Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Durkheim, Smith, Weber - On Social Labor

[The English translation of Emile Durkheim’s, the great French sociologist, work La Division du Travail Social is almost universally rendered as “The Social Division of Labor”. The obvious mis-translation illustrates brilliantly and perfectly the gross misconception that gives rise to it: Durkheim was speaking of the division of social labour – certainly not of the “social division of labour”! For there can clearly be no “labour” as an entity that is abstracted from the ineluctable “sociality” of human beings. Our living activity, our very “being” from eating to dreaming to speaking and therefore also working, is simply unimaginable independently of our belonging to our species. Just as Leibniz could enjoin that “a being must be a being” – that, in other words, it is impossible to conceive of “being” except as a “unity” – so we may say that “human beings” (individual physical human bodies) are really and truly aspects of “being human”. In other words, it is utterly impossible to conceive human beings as separate atomic individuals whose lives and activities can be described independently of their “humanity”, of their “being human”. And this applies a fortiori to our living activity as living labour.

To speak of “labour” abstractly is to believe that there is a “quantity”, a material and spatial and homogeneous entity that can be “measured” according to, say, time or productivity or definite tasks. But what we know for certain about human activity is that its act of objectification, however much it may be “conditioned” by our natural environment, is categorically different from its pro-duct!

It is absolutely impossible therefore to describe human living activity in terms of “individual labour” – there is simply no such “thing”! Living labour is an activity that cannot be “measured” and that therefore cannot be “divided”: there can be no such thing as “the division of labour”! What is possible, however, is for human beings as “being human” to divide the totality of their social labour into different but interdependent tasks. Social labour then is a “totality” that belongs to the human species (leaving out for a moment its impact on the environment) and that is by that very fact only divisible in a “political” sense – never “scientifically” or “mathematically” or “rationally” or “systematically”! Only “politically”! And the question then becomes what kind of political decision-making is in place so as “to organize social labour” – again, not “labour” (!), but “social labour”.

Similarly, Adam Smith, in chapter two of ‘The Wealth of Nations’, argues that it is the human “natural tendency to truck, barter and trade” – to exchange – that engenders “specialization” or “the division of labour”. But as we can infer from our analysis, Smith has inverted the historical sequence! It is the necessity for “being human” to divide social labor – the only kind of “labor” possible to us – that makes “exchange” between human beings at all possible. And it is the “generalization of exchange” as a specific form of political-social relations that can lead to the fiction of “measurable individual labors” remunerable with individual money-wages. As a result of this violently-imposed fiction, the imprescindible unity of social labor, as against its aggregation in “individual labors”, comes to appear not as the property of living labor, but rather as the property “of the machine” (!), of “capital”, of “the means of production” – as the “congealed spirit” of Weber’s “lifeless machine”!

Durkheim, incidentally, distinguished between the “mechanical solidarity” of early social groups and the “organic solidarity” of advanced human societies. But when Max Weber considers “modern capitalism” (the phrase is Werner Sombart’s, though Weber borrows it), he speaks invariably of its “mechanical foundations” – indicating metaphorically the complex “machinery” of what he calls “the capitalist organization of labour”. Given his “spiritualist” bent, Weber considers that capitalist society is less “organic” than earlier human groupings. Yet here again we must side with Durkheim: what makes advanced industrial capitalist societies “organic” is the fact that despite the imposing and ubiquitous “machinery”, the interdependence of human beings has now reached such a stage that it has become truly “organic”, rather than “mechanical”. Even in a “metaphorical” sense, heavy industry is becoming a smaller component of capitalist industry, leaving greater space for services and, above all, “information”. The “viruses” that we attribute to computer systems are becoming ever more “organically” real with each passing day!]

1 comment:

  1. Political and social views

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