The Division of Labor Is the Meaning of Life

A passenger exits an Uber car on 6th Avenue in New York City in 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The historical origins of capitalism shed light on our current crisis.

I  would like you to entertain, for a moment, an idea that might sound a little eccentric, or maybe as plain and obvious as a thing can be. It is this:

The division of labor is the meaning of life.

I do not mean this metaphorically or analogically, but literally.

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Life begins with the cell, and the cell is defined by a minimum of specialization: membrane, cytoplasm, and (usually) nucleus.

What makes a cell a living cell is a matter of some slight imprecision: Most living cells reproduce, but some (such as neurons) do not; most cells have nuclei and DNA, but mature red blood cells do not; etc. But the generally shared characteristics of living cells all depend upon the division of labor within the cell: order, sensitivity to stimuli, growth and reproduction, maintenance of homeostasis, and metabolism.

The cell is defined by the division of labor among the organelles and other cellular constituents. That gets us to the single-celled organism. Next comes division of labor among cells rather than within them. When cells begin to divide labor among themselves, they form tissues and organs, which in turn divide labor to produce organ systems and, ultimately, complex organisms.

Or maybe not ultimately.

In certain cases, the individual members of a species divide labor in such a way as to function as a superorganism, or a colonial organism. The famous cases of this include the Portuguese man o’ war, ants, and bees.

Human beings are not colonial organisms in this formal sense; unlike bees or ant species in which only the queen reproduces, every normal and healthy human being possesses the features and ability of every other normal and healthy member of the species—although even here we must account for the division of reproductive labor by sex. From the point of view of sexual reproduction, the clonal ant might have a better claim to being a biologically autonomous individual than does the human being, though both species have a sophisticated division of labor.

We are not colonial organisms. But human beings isolated from other human beings do not thrive. Even in situations in which the material needs of the human animal are satisfied, the human being in isolation degenerates quickly, both mentally and physically. There are many examples of this, but you can get a good indication of the phenomenon reading through the American Civil Liberties Union’s report on prison isolation, “A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row.”

The division of labor among human beings is not a purely economic phenomenon—it is also a social and emotional one. The human need for other human beings is so deep as to be fundamental. This should, properly understood, complicate our understanding of individualism and our rhetoric about it.

In 21st-century human society, the mode of social life is so closely identified with the particularities of the division of labor that the two are practically identical. Even many of the so-called social issues are ultimately questions of the division of labor, for instance within marriage and family life, where changing attitudes toward sex (gender is a grammatical term) in relation to marriage, child-rearing, homosexuality, and other questions challenge ancient divisions of labor between men and women.

Which is to say, changes in the division of labor are by necessity changes in the mode of social life; radical, far-reaching, and sudden changes in the division of labor are, in the favorite term of Silicon Valley, “disruptive.”

They are disruptive economically in the familiar Schumpeterian sense of “creative destruction,” but they are socially disruptive as well, eroding or upending relationships between individuals, communities, and institutions, introducing new insecurity and uncertainty into status hierarchies and social relations that had seemed to be fixed, at least from the point of view of those whose lives are defined by those disrupted status hierarchies and distressed social relations.

We have seen this kind of disruptive capitalism before. Historians call it “the Renaissance,” though the writers of history have reached no consensus about what that term means, when the period it describes began or ended, or what its principal qualities are.

Historians date the fall of the Roman Empire to September 4, 476 anno Domini, when Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, the teen-aged Romulus Augustulus. But if you had asked a Roman citizen about the fall of the empire a day or a week or a year later, he’d have been perplexed.

He wouldn’t know the empire had fallen.

Life went on, very much as it had. Julius Nepos called himself the emperor in the West, and the Roman senate continued to meet for at least another century. Roman law and Roman institutions continued to prevail in many parts of the Western empire, at least to the diminished extent that they had prevailed in the declining power up to 476 A.D. The fall of Rome was not a definitive event.

Similarly, no one in the Renaissance seemed to know that he was living in a Renaissance. In fact, the Renaissance as we know it is in no small part the invention of one 19th-century historian, Jakob Burckhardt, whose classic work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, pulled together the main strands of what we think of as the Renaissance into a coherent historical narrative: the rediscovery of the art, literature, and philosophy of antiquity; the emergence of secular culture; the turn away from monastic otherworldliness toward worldly affairs and pleasures; the turn to logic and reason that would lead to the Enlightenment.

That did not come out of nowhere. In fact, the cultures of the medieval period and of what we call the Renaissance were in many ways continuous. But not in all ways. There was a renaissance of many things, most important among them being cities.

The Roman way of life was an urban way of life. The pope today delivers addresses to “urbi et orbi,” to the city—Rome—and the world. But in a certain sense, to the Roman mind the city was the world, and everything else was subordinate to it. And it was the urban mode of life that declined after the fall of the Roman Empire—that is what made the Dark Ages dark.

Feudalism arose in Europe as a response to the decline of commerce. It did not arise in response to the decline of the Roman Empire but to the later decline of the Carolingian Empire, whose leaders, having lost touch with earlier Roman financial and administrative practices, proved unable to protect their people and their trade routes from the Magyar raiders and Vikings who were pillaging practically all of Western Europe. Later, Muslim powers in the East would largely cut Europe off from Mediterranean trade. Venice was practically alone in maintaining trade with the East through the Adriatic.

The lack of trade and of the cultural exchange associated with economic exchange can have terrible consequences for a culture. Archaeologists have found evidence of isolated island peoples discovering and then losing the same piece of technology (a barbed fish hook, in one case) several times over the course of many generations, whereas those people who were in contact with other neighboring peoples did not forget their technological innovations. In the same way, the indigenous British people declined in their standard of material life and technological sophistication to a level well below where they had been prior to their first contact with the Romans. Trade, as it turns out, is not just about widgets.

As Wallace K. Ferguson puts it in The Renaissance, the decline of commerce left central governments and subjects alike with little recourse. “As a result,” he writes

Men sought protection from private lords on whatever terms were offered, while the lords seized the political and judicial powers that fell from the hands of helpless rulers. The political and social structures of feudalism thus became almost identical, both composed of the same personal relations. Both rested, moreover, on the same economic base, the tenure of land.

… From the ninth to the eleventh century, there was little exchange of goods save on a local scale, and hence little need for money. A natural economy of barter and exchange of services largely replaced the money economy inherited from the ancient world. Meanwhile, the rural isolation of society was further intensified by the lack of adequate means of communication and by the appalling dangers and difficulties of travel.

Natural economy and poor communications do not necessarily lead to political disintegration, but they do put almost insuperable obstacles in the way of central government. When the wealth of a country can neither be exchanged for money nor shipped without great difficulty, the income of the central government must be exceedingly limited, and what income there is cannot be effectively mobilized to meet governmental expenses.

Feudalism, properly understood, then, was a stopgap emergency measure developed ad hoc in response to the crisis of central government. But in a largely illiterate world composed of largely isolated communities, conditions of two or three generations’ standing may come to be understood as ancient tradition, and perhaps unalterable tradition. The Christian Church supplied a moral theory in support of feudalism, based on Saint Paul’s metaphorical treatment of the specialized members of the body and their ultimate harmony in the division of labor. Feudal society had three classes—peasant, nobility, and clergy—and each class performed its own specialized labor: working, fighting, and thinking.

Social arrangements, status relations, and economic relations were, under feudalism, almost entirely unified, and the relevant relationships were intensely personal. There was no nationalism, and there were no real nation-states. There were lords and vassals, lieges and feudatories, barons and serfs. And though the kings, nobility, and Church might have their differences in this or that political matter, they all made their living the same way: from the land.

What they had was a stable division of labor, meaning a largely stable mode of life.

Until it was disrupted.

With the decline of the Muslim powers in the Mediterranean, the cities of Italy, where urban life had not been eradicated as entirely as it had been in much of the rest of Europe, began to bring back commerce, which meant a revival of urban life and the creation of a new class of Europeans: the burghers, men of the cities who made their livings from commerce and trade, who alone were liberated from the life of the land, a boast that the kings, barons, and clergy could not make. A century or two later as the Scandinavians began their long slow transformation into the peaceful and neighborly people we know today, a similar process began in the Netherlands, with important centers of trade eventually developing in Amsterdam and in Flemish cities such as Antwerp and Bruges. The Netherlands developed what some economists regard as the first truly modern economy.

Capitalism began to radically improve the material standard of life for all those it touched, beginning with the burghers in the cities and the merchant princes, but also the peasants who benefited from new and more stable sources of food and other goods.

This great blessing was, of course, hated and resented, and such blessings often are.

Capitalism upset the feudal social order. People like to be well housed and well fed, but they also like predictability and certainty, particularly in the delicate matter of social-status hierarchies. The merchants and traders were liberated from the land and were therefore outside the feudal social order. They engaged in corporate self-regulation but were difficult and wily subjects often operating beyond the reach of princes and popes alike. (The Jewish traders were, as we know, hated with a special intensity for having the audacity to flourish at the social margins into which they were pushed.) The Church and the nobility had much to lose as the reintroduction of a money economy disrupted and threatened to supplant political and economic relations based on land tenure. But the commoners did not think too very much of capitalism, either. As Ferguson writes:

Even the peasants, who had less to lose, were suspicious of any alteration in the immemorial custom that formed the framework of their lives. And this conservatism was not limited solely to the sphere of practical affairs. It extended into the world of ideas, or at least into so much of that terra incognita as the feudal classes ever cared to explore. The seed of new ideas found scant nourishment in feudal soil. The way of life of noble and peasant, originally formed in an age of half-barbarous isolation, was never calculated to inspire intellectual curiosity.

But it was not only the merchant princes who were empowered by the return of the money economy. Gold is stored and transported more easily than bushels of wheat or potatoes, and it is more easily exchanged for services, too, including the services of professional soldiers and administrators. With the return of the money economy came the return of central government, albeit in a new form as kings who were in essence regional warlords transformed themselves into something more like the executives of nation-states. As the monarchs began to discover something like nationalism, so did the people, who previously had felt their strongest allegiances toward a transnational organization—the Church—and their feudal relationships, and did not understand themselves to be citizens of any nation in the modern sense. They had patrias, not polities. But that began to change.

As capitalism began to overturn the social relationships of feudalism, the newly deracinated citizens of the emerging capitalist world began to look for new sources of status and meaning. It is worth noting that radical anticlericalism first took root in the new burgher urban cultures, and that in the end Protestantism would make of itself a nationalist project—the Church of England, etc.—that found its greatest purchase in the new capitalist heartland: England and the Netherlands. Reactionary fanaticism, such as the ministry of Savonarola, grew from the same cultural ferment. Ultimately, such modern ideologies as socialism and fascism would be founded on the same causes, with Marx’s complaints about the “alienation” of labor harkening back to the first stirrings of capitalism at the end of the Medieval period.

The parallels with our own time are obvious enough. Money is essentially a record-keeping system, and the displacement of barter and personal services by a money economy represented a kind of information economy radically different from what had come before.

What we call “globalization” is a sudden radical expansion in the worldwide division of labor—a miracle of human cooperation that, as such miracles so often are, goes mostly unappreciated and unloved, and often hated. Our globalization is hated for the same reason that Renaissance globalization was hated: It disrupts existing status arrangements and introduces new elements of insecurity and anxiety into communities whose members had believed their situations to be fixed, if not ordained—and who believe that they have a natural right to the fixity of those situations, and that the duty of the state is to secure them. Our Silicon Valley billionaires are denounced as “rootless cosmopolitans” (the phrase itself derives from the anti-Semitic socialist purges of the 1940s and 1950s) and are resented for their transnational lives and transnational interests, as well as for their preference for self-regulation and their slipperiness in the face of merely national mandates. Like the merchant princes of Florence, they lead lives that seem impossibly indulgent and patronize cultural and political forces that perplex, irritate, and offend the partisans of peasant conservatism.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, special vitriol is reserved for a new kind of division of labor: the casual “gig” work associated with firms such as Uber. This opportunistic work provides important income to many people who could not otherwise get it as conveniently, and it performs the important function of allowing people of more modest means to convert their property into capital. But this comes with none of the old assurances: health insurance, pensions, the gold watch at the end of a long tenure of service, etc. It is easy to be sentimental about those old assurances, and to forget that almost nobody in 2019 really wants a 1950 standard of living (you can have it—cheap!), but we should keep in mind that the economy has evolved the way it has because people have made certain choices that comport with their preferences in the face of the unalterable reality that is scarcity.

That makes some of us uneasy, if not enraged.

And just as the alienated Europeans of the Renaissance turned to new sources of identity and meaning, so do we, in everything from the slightly comical turn to neo-Paganism in the quest for a unified “European” identity (which is not entirely distinct from the white-nationalist tendency, even if not quite subsumed by it) to more serious forms of political and cultural radicalism. Of course the feudal way of life was not as ancient as its practitioners imagined, and if God had a stronger preference for it, He has not made Himself heard on the issue. But neither was the immediate postwar economic and social order of the United States divinely ordained, or even normal, being, as it was, based on extraordinary economic and political conditions related to the destruction of Europe and its productive capital by the war.

By any meaningful standard of measurement, these are, materially speaking, the best years the human race has ever experienced—and the best years the American people have ever experienced, too. Health, wealth, safety, freedom, opportunity—never better. When Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States of America and hence the most powerful man in the world, his son died because of a blister on his toe acquired during a game of tennis. It’s a different and better world.

The division of labor giveth, but it also taketh away. The pains we are feeling in the developed world are growing pains, but they are painful nonetheless. We may like the fruits of disruption—forget that “may,” we like and love the fruits of disruption—but the process itself is uncomfortable and bewildering, and it imposes real losses on some people, too, mainly those who are not well-positioned to adapt themselves to a new mode of work and hence a new mode of life.

Globalization is building a bigger beehive. It is recruiting new cells into the organism, with new and very fine modes of specialization. In that sense, it is growth, literally: smaller political economies growing into a larger one.

There is no alternative to the division of labor, because there is no alternative to life.

Except the obvious one.

–This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered in April at Georgetown University.

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