The division of labour is the specialisation of cooperating individuals who perform specific tasks and roles.

It is thought of as perhaps supremely alienating by Marxists, though I never found out why that really is, I think?

Is it conceivable that we are all labouring to create culture, now?

  • Well there's culture; and there's kultcha. I'd say we're all laboring (pardon my Yank spelling) to create the latter. There's very little of the former these days.
    – user4894
    Sep 6, 2014 at 23:09
  • most art theorists would say that high / low brow culture is blurred now
    – user6917
    Sep 7, 2014 at 22:56

3 Answers 3


I take it the Marxist critique often called the "division of labor" is about a couple of things at once:

  1. The reconfiguration of work from a communal affair -- all farming in the field to working in factories producing goods for people you never see
  2. The corresponding introduction of class where there is now a laboring class and a management class and a bourgeois class that buys the goods and has the numbers to keep the laboring peasants down. (Here, we are talking about what Hegel calls recognition, i.e. Master and Slave).
  • could you please add to the hegel citation, as unfortunately i know nothing about the master slave dialectic esp wrt marx
    – user6917
    Sep 9, 2014 at 21:05

The question is not the division of labour; after all it takes several kinds of skills to build a house - say an architect and a builder; but the atomisation of labour in factories where very small and discrete tasks are set. Thus reducing 'artisans' to mere tools.

This is just one dimension to the notion of alienation.

This idea, which may seem 'Marxist' in orientation was actually introduced by Adam Smith who wrote in his Wealth of Nations:

"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.

The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life...

But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it."

and echoed by Marx:

Marx argued that increasing the specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. He described the process as alienation: workers become more and more specialized and work becomes repetitive, eventually leading to complete alienation from the process of production. The worker then becomes "depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine".

It was here that the concept of alienation was isolated; but this is only one dimension of said concept.

For Simone Weil, a Marxist intrellectuel who worked in a French factory for three months she discovered that a factory creates:

"une docilité de bête de somme résignée"

("the docility of a resigned beast of burden").

and she had also written in her notebooks that the speed itself of factory work deadens the soul, whilst orders that one have to accept deaden consciousness.

  • 1
    I mean this is also kind of the kernel of it: the transition from tool to machine, artisan/peasant to factory labor; social knowledge in human minds and hands versus being "reified" in industrial machines, automated processes, etc
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 6, 2014 at 14:49
  • @weissman: sure; I'm don't quite understand the distinction that you are making between 'tool' and 'machine'; I think this is one thing that I find difficult with Deleuze - his reduction of all to machines of one kind or another. The artisan, to me includes the professionally skilled such as engineers and lawyers, rather than skilled labour. Sep 6, 2014 at 15:10
  • This transition from ("human-mastered") tools to ("automatic") industrial machines is to my mind one of the key senses of Marxian alienation -- partly because of this shift in the nature and location of social knowledge; but maybe I'm missing something here?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 6, 2014 at 15:12
  • I mean to say this is what Marx himself talks about in terms of the alienation of labor: the expropriation not just of the results but of "meaningful" work which "improves" the individual. It is not just a question of self- versus externally-directed work; but the nature and quality of your life as a worker, the de-skilling effect of automation, the way knowledge is increasingly locating in human-autonomous technical processes, abstractions, etc
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 6, 2014 at 15:15
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    @weissman: yes, that is true - and its why I said just one dimention of alienation; and its also important; in undivided labour, one owns the work - thats easy; but in undivided labour, who owns it is a much more difficult question. Sep 6, 2014 at 15:22

Smith argued in his magnum opus,that the division of labour is not a human invention,rather it is a natural phenomena. We have not created cooperate alienation culture rather it is a natural invention.

  • Do you have a quote that demonstrates this? The quote in my answer demonstrates that he deplored certain aspects of it - but doesn't demonstrate how he conceptualised its origins. Sep 11, 2014 at 5:13

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