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Adam Smith & Karl Marx: An Unlikely Meeting in The 21st Century Labour Market

Karl Marx and Adam Smith

On the face of it, the ideas of Adam Smith and Karl Marx could not be further apart.

While Smith laid the foundations for the free market, Marx predicted Capitalism’s demise and eventual capitulation to Socialism; one the ‘Father of Modern Capitalism’, the other its greatest critic. And yet when we dig a little deeper, we can find areas where the ideas of these two great economic philosophers not only converge, but can in turn provide valuable lessons for us today

Both Smith and Marx recognised similar effects of certain Capitalist processes on society – that is, the effects of the division of labour. As a principle of organisation, the division of labour has had a long history. But it was Smith’s work on the free market that brought it into modern consciousness.

Smith told the story of the production of pins in a pin factory; he described how production is far more efficient if you have one person each specialising in making a small part of a pin, rather then each trying to make a whole one.

Later, Marx developed the concept, showing it to have two complimentary but distinct aspects; the social division of labour (creating specialist occupations) and the technical division of labour (the progressive breaking down of each role into smaller tasks).

Taking these two aspects together, as a principle and process, the division of labour has been integral to Capitalism itself; it has enabled the increased complexity of industrial processes that was vital for the Industrial Revolution and it has promoted growth in efficiency and output more broadly, even encouraging trade between nations.

And yet, despite its’ centrality to Capitalism and their otherwise ideological opposition, Smith and Marx are on the same page here; the division of labour can have significant negative impacts on the well-being of those within a Capitalist society.

In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith writes:

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of… the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two… [He] generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.

Such sentiments are mirrored by Marx in his Economic Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), where he writes:

“In his work… he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind”.

What effects specifically are Smith and Marx highlighting, and what shape do they take?

In the field of psychology, Self Determination Theory shows us that everything we do in our lives – be that a job, relationship or hobby – impacts our psychological well-being in various ways.

Specifically, it describes how we have three broad areas of psychological needs that foster our well-being; Autonomy (empowerment through being the origin of our own behaviour), Competence (feeling able to enact our behaviour) and Relatedness (feeling connected to and understood by others). Everything we do feeds into one of these needs, either positively (via choice) or negatively (via coercion) affecting our psychological well-being.

In terms of work, if we have a job that we choose to do because we feel engaged and fulfilled, allowing us to find purpose and growth as individuals, then this will feed positively into our well-being.

At the same time, if we feel pressured to be in a job, and we are continuously bored, disengaged, and feel that what we do is meaningless, than this will negatively impact our well-being. The process and effects here are vital to contributing to our feelings of self-worth, which in turn are intimately related to our psychological well-being and mental health.

In this light, Smith and Marx are highlighting that for some of us, our work and the way we experience it can either support or run in direct contradiction to our deeper psychological needs. Specifically, it is that while the social division of labour has the potential to have some positive effects here (as it increases productivity via specialisation), the technical division of labour causes a progressive de-skilling of labour as tasks are broken down into smaller components in the name of ‘efficiency’, in turn causing significant negative effects on psychological well-being.

Smith and Marx witnessed such processes during the years of the Industrial Revolution. Of course, the nature of work for many people has changed since then. In the UK, many of the industrial jobs Smith and Marx wrote about are gone. We are entering a post-industrial era. Nonetheless, while industries have changed, the principle of the division of labour remains firmly embedded in whatever we do. For example, have you ever worked in a job where you sit at computer, performing the same few functions all day? Or in a call centre, making essentially the same calls to different people? This is the technical division of labour in action. And whether you’re making pins in a factory, or generating the same report every day in an office, for some people the results may be the same.

Recent trends serve to illustrate this in the UK.

For example, over one third of UK workers feel that their jobs are meaningless or unfulfilling. Reports show that such feelings of disengagement have very similar results to stress; both can contribute significantly to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. With one in four UK adults experiencing mental health issues each year, how much of this is due to such disengagement?

Clearly, there is an important relationship at play here that is contributing to the growing issues surrounding mental health in the UK. It is not to suggest that certain jobs or the division of labour always cause mental health issues. Instead, it is that we must be able to recognise the repercussions of the ways we organise our society – in this instance, that our patterns of work may have deep impacts on our psychological well-being, and that the scale of this problem may be significant indeed.

The problems we see in the labour market today are not new. Smith and Marx observed these issues hundreds of years ago, and they are still deeply relevant today. In particular, by reflecting on one of the few areas of convergence between Smith and Marx’s ideas, we can see that such disengagement in the workplace and its wider repercussions have causes that are deeply ingrained in the way we organise ourselves in society.

These causes lie in the technical division of labour, where we progressively reduce each job into the smallest number of tasks possible in the pursuit of efficiency. Of course, efforts to promote efficiency in the workplace are unlikely to end anytime soon. Nonetheless, we must ask the question – can we do anything differently to alleviate the effects, or even solve such problems?

And unfortunately, there are few easy answers here.

While Smith and Marx have shown us the cause of such issues, they share little in the way of solutions. They can only take us so far. Instead, we must find a response fit for a modern context.

At the individual level, there are different ways we can try and manage disengagement in work, be that asking for more responsibilities or even changing career all together. If this disengagement has led to difficulties with mental health, we can reach out and talk to mental health care professionals.

When we look around the world, we do see policy proposals that make broader efforts to alleviate the effects too. For instance, the Netherlands and Sweden have experimented with reducing the number of working hours per week, not only benefiting peoples’ well-being, but productivity also. Even still, such policies only take us part of the way.

Fundamentally, if we want to move beyond simply alleviating the side effects of such problems and instead find real solutions, this first requires deep reflection on what our priorities as a society are. Do we stick with the status quo, squeezing as much out of people as possible in the name of efficiency and wealth? Or do we seek to promote social organisation and work practises that foster balanced lifestyles and psychological well-being more broadly?

Although the shape of any change is unclear, we must first ask these questions about our priorities, and then consider what policies or systems of organisation we use to reach them. The national dialogue this requires is yet to begin.

Even at an individual level, it has not started in earnest. But, when we do begin this process, asking questions about what we really need as individuals and as a society, we may come to a simple and powerful recognition; it is not in a large pay check or diversified stock portfolio that we might find happiness, but in finding things in life that allow us to grow and learn and find meaning in what we do.

This is hard realisation to come by. Social structures and values have for years pointed us in the opposite direction. But, when we do make this realisation, it might be a pivotal moment not only in our own lives, but the beginnings of a much needed change for society as a whole.

Originally published here.

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