Classical Liberalism and the meaning of work
It’s amazing to me that the so-called “neo-liberals” of today are allowed to get away with their implicit appropriation of the philosophy of classical liberalism to such an extent. The term implies that today’s neo-liberals are the lineal ideological descendants of the 18th and 19th century classical liberals. I will argue to the contrary that people like Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, Wilhelm Von Humboldt and John Stuart Mill, among many others, if ones goes by what they actually wrote and not merely on the eulogies of today’s “free-market” ideologues, espoused a philosophy of labour that stands in radical opposition to neo-liberalism. I’ll support this contention with a series of quotations from the classical liberals just mentioned.
Let’s first take Adam Smith. It’s well known, at least by anyone that didn’t make it past the first few pages of Wealth of Nations, that Smith praises to the heavens the unbridled application of the division of labour to the promotion of advances in productive efficiency. Smith uses the example of factory production of pins and makes reasonable arguments for favouring some degree of division of labour. However, persevering beyond the opening pages of the book, one will encounter passages like this one decrying tendencies to carry the division of labour too far, due to the negative effects this will have on the development of human beings:
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
Alexis de Tocqueville similarly argued in a chapter called How An Aristocracy May Be Created By Manufacturers in his book Democracy in America that if the division of labour is allowed to proceed to its logical conclusion it will both destroy the essential meaning of human labour and facilitate a new tyranny of masters over a workforce of men made “more weak, more narrow-minded, and more dependent” by the forced repetition of menial tasks. This is also the chapter in which his famous aphorism “the art advances, the artisan recedes” appears:
“In proportion as the principle of the division of labor is more extensively applied, the workman becomes more weak, more narrow-minded, and more dependent. The art advances, the artisan recedes. On the other hand, in proportion as it becomes more manifest that the productions of manufactures are by so much the cheaper and better as the manufacture is larger and the amount of capital employed more considerable, wealthy and educated men come forward to embark in manufactures, which were heretofore abandoned to poor or ignorant handicrafts-men. The magnitude of the efforts required and the importance of the results to be obtained attract them. Thus at the very time at which the science of manufactures lowers the class of workmen, it raises the class of masters.” [my emphasis]
Thomas Jefferson expressed similar concerns on the dissolution of American democracy by the establishment of a new aristocracy of corporate rule, for example in his warning about the ambitions of the young men of the Federalist Party in this letter to William Branch Giles :
“But this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry. This will be to them a next best blessing to the monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest stepping-stone to it.”
I think the above passage (and the previous one from de Tocqueville) illustrates sufficiently well that classical liberals espoused a pre-capitalist philosophy of labour and that Jefferson, a classical liberal who lived long enough to see an emerging capitalist system, did not like what he saw or share its values. This pre-capitalist conception of the true purpose of labour as an end itself, vis-à-vis the development of self-directing free artisans, not as a mere means to ever more efficient production of ever more goods, solely for the private profits of a new managerial aristocracy, runs straight through the heart of all classical liberalism, like the writing through the centre of a stick of rock. This philosophy is summed up beautifully in the third chapter of Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s book On The Limits Of State Action:
“There is no pursuit whatever, nothing with which a man can concern himself, that may not give to human nature some worthy and determinate form, and furnish fair means for its ennoblement. The manner of its performance is the only thing to be considered; and we may here lay down the general rule, that a man’s pursuits re-act beneficially on his culture, so long as these, and the energies allied with them, succeed in filling and satisfying the wants of his soul; while their influence is not only less salutary, but even pernicious, when he directs his attention more exclusively to the results to which they conduce, and regards the occupation itself merely as a necessary means.”
The above passage can serve as a devastating critique of the modern industrial wage labour system of neo-liberal democracies. How many a man in today’s world can truly claim that his work satisfies “the wants of his soul” and is not merely a “necessary means” to getting paid his salary? John Stuart Mill credited Humboldt as influential in inspiring his famous essay On Liberty – perhaps he could inspire a modern conception of liberty, one regarding labour’s purpose as the spiritual enrichment of the labourer and not the monetary enrichment of an overseer?
I think the ideas of classical liberals in relation to waged labour are very natural ones, ones which we only appear to have forgotten in the wake of a fervent storm of pro-corporate “neo-liberal” propaganda turned on us throughout the 20th century. We are a comparatively free society, hence we have the means to develop the genuinely democratic institutions required to direct our highly productive industrial technologies toward the performance of menial tasks, as opposed to the enrichment of the few, thus freeing the many to pursue far more creative and individually meaningful work than is possible under current systems of corporate control. All it takes is for enough of us to recall our natural, but suppressed, human ideas about meaningful labour – merely to rediscover what was understood by people living two hundred years ago.
I’ll finish with this link to a lovely modern enunciation of classical liberal ideas and their continuing relevance by Noam Chomsky.