There is no such thing as good work

I absolutely love the following excerpt, which better captures what it is like to hang around with Chicago economists than just about any quote I have ever seen:

“We should have a recession,” [John] Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.” - Freakonomics blog

In a famous passage in The German Ideology (which I take to be ironic), Marx writes that, as a result of the revolutionary takeover of society by communism, the person will be able to “do this today, to do that tomorrow, in the morning hunt, in the afternoon fish, in the evening herd the cattle, after dinner criticize, as I have a mind to, without becoming a hunter, fisher, herder or critic.” Of course, Marx, more percipiently, warns against dreaming of communism in terms of the beatific everyday life – communism is not a state of affairs but a movement within society.

Why this emphasis, however, on not becoming a hunter, fisher or herder? In other words, why this push against the division of labor?

As Marx well knows, the division of labor did not start with capitalism. And as he also knows, it is precisely due to the specialization of labor that capitalism has released the enormous productive potential of human society. In fact, when we read about cities that have been besieged, struck by earthquake, or undergone some other disaster, the key note is the collapse of specialization. All tasks become arduous precisely because the division of labor that we unconsciously rely upon vanishes. When reading Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary of the great siege of Leningrad, we are acutely aware that people are being worn down to grubby points because they have to do everything in their private lives themselves, from figuring out how to find a way to heat whatever shelter they have found to scrounging for food and disposing of their wastes in subzero temperature. In Port au Prince, the earthquake that destroyed an already weak and incompetent state left people to fend for themselves – and they did so by spontaneously dividing up the labor in neighborhoods, some guarding houses, some rescuing the wounded, some going out for water, etc. Even so, these ad hoc divisions were extremely inefficient, as the material embodiment of specialization – the tools of all sorts that they needed – were hard to come by.

In fact, the life of doing one thing today, and another thing tomorrow, and not becoming one thing – the life of the jack of all trades on the American frontier – is not a sustainable or desirable proposition. It is a boy’s life vision of society.

Marx was no utopianist. He decisively shifts ground in the Communist manifesto, and changes the focus of the communist negation to private property.

But the original attack on division of labor should not be dismissed as simply a mistake. It is, rather, a response to one of the great structural paradoxes of capitalism, which is that increasing specialization of labor takes place at the same time as the increasing fungibility of the laborer. On the one hand, Marx knows that if the division of labor is dissolved, the cities will tumble into ruin, and we will be left with the rural idiocy of the peasant or the a-social cunning of the frontiersman. On the other hand, let specialization metastasize, and it produces a strange result – the worker gradually sheds, at least from the point of view of the capitalist, all skill whatsoever. He becomes, as Nietzsche puts it, the stopgap for some future machine. The assembly line worker who puts screws into such and such a machine in precisely the right order has himself, in Nietzsche’s words, become a screw – a mere devise. In Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand: the Managerial Revolution in American Business, he gives this account of an early ‘traditional’ American enterprise: “As early as 1795, Oliver Evans constructed a continuous process flour mill on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. This mill annually milled 100,000 bushels of wheat into flour. It employed six workers who spent most of their time closing barrels.” [55] The six workers were exercising little skill in closing barrels. They were employed for their willingness to close barrels and their physical capacity to do so. Another employee of a different kind of mill in the 1830s, this time in a novel, is described first in relation to the mechanism by which the mill ran:

“The roof is held up by rafters supported on four stout wooden pillars. Nine or ten feet from the ground, in the middle of the shed, one sees a saw which moves up and down, while an extremely simple mechanism thrusts forward against this saw a piece of wood. This is a wheel set in motion by the mill lathe which drives both parts of the machine; that of the saw which moves up and down, and the other which pushes the piece of wood gently towards the saw, which slices it into planks.”
[Scott-Montcrieff, trans.]

The employee, who was also the son of the sawmill owner, was Julien Sorel – the novel Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. The ingenious mechanism that made the sawmill work was, at the same time, the emblem of the unrelieved tedium that Julien saw before him if he remained in his father’s house. He wanted – as so many of the young men in novels did - a profession. And as so many young men of the 1830s did, his idol was Napoleon, the ultimate emblem of upward mobility.

Thus it comes about that to be both specialized and absolutely fungible was the condition of the worker under capitalism. This, of course, gives rise to a diffuse but socially palpable form of melancholy. For within the social order as a whole, the worker was faced by the fact of his enormous non-necessity. There is, still, a trace left by the craftsman or the peasant – the touch, the style – which was constructed within an order in which necessity is the product of a chain of being reaching up to God and down to the devil. However, that trace is vanishing. And when one comes to the service sector proletariat, that lack of a trace, that feeling of absolute fungibility, that absence of style, can become overwhelming in exact proportion to the fact that the labor required to be a clerk is educated labor. The literature of the clerk, from Charles Lamb to Pessoa and Kafka, is one of ever more ferocious daydreaming, in response to ever more monotonous tasks. Style, here, becomes Bartleby’s I prefer not to – stopping the machine. Which is, as the clerk is educated enough to know, not a real response.

There is, of course, another potent symbol of the effect of specialization and absolute fungibility: the mass layoff. Laying off workers according to some formula that quantifies over them is the overt acknowledgement, on the part of the capitalist, of what is otherwise hidden by the system: there is no such thing as good work.