Division of Labor


Outlet Mall Mural, South Carolina © 2011 Jeff Ward

Theories regarding the division of labor are most often deployed to justify oppressive, condescending behavior towards one another. It’s the “essential nature” argument, suggesting that laborers gotta labor, thinkers gotta think, and money men (the new royalty) deserve their position in life. From Plato onwards, it has been argued that division of labor increases productivity and allows people to live up to their potential, and, eyes on the prize– enjoy the benefits of leisure. Lowly “toil” is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, unless of course you are one of the  subjugated classes.

The years from 1880-1910 marked the rise and fall of an alternative view based in Christian theology emanating from Leo Tolstoy, the major mouthpiece of Christian Anarchism. It’s a sweat of the brow doctrine completely unrelated to intellectual property. Legal use of the term, originating from Genesis 3:19, is metaphoric. For Timothy Bondareff it was actual: he called it the “primary law” of being human. Man has been commanded to “knead his own bread” and no one can do that for you. Bread, for Bondareff, was not an exchange commodity. If you use money to purchase bread, or enslave anyone else to make your bread, it is not your bread.

The biblical logic is that man was commanded to toil and woman was commanded to birth children in pain and suffering. No matter how rich a woman you are, no one can birth your children for you because they will never be your children. It is the same with bread, according to Bondareff. This was, according to Tolstoy, one of the realizations that altered his course in life as he renounced the social cache he had gained as famous author, becoming instead a political activist.

The influence of Tolstoy should not be underestimated. A young Mohandas Gandhi wrote Tolstoy a letter for permission to publish his A Letter to a Hindu while living in South Africa, and he went on to form a 1,000 acre Tolstoyan colony near Johannesburg in 1910. His influence even traveled even further into the 20th century through Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the time of trust-busting under Teddy Roosevelt, as capitalism sought to address its excesses, a variety of political and utopian thinkers had thoughts of their own. In What Then Must We Do?, Tolstoy developed a division of labor a bit more sophisticated than the peasant Bondareff that was based in a curious metaphor: man is an eating machine.

Man divides his day into four periods: before breakfast, breakfast till dinner, dinner until evening meal, and evening after the meal. So too, then, labor should be divided into four types. Tolstoy’s essentialism was mapped as this:

Man’s natural activity is also divided into four kinds: (1) muscular activity— work of the hands, feet, shoulders and back— heavy work which makes one sweat; (2) the activity of the fingers and wrists– that of craftsmanship; (3) the activity of the mind and imagination; (4) and the activity of social intercourse.

The Nearings collapsed the distinction between (1) and (2), excluding craft as a separate function. They also didn’t really necessarily offer much discussion of the products of work, except to eschew excess production of “bread,” a sort of opting out of exchange through asceticism which Tolstoy may or may not have endorsed. Bondareff, in his theology, noted that a Christian was bound to freely give bread to those who were not able to make their own. Tolstoy offers a more fine grained discussion of the products and their relation to the essential nature of man:

And the blessings men can make use of can also be divided into four classes. First, the products of heavy labor– grain, cattle, buildings, wells, etc.; secondly, the products of craftsmanship–clothes, boots, utensils, and so forth; thirdly, the products of mental activity– the sciences and arts; and fourthly, the arrangements  for intercourse with people– acquaintanceships, etc. (207)

I like the choice of words here, either by the translator or Tolstoy: acquaintanceship seems to fall in a similar category to apprenticeship, a mutually beneficial transfer of skills. Placing the social in his taxonomy of toil seems to be spot on, and characterizing it as generating a product, a useful blessing, sets these activities outside simple exchange. Tolstoy suggests that the day should be divided into four periods, each one dedicated to one four labors he describes.

It seemed to me that only then would the false division of labor that exists in our society be abolished, and a just division established which would not infringe man’s happiness. (208)

To specialize by privileging one form of labor over the other may increase productivity in that area, but increased production should not be the goal of labor. Seeking to do this through the division of labor comes at a cost to the man removed from the other forms of useful work. As he pulled back from the mental work which had occupied his life and focused some time on the other three forms, he found “that the occupation with the physical work necessary for me as for every man, not only did not hinder my specialized activity but was a necessary condition of the utility, quality, and pleasurability of that activity” (208).

Tolstoy’s holistic approach to labor stands in stark contrast with centuries of writing on specialized production, largely because it is centered on use rather than exchange. However, it is important to note that what his argument is founded on is an essential view of human nature grounded, at least in small part, in a reading of Christian theology embracing the fallen condition of man, wherein man must toil, in pain, and women must labor through birth, in pain. To accept the pain of toil is to be human, a “joyous labor.”

A bird is made so that it is necessary for it to fly, walk, peck, and consider when it does all that it is satisfied and happy, in a word, it is then really a bird. Just so it is with man: when he walks, turns about. lifts, draws things along, works with his fingers, eyes, ears, tongue, and brain– then and only then is he satisfied and really a man.

. . .

The nature of work is such that the satisfaction of all man’s needs requires just the change to different kinds of work that makes it not burdensome, but gladsome. Only a false belief that work is a curse could bring people to such an emancipation of themselves from certain kinds of work— that is, to such a seizure of the work of others— as requires the compulsory engagement of others in special occupations, which is called ‘the division of labor.’ (209)

The increased productivity brought about by specialization, according to Tolstoy, harms man in his core being, not because he is transformed into an instrument (as in Marx) but because he is denied the performance of his true nature as one who works and eats.