An important and valuable aspect of work which has been lost in many activities is cooperation. The modern industrial production process is characterized by unconscious cooperation. The division of labor – within a factory or within the wider economy – is cooperation, but the workers in a factory or the baker and the butcher buying each other’s products, are unaware of it. The conscious cooperation of individuals producing something together is more valuable, educating and rewarding for the individuals than individual production or unconscious cooperation which, unfortunately, is the predominant type in capitalist production.
Cooperation also typically transcends the generations. It is important to build on the achievements of the past. So even when you can work alone in a meaningful way, for example as a craftsperson (which perhaps has become rather unlikely these days), you are not really alone because the past masters of the art are looking over your shoulder and guiding you. And maybe you have a pupil.
And here’s where another important aspect of work has to be rediscovered in our era of deskilled and atomized production: the standards of excellence. Absorbing the history and tradition of a practice makes us better persons and enables us to produce, be creative, express ourselves and develop our personalities. Without abilities taught to us by tradition this is impossible.
Excellence, as conscious cooperation, is often lacking in contemporary capitalist production. The atomization of workers resulting from the division of labor promotes ever more detailed and limited knowledge, rather than insight in and mastery over processes. Workers are also deskilled because of automation. Skill and knowledge are incorporated into machines and computers, and a worker is still, in many cases, a mere machine-appendix with no need to know how the machine works.
Communism has rightly accused capitalism of neglecting the need for conscious cooperation and excellence, but it has failed, even theoretically, to offer an alternative. The alternative for unconscious cooperation is real corporate democracy, something that is only hinted at in communist theory and not likely to follow from the simple abolition of private property. Likewise, the communist solution to the problem of excellence – the end of division of labor – isn’t satisfactory. Excellence or skill require education institutions and encouraging and supporting communities, which are often lacking or underperforming in industrial societies. The days of the atomized workers in anonymous industrial cities and extremely compartmented factories may be gone (in the West at least), but capitalism still isn’t known for its ability to foster supporting communities. And neither is communism. Only with supporting educational institutions and communities can individuals become someone, learn something and transform themselves through the activity of work.
It is obvious that corporate democracy is not enough to achieve this focus on excellence. And neither is the abolition of the division of labor. On the contrary. Excellence and skill require some modicum of division of labor. It is an illusion to believe in a future society where anyone can engage in or change into any activity he or she wishes, like Marx unfortunately did. This kind of variety and polyvalence is incompatible with excellence and skill. People are finite beings with limited time and abilities. One has to choose one’s “trade”, try to become skillful and hopefully lead a life of learning and growth, of productive and creative self-development and of self-expression within this “trade”. Some changes of heart are of course possible and desirable, but not limitless. But the word “trade” implies division of labor. Communism’s hope that automation would reduces the necessity for skills and trades is unrealistic and undesirable as well, given the benefits of excellence (i.e. education, community, belonging, support etc.). But this division between “trades” is rather different from the highly atomized world of divided labor in current industrial processes.
Excellence is not only incompatible with the complete abolition of division of labor. It also requires giving up the demand for total worker equality. The capitalist ideology of managerial expertise is groundless and oppressive. It reduces the workers to executors of the managers’ plans. It is obvious that the knowledge necessary to plan is not acquired through theoretical thinking but rather through working practice. So the division between workers and managers is artificial and will not hold.
But, on the other hand, complete worker equality will not hold either. Achieving standards of excellence leads, by definition, to differences between people, and it requires dependence (often temporary) on teachers, “masters” and tradition. One can see such a relationship as a form of domination to be combated, and it certainly is in many capitalist companies where it is often even undone of its original educational aspects. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be viewed as transformative for the “pupil”. Excellence leads to a good product and to a better producer as well, to someone who can become somebody and who expresses and develops his or her personality through production. This personal transformation through learning and production goes way beyond the transformation of skills. It touches the entire personality.