I found Matthew Summers’ critique of my essay “Capitalism and the Gospel of Love” illuminating in the sense that two serious thinkers can look at the same phenomenon from completely different viewpoints. He seeks to show that capitalism is the best economic system; given capitalism, I seek to understand how to live best; he focuses on the efficient production and distribution of material goods, and I on the interior life of the human person—

Mr. Summers assumes that he and I are engaged in the same enterprise, attempting to persuade others of the best economic system: “The innermost heart of Dr. Stanciu’s critique is the notion that we can substitute a better economic system for capitalism. But unfortunately, he does not specify what we should or ought to do.” The reason that I do not specify an alternative to capitalism is simple: I am not a reformer as Mr. Summers claims; I am a realist and wish to discover how best to live in the world we actually inhabit; to show that the capitalist system is the best possible world, I leave to the Professor Panglosses. Mr. Summers’ conclusion that

market mechanisms such as the profit motive and the price system are instrumental in moving resources efficiently to their most urgent end. There are no viable options for dispensing with or substituting them. Without them, we are essentially groping in the dark

is of central importance to him, and would be to me, if I were a policy-maker in Washington, D.C. For me, capitalism, industrialism, corporate capitalism, crony capitalism—whatever label we choose for the economic order we find ourselves currently thrust into—is a given; the problem, then, is how to navigate this reality without being interiorly crushed or morally compromised.

Let me take the example of the division of labor to illustrate how Mr. Summers and I differ in our respective intellectual enterprises. We both agree with Adam Smith that the division of labor greatly increases the productive power of the worker. By division of labor, Smith means that with the advent of industrialism, the manufacturing of products is broken into simple operations, with each workman skilled in performing one or two simple steps. Smith extols the division of labor as the greatest innovation in material production, ever, and rightly so. To quote my essay:

No one can doubt that two hundred years of capitalism in America created for the wealthy and the poor a superabundance of goods. The typical Walmart Supercenter carries 142,000 different items. A shopper at Kroger or Whole Foods can buy blueberries in December grown in Peru, fresh roses flown in from Columbia, and organic lamb imported from Australia.

Mr. Summers departs company from Smith and me, when we two realists acknowledge the dark side of capitalism: The division of labor contracts the interior life of the worker. When a person performs one or two simple operations, as required by the division of labor, he, according to Smith, “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.”[1] The interior life of an industrial worker collapses to what serves the machine. I find Smith’s description of the interior state of the industrial worker extreme; however, we both agree that industrialism produces an abundance of goods and a decline in the interior life of the worker.

In premodern economies, Smith notes, no one fell into the “drowsy stupidity” induced by the division of labor and “every man ha[d] a considerable degree of knowledge, ingenuity, and invention,” because the labor of the artisan developed the whole person.[2] Mr. Summers scoffed at my discussion of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, but Smith and I are bringing to light the important reality that when a person engages in an operation from beginning to end, he or she develops the interior life.

I fully acknowledged in my essay that the abundance of goods in modern life relies upon the division of labor and that this given of economic life cannot be eliminated. Nevertheless, Mr. Summers assumes that I desire the end of the division of labor; then, he rants why that is impossible, apparently addressing Karl Marx, not me; finally, he cheerfully brushes aside Smith’s devastating critique of the division of labor and concludes that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Instead of being a Professor Pangloss, I hold that nothing great in human life is without a curse, my paraphrase of the wisdom of Sophocles.[3]

Mr. Summers dismisses my observation that capitalism does not pervade all American life. Each one of us must make a living and provide for our children and aging parents, but we have enormous freedom in how we conduct the business of life. We, for example, do not have to subject ourselves to the division of labor, even though our work is specialized. Despite that Mr. Summers ridiculed me for speaking of my boyhood visit to Pontiac Motors, allow me to speak about real people in the real world, about four neighbors of mine. Juan Abeyta, a plumber, is currently installing a baseboard heating system in an old adobe house, an operation he controls from inception to conclusion. Anthony Trujillo is an independent hydrologist and frequently testifies in court hearings about water rights and usage. Michael Adkins is an artist and makes a comforting living selling his art in Santa Fe, the third largest art market in the country. John Walters is a retired pastor, who had congregations first in Georgia and then later in Chicago. Not one of my neighbors labored at performing one or two simple operations.

For some reason, Mr. Summers ignored the main point of my essay: When we strip away all the fancy arguments and strong opinions about capitalism, or industrialism if you like, we see a person in the workplace is a commodity, a thing to be used up and discarded. As a result, capitalism creates a thing-oriented society, where machines, profits, and properties are more important than people.

The test whether a laborer is a thing or not is simple. If an operation a worker carries out can be replaced by a machine, then he or she is acting as a thing. For example, my wife recently had an MRI at X-Ray Associates in Santa Fe. The three female receptionists have already been partially replaced by an automatic telephone answering machine; still, those poor women say over and over again for eight hours, “Hello. X-Ray Associates. How may I help you?” The reading of an MRI by a radiologist will soon be done by a computer trained by artificial intelligence software. What cannot be replaced by a machine is the oncologist holding my wife’s hand and telling her she knows from first-hand experience the pain and suffering of surgery followed by brutal chemotherapy; she, too, is a cancer survivor.

Mr. Summers may be correct in his declaration that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and Adam Smith and I may be wrong in our contention that when laborers become commodities, what begins to disappear is their capacity to wonder, to behold, and to offer thanks for the plants and animals that form the web of life.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Endnotes:

[1] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations [1776]), Bk. V, Ch. I.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sophocles, Antigone, trans. R. C. Jebb, line 614.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Meeting of thirty-five heads of expression,” by Louis Léopold Boilly.

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3 replies to this post
  1. As a student of Mr. Summers, I wish to speak a little concerning both his demeanor in his approach to these essays, and also pose an answer to the question at hand.

    To say that Mr. Summers mocked, scoffed at, or simply dismissed the claims of “Capitalism and the Gospel of Love” would be to do violence to his work. Both of these essays by Dr. Stanciu and “In Defense of Capitalism” have been the subject of sincere debate and discussion in our recent classes. Mr. Summers has not presented Dr. Stanciu’s work with political or ideological bias, but rather with objectivity and a logical lens with which to examine the argument; beyond this, he encourages his students to approach debate in the same manner. If the reader were to examine Mr. Summer’s essay, they would find nothing less than a methodical, respectful, and logical approach to Dr. Stanciu’s essay. I would therefore recommend that the reader first examine “In Defense of Capitalism” before allowing their view of it to be skewed by Dr. Stanciu’s appraisal.

    I also wish to humbly offer my answer in defense of the Division of Labor. Economics is not a commentary on the morality of a given action or system. It ought to be a study of trends and patterns pertaining to preferences and the efficient employment of resources. That said, capitalism is undoubtedly the most morally upright socioeconomic system in existence. Capitalism operates off of the fundamental premise that the individual understands his own happiness better than anyone else does; it acknowledges and respects his intelligence and maturity to decide for what himself what will make him happy, and pursue it in the way he sees fit. Capitalist society allows for free choice in action, and also distributes capital most effectively to rich and poor alike. If I wish to become an auto mechanic, I may begin learning the inner mechanics of the car as a whole, but I may have to be content with washing cars until I understand enough to actually fix them. Nevertheless, I am working and earning money which I can use as I see fit. Reasonable people may dispute the fairness of outcomes, but never the moral and economic freedom inherent in allowing individuals to choose what is best for themselves and their families.

    In answer to the accusation that the Division of Labor effectively stupefies the worker:
    The Division of Labor promotes specialization. If one person can do a job better than any other (absolute advantage), and is better at that job than anyone else (comparative advantage), surely it would be most efficient to delegate that job in its entirety to him. Furthermore, narrowing his scope to specialize in one task or a few would also promote innovation. Focusing on fewer jobs allows him to ponder new and better ways of completing those tasks. But a stupefied worker who’s “capacity for wonder” has “disappeared” as Stanciu indicates would presumably be incapable of such reflection. Specialization not only increases productivity, but promotes innovation. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Stanciu’s claim that a machine will never replace human presence, but I also think the assertion that machines would ever be permitted to advance so far indicates a deeper underlying issue: the spirit or purpose behind that innovation. I find it difficult to believe that the inventor of the automated phone system did so with the intent of making receptionists pointless; it seems far more likely that they intended to make the receptionist’s job easier. But again, that topic is not simply an economic question, but one of morality and intent. While the motivation driving innovation may not always be moral, I believe it is fair to say that innovation in any case cannot come about from stupefied workers. I have faith that our humanity and connection to one another will not make way for innovation designed to replace us so completely.

    I can only conclude that (1) the Division of Labor promotes specialization, not stupefaction, and (2) innovation accelerates work and makes labor more efficient, ultimately opening up more of our time to spend with our families or enrich our own mental faculties according to our preferences.

  2. There is another opinion regarding the division of labor. I quote from Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book VII, Chapter 4 “We laugh, to be sure, when we see them assigned, according to the fancies of human belief, to the tasks that are shared among them, as if they were subcontractors for the collection of taxes, or workmen in the silver smiths’ quarter where a vessel passes through the hands of many craftsmen before it comes out finished, though it could have been perfected by a single perfect craftsman. But it was supposed that the only way to make good use of a large number of workmen was to have different men learn different parts of the craft quickly and easily, so that all would not be compelled to gain a mastery of a whole craft slowly and with difficulty.”

    So the division of labor ought to free us from the chore of learning something without importance in the world of the mind and allow us to develop mentally and spiritually away from materialism.

  3. Life in a capitalist economy is not defined exclusively by the work that pays one’s living. If an assembly line makes the necessities of living more affordable, fewer work hours are necessary to “make that living” and we have more leisure time to develop the inner self.

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