Division of Opinion

August 27, 2009

ruskin Adam Smith - Enlightenment

I have been reading The Lamp of Beauty, a selection of John Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art.  The preface states that one reason for reading him is to find the source of so many ideas about art that we take for granted these days, and that’s true.  Even when I come across a theme with which I am familiar as one of his, say, the importance of craft, I am struck by the force of his statements and the depth of his critique of industrial society.

Here’s a little face off between Ruskin, the romantic godfather of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and Adam Smith…you all know who he is.  The topic is the division of labor in industrial production.  For Smith, an unalloyed good; for Ruskin, the source of mental and physical slavery and aesthetic degradation.

from the beginning of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.
. . .
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one [the making of pins]; though in many of them the labor can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labor, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage. This separation too is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society, being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer. The labor too which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture, is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!
. . .
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.
. . .
I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so such exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

from The Stones of Venice: The Nature of the Gothic

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men . . . It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And how, it will be asked, are these products to be recognized, and this demand to be regulated? Easily: by the observance of three broad and simple rules:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which  Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.


Anatomy of the “Dismal Science”

February 9, 2008

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Reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution got me curious about him. A friend of liberty? He describes the epochal event in 700 close print pages of exciting narrative. A stormy, breathless, you-are-there quality, with dashes of sarcasm and much heavy irony, makes it fascinating reading. What did he mean by writing On Heroes and Hero-Worship? No, he was no friend of democracy, liberty, and the common man, though he did begin as a radical. In fact, he seems to have been a rather tortured intellect, maybe a tormented soul.

While thumbing through his life, however, I came upon this interesting tidbit about him and his coinage, perhaps his most famous, i.e., economics is “the dismal science.” It can easily be interpreted as a protest against the pessimistic, inhumane, and souless discipline of a “science” devoted to money. Well, think again…

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century
by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart

The image at the top is a medallion produced by the abolitionist industrialist, Josiah Wedgewood. JW was good friends with that practitioner of the dismal science and fellow abolitionist, Adam Smith. (Darwin was married to one of JW’s family, and was also an abolitionist, as well as being about 100 years ahead of his time on the question of race. Not only was he against slavery, not only did he think that Africans were the same (species) as Europeans, but he was actually friends with some.) This children of The Enlightenment – that fearsomely evil, anti-moral, godless, soul-destroying ideology – seem like pretty good guys compared to Thomas Carlyle, romantic apologist for dictatorship and slavery.

Still, he was a pretty nice looking fellow, don’t you think?

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Bubbly Economics

December 21, 2007

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If you have read my recent post on Ayn Rand, or if you keep tabs on right wing pseudo-intellectualism in general, you might be interested in Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times today. Writing about the ongoing mortgage debacle, he derides Alan Greenspan and others for their inaction regarding the real estate lending bubble that is now deflating rapidly and with great consequences for the economy as a whole. He regards it as a triumph of extreme ideology, and he specifically singles out for mention Alan Greenspan and his lifelong devotion to the ideas of Ayn Rand. I quote:

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

Sound familiar? How can anyone believe such rot? Then or now? Of course, the Nobelist Milton Friedman was similarly hypnotized by the “power of the market.” So interesting, then, to read Adam Smith, the granddad of modern economics and to see his views on the merchant class. I quote once again his remarks on the merchant class, from The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Of course, I can’t resist putting in another Gillray link, this time on the theme of uncorking…

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That Invisible Hand…

February 4, 2005

Some instructive quotations regarding the free market and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand:”

From The Wealth of Nations:

 

  • [the individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

From the New York Times today in an article on Enron and power sales to California :

  • The tapes provide new details of market manipulation during the California energy crisis that produced blackouts and billions of dollars of surcharges to homes and businesses on the West Coast in 2000 and 2001.
  • In one January 2001 telephone tape of an Enron trader the public utility identified as Bill Williams and a Las Vegas energy official identified only as Rich, an agreement was made to shut down a power plant providing energy to California. The shutdown was set for an afternoon of peak energy demand.

Remember Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks during that period: some blather about how we must allow the “free market” to do its work?

From Adam Smith again:

  • People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Maybe these “conservatives” should study their heroes a little bit more.

Smith again:

  • …the capricious ambition of kings and ministers has not, during the present and the preceding century, been more fatal to the repose of Europe than the impertinent jealousy of merchants and manufacturers who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind.

Adam Smith, father of capitalism. Pretty smart guy, eh?


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