcuterie’.

    Oh, and, reclaimed wood is the new gold!

  11. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer– in a romantic way I love the idea of a more artisanal economy, and I love me some homemade preserves– but this is a further sign that the middle class will shrink back to pre-war (if not Edwardian) levels. There just isn’t going to be enough well-paying work around in the future and the return of a massive underclass is going to be, shall we say, a policy challenge.

  12. Surely baseball umpires are among the first to go. Nobody likes an artisan strike zone.
    You’re right, I’m trolling.

  13. If you want a good peek at what’s coming, spend some time here: oDesk.com. Somebody smarter than me might be able to figure out what it is about some jobs that makes them worth more than .44 cents per hour.

  14. The one thing machines cannot do is feel — for example, to suffer or to sympathize. What this will mean in the future, as technology becomes yet more powerful, will depend on social organization. Under conditions of equality and community, that is, communism, the capacity to sympathize will be expanded. Under conditions of domination and exploitation, that is, capitalism (or feudalism or fascism) the capacity to suffer and to enjoy the suffering of others will be expanded. It is not hard to see which way things are going now for most people, artisanal chocolate to the contrary notwithstanding.

  15. All of this ignores the amount of energy used to accomplish William Morris’s world. What happens when the lights go out?

  16. Marx was a capitalist (read Chomsky), Morris was a socialist. The Arts and Crafts Movement was successful, socially and artistically. WWI took all the manpower. There is as yet no proof that capitalism is a raving success, look at the 2008 sub-prime meltdown or the current LIBOR scandal. None of you appear to actually know that much about artisanship anyway. Ruskin, Morris’ mentor had much to say about its benefits, as did Ananda Coomaraswamy, David Pye, Bernard Leach, Soetsu Yanagi, James Krenov, Henry David Thoreau, and quite a few others that you probably haven’t read.

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