We Need to Start Working Differently

Unemployment, starvation, war and unrequited love are probably more important and more urgent concerns, but the almost complete lack of serious thinking about the nature of work never ceases to amaze me. Most of us work and we spend a considerable portion of our lives doing our work, and yet how many of us do a job only because we need the paycheck? Far too often, work is a toil, not always a physical toil for us Westerners but a psychological one, because we work in systems we don’t understand, let alone control, or because we contribute an insignificant, boring, detailed part of a larger process we don’t really care about. We go to work, not to produce, be creative or self-develop, but simply to make a living, to have some cash, and in a few cases to have prestige, status, power or some other good external to the production process in which we engage or the product to which we contribute.

Work is not connected to who we are or wish to become. Who does not dream of another life? The statistics about job satisfaction and job motivation are depressing.

Work should be about creativity, excellence, development and self-expression rather than wages, survival and status. How do we get there? That will be tough, but giving workers more control of their factories or businesses and increasing automation of the uninteresting parts of work would be a good start. Even if many of us – in the West at least – are no longer machine appendices in the style of Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, we’re often still tied to routine jobs that are part of a system the purpose of which is obscure to us or leaves us indifferent. Our contribution is not insignificant – or we wouldn’t get paid – and yet we are replaceable. The larger purpose of it all escapes us or doesn’t matter.

We shouldn’t forget that the division of labor into fragmented tasks in a highly hierarchical organization – and “organization” here also means markets (a taxi cab’s ride is just as much his boss) – is probably not so much a requirement of modern markets or production technologies but rather the consequence of a very specific way of viewing work relationships, namely relationships between highly qualified “managers” and simple executors. Other ways of working are possible and should be promoted.

What is Freedom? (16): Does the Division of Labor Enhance or Reduce Freedom?

Adam Smith is famous for the argument that freedom needs the division of labor. Without division of labor, everyone needs to be his or her own “butcher, baker and brewer”, leaving no leisure time for self-chosen activities. Individual home production of all basic necessities is inefficient compared to industrial production aided by division of labor. Division of labor allows the mechanization of labor, and distributes producers into their personal field of speciality and talent. As a result, divided labor is much more productive. Being more productive it yields more social leisure time, and hence more freedom.

Conversely, individual home production does not allow people to specialize and focus on activities for which they are best suited in terms of talent, inclination, power etc. Neither does it make mechanization possible, at least not on an industrial scale. Division of labor, and the market that comes with it (if you divide labor and no longer do everything yourself, you’ll need to exchange the products of labor), liberates people from a large number of tedious and unproductive task, many of which are not well suited to their talents.

Karl Marx, while agreeing with Smith about the efficiency and freedom-enhancing consequences of the division of labor and the concomitant market economy (he was no romantic), has some well-known and convincing criticisms. The workers in a highly developed and industrial system of divided labor lose their character of producers. Given the importance in Marx’ view of working and of making things, a worker in a modern factory is by definition a stunted human being, alienated from the product of his work and exclusively occupied with detailed tasks that are as monotonous as incomprehensible. The worker can no longer express himself in his product and therefore can’t develop himself. He is not free.

The market exchange of produced goods is also alienating in Marx’ view: we no longer deal with specific persons when we trade, but with a large amorphous group of people who we don’t know nor want to know. For Marx, a large part of freedom is to be able to produce and to engage in normal relationships with one another. He clearly saw how divided labor and the market economy that goes with it reduce that freedom. And his lesson is not heard anymore. Those who care about freedom should listen more carefully, to both Marx and Smith.

More posts in this series are here.

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)

The Fable of An Randy’s Libertism

Once upon a time, An Randy made her life. She wrote stories and became famous and wealthy. She attributed her success to her talent, effort and intelligence, and to the near total freedom she enjoyed in her beloved country of residence. Her freedom-loving philosophy permeates her writing, inspires her readers, and has become a social movement with a smallish yet enthusiastic following. Called “libertism”, the philosophy champions heroic individualism, productive and creative achievement, and near total liberty and self-centeredness as preconditions for this achievement. It requires a minimal government, minimal taxation, no redistribution and no welfare. Freedom from government is necessary for creative achievement, and redistribution implies theft of resources that are the product of solitary and well-deserved achievement.

Randy did not believe that her success or the success of similarly talented and disciplined creators is dependent on the receptiveness of an audience. The success of the talented depends merely on their talent, not on fashion, audience preferences, cooperation, marketing, being in the right place at the right time etc. Hence, because there’s no luck or cooperation involved in success, the fruits of this success are the product only of talent and effort. An individual therefore deserves his or her success, and should not be forced to share its fruits.

Libertism views success as an individual achievement rather than the product of a combination of individual achievement, talent, luck and social cooperation. In other words, there’s no real division of labor or joint production. The creators are Robinson Crusoes, producing everything by themselves. Libertism denounces the “socialist” vision in which everything is jointly created, in which every creator depends on a large web of support and in which no creator can do anything without a vast army of teachers, parents, food producers, road workers, bus drivers, doctors, police officers, book printers, librarians, internet providers, etc. Libertism believes the members of the creative class produce their work and achievements only by themselves and by their own efforts alone. Division of labor is necessary only for menial production.

The moral of An Randy’s story: were it not for the silly preferences of a part of the general audience, the feverish cooperation of a number of fanatic devotees and a suitable working environment, she would have had no success at all. Double irony: because she proved, unwittingly, that achievement is essentially a cooperative effort, she also showed that the fruits of achievement should be distributed across all participants; hence, that taxation, redistribution and reductions of income inequality are justified.

PS: no prizes for guessing whom this is really about…

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (17): Freedom From Nature

From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.

Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.

The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated many harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.

Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.

This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.

However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.

The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.

So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.

One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.

That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).

Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.

What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.

Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.

This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.