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Notes on the division of labor

Florian Schneider

On the 13th of March 2007 the Bank of England issued a new style 20 pound note that successively replaces the old one with portrait of Sir Edward Elgar on the back. Along with a different ‘look’ of the note, the main change is the inclusion of a portrait of Adam Smith on the back of the note, along with the image of a pin-making factory and a summary of Smith’s observations on the benefits of the division of labour, drawn from his major work, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations".

In the famous example of a pin factory, Smith explained how co-operation between workers in the factory to divide tasks between them raised their combined output. He went on to explain how, by trading with others, both at home and abroad, we could specialise our own production and society as a whole would benefit from higher incomes and standards of living. The banknote depicts the division of labour in the pin factory, with a caption based on The Wealth of Nations: “and the great increase in the quantity of work that results”.

"To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them."

"Division of labor" is a concept that has been first systematically explored by William Petty, whom Karl Marx considered "the founding father of political economy". Petty observed enthusiastically how in the course of the 18th century specialization in clothmaking, watch manufacturing and shipping was supposed to increase overall productivity by its cheapening effects:

"Cloth must be cheaper made, when one Cards, another Spins, another Weaves, another Draws, another Dresses, another Presses and Packs; then when all the operations above mentioned were clumsily performed by the same hand.

In the making of a Watch, If one Man should make the Wheels, another the Spring, another shall Engrave the Dial-Plate, and another shall make the Cases, then the Watch will be better and cheaper than if the whole Work be put upon any one Man."

Petty tried to explain the material basis of the contrast between Dutch economical success and poverty in Ireland. In fact he applied the principle of the division of labor which he experienced in shipyards in the Netherlands to his survey on Ireland by putting into practice the very notion of a division of scientific labor. He split up the statistical tasks into what could be easily done by unskilled soldiers and what would need professional attention.

"The average man in a communist society would be able to go fishing in the morning, work in a factory in the afternoon and read Plato in the evening ". According to bestseller author Alain de Botton Karl Marx must have imagined communist utopia as an "implausibly high-minded combination of activities".

Within one single working day one would enjoy unhurried peasant lifestyle, benefit from the effiency of industrial production and then turn to the blessings of brainwork. In such an idyllic scenario communism would be everything else but boring.

As a celebration of the whole variety of human capacities it would mark the unification of body and mind in an integral approach. And isn't precisely that what in the 19th century Marx is supposed to describe as an utopia today the reality for a growing number of highly skilled workers, namely in the "creative industries"?

There is only one little problem. The quote which the author who is most recently responsible for projects with titles like like "The School of Life" assigned to what he calls the "concluding volume" of "Das Kapital" is the invention of de Botton himself.

Unfortunately, Marx has not made any remark like that in any of the volumes of "The capital". Instead, there are remarkably different lines in "The German Ideology", a book he wrote 30 years earlier:

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

After that Marx did not dare to give any further hint about how one should imagine communism although permanently pressured by the growing proletarian movement to reveal his vision of a communist utopia. Marx refused a religious, utopian notion of communism and insisted instead on the "scientific" character of his research.

In deed, much more interesting than the distribution of concrete practices between hunting, fishing and hearding plus some criticism after work is the rather abstract thought that comes after that:

"This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now."

In the first volume of "Das Kapital" Karl Marx has introduced a sharp distiction between a division of labor that is a technical or economic division of labor and that is supposed to increase efficiency in the process of co-operation.

But then he also identified a social division of labor that is socially constructed. The result is a double division of labor:

- the technical division of labor in the enterprise and in a particular industry that broke down the production process into a sequence of tasks and

- the social division of labor among enterprises, industries, and social classes that was mediated through commodity exchange in market relations.

Division of labor appears as a double relation along two axes or "connections" whose specific combination constitutes the historical uniqueness of a mode of production (Althusser and Balibar in "Reading Capital"):

1. A relation of real appropriation designates the structure of the labor process, that is, the relation of the laborer to the means of production by which the transformation of nature is undertaken. This relation constitutes the "technical division of labor" or the forces of production.

2. A property relation designates the mode of appropriation of the social product. This relation, the "social division of labor" or relations of production, implies the intervention of an individual or a collectivity, who, by the exercise of economic ownership, controls access to the means of production and the reproduction of the productive forces.

The success of Ford's model T ("a motor car for the great multitude") was made possible by the introduction of a new factory system that characterizes first of all a new technical division of labor.

It was based on an enormous increases of

- precision: only interchangeable parts were used in manufacturing

- specialisation: breaking up the assembly of a car into 84 distinct steps

- synchronization: A minimum time spent in set-up between these steps. motion studies by Frederick Taylor had to determine the exact speed at which the work should proceed and the exact motions workers should use to accomplish their tasks.

The Model T was the first automobile mass produced on assembly lines with completely interchangeable parts. Machines were used to reduce complexity of the production process in 84 areas in order to streamline the assembly process of a car from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes. Instead of skilled craftsmen, low-skilled or untrained workers were hired who needed skills and knowledge in only one of the 84 areas.

At the same time Fordism has triggered a dramatic expansion a new social division of labor from what was by then called productive to reproductive work: Workers are not only supposed to produce products at a much greater efficiency, but due to relative high wages, they were at the same time targeted as consumers. The intensification and differentiation of the production process is partly compensated by increasing amounts of free time and higher wages that in the return had to be spent for the consumption of the same products.

The intensification of the labor process was accompagnied by the moral regulation of the private lives of workers. Work and non-work life became increasingly linked up. In his famous text on "Americanism and Fordism" Gramsci argues that the new methods of work are inseparable from a specific mode of living and of thinking and feeling life."

For Emile Durkheim, founder of modern sociology as an academic discipline, the principal cause of the progress of the division of labor is what he coined "organic solidarity" -- as opposed to primitive societies which are characterized by a "mechanical solidarity" that is based on resemblance.

"Each organ, in effect, has its special physiognomy, its autonomy. And, moreover, the unity of the organism is as great as the individuation of the parts is more marked."

Durkheim rejects the utilitarian explanation of division of labor by gains in efficiency. Instead he introduces the idea of a "moral density" between previously unrelated social units and the emergence of a new "conscience collective".

Besides the highly problematic analogy of society as a biological organism Durkheims theory of the division of labors draws from two sources that seem constitutive for the emergence of modern humanities:

- the binary opposition of primitive versus civilized society which is inseparably linked with 19th century colonialism

- the direct transposition of Darwins "struggle for survival" to the idea of economic competition as the mediating mechanism between a growing social volume and advances in the division of labor.

The separation between manual and intellectual labor is constitutive for industrial capitalism: The separation of those who work "with their hands" and those who work with their "brain" is the fundamental proposition of the class society.

Alfred Sohn Rethel sees the division of manual and intellectual labor in close correspondance with the real abstraction of the commodity form and the epistemological implications of a philosophical tradition that understands thinking as a product of thinking and ultimately seperates between theory and practice and opens up the gap between conception and execution.

The exchange commodities goes along with an abstraction from the specific goods. Only the value of these goods is important. This abstraction is called 'real abstraction' because it takes place without a conscious effort, whether anybody is aware of it or not is of no importance. "People do not know it but they do it" (Marx). Sohn-Rethel argues that the real abstraction of the commodity form to be the real basis of formal and abstract thinking. All of Kant's categories such as space, time, quality, substance, accident, movement and so forth are implicit in the act of exchange.

Sohn-Rethel sees the transcendental unity of self-consciousness as an intellectual reflection of ‘the form of exchangeability of commodities underlying the unity of money and the social synthesis’.

Adolf Eichmann, the manager of the logistics of the masstransports of European Jews to the extermination camps during World War 2 has been considered as the personification of the specialisation of labor in industrial capitalism and the inherent collapse of morality.

When Eichmann was brought to court in Israel in 1961 his line of defense was built on denying any legal responsibility for the deportations to the death-camps although Eichmann is referring to his reputation as a "specialist" in his field of all the logistics regarding expatriation, expropriation, and deportation of Jewish people.

In her report from the trial for the magazine "New Yorker" Hannah Arendt coined the expression of the "banality of evil". In Eichmann she did not discover a lack of empathy, as many other observers, she detected no stupidity, rather thoughtlessness.

It seems that the specification of knowledge and its celebration in managerialism coincides with a collapse of thinking since the fragmented action evacuates itself of any responsibility or even meaning.

Besides the massive proliferation of all sorts types of subjectivity related to the specialist (like the TV-expert, the nerd, the indian IT expert, just to name a very few) within culture industry we can encounter the opposite in the realm of production: A re-injection of individual creativity, overall responsability, forced collective liability, group or peer-pressure in ever smaller, isolated units of production under the banner of teamwork and co-operation.

Facing its increasing political irrelevance the official marxist debate in the course of the 20th century has more or less systematically shifted the focus from a materialist analysis of the division of labor towards phenomena of the superstructure: the culture industry, consumer society, society of spectacle etc.

What we experience today as "creative industries" is the reintegration of all sorts of practices that have not been considered productive under the reign of a new social division of labor. Political theory and organizing practices, have to re-address the issues of political economy in an significantly extended version.

How would it look like if instead of reasoning about the essence of immaterial production or the very character of creative industries one would investigate contemporary forms of the division of labor in postindustrial production processes?

1. At the first sight an increased level of control seems to be the ultimate purpose of a technical division of labor today.

2. While the segmentation of the work process in industrial production lead to an evacuation of meaning, in so-called immaterial production it is the other way around: meaning needs to be resampled through the re-collection of isolated practices under capitalist command or in more friendly words: co-operation. It is the proprietary code itself which does not only regulate access to the means of production and the repoduction of the productive forces, but establishes itself as a goal on its own.

The decomposition of the factory and the break-up of its theatrical unity of location, time, and story line have produced a new social division of labor that reflects that decomposition. The technical division of labor is sourced out to individual mini-entrepreneurial units with various split occupations across time and space.

The molar segmentations of the traditional division of labor that was based on reducing complexity, decreasing the knowledge that is needed for the steps of production is replaced by a rather molecular segmentation. The linear dramaturgy of the assembly line has turned into a transversal organization of work without an end or any limit.

This should lead us to research other divisions of labor beyond the technical and social division of labor. For example, the intensified fordist production in free trade zones expresses a global division of labor that runs parallel to colonial exploitation in the 19th century by providing ressources like cheap labor force on which the boom of the creative industries relies; gender-specific divisions of labor that have overhauled the fordist model of the small family, and hence demand new, migrant domestic labor.

If "division of labor is limited by the extent of the market" (Adam Smith) and the number and relative density of the population is a necessary condition for the division of labor (Karl Marx) it is as urgent as obvious that an analysis of the social division of labor today neesd to open up a new perspective on the effects of both, migration movements, as well as new information and communication technologies that have emerged in the end of the 20th century.

The ongoing lament about the precarization of labor provides if any, then only very superficial insight on the results of a massive reconfiguration of the work process. A radical political theory and praxis need at least attempt to get to the root of the problem and investigate a new division of labor that occurs as a response to the change in the mode of production.

At the same time, the booming praise and worship of the common appears as unadulterated kitsch. Instead of indulging in utopianism, rather than proclaiming an alleged commonality, that would exist a-priori to the hostile conditions of the postmodern workplace, a political project has to reflect how exactly one mode of production is superseded by another, the division of labor is altered, and the understanding of what constitutes fulfilling self-activity is redefined.

In the same way as the concept of proletarian solidarity was raising against the fragmentation and segmentation of workers subjectivity at the assembly line, an upgraded version is to be developed that would be capable of resisting the new social division of labor in postindustrial production or even propagating a new workerism of the creative industries. A concept of collaboration, as a refusal of co-operation, based on the experience that the only thing we have in common might be the fact that we have nothing in common.

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