Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Weird Radical Explanation for the Division of Labour

Chris Dillow writes a regular Blog called ‘Stumbling and Mumbling’ that normally I find interesting and while I do not agree with every bit of it, he has established a reputation, at least with me, for good sense and he is worth reading. Recently, Chris changed his Blog’s slogan to: “an extremist, not a fanatic” from something he used before, which was slightly self-deprecating about being an awkward ‘oik’.

“What the £20 Note Doesn’t Say”

Today he writes on the new £20 bank note and Adam Smith, but I found it a trifle strange coming from an economist:

The £20 note celebrates the division of labour. But there's something it doesn't say - that the division of labour originated not as a way of boosting productivity, but as a way of increasing capitalist control of the labour process.”

The exact process by which mid-18th century commercial tradesmen (the ‘manufacturers’ of Wealth of Nations’) were transmuted into scheming zombies working for ‘capitalist control of labour’ is unexplained. The concepts that would have to be involved in such high levels of class consciousness about the requirements of a ‘capitalist’ system, not yet named nor invented in mid-18th-century Scotland (the word itself was only invented in 1854) are wondrous to behold. The notion that fairly uneducated artisans formulated such ideas about their secret roles on behalf of an inanimate ‘system’ nobody else noted or wrote about before the 19th century, is far fetched, to say the least.

Chris quotes from Adam Smith’s example of the pin-factory in Wealth Of Nations:

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.

To which Chris adds:

But why should these operations be performed by distinct hands? In theory, a pin-maker could spend one-eighteenth of his time drawing out the wire, another eighteenth straightening it, and so on with the result that during a week, 18 men would make as many pins as 18 men doing the specialist tasks.”

As Mr McEnroe used to put it: ‘You can’t be serious’.

At say, a 10-hour working day (I’m keeping the arithmetic simple) that means the labourer (man or boy) would work for 33 minutes on each of the 18 operations to make a pin (changing activities with infinite velocity and being equally dexterous at each operation) and would have to produce 2,000 part pins per 33 minute working session to equal the output of 18 men working on a single part of the process each. There would have to be no ‘stumbling’ at all.

Assuming this could be done (having worked in factory processes, I have my doubts), why then wasn’t it done this way? Chris has the answer from what he calls ‘“In one of the greatest papers ever written (pdf)” (!!), written by Stephen A. Marglin, Harvard University, entitled: ‘‘What Do Bosses Do?: the origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production”, published in ‘The Review of Radical Political Economics’ (Vol 6 No 2 Summer 1974).

Well, it lives up to its ‘radical’ name, for Stephen Marglin writes:

specialization was used by bosses as a way of dividing workers, and a way of ensuring that bosses had an essential function - that of coordinating the separate operations. Specialization, then, is a weapon in the class war, not a technical necessity.”

Now you know. As if 18 labourers changing their roles every 33 minutes would not require ‘co-ordination’! They would probably require more co-ordination if they were required to do all 18 operations to strict 33-minute time intervals.

So, previously unrecognised professional ‘proselytizers for capitalism’ travelled the entire western world finding artisans about to embark on adopting the division of labour, quietly spoke to them, and were so convincing that these hapless naïve idiots went against all of their instincts and re-organised their processes, not to increase labour productivity, but to engage in preparing the ground for ‘the class war’ on behalf of a class that did not yet exist and for a ‘war’ they would not live long enough to see.

Moreover, given that the division of labour commenced millennia beforehand in the ‘rude’ hunting mode of production and slowly and gradually spread across all modes of subsistence that followed, why on Earth did it necessarily lead to becoming prevalent as a ‘weapon’ in a ‘class war’? And why did nobody notice it?

Is there some hiden force at work, invisible to everybody else but authors in ‘The Review of Radical Political Economics’ that secretly is guiding selected people to do its bidding? Lost Legacy has written much on the myths of invisible body parts in the metaphor of the invisible hand, usually, we might note, secretly spreading the version of capitalism from the spokespeople of the Right-end of the spectrum. Now the left have joined in.

What’s common to both ends of the spectrum? A belief in secret, invisible, and seditious ‘forces’ that run the lives of billions of people, with absolutely no evidence, nor plausible speculations as to where these hidden forces come from, how they materialise or why they bother.

I think Chris ought to get out more, or look out of his window at least; the world ain’t like that – and never has been. Sad.


Blogger john said...

Even Adam Smith had doubts about the division of labor. In the second edition of The Wealth of Nations, he says that:
"In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour… comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two… The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations… has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." (italics added)

The division of labor per se does not create the efficiencies claimed for it, and modern management technique bears this out. What creates the efficiencies if the sequencing of tasks and the elimination of set-up times. So that one worker, working in larger batches, achieves the same efficiencies. However, D of L does impose some major inefficiencies (aside from the inefficiency of creating "stupid" workers, that is). . As men cease to be “pin-makers” and become instead “wire-pullers” or “sharpeners” or one of the other eighteen jobs involved in the process, then knowledge of the process is lost among the workers. This means, in turn, that a new function is required, that of the professional manager. When men had knowledge of the whole process, then “management” was a minor consideration, and any one of the workers could, in theory, manage the process; management was a negligible expense. But with the loss of knowledge, management becomes the decisive factor and a huge overhead cost. Part of the gains in efficiency from the division of labor is lost to the need for increased management overhead.

The resulting increase in the need for, and power of, professional management leads to yet another difficulty: agency problems are increased. When managers become both numerous and important, they form a new group, a group with its own narrow interests. They are supposed to be fulfilling only the interests of the owners, but in fact they have their own set of interests. Therefore the overheads associated with agency are increased. Further, this division of the roles of worker and manager creates tensions and resentments on both sides.

John C. Médaille

"A dead thing can go with the stream...
but only a living thing can go against it."
-G. K. Chesterton

12:03 am  
Blogger sdsvx8 said...

This notion that the division of labor does not increase efficiency is not an idea that holds up under much scrutiny, and implies that the marketplace in collusive in the conspiracy to create a management class. If one man can perform a multi-step operation as efficiently as many men each performing one part, and can do so without management, then entrepreneurs would simply start business under that model. Obviously, the lack of a manager or coordinator would eliminate an expense, and they would have a clear advantage in the marketplace. While it may be in the interest of some people to create, or perpetuate, these class divisions, it would not be in the interest of a consumer to pay more for a product that is less efficiently made, and therefore more expensive.
Does the division of labor introduce inefficiencies? Of course. More complex systems always will. But this just implies that, even with those inefficiencies, division of labor is a more efficient system.

9:27 pm  

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