The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

TWoN Chapter 1

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Smith attributes a great deal of the increase in the productivity of labor to division of labor, and presents a good case for it.; at least, I’m convinced.   His comments on agriculture are intriguing.  P12: “The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labor, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another, as manufactures.”  It makes me wonder if this might change in the future; if a more rational and planned production might reduce this gap.  That speculation aside, however, the point is inarguable and significant.

I also found convincing his discussion, pp 15-16, of how much more significant training and specialization (“dexterity”) are compared to innate skill.  Of course, I may only have been convinced because it agrees with my prejudices.

On the top of page 16 is introduced the implication that the measure of labor is time.  I agree here, too, but wonder if he’ll go into more detail later.  Further on 16: “Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things.”  This fits very well with the idea of capitalism ushering in the age of specialization; my own belief is that this age will end when capitalism ends, but that is just more speculation.  On pages 17-18 he quite rightly observes that some inventions have been the product of those who specialize in inventions and in machines, and, later, he hints at the importance of those who “are often capable of combining together the powers of the distant and dissimilar objects.”

He loses precision and credibility on page 19, when he tries to include his ideas of division of labor into pre-capitalist, and especially primitive communist societies.  I would guess this has to do with the infancy of anthropology in his time, but it seems clear that, in fact, there is very little division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies (eg, cf Turnbull, The Forrest People).

His mention at the bottom of page 19 of sailors immediately made me think of the degree of specialization in an 18th or 19th century man-of-war, compared to the very little division of labor in, for example, a trireme or a proa.

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  1. there is very little division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies

    I absolutely disagree. Compared to, say, a baboon troop, there is enormous and striking division of labor in even the most “primitive” human society.

    If you look in the Hunter-Gatherer Wiki thinking of chimpanzees or baboons as your baseline for “no division of labor”, what you’ll see is that in most cultures most jobs are the speciality of one sex or the other.

    Because humans specialize, they are much better at both gathering and hunting than chimpanzees or baboons would be. Another way of looking at it is that a single human, trying to find food in the wilderness, is not going to be much better at it than a chimpanzee, and will probably die.

    H-G groups start teaching girls and boys somewhat different sets of specialized skills at an early age, so by the time they’re adults they are, compared to other apes, specialized, highly-skilled, and co-dependent.

    I think there’s a level of confusion here because agriculture is less skill-and intelligence-dependent than foraging. In modern terms, most agricultural work is unskilled labor; most foraging work is semi-skilled to skilled labor. There is no monotonic “progress” in specialization as you move from foraging societies to farming and then toward civilization (=cities), modern and post-modern.

  2. I may have to pick this up, as some of the information seems interesting to me thus far.

    There is, at least by my observation, a definite link between the ‘value’ of someone’s paid labor and the self-assigned or perceived ‘value’ of their time. The more highly paid someone is during the work week, the more value they place on their labor even during other times. This leads to the situation where those rich in time and poor in pay scavenge, or create more DIY culture, as compared to those poor in time and rich in pay who are likely to pay a premium to not do something themselves.

    Anyhow, interesting thoughts. Do continue!

  3. Doctor Science,

    I think Steve’s comment that “there is very little division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies” is meant as a contrast to other human socieities, such as agricultural and industrial societies.

    And he’s right — the link you provided reinforces the idea that there is really only one main division of labor in H-G socieities: “what men do” vs “what women do”. (The fact that what these divisions encompass — and how distinct they really are — varies from one society to another, isn’t germane.)

    I get the sense you may be conflating “specialization/division of labor” with “degree of training/intelligence required”. The H-G societies you linked to train and “employ” highly skilled generalists. There’s no sense that some Eskimo women (for example) only process skins, while others only process meats, and a third set does all the cooking — the idea is that they all do all of these things, at one time or another. That’s a diverse set of skills, but it’s not specialization in the economic sense.

    While much agricultural labor may not require a great deal of training or thought, what you do find in agricultural societies is a much more diverse division of labor: basic agricultural worker, shepherd, miller, blacksmith, midwife, weaver, potter, carpenter, priest, etc., etc.

  4. I also found convincing his discussion, pp 15-16, of how much more significant training and specialization (”dexterity”) are compared to innate skill.

    This makes a great deal of sense to me; given that humans in general are very versatile creatures, there are very few fields in which the innate talents of an individual matter nearly as much as the practice of performing a specific skill.

    Certainly, in any given field, the talents a person has will have a bearing on their level of success. But it stands to reason that a 6-foot tall man who has played basketball every day since the age of 7 will have a better chance of making the NBA than a 7-foot tall man who has never heard of the game. This in spite of the tremendous physical advantage that the taller man would have at that particular sport.

    (Note, this does not stop NBA General Managers from trying to bring in 7-foot stiffs to play on their teams. But it does help explain why so few of those players last very long.)

  5. Peter:

    Yes, there are more specialists in an agricultural society. But *most* of the people are less specialized — less dextrous, in Smith’s terms — than their foraging forbears. That’s IMHO where the proletariat comes from — it’s only with agriculture that you get the possibility of large groups of unskilled and disposable adults.

  6. Hmmm. Don’t know what the evidence is for this lack of specialisation in the agricultural as opposed to hunter gatherer societies. Are we just praising the noble savage? Your peasant has to be clothed, have tools, survive the seasons, and cultivate multiple crops and husband multiple animals to survive. Not so simple I reckon.

    And on those ships – men of war of the early 1800s were not a lot more complex than a trireme. Somebody (was it that Massie bloke who wrote Castles of Steel) observed that in Nelson’s time there were few specialists. A gunner, a carpenter, a sailmaker, a cook. It was only with steam and electricity that things really took off.

  7. Not as opposed to hunter-gatherer socities, but as opposed to cities.

    By lack of specialization in agriculture societies I believe he is referring to the need for everyone to be able to do many different tasks. Agricultural societies support fewer specialists because there isn’t enough work to support them.

    A Man of War in the 18th Century would have: Gunner, carpenter, sailmaker, cook, bosun, sailing master, topman, cooper, blacksmith, purser, quartermaster, clerk, and there are several others I can’t think of at the moment.

  8. I’m coming late to the party here, but thought I’d add my $.02 anyway, to echo Steve’s clarification about argicultural societies. Agriculture and the commodification of food opens up more room for other people to specialize because they don’t have to raise their own food. This tendency is has been increased by industrial society.

    At the same time, the farmer himself was probably as much or more of a generalist than the hunter-gather up through the middle ages probably until the industrial revolution, and even into the early 20th century the farmer had a wide range of skills.

    Modern industrial agriculture, however, has affected this considerably, dividing the labor largely into tractor/combine jockeys (farming ever-growing acreage mostly of corn and soy to cover the cost of land, seed, pesticides, and the equipment needed to farm ever-growing acreage to cover the cost…) and unskilled laborers to harvest fruits and vegetables that can’t be harvested by machine.

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