For/Against the Division of Labour

I thought, in light of the recent post on ‘abolishing lawyers’, i.e. dissolving the division between those who understand and can use the law and those who can’t, that it might be worthwhile to throw out a few remarks on ‘division of labour’, something which often gets both praised highly and vigorously condemned.

Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but to my mind the issue seems relatively simple, once you distinguish two sorts of division of labour, what we might roughly call division of what is ‘naturally united’ (which I think those on the left have tended to be critical of), and division of what isn’t (which is less bad and very useful), where the ‘natural unity’ in question is the human person.

So compare the division of labour in the making of, say, a computer, and the division of, say, political labour. In making a computer you can divide the tasks of designing the casing, acquiring the materials for it, making it, designing the electronic components, acquiring the materials for them, making them, programming the programs, recruiting the tiny gnomes who live inside it and move the bytes from one spot to another, finding tiny hats for them to wear, etc. (my understanding of computers is not too advanced).

The point is, these different functions are all basically the same sort of thing ‘from a human point of view’. The human animal in each case finds out that following a certain sequence of actions produces useful results, and applies itself to following those actions diligently. There’s no big difference in this sense between them – and precisely insofar as the overall task and the component tasks are similar in this sense, we can divide them among different people without making much of a change in what sort of work each of those persons is doing.

By contrast, in the ‘division of political labour’, where you have, e.g., some people with the job of commanding and others with the job of obeying, some people with the job of taking an overall view of society’s common interests and some people with the job of just minding their own business, some people with the job of drawing up plans for others to follow and some with the job of following those plans – here matters are quite different. These ‘jobs’ are very different ‘from a human point of view’: they’re different sorts of actions, they deploy different kinds of instincts, different kinds of relationships to others, different ways of relating to the world.

We might perhaps use the analogy of muscles. Human animals have a variety of mental muscles – one for focusing in on the details and one for looking at the big picture, one for asserting oneself and one for submitting, one for excitement and one for calm, one for exerting oneself and one for relaxing, etc. etc. Some people may have some bigger than others, but everyone has the same basic set.

The making-a-computer division of labour divides a task into smaller tasks, which all largely exercise the same muscle. The political division of labour, however, gives different people jobs which exercise different muscles. Other examples of this latter sort might include: the division between intellectual and physical labour, between artistic and utilitarian, between public and domestic, etc. More could no doubt be offered.

Having drawn this distinction, we can then move on to political opinions.

In general, the advantage of division of labour is that it increases productivity, allowing us to make more stuff. This is very useful because humans, being stuffivores, require stuff in order to live.

The disadvantage is that it can distort and pervert the people doing it. If people spend their lives telling others what to do, that’s probably not the best way to ensure they empathise with the people they command. And if they spend their lives performing only domestic work that doesn’t ‘add up’ but is undone at the end of each day, that may leave a major residue of frustration. If their work is entirely a matter of mindless, simple, repetitive tasks, that’s probably not good for psychological health either. Just as repeating a single physical action over and over again can cause injury, so by analogy can the over-use of a single ‘psychological muscle’. This is a simple observation, that people from many different political backgrounds have recognised.

So that looks like a dilemma, doesn’t it? Division of labour is both very good, and very bad, so we’re pretty much stuck. Oh dear. Fortunately, by distinguishing different sorts of division, we can see how this dilemma can be resolved.

Namely, division of labour need not be damaging to mental health if we divide tasks up into sub-tasks which still use the same muscles, while keeping the tasks that use different muscles united.

That would mean trying to ensure that, by and large, each individual could easily combine in one life the different components of the human experience – could be a physical and an intellectual worker, an artist and a scientist, a home-maker and a manager, a commander and an obeyer, a public deliberator and a private hedonist, without any one defining who they are or excluding the others.

Of course there’s no need to compel everyone to do some of everything; if different people have different temperaments, that can be accommodated. But it would still require a major cultural and institutional shift from a situation where people are encouraged to ‘find a job and do it’ to one where they’re encouraged to be human beings.

If that can be secured, then obviously division of labour in the more specific tasks is to be encouraged: insofar as specialisation increases productivity without making people one-sided, it is to be applauded and advanced as far as possible.

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