The Division of Labor

In previous blog posts, I mentioned the issue of social inequality and how it is exacerbated. Yet, on the flipside, I have also noted that egalitarianism is something that can be conjured up in theory but never applied in reality. Therefore, even though social inequality is a basic feature of social reality, steps need to be taken in order to avoiding exacerbating social inequality and rendering bad outcomes from it. Arguably, these steps can be taken if social inequality is seen as a feature of an even broader and concrete social reality, namely, the ‘division of labor.’

As a result, differences between men in both an economic and social sense are the consequences and effects of the ‘division of labor,’ and it is the division of labor which serves as either the real or theoretical framework for what is now a global social reality. And if one were to subtract the ‘division of labor’ out of our social reality, men are virtually equal by nature. As Adam Smith wrote:

“The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour.”

There is also a distinction between a ‘philosopher’ and everyone else amidst the social divisions brought about by the ‘division of labor.’ This distinction is not so much a consequence of human nature, but rather, the distinction is a consequence and outcome of education and life experience. As Smith wrote:

“The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference.”

But then, life kicks in, and thus the differences between men begin to emerge from a social standpoint. As Smith wrote:

“About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.”

Moreover, the crux of the rationale behind the division of labor is that the division of labor is the one real method by which the adverse effects of natural inequality can be mitigated both economically and socially, and it is the primary method by which the wealth of one class can be shared with the other. As Smith wrote:

“It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

And it is through the “multiplication of production” by which economic and social symbiosis is fostered between the different classes, thereby fostering mutual benefit and bringing together what are otherwise very different types of people who otherwise would be disinterested in interacting with one another. As Smith wrote:

“Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of society.”

Smith also argued that through the course of a society’s progression, there are those who act and operate the machinery of the economy on one hand, and there are those who observe and think about everything on the other hand. The combined contributions of both types of people serve as the impetus for societal progress. As Smith wrote:

“Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a particular trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade is not to do anything, but to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar subjects.”

Smith added: “In the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens.” Like the economy, the philosophers are also subject to the “multiplication of production” which in turn moves things forward, according to Smith. Thus, it is such that “without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to, what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.”

Why the ‘division of labor’ compensates for inequality, according to Smith, is because the ‘division of labor’ fosters “exchange” and brings to light a basic feature of human nature, namely, the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” In turn, the more the global market is broadened, the more opportunity there is for exchange, and thus the likelihood of social progress is increased on a global scale. On the surface, the “division of labor” is made operable through the combination of “dexterity” on one hand, and the optimization of time and technology on the other hand. For instance, without Amazon or the internet, this blog would have never existed.

But with the ‘division of labor’ comes economic and social rigidity to a certain degree, in the sense that the ‘division of labor’ implies specialization, and in turn, specialization means “ossification” of both the overall characteristics and state of the economy as well as the position of the individual worker “for life,” according to Karl Marx. What Marx suggested was that the division of labor was a convenient way of putting everyone in their place in a purely arbitrary manner on the part of colonial powers. Marx wrote: “The colonial system and the extension of the world market, both of which form part of the general conditions for the existence of the manufacturing period, furnish us with rich materials for displaying the division of labour in society.”

And with production as the means and exchange as the ultimate end of the ‘division of labor’ respectively, the social byproduct of such an arrangement means continuity takes precedence over “change.” Thus, while proponents of the ‘division of labor’ contend that the division of labor is the natural design of a comprehensive social reality, those dissenting against the division of labor would contend that the division of labor is a quasi-intellectual or pseudo-intellectual contrivance aimed at ossifying and solidifying a status quo which benefits an exclusive elite. Proponents of the ‘division of labor’ would argue that “change” means diverting precious time and energy towards the alteration of an inherent design and structure of social reality, which means less productivity overall and thus less exchange and less social progress and less contribution to the “overall good,” with the overall good equating to the circulation of both the products and the surplus generated by both producers and individuals.

However, in certain circumstances – and when interests dictate the circumstances – change is accommodated by the elite and status quo and the change is made to be tolerable, as in the case of China when it underwent a transformation from an agrarian society to a manufacturing society, or in the case of the “Asian Tigers” which arose as creative economies. However, in other circumstances, the transformation of Iran into a nuclear power alongside any other Muslim nation for that matter, along with the banning of opium production in Afghanistan by the Taliban are red lines for the status quo which cannot be crossed.

And aside from the macroscopic and global level, even on the microscopic and individual level, there are those who seek to thwart change, as when Eliot Cohen tells prospective PhD students of color to go into real estate or when David Barno and Nora Ben Sahel are inserted into a strategy class after a prospective student calls them out for their insistence that a military draft be reinstituted in the United States. Such attempts at thwarting not just change, but also the self-actualization of certain individuals and groups, means that the backlash against such efforts when it come in the form of a harsh critique of imperialism or a harsh critique of Zionism – which one must add are totally different than hatred towards white folks or antisemitism, given that hate is never an inherent feature of human nature – should be excused and forgiven by those who are reasonable and open-minded within the elite and status quo and who are welcoming of the prospect that all people be free to actualize their full and God-given potential. But in all fairness, stifling self-actualization is not just a Western thing. From a personal standpoint, I can attest that I wrongly suffered more at the hands of people in my own ethnic and religious community than I ever would at the hands of a white person or a Jew. And through a truly ‘exhaustive education,’ one develops an appreciation for both Western and Eastern civilization without any bias or favor.

Also, aside from the economic and political dimensions of the division of labor, there is the social dimension of the division of labor which was taken into account most notably by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, who were the foremost sociologists of the modern West and in turn are foundational sources for the contemporary understanding of Western sociology.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, organizations are founded on “associative social relationships,” as was suggested by Weber. In turn, ‘associative social relationships’ require one form of solidarity or another in order to sustain themselves. However, and according to Durkheim, there are two forms of solidarity. There is “mechanical solidarity” on one hand, and there is “organic solidarity” on the other hand. Interestingly, Durkheim argued that “mechanical solidarity” is the type of solidarity which is defined by blood ties and communal ties, whereas “organic solidarity” is defined by “occupation.” According to Durkheim, the solidarity which is formed by “occupation” is richer and more meaningful than the solidarity formed by blood ties or communal ties, and arguably, this becomes even more evident with advances in the division of labor. Durkheim wrote:

“It is no longer real or fictitious blood-ties which mark the place of each one, but the function which he fills. No doubt, when this new form of organization begins to appear, it tries to utilize and to take over the existing one. The way in which functions are divided thus follows, as faithfully as possible, the way in which society is already divided. The segments, or at least the groups of segments united by special affinities, become organs.”

Durkheim also tied in technological advancements in the areas of communication and transportation with the “moral and dynamic density of society” which in turn spurs the advancement of the division of labor and thus the replacement of ‘mechanical solidarity’ with ‘organic solidarity.’ As a result, the “condensation of the social mass” which is occurring at the moment because of social phenomena such as globalization and hyperconnectivity is one of the main factors which “necessarily stimulates an advance in the division of labor” which is now assuming a global scope. Durkheim noted that the only thing standing in the way of the ultimate realization of organic solidarity is competition and jealousy between like-minded people. However, given the preponderance of the ‘division of labor’ over social reality and the cooperation that is necessitated by such an arrangement, it follows that cooperation and thus ‘organic solidarity’ override competition and jealousy when all is said and done.

Another facet of the social dimension of the ‘division of labor’ which has long had political and social significance in the West is the relationship between the producer and the individual worker. The defining feature of such a relationship is that the producer owns the “means of production” – which for the most part stands for capital – whereas in most cases, the individual worker does not have any share in the “means of production.” Capitalists such as Max Weber have argued that there are legitimate reasons for why the “means of production” are controlled and owned by the producer, whereas Marxists argue that the only way by which corruption and social inequality can be overcome is if the individual worker takes over the “means of production” from the producer. Thus, the contentious relationship between capital and labor in the West has yet to be resolved, which in turn shifts the focus of capital towards places where there is less of a contentious relationship. The outcome of such a contentious relationship between capital and labor in the West has yet to be fully rendered, and interestingly, non-Western peoples are largely idle and passive bystanders situated alongside the tumultuous unfolding of such a relationship.

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