Gratitude, Alienation and Taprooms

We don’t need CAMRA, let alone Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, to tell us that sharing a couple of pints and problems in the local pub has a net-positive effect on our happiness and wellbeing. It’s good to have these things confirmed empirically, but most of us can appreciate the benefits of a social get-together in a relaxed setting with good beer.

What interests me here, however, is the contribution to our wellbeing of a visit, not to a common-or-garden pub or bar, but to a brewery taproom—or indeed, visits to breweries in general.

On the face of it, this is an odd thing to do. Breweries without taprooms may give you a taste of their beer, but they are hardly places to kick back and put the world to rights over a good session. If we’re honest, setting aside the few with special architectural, historical or brewing points of interest, one is much the same as another. The majority are strictly functional, and many are located in nondescript industrial estates or railway arches. As for taprooms: they have beer, of course, and one can drag one’s friends along to them—as long as they don’t mind the lack of choice and the often spartan décor and seating arrangements.

And yet, if social media is any guide, the modern beer drinker cannot get enough of breweries and their taprooms. I’ve wandered through the odd industrial estate to look at stainless steel pipes and pots myself.

Brewery Visits

Cantillon, Brussels; Hook Norton and Verdant, UK; War Pigs, Denmark

Is it all mere geekery? A way to romanticise vicariously about our potential careers as world-renowned craft brewers? A source of inspiration for the two-bucket efforts we make back in our own kitchens?

Or do we seek, in these pilgrimages, some deeper sense of happiness and wellbeing, something altogether more profound than what we look for in a pint of Best at the Lamb and Flag?

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I got thinking about this as I read the seasonal musings of Tim Harford, in his “Undercover Economist” column for the Financial Times, by the glow of the dying embers of 2018.

“Extend Christmas gratitude beyond mere platitudes”, Harford urged, as he described the powerful effect of thanking people, and of being especially mindful of the act of thanking. To be happier, he recommended that we consider how to increase both the depth and breadth of our thankfulness.

For depth, Harford cited a study published in American Psychologist, Vol. 60 (July-August 2005), by Martin Seligman, Tracy Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions” assessed a variety of strategies and actions which aim to enhance wellbeing. One of the most effective and long-lasting was the “Gratitude Visit”, in which subjects were given a week to write and deliver, in person, a letter of thanks to someone who had been especially kind to them.

Then, for breadth of gratitude, he offered the example of A. J. Jacobs, author of Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey (Simon & Schuster 2018):

“He started by trying to be mindful of all the people around the world who contributed to the food he enjoyed, saying a sort of secular grace before each meal. But—challenged by one of his children—he decided to go much further, seeking out the many people who contributed to his morning coffee, and thanking them on the phone or in person. Thanking the barista was easy, but he went on to thank the coffee taster, the lid designer, the pest control expert at the coffee warehouse, the farmers who grew the beans, the steel workers who made the pulping machine, the workers at the reservoir that was the source of the water, and about 1,000 others.”

When we knock on the door of a pokey little brewery at the ragged end of a rainswept industrial estate, are we really responding to a soul-deep thirst to express our gratitude, in person, to the brewers of our much-loved beer?

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Marxists would recognise this impulse, and for its cause they would point to the concept of “alienation” or “estrangement” (“Entfremdung”), which Karl Marx explored in various parts of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

Marx argued that, when acting in accordance with their “Gattungswesen”, or the essence of their species, human beings are social animals. Unlike other animals, which work in pursuit of their own survival as individuals, the work of human beings is a social endeavour. From each worker should come the work that they are most able and most suited to do, and to each worker should go all the products that they need.

Concepts that feel very much like gratitude appear to underpin this essentially human (or humane) type of social economy. This comes across quite powerfully in a note that Marx wrote in response to the utilitarian James Mill:

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (i) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character… (ii) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.”

The essential human being needs to feel a connection with the work he or she does, and with the things he or she produces with that work. For that to happen, he or she must understand the purpose of the work and the products, and must determine how the product is made to achieve that purpose. Finally, the essential human being must see and experience other workers using and enjoying his or her products, and allow other workers to see him or her enjoying their products: this reinforces the sense of purpose that engenders the work, but also forges the connections between all workers that underpins a just and humane society.

Marx observed that this is very different from work done in the market economy demanded by industrial capitalism. In this arrangement, work of many different kinds is a mere input into a product, alongside other commodities, and the management of these inputs is no longer a matter of vocation but of profit maximisation on behalf of the providers of the capital. Profit maximisation requires efficiency, which results in a division of labour, which, in turn, reduces us to cogs in industrial machines—one in a long production line of widget assemblers rather than the craftspeople that our human essence demands. That renders work as fungible and tradeable as the other commodities that go into economic production, and therefore subject to all the rigours of a competitive market.

As such, industrial capitalism estranges or alienates us from our work, from the products of our work, from one another as both workers and consumers, and from our essence as human beings. The worker in a capitalist economy “feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home”, because his work is “not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it”. Ultimately, “it is not his own, but someone else’s”. Moreover, Marx assumed, the worker is probably as poorly paid for his work as the competitive market will bear.

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There are obvious criticisms of this way of thinking. We all benefit in countless ways from the scale and complexity of the global economy in which we live and work, and it is difficult to imagine that scale and complexity without some degree of the alienation that Marx described.

In a way, Jacobs’ Thanks a Thousand concept makes this point, perhaps despite itself.

According to his publisher’s synopsis, the book provides insights into “how our culture overemphasizes the individual over the team” and reminds us of “the amazing interconnectedness of our world”. At first, that makes it seem that Jacobs, like Marx, envisages the ideal of production as a community of craftspeople, working as a vocation and gratefully enjoying the products of their neighbours’ labour, fulfilling their essence as social animals. We might observe that, through the act of thanks, he tries to realise this ideal in an industrial-capitalist context.

But the fact is that thanking everyone involved in creating his morning coffee took an awful long time and an entire book to write up. “That’s a good start,” we might say. “So, when are you going to thank everyone who had a hand in creating the mug it was poured into, the table the mug sits on, the chair that you sit on, the cushion that makes the chair more comfortable, the bike you rode to get to the coffee shop, the street you rode it on, the smartphone you navigated with…?” One book along these lines is delightful and thought-provoking. Several hundred of them would try the patience even of the most charitable reader.

Furthermore, alienation is not always a bad thing. I avoid some people because I just don’t get on with them very well. Thousands of people like them are involved in producing things that I need and desire. It is much better for all of us that an impersonal market mediates the correct price of the exchanges we need to make, rather than I bring my prejudices to bear on the process, and face the awkwardness of expressing gratitude for the product but not the producer.

As Marx himself acknowledged, alienation is a feature of an industrial-capitalist economy, not just a bug.

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Nonetheless, a bug it is, and a serious one, at that. It is all very well being able to transact with people I wouldn’t get along with, but where would I draw the line? Should I buy products from a company that exploits or pollutes? To what degree of cruelty or negligence am I prepared to turn the blind eye that alienation facilitates? Far more troubling than my inability to thank the thousands of labourers ant-working in the termite mounds of global supply chains is the possibility that those supply chains conceal practices I would find abhorrent in a neighbourhood business.

This is where it all starts to become a little queasy.

Jacobs goes from saying “a sort of secular grace before each meal” to tracking down the hundreds of toilers who brought him one part of that meal. In doing so, he ends up celebrating the impersonal forces that harness such an immensity of human effort and ingenuity in order to bring him so many products—all in exchange for a quantity of loose change and a dose of insouciance. The epic nature of his endeavour confirms that one cannot truly be thankful for each and every material good that the global industrial economy delivers to one’s doorstep—but it also reminds us that this superabundant wealth is something to be thankful for in a more abstracted, perhaps more alienated sense.

What is the proper response to that, if it is not to say “a sort of secular grace before each meal”?

“Thanks be to God, or the market, or the Invisible Hand, or whatever miracle it is that sets this consumer product upon my table! And as we consume, we offer thanks again for our capacity to gloss over that which is red in tooth and claw, the zero-sum, the disagreeable, the downright evil…”

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The brewery taproom is one of the temples in which we gather to say this secular grace, in a ritual designed to alienate ourselves from our true sense of alienation.

Here the beer is local, the supply chains modest. We can say our thanks in person, maybe even to a real-life brewer.

These things are real, but no less pitiful for being real.

The pity resides in their paltriness in the grand scheme of our real economic lives as they are really lived—and, indeed, in our willingness to let the economy-as-it-really-is subsume and appropriate them. We will photograph these pipes and pots and beers and brewers and offer them up as sacrifices on the altars of global, multibillion-dollar social media platforms.

The rituals of the taproom are like the thousand thanks for the coffee in A. J. Jacobs’ commodity-stuffed morning, the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions, the opium of the people.

Battersea Brewery, Schmausenkeller, Fantome

Battersea Brewery, est. 2018; Schmausenkeller, est. 1874; Fantôme, est. 1988

The answer is yes, then. We do seek a more profound, more mysterious sense of wellbeing in the brewery taproom than we do in the Lamb and Flag.

My bet is that we never quite find it, and we can never quite put our finger on why, and that we might achieve a simpler, more honest happiness in the pub.

Still, while the labours of A. J. Jacobs remind us that it is not true that good manners cost nothing, and while no good can come from an entirely false consciousness, perhaps our brewery excursions reflect a deeper truth: the truth that our consciousness should be kept just false enough to feel gratitude, to remain cognisant of the soul of soulless conditions, and occasionally to say thanks for it.

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