In his quixotic and paradoxical series of lectures on economy, Rudolf Steiner speaks of how the division of labour is the key to modern society. He explains at length how no one person can supply all his needs for himself – the farmer needs a blacksmith, the blacksmith needs the tanner and the tanner needs a tailor. All of these people supply something that the other person cannot produce for themselves, or at least, they cannot produce this for themselves and make a living for themselves.
The farmer has a broken waggon that only the blacksmith can repair. The blacksmith’s leather apron is not something a hammer wielding smith is going to find easy to make – the tanner will not find his clothes easy to make. That is the work of the tailor. Indeed, the tailor will make clothes for the entire village, not just the blacksmith; the blacksmith does not cater to the farmer alone. That is how the pre-industrial economy functioned.
Each of these people had a skill, something that they could offer to their customers that made the life of the customer easier – and as spoken of elsewhere, the money those customers pay is easier to earn than it is to do that skilled work for themselves.
The proletarian – who will feature in an upcoming post – is a person who has no skills as such, or at least, their level of skill is not at a sufficiently developed state to run their own business. However, even in smithing there are jobs that need doing that any reasonably intelligent person can do if given half an hour’s training. Carrying and shifting being the simplest. Nevertheless, it is worth the blacksmith’s time and money to employ such a person as he wouldn’t be able to do his work as effectively without that help. Much in the way farmers needed the help of the entire village when it came to harvesting.
The proletarian man would be able to find work of this kind helping the tailor, the farmer and the tanner as circumstances demanded. A willingness to help is perhaps the only skill a proletarian needs. Not forgetting that they are also company in a business that may otherwise be quite lonely.
Now it has to be understood that this is to view economy at a stage long before the industrialization of an economy changed things for good. Because that is the point of this essay, an essay that underpins my series on ‘The Secrets Of Systems’.
Before industrialization, a blacksmith dealt with iron, a tailor with fabrics and a tanner with leather. This is the division of labour at its most fundamental: individuals who possess a skill that is necessary for the proper functioning of a village economy.
But those times are over. I myself helped run the family building business, turning my hand to this and that as needed – and gained many hand skills as a result. Furthermore, our business did better than most because of my own attempts to please the clients – and further to this, discern the kind of client who was unpleasable. They will cost a business a good deal of money, I can tell you. There are ways to tell them apart, even during the first telephone call, but that is to stray from the topic at hand. The point is that we were a general building business but one that focussed on the carpentry.
We were, in a way, part of the old order. Traditional skills offered to all comers. I can tell you that it’s not the best way to make money. In our day and age, a far better way is to narrow one’s focus and provide this refined skill to the world at large. With communications and transport being so cheap, this becomes a very real possibility.
Because the super-division of labour is what characterizes our new economy. We have what might be called ‘specialists’ – people who specialize in one aspect of production and we have proletarian classes who can do practically nothing save work as human machines next to a production line. The coming of the machine has led to the coming of the super-specialist. A person who can do only one thing, that is to say, they are part of the division of labour that sees each take their part in keeping society moving, but these new specialists can only do their work if they have a machine.
These machines have not only brought specialization, they have brought distribution. This means that makers of hemi-uniball spherical rod ends can do so because they can receive their orders through the (mechanically driven) post and distribute their products using machines. (The hemi uniball spherical rod end features in Harold Pinter’s pythonesque play ‘Trouble In The Works’ of 1958 and is a real chuckle).
Which is where we begin to have problems with our economy. Because it is easy to forget the client when they are a thousand miles away and all they demand are cheaper prices. After all, if you are producing something like a hemi-uniball spherical rod end, it is the kind of thing that anybody with the correct machinery can produce.
The specialists have brought a problem upon themselves: they have to become more specialized to survive in this new environment! Perhaps one specialist will decide only to make the hemi-uniballs instead of the entire construction? But here I am playing with words. Nevertheless, the pressures of mechanization have made it possible to produce without any thought for the buyer, indeed mechanization drives this upon a business, makes it a challenge even to think of the buyer – but that does not mean that the buyer has no effect on your business.
With specialization driven largely by customers demanding cheaper prices, after all, they know as much about business as the producer. That is to say, they do not know that the secret to improving a business is to establish relationships. Without this, one will have problems. Our problem today is that businesses focus on production, not service.
Problems that are usually solved by trying to make things cheaper… and that usually means styling the product to the machinery one has to produce it. This kind of industrial navel-gazing leads to a strange diversity that is no longer based on reality. Ford motorcars will have wheels that are technically 15” yet because of the spacing between the bolts that fix the wheel, means that you can only use this cheaply pressed steel wheel on a few select Ford cars, leave alone on other vehicles such as a VW or an Opel. They in turn have diverged to make wheels that suit their own needs, and what with enough buyers in our commoditized world, why should they worry about what others are doing?
Standardization is only industry wide when a government has intervened to stop this kind of thing. With something as trivial as a pressed steel wheel, what’s to worry about? When you have your market share, what’s the problem? People will buy VW or Ford spares without a thought about whether it should be interchangeable with another vehicle.
That lack of interchangeability is where the division of labour has passed the point of reality. Well this sounds pretty daft until you realize what I mean by this; because this isn’t anthroposophy as anthroposophy is known in our modern world where terms are banded about as though everybody knows the fullest implication of them. No: reality is reality and stepping beyond this has very real implications for us all. Because in any business, the reality is that you serve those who buy from you. And there are no two ways about this – for all the outward appearances in our so-called modern world. The problem I was describing above where a company improves its production based on the machinery and skills it already has is working within a system of its own creation.
There is no thought of service or the customer any more.
That is where a step has been taken beyond reality.
Furthermore, they took this step because they had forgotten the primary maxim of business: the customer values your product above the money they pay you. Remember this and your business problems are solved – forget this and you have problems. Service is everything in business. But then, with price pressures as they are, how can one focus on service when everybody wants a cheap price? The customers no longer know that a business is there to serve them…
This is a very real paradox and one that is not easy to unravel – especially when we live in a world where the universities and business schools assume that production is the only way to do – or deal with – a business? After all, if those who teach at schools have forgotten that primary maxim of business, and when those who taught their teachers had forgotten it too, how then is it possible to even start to remember it? Forgetting has a very important part to play in forming a system, and it has led us to step across that unseen line between reality of doing business and the illusion of doing business that we are all so familiar with today.