Few things in America are pro-worker, and the entertainment industry is no exception. Outside the union film subgenre (think Salt of the Earth and Norma Rae) and Bernie Sanders’s tweets, American media doesn’t focus much on, well, the work of the working class. One channel, though, has defied that standard covertly for eighteen years: The Science Channel.
Let’s back up. One of my favorite works of art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a 1940 mural by Marvin Beerbohm commissioned by the Works Progress Administration for the Detroit Public Library. The mural depicts several scenes from an automotive factory, through images of enigmatic machines and workers in newsboy caps and welding helmets. Images of labor, of factories and manufacturing, have similarly captivated me since childhood, perhaps because I grew up in a rural area where heavy industry was an enigma, its mystery siphoned from images of the big city, all of it sublime: powerful, mesmerizing, dangerous.
In the world of How It’s Made there are no bosses; the work belongs entirely to the workers, and their skills are on display for all to see.
This probably explains why I have been watching the television show How It’s Made for at least fifteen years. The show, which debuted in 2001, has much in common with the WPA mural; both exhibit, as the internet likes to say, “the same energy.” What’s more, there is not another show, with the possible exception of How It’s Made spinoffs (such as How Do They Do It?), that is as staunchly pro-worker. On its face, How It’s Made is arguably about science and engineering rather than the vicissitudes of the working class, but its depiction of the everyday worker nonetheless makes it a kissing cousin to socialist realism—or at least a kissing cousin to social realism, which is itself a kissing cousin to socialist realism.
Many of the more famous works of social realist art, such as the photography of Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine or the murals of Diego Rivera, focused on the plight of the working poor, and a great deal of the art commissioned by the New Deal-era Federal Art Project, so frequently seen in the high schools and post offices of that period, consisted of paintings, murals, and even textile pieces depicting workers in the factory, the field, and the workshop. Unfortunately, social realism went out of style in the 1950s, with the threat of McCarthyism and the shift, in painting, toward CIA-sponsored Abstract Expressionism, represented most famously by Jackson Pollock.
The depiction of workers at work never again held the same prominence in either niche or mass media. In the postmodern era, roughly spanning the 1970s through the 1990s, mass manufacturing and its daily realities were depicted as mindless modernity or a fantasy of Fordism; the eerie scenes showing factories in the 1983 environmentalist/anti-modernist film Koyaanisqatsi come to mind. In any case, the factory has long been a fascinating study in public perception, whether it’s celebrated by capitalists and their propagandists as a lodestar of modernity, recognized as a site of political and personal struggle by workers and social movements, disdained under early neoliberalism as a pitiable necessity, or mourned in the opinion section of the New York Times devoted to Real America.
But what separates How It’s Made is its refusal to present manufacturing through any of these lenses, its subtraction of ideological gloss: it simply presents work done by workers and machines. Which is to say, in the world of How It’s Made there are no bosses; the work belongs entirely to the workers, and their skills are on display for all to see. In this way, the show captures the past, present, and future of labor, covering everything from Lasik to sausages. Some of my favorite segments reveal supposedly anachronistic ways of working, such as the labor of folk artisans. Segments devoted to millefiori glass paperweights, cuckoo clocks, wooden canoes, traditional snowshoes, Victorian mechanical birds, and stained-glass windows make room for skilled, niche artisans who work out of intimate shops in linen shirts and smocks that look straight out of Colonial Williamsburg.
It’s still every bit as incredible to watch a Swiss watchmaker make a Swiss watch as it was when the Swiss watch was first invented.
Other segments, like those on train rails, road salt, jeans, safety boots, and steel, demonstrate that the mass-manufacturing of certain items hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, at least in the sense that it still requires the sweat and dexterity of manual workers. Conversely, there are segments about the production of familiar objects, such as cars, whose manufacture is largely automated, where only a few humans appear to take part. Either way, the show unfolds in short, minutes-long segments, a frame that has allowed it to remain the same for eighteen years and one that leaves space for the viewer to realize whether a particular form of work has changed considerably or stayed curiously the same.
Now, I don’t believe that How It’s Made is made by socialists, but it does complement a pro-labor politics, even without offering a theory of exploitation. The show has always been a buster of the myth of so-called unskilled labor, featuring seamstresses sewing an entire tennis shoe in less than a minute, sorters separating the bad from the good on a conveyor belt moving so quickly the show has to slow the footage down down, and farm workers and miners moving through soil and earth at breakneck speed. The perdition of the steel mill and the intimidating, maze-like structures of the garment factory haven’t scaled down in hellishness since they were depicted in Soviet books and WPA paintings. It’s still every bit as incredible to watch a Swiss watchmaker make a Swiss watch as it was when the Swiss watch was first invented.
There are many jobs few people know exist—like olive oil sommelier or nutcracker artisan—and How It’s Made gives them the dignity and respect they deserve. The work of the violin maker and glassblower is shown the same way as the labor of the steel worker, garment worker, eye surgeon, computer programmer, or food scientist—all are workers. There is no hierarchy in How It’s Made, but there is a proletariat; those with labor power are depicted as equals regardless of the social or cultural perception of their work. There isn’t another show out there that portrays the diverse nature of the working class, or that offers an encyclopedic knowledge of material labor, or that elevates the status of the everyday through the objects we use and the people who make them. Try to name one—you can’t.