Bowdoin College

Anomic Division of Labour

“The division of labor supposes that the worker, far from remaining bent over his task,does not lose sight of those co-operating with him,but acts upon them and is acted upon by them. He is not therefore a machine who repeats movements the sense of which he does not perceive, but he knows that they are tending in a certain direction, towards a goal that he can conceive of more or less distinctly. He feels that he is of some use. [...] Thenceforth, however specialized, however uniform his activity may be, it is that of an intelligent being, for he knows that his activity has a meaning.” (Page 308, Durkheim)

This goes against Marx’s idea of the alienation of labor.  I view Durkheim’s claim here very critically.  It makes me think of the example of iphone manufacturing in China that Professor Murthy mentioned in class.  I do not think that wage laborers necessarily see a connection to the products they produce, nor do they feel a deep connection to the other laborers in the factory.  (Especially now where unions are often seen as taboo.)  If the worker has “a goal that he can conceive of more or less distinctly” my guess is that it would be hitting the clock out button at the end of his shift and knowing that another day’s wages will be added to his paycheck.

I also take issue with Durkheim’s claim that the division of labor produces conflict simply because of the rapid development through industrialization and globalization: that it is situational conflict.  He may have believed at the time that “these new conditions of industrial life naturally require a new organization” and that “because these transformations have been accomplished with extreme rapidity the conflicting interests have not had a chance to strike equilibrium.” (Durkheim, 306)  Yet, since Durkheim wrote this essay the conflicting interests between wage laborers and capitalist bosses have not been mitigated.

I am not convinced by Durkheim’s argument that “the division of labour does not produce these consequences through some imperative of its own nature, but only in exceptional and abnormal circumstances.” (307)  At the bottom of the ladder there will always be workers doing the boring, unsatisfying “lifeless cog” tasks.  I do not understand why Durkheim feels a need to defend the system and claim that this is a current anomaly.

But I do appreciate how he draws from Comte in claiming that greater governmental regulation and application of scientific thinking would be beneficial in restructuring societal interactions.  Through more government regulation working conditions could improve and labor relations/ antagonism between the worker and the capitalist could be mitigated.  If the societal contract is not reaching equilibrium on its own, maybe that is the cue for government to step in.

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