The Alienation Caused by the Division of Labor

Carl Marx

Carl Marx

Was it through our departure from craft that we lost the understanding, fulfillment, connection and joy in labor? Discussions around the merit of craft usually focus on the craft objects but perhaps there are some less tangible things that crafts give us as humans.

Few will argue against the gains in efficiency possible through the further division of labor.  Henry Ford created a labor-saving revolution in the automobile industry by using an assembly line where each worker performs the same task over and over again.   Famously, the workers hated the new arrangement and pay was doubled in order to keep the work force intact.

On the division of labor Plato says:   “it hinders the individual from ordering his own soul by cultivating acquisitive motives over prudence and reason."

Others observe that while something is gained economically, other important things are lost along the way.  Things that are perhaps more difficult to measure but no less important.

Adam Smith criticizes the division of labour saying it can lead to "the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people. … unless government takes some pains to prevent it."

Marx argued that increasing specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. He described the process as alienation.

Alexis de Tocqueville agreed with Smith: "Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor.”  

John Ruskin took a broader view.   Emphasizing the folly of the division of labor from thought, blue collar from white collar.  He argues that this is where the losses to humanity begin to accumulate.  In The Stones of Venice he writes   “The mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”    

Our highly specialized modern economy has so many different jobs that they seem countless.  Many of the highest paying jobs don’t contain a single element of labor.  Value is instead placed on information i.e. intellectual property.  Information that is valueless without action. When this information is shared, society benefits but the strategic value of the secret knowledge decreases.

It appears that the decision has been made over and over again for centuries without controversy.  The majority of us are willing to live with our alienated, corrupt, depraved, morbid and miserable selves for ever higher rates of productivity and profits.   Maybe we can buy ourselves some meaning at the mall.  Yay!

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