September 2, 2008

Division of Labor

I read this one a while ago and just reviewed some of my notes. In the larger picture, I see this chapter as a warm-up for the next chapter, the gargantuan chapter fifteen, which completes a lot of ideas that are only anticipated in this one.

As the title suggests, this chapter is mainly about division of labor, which is usually described through the idiom of manufacture. In the next chapter, Marx will go into a long discussion about the difference between tools and machines, manufacture and industry. Frankly, I don't understand the division very well, probably because it is intentionally a description of social differences and not technical changes (he writes against technological determinism) but there is still definitely a difference between machines and factories and non-machines and non-factories.

It seems that manufacture stands at the threshold of industrialization. It goes as far as possible in terms of specialization, de-skilling, conglomerating large groups of laborers under a small numbers of capitalists, etc., and only will these limits of quantity and quality be radically altered to the next level.

So just a few questions about Marx's treatment.

First, there seems to be a dual movement with regards to the way division of labor in manufacture relates to previous social formations, wherein work is already divided according to occupation, sex, groups, age, etc. While not specifically talking about India, he says that every society in history has organizations, or castes, that traditionally do a certain type of job on their own, and that these divisions of labor provide the social foundation for the oncoming changes of capitalist production. Manufacture, as a historically specific form of production, grafts itself onto prior forms. On the other hand, Marx suggests later that manufacture distinguishes itself from non-manufacture, non-division groups because it rearranges laborers to do even more specialized functions, as part of a workshop, under the same roof. Instead of a caste of watchmakers, for instance, now watchmaking is subdivided into some twenty-odd jobs that go into making a watch.

The question then is: how much of a revolutionizing force is the division of labor in the face of prior social arrangements? On the one hand, it preys upon and takes advantage of them, on the other hand, they are liberated such that, potentially, top becomes down and down becomes top. What is this historical relationship between pre-capitalist forms and the division of labor? I guess it just depends on the specific historical contexts; one could probably safely say, however, that those on the bottom of the hierarchy probably have not risen to the top of the hierarchy in capitalism. Metal chains may be loosened, but only replaced with economic ones.

As a demonstration of this question, we have a recent New York Times article featuring a man who argues that the liberalization of the economy will have precisely the latter effect without the former: that the depressed castes of India will soon be able to move up in the socio-economic ladder of the country/world precisely because of a freer economy, which allows them to get an education, save money, etc.

When Chandra Bhan Prasad visits his ancestral village in these feudal badlands of northern India, he dispenses the following advice to his fellow untouchables: Get rid of your cattle, because the care of animals demands children’s labor. Invest in your children’s education instead of in jewelry or land. Cities are good for Dalit outcastes like us, and so is India’s new capitalism . . . . His latest crusade is to argue that India’s economic liberalization is about to do the unthinkable: destroy the caste system. The last 17 years of new capitalism have already allowed his people, or Dalits, as they call themselves, to “escape hunger and humiliation,” he says, if not residual prejudice.

The article itself provides other opinions which counter Prasad's, suggesting that any overall trend in economic improvement cannot be discerned, apart from the individual cases which he champions. This seems intuitive to me: why would a system of economic division of labor liberate and abolish categories of work, instead of simply shifting them around or preying and deepening them? I'm sure there is plenty of literature on how British capitalism in the 18th to 20th century only deepened the economic significance of caste (in fact, I'm sure of it), and although one could argue that 21st-century-style neoliberalism is a different animal than imperialism, a spade is still a spade, capital still relies upon economic exploitation, does it not?

It does raise interesting questions about the counter-movements of division of labor under capital, however, and how some lives are improved while others are only more fastened to jobs they cannot escape from. Surely individual success stories will pop up here and there, but I'd be surprised to find in any historical epoch an instance of how there was an overall improvement for all, that is, an even rather than uneven development.

I'll end this entry here and hopefully raise other related questions in my entry for chapter fifteen.

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