Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Understanding the division of labor

Karl Marx, Capital:

[E]ven with regard to material production, self-sufficiency, as opposed to the division of labor, remained [the Athenian] ideal, "For with the latter there is well-being, but with the former there is independence" (Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, Bk 1, para. 141).

Marx was not opposed to some kind of division of labor -- organizing work in a cooperative way between people to make it more efficient. But he was very concerned about what gets "divided."

For instance: It is one thing to cooperate with someone in order to accomplish something that can't be done alone; it is another thing entirely to "cooperate" with one person in charge and another taking orders. Either example may improve efficiency -- and our friend, the economist, loves to talk about efficiency! -- but efficiency, measured strictly in terms of output, tells us nothing of the relations which may exist between the people who contribute toward it.

Marx shared Adam Smith's reservations about a division of labor that separated people from creative control over their work, quoting him at length:

"The understandings of the greater part of men," says Adam Smith, "are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations ... has no occasion to exert his understanding ... he generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become." After describing the stupidity of the specialized worker, [Smith] goes on: "The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind ... it corrupts even the activity of his body and renders him incapable of exerting his strength and vigor and perseverance in any other employments than that to which he has been bred."

For Marx, any economic system premised on capital accumulation presupposes a division of labor not amenable to other ends:

The possibility of an intelligent direction of production expands in one direction, because it vanishes in many others. What is lost by the specialized workers is concentrated in the capital which confronts them. It is a result of the division of labor in manufacture that the worker is brought face to face with the intellectual potentialities of the material process of production as the property of another and as a power which rules over him.

It is worth considering the ways in which, as employees, we come "face to face" with the "potentialities" of our work as the property of another and as a power which rules over us. We can work as hard as we want and never produce less pollution, less poverty, or less war; at least, not as long as our work's potential is the property of another, directed toward their needs. This is why none of the great social goods have ever come from people working harder for their employers; they come from people working harder independent of their employers, often in opposition to their employers. And this will remain the case as long as "the workplace" remains private property, dividing creators from the outcome of their work.


Jack Crow said...

That last paragraph is literally perfect.

Enron said...

Efficiency is a relative term.

JRB said...

That sums it up nicely, Enron. And thanks, Mr. Crow.