Friday, 15 August 2014

Is the division of labour a form of enslavement?

Or so asks Timothy Taylor at the Conversable Economist blog. Taylor writes,
The idea that an economy functions through a division of labor, in which we each focus and specialize in certain tasks and then participate in a market to obtain the goods and services we want to consume, is fundamental to economic analysis. Indeed, the very first chapter of Adam Smith's 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations is titled "Of the Division of Labor," and offers the famous example of how dividing up the tasks involved in making a pin is what makes a pin factory so much more productive than an individual who is making pins.
While Smith opens "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations" with a discussion of the division of labour at the microeconomic (pin factory) level he quickly moves the analysis to the market level. When discussing Smith’s approach to the division of labour McNulty (1984: 237-8) comments,
“[h]aving conceptualized division of labor in terms of the organization of work within the enterprise, however, Smith subsequently failed to develop or even to pursue systematically that line of analysis. His ideas on the division of labor could, for example, have led him toward an analysis of task assignment, management, or organization. Such an intra-firm approach would have foreshadowed the much later−indeed, quite recent−efforts in this direction by Herbert Simon, Oliver Williamson, Harvey Leibenstein, and others, a body of work which Leibenstein calls “micromicroeconomics”. [ ...] But, instead, Smith quickly turned his attention away from the internal organization of the enterprise, and outward toward the market and the realm of exchange, perhaps because he found therein both the source of division of labor, in the “propensity in human nature truck, barter and exchange” and its effective limits”.
Taylor then moves on to point out that Karl Marx saw a downside to the division of labour.
But what if the division of labor, with its emphasis on focusing on a particular narrow job, runs fundamentally counter to something in the human spirit? Karl Marx raised this possibility in The German Ideology (1846 Section 1, "Idealism and Materialism," subsection on "Private Property and Communism"). Marx wrote:
“Further, the division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. … The division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticism after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter fisherman, shepherd or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
But Marx was not alone in seeing a bad side to the division of labour. Smith himself wrote,
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
So, like all of economics we see here that there is a trade-off involved with the division of labour. In this case it is between the effects of the division of labour on the worker who can become trapped in the grip of the mind numbing tedium of specialisation versus the real income increasing effects of the division of labour.

And even if we accept that the division of labour can create problems, a world without it - ie a world with total self-sufficiency - would create its own set of problems, which I would argue would be worse. So being a "slave" to specialisation is better than being a "slave" to self-sufficiency.

  • McNulty, Paul J. (1984). ‘On the Nature and Theory of Economic Organization: the Role of the Firm Reconsidered’, History of Political Economy, 16(2) Summer: 233-53.

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