Friday, 23 March 2012

For different men take joy in different works: an impossibilist appraisal of the ubiquity of the term, division of labour

At its simplest, a multi-cellular organism is little more than a collection of cells that have divided, but failed to separate. The real transition comes about when the different cells in the bunch begin to take on specialist functions - some producing gametes, some not; some photosynthesising, some not; and so on. Then we see real division of labour, and real teamwork.
The Secret Life of Trees Colin Tudge
Division of labour is not a relation of differentiated specialist functions in cells. There is no division of labour in the animal kingdom. And nor does division of labour occur anywhere in the social world except in the capitalist productive relation, where it is deployed as a means of consciously organising the labour-force within conditions of mass production. 

However, the term division of labour has become naturalised and its apparent examples are found everywhere from ants’ nests to wolf packs, to prides of lions. But it is to human relations that the term is most often applied, and it is through this term that every interaction, every relation in all of human history has been rendered comprehensible. Division of labour is the pattern upon which all human behaviour becomes, to the dominant reductive vorstellungsart, comprehensible as universally useful productive activity. And which wretch amongst us would question this fundamental use-base of all social activity? Certainly not Adam Smith:
In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armorer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or movable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house-carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier, a fourth a tanner or dresser of hides or skins, the principal part of the nothing of savages. And thus the certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business.
The Wealth of Nations
Every human society becomes familiar, and comprehensible, through the necessary structuration of groups by division of labour. And where this structuring has come to be seen as a necessity in all historical human groupings, division of labour thereby becomes a necessary prerequisite for all social organisation without exception. The argument is not even made, but it is assumed that where there is society, then there must be a division of labour. Even social critics now assume that division of labour is an unavoidable cost to the individual extracted by every social organisation as a prerequisite for its actualisation. 

But division of labour is not the actual relation between cells, or wolves or lions or even tribal humans, it is a theoretical concept developed in response to mechanisation within manufacture and subsequently applied metaphorically to other relations, causing them to appear like the relations inherent to industrial production.

The term division of labour is a descriptive category belonging to a specifically expropriative and reductive method of looking at the world (a vorstellungsart or pre-patterning of knowledge). It has become a conceptual filtering device deployed as a means for extracting other pieces of information: where the filter ‘division of labour’ is applied to the relations existing within a particular set of objects, the patterning of both the relation and the means of knowing of the relation is thereby ‘templated’ so as to extract just that type of information concerning interrelated specialisation and differentiation from those objects.  

A casual perusal of the index of Marx’s works will reveal his numerous arguments against division of labour. He goes out of his way to argue (against Adam Smith) that division of labour is not a universal category, saying that it is ‘a particular historical mode of production, corresponding to a particular historical stage of development of capital.’ In other words, division of labour should not be read back into past forms of organisation and still less should it be projected forwards as a description of future non-capitalist social relations. 

Even so, Marx’s comments on division of labour become thinner, and less poetically striking, over time. It became increasingly difficult for him to argue against the universality of the idea of division of labour as the actual reproduction of society was increasingly achieved by the means of division of labour. 

Where division of labour is found contingently in capitalist production as a universal category (as a contingent universal) it becomes progressively more burdensome for social critics to separate out and establish a vorstellungsart which does not use division of labour as a necessary universal category. The contingent categories of capitalist production come to congest the categories of objective historical (i.e. human) necessity. This progressive collapsing of categories mired Marx’s critical vorstellungsart as can be demonstrated in the tone of the following two extracts:
The division of labour is the economic expression of the social character of labour within the estrangement. Or, since labour is only an expression of human activity within alienation, of the manifestation of life as the alienation of life, the division of labour, too, is therefore nothing else but the estranged, alienated positing of human activity as a real activity of the species or as activity of man as a species-being.
EAPM 1844
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Critique of the Gotha Programme 1875
Marx’s later position correlates to a collapse of his critique into the politics of objectivist-reformism, for which the development of ‘the forces of production' come to be identified as the historical vehicle carrying forward the latent socialised relations of capitalism to the point of their political realisation as a lower phase communism. Camatte addresses this congestion of Marx’s communist principles by bourgeois theoretical categories, which increasingly become indispensable to his theory:
In the third volume, and also in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx does not describe a real discontinuity between capitalism and communism. Productive forces continue to grow. The discontinuity lies in the fact that the goal of production is inverted (after the revolution; i.e., the discontinuity is temporal). The goal ceases to be wealth, but human beings. However, if there is no real discontinuity between capitalism and communism, human beings must be wilfully transformed; how else could the goal be inverted? This is Marx's revolutionary reformism in its greatest amplitude. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the transitional phase (in the Grundrisse it is the capitalist mode of production that constitutes this transitional phase: this is obviously extremely relevant to the way we define communism today) is a period of reforms, the most important being the shortening of the working day and use of the labor voucher. [...]Thus Marx's work seems largely to be the authentic consciousness of the capitalist mode of production. The bourgeoisie, and the capitalists who followed, were able to express only a false consciousness with the help of their various theories. Furthermore, the capitalist mode of production has realized Marx's proletarian project. [...] Historical materialism is a glorification of the wandering in which humanity has been engaged for more than a century: growth of productive forces as the condition sine-qua-non for liberation. But by definition all quantitative growth takes place in the sphere of the indefinite, the false infinite. Who will measure the "size" of the productive forces to determine whether or not the great day has come? 
Camatte The Wandering of Humanity
By the time Marx wrote The Critique of the Gotha programme he seems to argue that the abolition of the division of labour is only possible in the 'higher phase' of communism. He thinks the division of labour in production would be retained during the ‘transitional stage’ as a necessary component of the expropriated capitalist productive relation. Therefore, this late position of Marx can be expressed as: whilst communism retains the division of labour as a matter of pragmatism, nonetheless communists are against it

However, after Marx, even this theoretical holding out for the irrational (i.e. unsupported) principle of the abolition of division of labour has become 'pragmatically' impossible and thus has largely been abandoned. The more marxists (and anarcho-syndicalists) have attempted to set their arguments within a possibilist framework, the more irrelevant has the critique of division of labour become to such arguments. The abject reading of the famous line on the ‘real movement’ of communism where, ‘the conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence’ has caused marxists and anarcho-syndicalists to slip further and further into an ideology of identification with existing existing material conditions, where their conception of communism is patterned onto the present infrastructure. For them, the materiality of communism is all but already here. 

This tendency to suspend the critique of division of labour within radical discourse is replaced by a counter-tendency, also present in wider society, to discover its necessity in all relations. That is to say, it has become a trans-historical category and therefore  a formulation that Marx specifically argues against. 

Division of labour becomes yet another invisibilised term, another immovable piece of furniture amongst so many similar others, that has to be included in every inventory of the human home. This nonnegotiable furniture clutters up and inhibits the discourse of social transformation. To alter Zizek’s comment on freedom: we cannot articulate a critique of our world because we lack the very language to articulate our alienation from it. The language of social transformation has become silted up with bourgeois categories imported into it by the pragmatist ideologies of anarcho-syndicalism and marxism. 

Within the theories of these ideologies, the object ‘communism’ tends to more closely resemble capitalist social relations the more developed that theory becomes. The more nuanced the theory, the more incontestable certain apparently historically objective features (such as division of labour) become within that theory. The practical failure in following through on the principle of the abolition of the division of labour must therefore have wider implications for the general theory of the critique of capital.

In his later years, Marx tacitly acknowledges (through the concept of 'transitional stage') that the project of communism (as a historical achievement) is unable to overcome the reality of capitalist productive relations – for the foreseeable future communism will remain a subset of capitalist productive forces. Within his own framework, capitalism, even after its abolition, continues to dictate terms to communism and sets the objective conditions on its character. This pessimist tendency in Marx is only exacerbated by subsequent marxist ideologies of self-management of productive forces. The idea of self-management truncates the path of abolition and transformation, and takes instead the path of re-routing, re-organising, re-prioritising what exists – but always for 'use not profit.' 

And yet this pragmatic analysis is itself nothing but a utopian realism. There is no evidence at all that the productive forces of capital may be separated as an objective historical apparatus in order to be redeployed for other ends. Given the lack of supporting evidence for it, this realist turn only transgresses against the historical role of the communist, which is to assert communist principles in spite of what is objectively feasible or imaginable; the communist seeks to separate humanity from its history not to further embed it within it. The communist’s project of separation of humanity from its history, this antirealist project, is the essence of impossibilist communism.  

The impossibilist undertaking sets itself against such contingently universalising concepts as division of labour and enacts a differentiating relation with those whispering objects and their prior relations which come to its attention. Within my undertakings, which I set against abstraction, which I attempt actualisation, I voice my concerns to the world only to the degree that I may then be silenced by the voices of the world which I have provoked. The world speaks. I do not presume to find my conceptions everywhere, in every relation; I do not seek to expropriate at all –  I see that infinite other means of differentiation reveal themselves to me in baffling detail. I record what the objects have to say of their relations, and the forces which have brought them here, but they speak too quickly. I cannot catch the half of it. 

So, one implication of his project is that the impossibilist-communist refuses the division of labour as the primary expression of related differentiation. He refuses it even though such an opposition is also inconceivable. He opposes it because this minor refusal is a corollary of his greater opposition to the generality of capitalism. For this same reason he opposes prisons, factories and schools – even if a functioning society is unimaginable without them. As a corollary to his opposition to capitalism as a general relation, he thereby opposes all of the subcategories of capitalism. 

This opposition defines his relation to power, to reality, to what may be, and what may not be – by means of this opposition he sets out this impossibilism. He refuses pragmatism. He refuses realism. He is a communist. That which he argues for in this world as communist, by definition, cannot be, must not be because this world is not communist. His arguments, his principles, cannot be realised in this world without their also belonging to it. He has no hope of their realisation. The possible realisation of his principles is not his motivation for holding to them. He maintains his opposition to the world as it is, and thereby seeks to abstract himself, as far as possible, from his involvement in it. For reasons of its antirealism, there is no communism but impossibilist-communism.