The Division of Labour (DOL) married to money

Back to top

This is another simple principle, dating back to the first time humans ever cooperated. The only element that has changed is the precision with which it occurs. Labour has never been as specialised, and its division more clinical, as it is today. This increasing specialisation and complexity is closely associated with the rise of industrialised society and capitalism. The benefits are much the same as those you get from increased economies of scale: more efficiencies, more miraculous technologies, more labour savings per dollar produced. Yet there are huge, hidden costs to pay, costs that any sane, healthy society would not deem worth paying.

One of these opportunity costs is our need to live happy, varied, creatively free lives, where what we do every day is what we love to do. There are, of course, still people who love what they do, but they are increasingly the exception that makes the rule. Most of us, whose labours support these fortunate few (those who get to design the latest Google doodle or strum acoustic solos to 50,000 adoring fans), hate Monday morning and love Friday evening for a reason. Through little fault of our own, the jobs available to us are repetitive, boring, unfulfilling, and a waste of the precious gift which is our lives. Worse still, we’re starting to realise it. Hence the antidepressants, the clinics, the suicides, the crime and the turning to all sorts of things in an attempt to fill the existentialist void that is created through doing work that doesn’t nourish our souls or our bodies.

If this was the only problem, I wouldn’t be so concerned. At least it would only be harmful to those of us who also perceive ourselves to benefit from it. But when a person spends forty plus hours a week in an office shuffling electronic paper from one inbox to the next, they have almost no connection to the rest of Nature, or to the stuff they consume. Such disconnection leads to voids that are plugged by escapisms such as consumerism.

Disconnection also leads to a lack of knowledge about, or empathy and caring for, everything and everyone involved in the supply chains of products which we fill our voids with. How many people think of the war in Iraq when they fill up at the service station? Do you think of what happens in order to get that oil to your tank? If not, may I ask why not? I am sure you care intellectually, but the disconnect means that such caring doesn’t penetrate into your heart, a penetration that can only fully impact when you see the tears of pain run down the face of an Iraqi father who has lost four members of his immediate family, just so that we can drive to the countryside and be a nature tourist for a day.

Again, you may query what this has got to do with money. Once you create a tool like money you start walking down the path to specialised division of labour. Economists such as Adam Smith claim that this was the very reason money came into creation in the first place – to allow Mary to brew the ale and Mike to bake the bread, and for them both to be able to exchange the fruits of their labour more easily than having to work out how many pints equalled one loaf every time.
According to Graeber, there is a great deal of anthropological evidence contradicting this “fantasy land of barter”,(25) a place that can only be described as an economic myth, but it is easy to see why this claim of Smith’s benefits economists’ claims that the way things are is just a natural product of humanity’s development and progress. Regardless of whether you agree with Graeber or Smith (though there isn’t a shred of anthropological evidence to agree with Smith), create a concept as liquid as money and increasing economies of scale and division of labour come soon after. Keep combining them in ever increasing complexity, and all hell breaks loose.

Division of labour is a great idea, by itself. As with the economies of scale principle, it only becomes a social and ecological problem when it is married to the idea of money, creating disharmony in an ecologically based economy, similar to the manner in which a newly introduced invasive species can play havoc in a geographical region of the Earth. Without money, the division of labour in any small community would find its optimum level, instead of its maximum level. The difference between optimum and maximum is crucial; efficiency, like everything else, has its optimal level. So while everyone wouldn’t start doing every single thing for themselves again – that would be to go to the other ridiculous extreme – communities would become sufficient as a unit, and life could be much more varied, more connected, more autonomous and free.