Monthly Archives: January 2010


Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times shows the effects that the division of labor has on the workers’ bodies. Even when Chaplin is on a break, and not tightening bolts on the assembly line, his body is still making the movements that he makes while working. Work makes its mark on his body’s memory, which is slow to catch up on the fact that Chaplin is taking a break. We get a very different take on the division of labor at the beginning of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. There, the division of labor is praised for the increase of productivity that it has brought: instead of one person making, say, one hundred pins a day, the pin factory assembly line now yields ten times as much—a surplus that opens up new possibilities for exchange. For exchange is what the division of labor facilitates: overproduction allows the human being to live out its natural propensity to exchange, truck, and barter. In Smith’s narrative, each individual’s pursuit of her or his own self-interest will become part of a collective chorus that, guided by what he famously refers to as the invisible hand, will produce an unprecedented wealth for the nation as a whole. But wealth for whom? Made on the backs of whom?

Much later in The Wealth of Nations, in a chapter on education, Smith writes very powerfully about the negative effects the division of labor has on the worker: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too 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 judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life”. To prevent this, Smith calls, perhaps surprisingly for those who turn him into the icon of the free market, on the “government”.

How different this is from today’s neo-liberalism! How much closer to Chaplin! The government is actually called in here to save us from the detrimental effects of the division of labor—to take care of the backs and the minds that are broken while the general wealth of the nation improves. It is government that marks the limit here of capitalist exploitation. To call this kind of intervention “totalitarian” means to miss the mark entirely. As Michel Foucault writes towards the end of The Birth of Biopolitics: “We should not delude ourselves by attributing to the state itself a process of becoming fascist which is actually exogenous and due much more to the state’s reduction and dislocation”. It is, in other words, precisely neo-liberalism and its stripping away of government protection that is fascist.

References: Chaplin, Charlie. Modern Times (Association Chaplin, 2003); Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library, 2000; Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979. Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2008. Image: Dan Davis, i, scratchboard drawing, 2010.



There is a page in the graphic novel Watchmen in which Adrian Veidt—also known as Ozymandias—waxes autobiographical, and tells the story of his coming into manhood: how as a child, he was exceptionally bright and underperformed on tests in order not to arouse suspicion; how he was orphaned at age seventeen and gave away his parents’ inheritance in order to “do everything”; how he then traveled in the steps of his idol, Alexander the Great, whose grand plan of bringing illumination to the world he wanted to match. “Alexander of Macedonia. I idolized him. A young army commander, he’d swept along the coasts of Turkey and Phoenicia, subduing Egypt before turning his armies towards Persia … Ruling without barbarism! At Alexandria, he instituted the ancient world’s greatest seat of learning. True, people died… perhaps unnecessarily. Though who can judge such things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of a united world!”

The passage anticipates, of course, Veidt’s grand plan for a united world: he will send a gigantic octopus-like brain to New York—a construction that will bring death to thousands and mess with the people’s minds for years after it has materialized. The plan is to blame the attack on extra-terrestrials, in order to thus unite the US and the USSR and save the world from the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. The world will be united not in peace, but against a (non-existing) extra-terrestrial enemy. The pages in the novel’s twelfth chapter depicting the event leave no doubt: Veidt chooses to enact a veritable holocaust in order to bring about his vision of the world. “True, people died … perhaps unnecessarily. Though who can judge such things?”

This line—who can judge an action such as Veidt’s?—echoes a position reflected in Hegel’s Introduction to The Philosophy of History. Speaking there of the progression of world history, of the progressive coming-to-self-consciousness of reason or spirit, Hegel praises world-historical figures such as Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon, for being in touch with an inner spirit that is not limited by morality and religion but acts in concert, rather, with world spirit. It’s soul-leaders such as Caesar—whose De Bello Gallico speak to the genocide he committed in Gaul—that drive world history forwards. According to Hegel, common morality does not apply to them. “[M]oral claims must not be raised against world-historical acts and those who do them, as those claims do not apply here. The litany of private virtues—modesty, humility, love of humanity, charity—must not be raised against them. World history should altogether ignore the circle comprising morality and the oft-mentioned difference between morality and politics”. So what is the morality that is at work in politics? Is politics utterly devoid of morality? Does it have a different morality? And what possibilities does this leave for taking figures such as Adrian Veidt, and by extension our political leaders today, to court?

References: Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to The Philosophy of History. Trans. Leo Rauch. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1988; Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Image: Dan Davis, Halcyon Days Are Here Again (Firebird), 2007.