Division of Labor, a Forgotten Problem

Perhaps there’s not a lot about Marxism that’s worth remembering, but if one thing is, it’s the critique of division of labor. I don’t understand why this subject is systematically ignored in present-day discussions. After all, it’s not like it’s a problem that has been solved or anything. The Marxist critique goes something like this. Modern capitalism forces workers into a rigid system of division of labor and this system, like the wage system and the private ownership of the means of production, inhibits self-development.

Division of labor is driven in part by technology and the automation of labor, but also by organizational choices that promote specialization. It takes place within an industry or a factory, but also in the economy in general. Both the assembly line and the use of nannies and cleaners are examples of division of labor. Cutting production and work into seperate parts increases productivity, which is positive, but it also has some serious drawbacks that are seldom acknowledged. The worker becomes a detail-worker who executes only parts of a production process, or perhaps even only one part, because all tasks are isolated, taken apart and divided into elementary parts. This is done in the name of productivity – specialization means better and faster work – but sometimes is not really a choice: many production processes have become so complex that one man can no longer master them from start to finish, physically or intellectually.

But because production has been cut into pieces, labor becomes monotonous, mechanical, one-sided and repetitive. The worker does not really produce anything – he or she just adds an often insignificant part. This destroys creativity, self-expression and self-development, values that used to be associated with production. It is the system that produces, and the worker is only a tiny part in this system, often unaware of the nature, composition and overall fabrication process of the final product. Perhaps he doesn’t even know what the people before and after him are doing. He cannot develop his “natural human urge toward spontaneous productive activity”. Rather than his will or his purposefulness, he develops only one tiny ability which in itself is rather meaningless and without a product. He becomes stupid and often even sacrifices his health as a result of monotony and indifference.

Again, this is true for the assembly line, but also for many other production systems that are not necessarily located within one single factory. Marx focused his critique on the assembly line or rather the early versions of it discussed in Adam Smith’s pin factory example, but it can be transposed without much effort to other, more modern economy wide types of division of labor. Here’s Marx on manufacture:

This stunting of man grows in the same measure as the division of labor, which attains its highest development in manufacture. Manufacture splits up each trade into its separate partial operations, allots each of these to an individual laborer as his life calling, and thus chains him for life to a particular detail function and a particular tool. “It converts the laborer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts … The individual himself is made the automatic motor of a fractional operation” (Marx, Capital) – a motor which in many cases is perfected only by literally crippling the laborer physically and mentally. The machinery of modern industry degrades the laborer from a machine to the mere appendage of a machine. “The life-long speciality of handling one and the same tool, now becomes the lifelong speciality of serving one and the same machine. Machinery is put to a wrong use, with the object of transforming the workman, from his very childhood, into a part of a detail-machine” (Marx, Capital). (F. Engels, On the Division of Labor in Production, Anti-Dühring)

And although some of us have moved on from “Modern Times” type excesses, workers in many countries and industries are still little more than replaceable parts of an industrial factory, a meta-machine containing both machines and humans. They are replaceable because their tasks are so detailed and stripped of complexity for the sake of easy and fast processing, that they can be taken over by any other worker or by a new machine. They are like organs in a huge organism and in an age of routine transplants.

And this predicament is not limited to factory worker or sweatshop laborers in far away countries. To some extent, we all suffer even if we’ve never seen a factory from the inside. We all work in a divided labor system. For many of us, this means that we cannot use our work to be creative or to form and express an identity through production. The best we can do is deliver the food necessary for other workers to continue their work, take care of their children for a while, or iron their shorts. The creation of products is an essential part in the creation and expression of identity, but the modern worker often does not create products. The system or organization creates products and the worker only contributes an insignificant part. He may be totally unaware of the final product and of the other parts contributed by his colleagues.

The activity of the worker does not have a goal. It’s merely a means in a larger goal. Because he is often unaware of what came before, what comes after and what is the ultimate product of it all, his activity seems purposeless to him, although in reality it has a small purpose. A man without a purpose and without understanding of what is going on, is not a man. How can the worker see his work as an integral part of his life? Work is therefore something which merely serves survival; life starts after work.

Some forms of division of labor also imply the power of the organizer. That the case for division of labor within the factory. The “capitalist”, the owner of the production system, is the only one who oversees, understands and controls everything. Division of labor requires hierarchical organization, the authoritarian imposition of strict rules that have to be rigorously enforced if the system is to operate. There is no freedom at all. The organizer isn’t free either because technology forces him to impose a strict organization which he is not free to choose. Science and competition impose the most efficient form of organization.

The positive fact of cooperation inherent in the idea of division of labor turns into something negative, namely the isolation of the workers and their separation from the overall production process. Division of labor, automation or organization increase productivity but the workers suffer in the process.

[W]ithin the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual laborer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labor-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (K. Marx, Capital)


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