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by Robert M. Young

I want to sketch the relationship between two ideas over a period of about 200 years. The first is the way in which tasks and roles are distributed in society — in other words, the division of labour. The second is the arguments by which specific forms of the division of labour have been justified, in particular, the movement of justifications away from theology and towards biology — especially evolutionary biology, or Darwinism.

In 1776, Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, a treatise which is the classic of capitalist economics. Ninety years later, in 1867, Karl Marx began publishing Das Kapital, subtitled A Critical Analysis of Capitalistic Production. In the intervening period, the ways in which people conceived of and rationalized the social and economic order had undergone a fundamental change from one sort of optimism to a new kind: the old one based on a God-given harmony in society, the new one based on a secular view of progress through struggle. The writings of Thomas Robert Malthus in economics and of Charles Darwin in biology came in between those two dates and were at the centre of that change. All these writings bring together these two main ideas. They were concerned with the ways in which jobs, statuses and rewards are divided up in the organization of living nature and of society. That is, they were concerned with the nature, explanation and justification of the division of labour.

The history of the division of labour is the history of the way society developed from a system based on natural differences of sex, strength, predisposition, to a more complex one no longer wholly natural but rooted, ultimately, in economic relationships. Something which was originally almost wholly natural became almost entirely conventional. It is the history of private property. The division of labour and the notion of private property can be seen to have developed hand in hand.


It was not until the late eighteenth century that the division of labour began to take on its characteristically modern aspect, in the changing relationship between people and machines. The history of that change has involved the increasing dominance of the machine, to the point — in advanced technological societies, at least — of almost complete hegemony, extending into every aspect of life, even into the deepest psychological attitudes of men and women. Justifications for a given set of social and economic relationships inevitably affect in complex and subtle ways the domains with which they are most closely concerned. It is in this sense that ideology becomes a material force: in the ways that it influences how people see themselves at work, in their family lives, and indeed in all their social behaviour. For example, the organic social order of medieval life had as elaborate a set of ideological justifications as that of any so called 'primitive' tribe. Similarly, the rise of capitalism was closely intertwined with the development of Calvinism and the Protestant ethic, and both of these, in turn, were related to the development of modern science and technology. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, justification for the hierarchical division of labour took the form of a bargain: a bargain struck between conceptions of science, theology and people's personal needs, and conceptions of the organization of society and of work. I think it was a bad bargain, but it was one which had tremendous persuasive power and which continues to influence our lives.

The bargain was this: the ways of science, technology and industry are divinely sanctioned. They are God's ways. To pursue them diligently is to reap enormous fruits on earth and in the promise of the afterlife. So human values are pursued indirectly: they are fulfilled as by-products of the primary goal. The priority is production. The proponents of the bargain were issuing a crude exhortation: let us treat you as things — as mere adjuncts to the process of manufacture — and you can buy the goods you produce with the money we pay you. Alienated labour was thus justified as the best way to the good life.

Such were the implications of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. It was clear to him that God harmonized the selfish interests of individuals to promote the general good. A man may intend only his own gain, but he is, Smith said, 'led by an invisible hand' to promote the interests of society. The book begins with a paean of praise to the division of labour. Smith writes that 'the greatest improvement of the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity and judgement with which it is directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour'. It 'occasions in every art a tremendous increase in the productive powers of labour'. In a famous example of the benefits of replacing individual craftsmanship with 'detail work', Smith pointed out that ten pin-makers, by dividing the job into separate tasks, could produce 48,000 pins where, working individually, they could only make a total of ten. In other words, he said, it was the minute division of labour which brought about, 'in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people'. In case anyone thinks that this bad bargain has by now been broken, I should perhaps mention that in the car industry in Britain now, the optimal work cycle is considered to be one minute, and that in the United States they are discussing reducing it to fifteen seconds. And few people would deny that, among manual workers, car-assemblers receive a considerable share of that 'universal opulence'.

Adam Smith was blind neither to the nature of the work nor to its inevitably dehumanizing effects on the worker. He states the consequences of the system but does not question them. Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of the second volume, Smith writes: 'The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations becomes stupid and ignorant. The uniformity of his life corrupts the courage of his mind and the activity of his body.'

Smith played an important part in the history of justifications of the division of labour: the conventions of social and economic organizations were equated with the law of God, and both were seen as laws of nature. But in the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, God's 'invisible hand' steadily receded into the background, until the dominant equation came to be between the laws of nature (which many still saw as God's laws) and the so called 'laws' of the existing order of society — a society which was becoming more highly industrial and competitive.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century there were two thinkers who provided powerful rationalizations for all this. The first was William Paley, who argued that it was part of God's benevolent harmony that there should be hierarchical divisions in society: 'The labour of the world is carried on by one man working under another's direction. I take it for granted that this is the best way of conducting business, because all nations in all ages have adopted it.' Malthus was less benign in his views. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, he argued that pain, evil, suffering and competition were God's laws, a divinely ordained mechanism for ensuring the progress of mankind. Otherwise, he observed, the middle classes would not be where they were. Malthus's view of nature and society as progressing inevitably through struggle has been at the centre of the development of nineteenth- and twentieth-century justifications for the hierarchical division of labour. He mixed sociological and economic data with theological arguments, but the exponents of a secular view of science and society drew primarily on his economic calculations and his pessimistic mechanism for progress, and left the theological justifications largely implicit.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, three distinct perspectives show the way in which the idea of the division of labour was developing. First, in its practical form, the growing use of machines created greater specialization. Second, writers on the principles, and even the philosophy, of manufacture, Charles Babbage, for example, continued to extol the division of labour, and pointed out that it was easy to train even children for simple tasks and that this would induce parents to bring them to the factories, thereby augmenting the work force and lowering the wage bill. They were referred to as 'hands' and as 'parts of the machine'. The third perspective lies in the steady replacement of theological justifications of the division of labour with biological ones. In France, both Auguste Comte and his master, Saint Simon, saw the hierarchical social order as analogous to the division of organs and tissues in the body. In society, as in the body, specialization and interdependence went hand in hand. Aspects of Comte's positivism were very influential in Victorian Britain.


These analogies were very attractive to social theorists, but their basis was uncertain until the 1850s and 1860s — until, that is, the development of evolutionary theories which firmly linked man and society to the biological order. What had been a set of debatable analogies and rhetorical 'laws' was suddenly seen unequivocally as laws of nature. The claims of Smith, Malthus, Paley, Babbage, Saint-Simon and Comte were placed on a new biological foundation. Indeed, Malthus's theory of struggle in society as in nature had played a key role in leading Darwin to his theory of evolution by natural selection or 'the struggle for existence'. Although he acknowledged that his theory applied to man, Darwin avoided as far as possible drawing social conclusions.

Others, however, were quick to make social generalizations from his work. And those who had been opposing the theories of Smith and Malthus saw that Darwin had, however inadvertently, strengthened the case for the exploitation of people in a hierarchical society. The most effective critics of this new synthesis were Marx and Engels. Marx had drawn heavily on the writings of the classical economists in his critique of capitalist production. What was characteristic of his critical approach was the argument that the existing order of society was neither God-given nor rooted in the laws of nature, but was part of a specifically human history. It could, and he believed would, be altered by a combination of its own internal contradictions and the struggle of workers against oppression. Marx echoed Smith's argument that the division of labour increases production but in so doing cripples individual labourers for the benefit of the capitalist. But in his work this aspect moved to the centre of the analysis, to become the basis of moral and political outrage at the way the division of labour extended from the economic sphere to, as he said, 'every other sphere of society' and 'laid the foundation of an all-embracing system of specializing and sorting men, developing a single faculty at the expense of all the others'.

He and Engels saw the strengths, but also the sinister implications, of Darwin's argument. When Marx read The Origin of Species, he said: 'It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, inventions and the Malthusian struggle for existence.' Engels said that Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he had written on mankind and especially his countrymen, when he showed that free competition and the struggle for existence — so celebrated by the economists — 'is the normal state of the animal kingdom'. He pointed out how the whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to nature of the doctrine of the war of all against all (Hobbes), and of the bourgeois economic doctrine of competition, together with Malthus's theory. 'When this conjuror's trick has been performed,' Engels wrote, 'the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature to history, and it is claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.'

But what Marx and Engels saw as a 'bitter satire' and a 'conjuror's trick' is a fair summary of the subsequent history of capitalist social, economic and industrial theory since the mid-nineteenth century. The tremendous vogue of Darwinism provided both a rationalization for competitive struggle and a warrant for using scientific concepts to justify particular forms of social and economic relationship. Only the fittest survive, and those who do survive must therefore be fit. This slogan was placed on the banners of imperialists as well as on those of the most ruthless industrialists. Another potent slogan was 'Order and Progress' (the slogan on the flag of Brazil)— progress achieved by means of a hierarchical industrial and social order.

Darwin had given the mark of scientific respectability to the equation of the division of labour with the laws of life. But the person who was most prolific and influential in spelling out this view was Herbert Spencer — one of the most widely read social philosophers in the nineteenth century. He argued that what had been seen as an analogy between the economic division of labour and the 'physiological division of labour' was in fact an identity. Progress itself was defined as an increasing proliferation of functions 'from homogeneity to heterogeneity'. It was inevitable, and it was good. The welfare of the individual and of the race depended on ever-increasing specialization in hierarchical orders, producing social interdependence. Spencer succeeded in transforming the uncertain analogies of classical economics into a law of universal evolution. Thus, every man had his place, every organ its function. He must stay in that place and perform that function in the service of social progress or evolution. It was the law of life, it was in his own self-interest, and it was in the interest of society and mankind as well. One of the people who clearly shared many of his views was his close friend, George Eliot, whose enlightened character, Felix Holt, told his co-workers that they ought not to attack inequalities directly, but get rid of 'vain expectations that don't agree with the nature of things'. There was, however, a massive protest which permeated the creative literature and the social and philosophical thought of Victorian Britain. This was the era of the Dickensian workhouse and of Carlyle's and Ruskin's moving protests against the dehumanization which they saw as inevitable in contemporary forms of institutional and industrial life. Some of the English reformers who sought to improve conditions were attracted by writings which pointed out that progress — far from resulting in universal felicity — produced poverty: the works, for example, of A. R. Wallace and Henry George. Yet the theoretical justifications for the division of labour on the basis of biological theory continued to develop, as did the Industrial Revolution, until they influenced every aspect of social and industrial writing. In his classic treatise The Division of Labour in Society, Émile Durkheim synthesized the ideas of Saint-Simon and Comte with those of Spencer to argue that the division of labour was the basis of social solidarity. The social struggle for existence was ultimately benign and was the key cohesive factor in attaining and maintaining social equilibrium.


American theorists have carried these ideas into the interpretation of factory work. Concepts of adjustment, integration and equilibrium have become the basic assumptions of industrial research. It was in this theoretical context that two sorts of expert emerged, concentrating, respectively, on the labour process and on attitudes towards it. The first was the advocate of 'scientific management' the 'efficiency expert' with his stopwatch and time-and-motion studies. The father of this movement was Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American mechanical engineer who was very influential between 1890 and the 1920s. His admirers said that his introduction of the stopwatch into the study of the industrial worker was 'the greatest economic event of the nineteenth century'. He was compared to Darwin, and indeed he drew heavily on social Darwinist ideas. He saw the factory as an organism and argued that his 'Principles of Scientific Management' — or Taylorism, as his ideas came to be called — should be applied to all social activities: the home, the farm, business, churches, educational institutions and government. These principles meant applying the scientific method to the details of work processes, breaking the task down into the smallest possible units, introducing wage-incentive schemes, and rigidly separating jobs that require thinking from those that only require manual operation. Taylor demanded complete obedience from workers — who had to allow themselves to be measured in terms of horsepower — and promised (and delivered) higher wages in return.

This was the era of the development of mass production and the beginnings of automation, of highly integrated assembly lines and dramatically increasing use of precision instruments. Taylorism was the method for treating workers as things in the service of efficiency, higher wages and higher profits. It was also the fountainhead of all modern efficiency studies, or, as Henry Ford called it, 'human engineering’.

Taylor's methods were widely admired and emulated. Lenin, for example, advocated the adoption of his system. American Taylorites were flattered, and reprinted a pamphlet by Lenin praising Taylor. They bragged that Lenin's advice might be 'published in any of our efficiency magazines'. Later, Stalin strongly supported a home-grown version of Taylorism which centred on the diligent efficiency of Comrade Stakhanov, the devoted and happy coal miner who inspired the Stakhanovite movement in the service of the Soviet Union's struggle to achieve rapid industrialisation.

But what about the 'human factor'? That is the question which those who objected to Taylor's uncompromising authoritarianism — and even Taylor himself — found they eventually had to ask. The unions protested bitterly against his methods, and new experts in the disciplines of industrial psychology and sociology came forward to study why people did not work efficiently, did not pursue what Taylorism advocated as their obvious self-interest. The ideology of scientific management had to be modified, and integrated with the findings of those who studied the attitudes of workers and sought various ways of overcoming what they called 'artificial restriction of output'. They coupled the principles of scientific management with more subtle ways of attempting to achieve in the psychological realm what Taylor advocated in the area of manual operations: wholehearted devotion to the task in hand and identification of their interests with those of the firm.

The development of industrial psychology and sociology and of industrial consultancy has emerged directly from the social and political theories which were based on evolutionism. So they have retained the conception of progress through the worker's integration and adaptation to the hierarchical division of labour. I am thinking in particular of the work of Lawrence Henderson and his pupil, Elton Mayo, who pioneered research on the 'human and social problems of an industrial civilization' in America. But before I focus on the psychological problems of achieving contented workers, I want to acknowledge that considerable progress has, in fact, been made in the physical conditions of work. We are no longer living in a period of Victorian parliamentary inquiries on child labour. On the other hand, lest we think that the problems are now all psychological, it may be worth noting that in 1971 the Registrar General's 'Report on Occupational Mortality' pointed out that the mortality rate for unskilled men had risen in the last decade. Similarly, in the steel, weaving and woodworking industries, industrial deafness affects from 20 per cent to 50 per cent of the work force, while there are other diseases which still persist in mining and lead working, and still others which are created by new technologies. The absolute incidence of death from industrially linked diseases has declined dramatically, but the relative incidence in the lower groups of the Registrar General's classification has increased — in some cases two and three-fold.


Nevertheless, most of the attention currently being devoted to the problems of the division of labour is in the area of 'job satisfaction' and ways and means of improving it. Industrial analysts are coming to play a role not unlike that of a psychotherapist. Unrest is seen as a form of maladaptation to the organism of industry or, in individual terms, emotional maladjustment. As one consultant put it, 'the industrial labourer does not know that he is emotionally maladjusted, so he mistakenly attributes his dissatisfaction to his job'. Another pointed out the need to alleviate the monotony of repetitive, specialized tasks. Failure to do this produces particularly alarming symptoms — socialism, or even anarchism. I am quoting here from the literature of the social sciences in industry.

The industrial counsellor has as his task the discussion of 'attitudes towards problems, not the problems themselves'. One industrial consultant put it this way:

At least half of the grievances of the average employee can be relieved merely by giving him an opportunity to 'talk them out'. It may not even be necessary to take any action on them. All that they require is a patient and courteous hearing, supplemented, when necessary, by an explanation of why nothing can be done. It is not always necessary to yield to the workers' requests in order to satisfy them.

This is an unusually frank expression of a general phenomenon: the development of various techniques for manipulating people by manipulating their motivations. It is called 'breaking through the attitude barrier' by increasing 'job satisfaction', or 'job enrichment' by means of 'staff councils', 'consultation' and 'workers' participation'. The more workers participate in decisions concerning their welfare, the happier and more productive they are supposed to become. As one boss, enlightened by the latest methods of motivational research and personnel management, said: 'I don't want you to do it my way because I say: "Do it my way." I want you to do it my way because you feel deeply that my way is the best way.' It was said more succinctly by a manager speaking on BBC 2: 'We seek power through people rather than power over people’. It is argued that misunderstanding is at the root of most labour-management conflicts. Better communication, both up and down the line, would facilitate the kinds of understanding necessary for co-operation. Lest it be thought that I am straying from my theme, I should say three things. First, this movement in management thinking is one of the most seductive levers of social control that human ingenuity has ever invented, and it is explicitly based on an adaptive, adjustive view of workers' relationship to the social organism — a modern expression of Spencer's social evolutionism. Second, the current debate is turning to biological theory for a continuing justification of the hierarchical division of labour. For example, the study of animal behaviour — ethology — is appealed to in order to claim that 'the establishment of hierarchies in which each member of a group has and knows his place is one of the basic biological mechanisms for maintaining peace and cohesion within groups'. On the management side, Antony Jay's Corporation Man argues that socio-economic analysis of the modern corporation must be rooted in the findings of ethologists about territoriality, hierarchy and group or tribal behaviour. So the continuing tendencies towards centralized authoritarian control in modern industrial societies are being further buttressed by appeals to biology. Third, those who want to introduce less centralized and hierarchical procedures, and to concentrate on horizontal communication through more flexible networks, are also appealing to biological systems for their justifications.

It is important to untangle our analysis of the division of labour from biological justifications. If we are going to go on as we are, let us be honest about it, and if we are not, let us demystify the division of labour. It is, and always has been, about power. As a British industrial manager recently said, the movement for greater participation in industrial decision-making is 'not for the sake of humanity but because it pays'. Most of the literature on the division of labour ignores the central question of power.

The conflict between workers and management is ultimately a structural one, and efforts on the part of the intellectual 'servants of power' to palliate this are in the service of domestication or taming of genuine class and political differences — the rationalization of hegemony on one side and deference on the other. Greater participation and looser structures of communication and decision-making are a form of co-option. The simple truth is that work in most existing societies is alienating. The division of labour on behalf of the system in which bosses are basically in control of the fundamental decisions is authoritarian. Any other way of telling the story is a form of deception. Current debates on the biological basis of modified forms of the organization of work are in the service of even more refined and civilized methods of control. Ideas for decentralizing communication without eliminating the hierarchical aspect of the division of labour and of profits are an extension of the bad bargain with which we began.

Of course, people have different talents, propensities and tastes. And of course different people will fancy doing different things. The division of labour is sensible, and is efficient. But expertise all too easily gets mixed up with domination and with deference. Our problem is not to make people all the same or to make everyone a Jack or Jane of all trades. Rather, it is to disentangle co-operation from competition, to separate the sharing out of jobs on an equal basis from hierarchical and authoritarian social and industrial organization.

The indirect path to human happiness by concentrating on science, technology and the hierarchical division of labour, while holding out the promise of generous fruits if only people will allow their bodies — and latterly their minds — to be treated as things, has been trod long enough. Biological theory has played and continues to play an important role in justifying this. If we want to begin to give priority to human values and attempt to move towards organizing our work and our lives in order directly to serve those values, we can usefully begin by declaring a person a person, a machine a machine. We should also declare biological, or any other, justifications for the hierarchical division of labour an irrelevance. Machines, on closer inspection, turn out to be embodiments of the relations between people, and the same can be said of biological justifications of the division of labour. The machines were designed by people and they crystallize authoritarian human relationships. Similarly, accepting and deferring to the theories I have been discussing makes authoritarianism seem natural. The machines and the theories are therefore themselves forms of power.

This was originally broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 series, 'Are Hierarchies Necessary?' It was subsequently published in The Listener, 17 August 1972, pp. 202-5 and in Science as Culture no. 9: 110-24, 1990.

Copyright: The Author

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