Thursday, July 09, 2009

Adam Smith on the Role of Labour

John Michael Greer writes the Archdruid Report HERE: on ‘The Wealth of Nature’ (8 July):

Adam Smith, who set the whole ball rolling with his The Wealth of Nations, started that book with the following sentence: “The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessities and conveniences of life.” It does not seem to have occurred to Smith that the annual labor of a nation would be utterly useless without the natural raw materials, goods, and services – in the language suggested in last week’s post, the primary goods – that enable labor to be done at all, by making human life possible in the first place and by providing all that labor with something to labor on. Certainly it has occurred to very few of his successors.”

Comment
As is not uncommon, John has only quoted part of Smith’s sentence from Wealth Of Nations, which gives a misleading impression of Smith’s meaning; Here are the full sentences:

The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.
According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion
.” (WN introduction, 1-2: 12)

John’s zeal to promote his environmental theory to his readers distorts Adam Smith’s legacy to help John to make his case that nature is the true wealth of nations. I shall not argue with John over his theory; I shall explain Smith’s meaning in his full sentences.

In ‘rude’ society – wandering bands of gatherer–scavengers (long before big-game hunting was practised) – with all of nature in its ‘pristine’ condition, hominines and humans still had to labour to acquire the bounties of nature. Apples did not just fall of trees into the mouths of indolent humans, nor did berries and plants make their way to the stomachs of those dependent on what they could find the eat by walking to, searching around, and the plucking of food, which even among the most abundant of sources, still required effort.

As always, labour was divided unequally even in the egalitarian societies of these small (in number) wandering human bands: females fed themselves and their children; males fed themselves. This longstanding arrangement (shared by our primates cousins) gradually faded as habits changed from the growing importance of brain changes (in both sexes) and opportunist scavenging gave way to determined searching for scavenged leftovers and, millennia later, to deliberate hunting of bigger game.

All this labour was aimed at acquiring the ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’. These very necessities and conveniences were products of nature, and rightly revered by John, but none of them would be of significance to human beings (or, indeed, to animals and living things generally) without the intervention of some forms of energy by agents wishing to utilize them.

Directed energy to some end is embodied in Smith’s use of the term, ‘labour’. By the mid-18th century, Britain was fairly well institutionalised to procure and distribute not only the bounties of nature, but also the fruits of human labour, which by then was hardly a relatively passive stroll in Eden’s mythical garden (which, if you read Genesis carefully, you will find God insisted Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the ‘fall').

Moreover, in the 18th century there were now many millions (tens of millions including China) of humans on the planet, engaged in various forms of labour from, gathering-hunting tribes across large swathes of the Earth, through shepherding societies in central Asia, and farming societies across Europe, India, China, and Central America, until (‘at last’) the appearance of commercial societies in Western Europe.

Hence, Adam Smith’s introductory two paragraphs graphically illustrate the human differences in their societies, across all the ranges of their organisations, technologies, technical cultures and life-styles, characterised by their labour applied to their environments.

John asserts that it “does not seem to have occurred to Smith that the annual labor of a nation would be utterly useless without the natural raw materials, goods, and service … that enable labor to be done at all, by making human life possible in the first place and by providing all that labor with something to labor on.” Nature was left completely alone through billions of years without human labour manifesting itself. It will no doubt go on for billions of years after humankind is extinct.

To say that Adam Smith ‘set the whole ball rolling’ with Wealth Of Nations is absurd. If he had never lived, or had been lost in obscurity, the impact of human labour on the environment, for good or ill, would have continued to happen in Smith’s times, as had happened in past millennia, and will continue in future millennia.

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, who observed from whence human society had emerged (‘rude society’) and the significance of its recent history, especially from the Fall of Rome. He prescribed no bold plans (he was not ‘a man of system’), and nor was he an ideologue. He reported on what he observed for readers to make what they wanted of his books.

Which of course, is what John has done, though it would be better if he reflected first on what Smith actually said rather than assert about what did or did “not seem to have occurred to Smith”.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Mark Hefner said...

I appreciate both opinions. As I started to read this first paragraph to the Wealth of Nations, I felt like I had a learning disability. Why doesn't this make sense? The internet, being what it is, had to have the answer. Eventually, I stumbled across this blog. Thank you for taking the time to post your opinions.

6:57 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Mark
Thank you for your comment.

It is from 2009. I get a lot of messages for posts in 2005 - 2009 and I wonder at people reading the archives in 2013-44 and commenting. Welcome, of course, critical or otherwise.
Blogger moved me to www.adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.co.uk some years back and I worried that my archives were lost. But they are still available.
Smith's WN is a fairly difficult reading style (!8th century, etc) but it gets easier by practice.
I am retired now (since 2005) and still going strong at least at Blogging.
Very best wishes
Gavin

7:50 pm  

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