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)

Cooperation and Excellence in Capitalism and Communism

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.

Economic Human Rights (33): Sweatshops

No one’s in favor of sweatshops in developing countries (or elsewhere for that matter). But that doesn’t mean you have to believe that campaigning against them is a good thing. It’s quite possible to simultaneously believe that something is bad and that its disappearance would make things even worse. Generally, people work in the disgusting circumstances of a sweatshop because the alternative is even worse. People tend to select the occupation that’s least harmful and most profitable for them.

So even though sweatshops do indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations – degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures, abuse, exploitation (including sexual exploitation) and child labor – they may be better than the alternatives – a fine world we live in – and the fact that most sweatshop workers aren’t coerced by their employers indicates that this is the case.

Sweatshops insult our western sense of justice because we have a relatively low threshold for injustice. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many people in the Third World would be forced into subsistence farming, scavenging of garbage dumps, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives may offer lower incomes and worse conditions. Campaigning against sweatshops can lead to their closure and force people into the even less appealing alternatives.

That’s why I argue against campaigns and boycotts. However, campaigns don’t have to lead to the closure of sweatshops and loss of jobs, and can even make things better – go figure:

We find that anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases for targeted enterprises. We also examine whether higher wages led these firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere. The results suggest that there were some costs in terms of reduced investment, falling profits, and increased probability of closure for smaller plants, but we fail to find significant effects on employment. (source, source)

A successful multinational may be profitable enough to be able to afford wage increases [as a response to campaigns], and may prefer to take wage increases on the chin rather than move its business around. (source)