Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Division of labour - the rise and fall of The West


As Adam Smith first made clear, continually-increasing division of labour is the key to continually-increasing productivity - DoL is necessary but not sufficient to modernity.

(Division of Labour can also be seen as cognitive specialization)

I am continually struck by the way in which this key to the rise of the West is also the key to its collapse.


The West began with the primary division of 'labour' between Church and State - and the process has proceeded incrementally ever since.

Presumably, at some point there was an optimal division of labour - which had the best balance between efficiency of units and cohesion between units - but that point has long ago been passed as the number of units has expanded exponentially, and now there is neither efficiency nor cohesion - as can be seen most unambiguously in science.


Consider the current world crisis. It is not going to be solved because there is nobody - no powerful individual or group - who has it as their primary job to solve it.

Everybody's job is to solve something smaller - and the small thing can most easily be solved at the cost of the big thing.

Democratic governments do not want to solve the crisis as much as they want to get elected.

The media do not want to solve the crisis as much as they want to attract and hold mass public attention.

Finance people do not want to solve the crisis as much as they want to make money.

Trades unions do not want to solve the crisis as much as they want to enhance the pay and conditions of their members.

And so on all the way through every institution.

(Any leader which did try to make it their job to solve the crisis would by doing so fail at their primary job, and would be ousted by those who did the primary job.)


When labour is divided from top to bottom, government is not just difficult - it is impossible.

World government is nobody's job - in nations that are democracies government is not even the job of 'the government'.

Of course, some people believe that democracy is the solution, not the problem - they believe that the magic of mass voting is somehow able to harmonize specialized interests. But obviously it doesn't and cannot - why on earth should it?


To be specific, there is no way that the product of diverse cognitive specialization can be synthesized, since each specialization is incommensurable with the others - has different data, rules, language, objectives - you cannot synthesize science and the law, or media and the military, or the economy and the environment.

All that can be done is to put one above the other hierarchically and practice the lower in terms of the higher - and the same is necessary at a societal level.

The division between Church and State was a mistake - when they divided one or the other must rule, or else there will be no integration and society will tear itself apart - since short-term efficiency of the parts will tend to evolve at the expense of long-term efficiency of the whole.

(It is always more immediately expedient for itself for bureaucracy to expand a bit more - even as each incremental expansion is a step closer to killing the host society. Mutatis mutandis for government vote-buying, legal regulation, taxes, trades unions, sceintific hype, media distortions...)


The world crisis can be 'solved' - presumably in many separate pieces - only as the division of labour is reversed (as modernity is reversed), and all human activities are again re-integrated in hierarchies under a single principle - because only then will there be a ruling principle that will have an interest in solving the crisis.

The ruling principle may not solve the crisis, but until there is a ruling principle the crisis cannot be solved. (Necessary but not sufficient.)


But... the resulting society/ societies will be much less efficient than modernity at its peak, when labour was optimally divided yet disintegration had not yet happened (probably held-off by sheer inertia).

Because the resulting society/ ies will be much less efficient, there will be a 'mass extinction' since the vastly over-expanded and still expanding human species will be unable to support itself (which would happen anyway without further economic growth - but when the world economy declines as a consequence of re-integration then it will be that much more severe).

The implication seems to be that society cannot cohere enough to solve the long-term crisis without very substantial de-differentiation and hierarchical reorganization - which itself must reduce productivity and itself lead to an immediate short term crisis.

As usual/ always things can only get better (or survive at all) via getting worse; and the longer postponed the worse, the worse will have to be - but eventually the worst will happen anyway, want it or not.



  1. Bad, worse, or worst, become relative terms when seen to be inevitable.
    Good, better, best, might easily be substituted, depending upon one's depth of vision.
    Does one's own, personal extinction constitute a bad, or worst thing, when balanced against the survival of species? Unless one is interested solely in oneself, it does not.
    Greater love hath no man...

  2. @Crow - "Does one's own, personal extinction constitute a bad, or worst thing, when balanced against the survival of species?"

    What is the ground from which this could be answered?

    Most people throughout history and in the world today do not believe in the possibility of human extinction - they believe that death is a transition of some kind (with much disagreement of what kind).

    I don't know that many, or any, people are much concerned with the human species as such - not so as they would actually do anything about it - although of course many people are very concerned by their relatives and loved one; and also by their 'tribe' and culture.

    So - I would have to re-frame your question!

  3. Sorry. Rhetorical question. A questionable trait I tend to have.
    Seeing things in a larger perspective than "me" and "I", one's own survival ceases being the be-all and end-all.
    Besides: if one knows - or believes - one's essence is eternal, it becomes academic, anyway, apart from the trifling matter of possible pain and suffering.
    Probably nobody, no matter their outlook, much relishes that idea.

  4. @Crow - that can't be right, surely? For example, the ancient Jews believed that they would survive forever after death but as miserable and half-witted ghosts - the 'good news' from Jesus was that instead of being (or remaining) a perpetually suffering soul, there was a chance of being re-made with a perfected body in a new world.

    On the whole, the universal human instinct seems to be that death is "a bad thing", and indeed an unnatural state - with the immmortal soul severed from the mortal body, and thereby maimed and suffering. Something further needs to happen if things are not to be appalling forever.

    The idea that death 'doesn't matter' is a rather sophisticated and intellectual minority idea: therefore almost certainly mistaken!

  5. Equality puts those closest to the lowest common denominator in charge.

  6. Is it division of labor as such that's the problem or a rationalized system that makes it universally applicable so that the rationality of the system is the only principle of unity?

    Traditional governing structures had a personal principle of unity--the king, the emperor, the ruling house. The king etc. had good reason to govern in a way that would be beneficial long term because his descendants were going to inherit the throne.

    Similarly, there was a distinction between specialized operatives and unspecialized gentlemen. Liberal education was education to be a gentleman so it was not technical or immediately practical.

    There were nonetheless plenty of technicians and specialized people. The problem arises when it's thought that all human activities can be turned into specialized functions, and in fact that it's already been done, and there's a perfect system in place to coordinate everything, so that all that's needed is for each specialist to perform his function and for the system to take care of the overall good.

  7. @JK - My understanding is that division of labor is a slippery slope: each incremental division of labor further reduces the ability of the system to resist further division of labor.

  8. That's the Taoist view, that all division is bad so stop it before it takes hold. Nobody's ever actually lived that way though. It's a literary conceit for dissatisfied Confucian bureaucrats. When I was in law school I too used to escape from my situation by reading Chuangtse and getting mildly crocked.

    In reality, almost any good that exists involves a balance of opposites on some level or other. That's why good things come to an end in this world, but you do what you can. So if the principle of division breeds ever more division you just have to attach yourself to a principle of unity with the authority to keep things together. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. At that level, it's all up to God.

  9. @JK - yes, you are right.

    If there had been a unity under which (each) Western nation was governed, then probably the division of labour could have been held at a point where it did not cause social disintegration.

    (Perhaps the relative stability with reasonable functionality of the medieval guilds was an example).

    But Western societies were already fragmented spiritually, and could not resist the fissile tendency...