Liberalism Revisited


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.


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