Does the Division of Labor Make Us Stupid?


By Sarah Skwire
Thursday, June 02, 2016 -

The division of labor might be my favorite human invention.

Last week, I mowed my lawn, cleaned my house, removed a hornetís nest from my back porch, and killed the weeds on my lawn.

I did it all while I was in California, about 2,000 miles away from home.

And I did it all because of the division of labor.

Most often, when we teach or think about the division of labor, we think about Adam Smithís classic example in The Wealth of Nations of the division of labor in a pin factory.


But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands.

Smithís focus in his discussion of the division of labor is the way in which increased specialization increases productivity within an industry. Dividing up the jobs involved in making pins means that a lot more pins can be made a lot faster, and often a lot better, than if we stick with individually handcrafted artisanal pins.

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The author writes from a position of privilege and ignorance.

She refers to the division of labour drawing on the work of Adam Smith and his legitimate concerns. However, becoming stupid was not the only concern with the division of labour. What Smith refers to as becoming stupid, Karl Marx refers to as deskilling. Marx argues that not only does the division of labour deskill and dehumanize individuals it is also about exploitation and alienation which the writer makes no reference to.

This article is an example of how specialization could, in fact, make one 'stupid'. The author appears to have a background in literature and economics, and not much else. Arguments have been made about the dangers of specialization in relation to academics, i.e. as an academic, when one specializes in one discipline such focus ignores other perspectives and pieces of our history. As a result, this leaves them blind to the entire picture which leads to articles like this.

Our education system in a modern, western, capitalist world system is in favour of specialization in education just as they are with the division of labour in the work force as it leaves the owners of large businesses in positions of power which allows for continued exploitation. Just as the worker in the pin factory may not be able to put together a pin on his own and feels no sense of ownership to a final product, a person who specializes and refuses to read widely cannot put together a realistic perspective or critical analysis of current issues.

This problem is clearly demonstrated locally (Trinidad and Tobago) when economists always proclaim the solution to our economic woes is to attract foreign direct investments.  Historically, this has failed us and most of the other Caribbean islands that have adopted this policy. This only led to further exploitation of the human and natural resources (see Arthur Lewis industrialization by invitation). These solutions are put forward because of the lack of information and perspectives that one would get if they had an awareness of history, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines. They lack the understanding of our history of colonialism and contemporary era of neoliberalism and globalization which leads to a continuation of exploitation.

The writer here is oblivious to the fact that what she describes is, in fact, exploitation and racism. She makes the case that the division of labour allows persons to do what they are good at and what they enjoy doing. She uses the example of her housekeeper. Many housekeepers are poor, most likely non-white and because of racism and exploitation must do such work for the survival of themselves and their families. Does she really want us to believe that housekeepers, gardeners and other persons with low paying jobs do those jobs because they enjoy them?  

Overall this article lacks depth and an awareness of the issues of racism, classism, alienation, and exploitation which is at the heart of the division of labour.


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