The Division of Labor

2 July 2010


In Book I, Chapter 1 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith gives the now famous example of a pin factory, and generalizes from this simple example to the nature of industry:

In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labour are similar to what they are in this very trifling one; though, in many of them, the labour can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour.

As the opening figure of thought in the foundational work of modern economics, the example of the pin factory and the role of the division of labor in productivity is in the minds of many indissolubly associated with modern industrialized capitalism itself, rather than being thought generally true of any social or economic system.

I was thinking of this recently in relation to my post on The Agricultural Paradigm, in which I admitted to having no systematic way of understanding the structure of our ten thousand or more years of agricultural civilization, though I had offered a schematic account of industrialized civilization. I began asking myself exactly what is peculiar about industrialized civilization that distinguishes it from agricultural civilization, apart from the obvious fact of the employment of the bulk of our species in a single demographic category. This led me to the idea of the division of labor, and the idea of the division of labor led me to look for counter-examples, which I immediately found were plentiful before and beyond industrialized civilization.

The division of labor is not peculiar to modernity, to industrialized civilization, to capitalism, nor to Western civilization. Anthropologists and archaeologists tell us that the sexual division of labor is as old as our species, which probably means that it is perfectly continuous with our natural history. In so far as the concept of integral history is predicated upon the continuity of natural history and human history, we may take it as a thesis of integral history that there is a division of labor. Let us call this the Division of Labor Thesis for integral history: The division of labor in the highly defined and developed form that we know it today in industrialized civilization is an extension and an extrapolation of the sexual division of labor that is continuous with human natural history, which is in turn continuous with the biology of sexual reproduction, which is in turn continuous with a world and with a universe in which such biological organisms can come into being.

Henri Pirenne was one of the great historians of medieval Europe.

I had a wonderful quote in mind that I had hoped to use here, but couldn’t find it when I went looking for it. I believe the quote was from Henri Pirenne, but Pirenne wrote so many wonderful books on the economics of medieval Europe that I could not skim them all (at least, I couldn’t skim them all with sufficient thoroughness to find the quote I was seeking). In any case, the quote I had hoped to use regarded the medieval cloth industry, which was one of the most highly developed industries in medieval Europe. Pirenne was a Belgian who took as his starting point the cloth trade in Flanders, which was considerable. The medieval cloth industry, especially at Ghent, became highly specialized, with a division of labor that included Beaters, Cleaners, Combers, Carders, Spinners (Lanino and Stamaiuoli), Warpers, Weavers, Stretchers, Burlers, Scourers, Fullers, Nappers, Shearers, Menders, and Dyers. Perhaps there were other specialized occupations as well.

Stained Glass Window in Notre Dame. Cloth-making guild. Gothic Anonymous, 14 c, France. Samur-aux-Auxois, © Kathleen Cohen, frm08033

This elaborate division of labor did not entail a fully capitalist mode of production, nor did it assume precisely the form that the division of labor has today in industrialized society. Each of the special trades within cloth-making had its own guild, and each guild jealously guarded its part of the production pie. Guilds in turn were regulated to a degree that we today would call “micro-management” but which was the accepted way of doing business at the time. And the officials who regulated and oversaw the cloth trades had their guilds too. Thus the division of labor takes on the character of the society in which it emerges, rather than forcing societies to take a certain shape simply because a division of labor is employed in production. This latter observation is not merely an interesting example, it can serve as a counter-principle to the Marxian doctrine of ideological superstructure being dictated by economic infrastructure. (Hopefully I will return to this in the future, as it strikes me as an interesting idea, but one which I have not developed yet because it only occurred to me while I was writing this.)

I was, however, able to find another quote that marvelously illustrates the division of labor not only in another time than our own, but in another civilization. This is from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus, describing his time as a Polish foreign correspondent in India:

I had noticed already that a different person is assigned here to every type of activity and chore, and that this person vigilantly guards his role and his place — this society’s equilibrium seems to depend upon it. One person brings tea in the morning, another shines shoes, another still launders shirts, an altogether different one cleans the room — and so on ad infinitum. Heaven forbid that I ask the person who irons my shirt to sew a button on it. For me, of course, raised as I was in the matter foregoingly described, it would be simple just to sew on the button myself, but then I would be committing a terrible error, for I would be depriving someone burdened with a large family and obliged to make his living by sewing buttons on shirts of his livelihood. This society was a pedantically, meticulously woven fabric of roles and assignments, classifications and purposes, and a great deal of experience, a profound knowledge and a keen intuition were required to penetrate and decipher the delicacies of its structure.
“The Train Station and the Palace” p. 27

Here, in another civilization, and in a way of life constituted by meanings, values, and purposes incommensurable with Western civilization, we find the division of labor again, realized in a manner that lends its support to the distinctive civilization in which it occurs, rather than changing or undermining that structure. It could be similarly argued that the division of labor as it is realized within contemporary industrialized capitalism lends its support to that system of economic organization, and is adapted to the particular needs of that system.

So I have learned something from thinking about the division of labor, though not exactly what I expected to learn. The division of labor is a perennial feature of integral history, rather than a passing manifestation of a particular socio-economic system.

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2 Responses to “The Division of Labor”

  1. T. Greer said

    Division of labor has another connection to integral history, generally speaking — the first integral shift, from hunter-gatherers to civilized society — was a shift in specialization and complexity. Few hunter-gatherer bands allow for any division of labor. It is with sedentary societies that divisions of class and occupation — in essence, divisions of labor — first can be seen.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      Thanks for your comment, and for continuing to be an attentive reader.

      While I would agree on general principles that each integral shift exhibits an increase in specialization and complexity, hunter-gatherer bands did have a rudimentary form of the division of labor. Anthropological and archaeological evidence suggests (as I mention in my post) that the sexual division of labor is as old as our species. In hunter-gatherer bands, it is almost always the men who hunt and the women who gather.

      After the first great integral demographic shift from nomadism to agriculturalism, there was an increase in the division of labor of a unprecedented order of magnitude, but this was not an absolute novelty of the shift.

      Since women were usually the gathers, it is probably women who were the first agriculturalists in semi-sedentary bands, and we see several early matriarchal societies emerging in a time when women were producing the better part of the calories consumed by the society. However, with the emergence of settled society and the wealth from the surplus value of agriculturalism, there emerges not long after depredations by nomadic remnants, who prey upon the settled peoples. This in turn produces a warrior caste in settled societies, and this once again enforces male power and patriarchal societies.

      Best wishes,


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