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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism
and the Division of Labor

Murray N. Rothbard


One way of gauging the extent of "harmonious" development of all of the individual's powers in the absence of specialization is to consider what actually happened during primitive or preindustrial eras. And, indeed, many socialists and other opponents of the Industrial Revolution exalt the primitive and preindustrial periods as a golden age of harmony, community, and social belonging?a peaceful and happy society destroyed by the development of individualism, the Industrial Revolution, and the market economy. In their exaltation of the primitive and the preindustrial, the socialists were perfectly anticipated by the reactionaries of the Romantic movement, those men who longed to roll back the tide of progress, individualism, and industry, and return to the supposed golden age of the preindustrial era. The New Left, in particular, also emphasizes a condemnation of technology and the division of labor, as well as a desire to "return to the earth" and an exaltation of the commune and the "tribe." As John W. Aldridge perceptively points out, the current New Left virtually constitutes a generational tribe that exhibits all the characteristics of a uniform and interchangeable herd, with little or no individuality among its members. [22]

Similarly, the early nineteenth century German reactionary, Adam M?ller, denounced the

... vicious tendency to divide labor in all branches of private industry...[The] division of labor in large cities or industrial or mining provinces cuts up man, the completely free man, into wheels, rollers, spokes, shafts, etc., forces on him an utterly one-sided scope in the already one-sided field of the provisioning of one single want... [23]

The leading French conservatives of the early nineteenth century, Bonald and de Maistre, who idealized the feudal order, denounced the disruption by individualism of the pre-existing social order and social cohesion. [24] The contemporary French reactionary, Jacques Ellul, in The Technological Society, a book much in favor on the New Left, condemns "our dehumanized factories, our unsatisfied senses ... our estrangement from nature." In the Middle Ages, in contrast, claims Ellul, "Man sought open spaces ... the possibility of moving about ... of not constantly colliding with other people." [25] In the meanwhile, on the socialist side, the economic historian Karl Polanyi's influential The Great Transformation makes this thesis of the disruption of a previous social harmony by individualism, the market economy, and the division of labor the central theme of the book.

For its part, the worship of the primitive is a logical extension of the worship of the preindustrial. This worship by modern sophisticated intellectuals ranges from Rousseau's "noble savage" and the lionizing of that creature by the Romantic movement, all the way to the adoration of the Black Panthers by white intellectuals. [26] Whatever other pathology the worship of the primitive reflects, a basic part of it is a deep-seated hatred of individual diversity. Obviously, the more primitive and the less civilized a society, the less diverse and individuated it can be[27] Also part of this primitivism reflects a hatred for the intellect and its works, since the flowering of reason and intellection leads to diversity and inequality of individual achievement.

For the individual to advance and develop, reason and the intellect must be active, it must embody the individual's mind working upon and transforming the materials of reality. From the time of Aristotle, the classical philosophy presented man as only fulfilling himself, his nature, and his personality through purposive action upon the world. It is from such rational and purposive action that the works of civilization have developed. In contrast, the Romantic movement has always exalted the passivity of the child who, necessarily ignorant and immature, only reacts passively to his environment rather than acts to change it. This tendency to exalt passivity and the young, and to denigrate intellect, has reached its present embodiment in the New Left, which worships both youth per se and a passive attitude of ignorant and purposeless spontaneity. The passivity of the New Left, its wish to live simply and in "harmony" with "the earth" and the alleged rhythms of nature, harks back completely to the Rousseauist Romantic movement. Like the Romantic movement, it is a conscious rejection of civilization and differentiated men on behalf of the primitive, the ignorant, the herd-like "tribe." [28]

If reason, purpose, and action are to be spurned, then what replace them in the Romantic pantheon are unanalyzed, spontaneous "feelings." And since the range of feelings is relatively small compared to intellectual achievements, and in any case is not objectively known to another person, the emphasis on feelings is another way to iron out diversity and inequality among individuals.

Irving Babbitt, a keen critic of Romanticism, wrote about the Romantic movement:

The whole movement is filled with the praise of ignorance and of those who still enjoy its inappreciable advantages?the savage, the peasant and above all the child. The Rousseauist may indeed be said to have discovered the poetry of childhood... but at what would seem at times a rather heavy sacrifice of rationality. Rather than consent to have the bloom taken off things by analysis one should, as Coleridge tells us, sink back to the devout state of childlike wonder. However, to grow ethically is not to sink back but to struggle painfully forward. To affirm the contrary is to proclaim one's inability to mature ... [The Romantic] is ready to assert that what comes to the child spontaneously is superior to the deliberate moral effort of the mature man. The speeches of all the sages are, according to Maeterlinck, outweighed by the unconscious wisdom of the passing child. [29]

Another perceptive critique of Romanticism and primitivism was written by Ludwig von Mises. He notes that "the whole tribe of romantics" have denounced specialization and the division of labor. "For them the man of the past who developed his powers `harmoniously' is the ideal: an ideal which alas no longer inspires our degenerate age. They recommend retrogression in the division of labor..." with the socialists surpassing their fellow Romantics in this regard. [30] But are primitives or preindustrial men privileged to develop themselves freely and harmoniously? Mises answers:

It is futile to look for the harmoniously developed man at the outset of economic evolution. The almost self-sufficient economic subject as we know him in the solitary peasant of remote valleys shows none of that noble, harmonious development of body, mind, and feeling which the romantics ascribe to him. Civilization is a product of leisure and the peace of mind that only the division of labor can make possible. Nothing is more false than to assume that man first appeared in history with an independent individuality and that only during the evolution [of society]... did he lose ... his spiritual independence. All history, evidence and observation of the lives of primitive peoples is directly contrary to this view. Primitive man lacks all individuality in our sense. Two South Sea Islanders resemble each other far more closely than two twentieth-century Londoners. Personality was not bestowed upon man at the outset. It has been acquired in the course of evolution of society. [31]

Or we may note Charles Silberman's critique of Jacques Ellul's rhapsodies on the "traditional rhythms of life and nature" lived by preindustrial man, as compared to "dehumanized factories ... our estrangement from nature." Silberman asks:

But with what shall we contrast this dehumanized world? The beautiful, harmonious life being lived by, say, the Chinese or Vietnamese peasant woman, who works in the fields close to nature, for twelve hours a day?roughly the conditions under which the great bulk women (and men) have worked ... through all of human history? For this is the condition that Ellul idealizes.

And, as for Ellul's paean to the Middle Ages as being mobile, spacious, and uncrowded:

This would have been startling news to the medieval peasant, who lived with his wife and children, other relatives, and probably animals as well in a one-room thatched cottage. And even for the nobility, was there really more possibility of "moving about" in the Middle Ages, when travel was by foot or hoof, than today, when steelworkers spend sabbaticals in Europe? [32]

The savage is supposed not only to be "noble" but also supremely happy. From the Rousseauans to what Erich Fromm has called "the infantile Paradise" of Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, the Romantics have extolled the happiness yielded by the spontaneous and the childlike. To Aristotle and the classic philosophers, happiness was acting in accordance with man's unique and rational nature. To Marcuse, any purposive, rational action is by definition "repressive," to which he contrasts the "liberated" state of spontaneous play. Aside from the universal destitution that the proposed abolition of work would bring, the result would be a profound unhappiness, for no individual would be able to fulfill himself, his individuality would largely disappear, for in a world of "polymorphous" play everyone would be virtually alike.

If we consider the supposed happiness of primitive man, we must also consider that his life was, in the famous phrase of Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short." There were few medical aids against disease; there were none against famine, for in a world cut off from interregional markets and barely above subsistence any check to the local food supply will decimate the population. Fulfilling the dreams of Romantics, the primitive tribe is a passive creature of its given environment and has no means for acting to overcome and transform it. Hence, when the local food supply within an area is depleted, the "happy-go-lucky" tribe dies en masse.

Furthermore, we must realize that the primitive faces a world which he cannot understand, since he has not engaged in much of a rational, scientific inquiry into its workings. We know what a thunderstorm is, and therefore take rational measures against it; but the savage does not know, and therefore surmises that the God of Thunder is displeased with him and must be propitiated with sacrifices and votive offerings. Since the savage has only a limited concept of a world knit together by natural law (a concept which employs reason and science), he believes that the world is governed by a host of capricious spirits and demons, each of which can only be propitiated by ritual or magic, and by a priest-craft of witch doctors who specialize in their propitiation. [33] The renaissance of astrology and similar mystic creeds on the New Left marks a reversion to such primitive forms of magic. So fearful is the savage, so bound is he by irrational taboo and by the custom of his tribe, that he cannot develop his individuality.

If tribal custom crippled and repressed the development of each individual, then so too did the various caste systems and networks of restriction and coercion in preindustrial societies that forced everyone to follow the hereditary footsteps of his father's occupation. Each child knew from birth that he was doomed to tread where his ancestors had gone before him, regardless of ability or inclination to the contrary. The "social harmony," the "sense of belonging," supplied by mercantilism, by the guilds, or by the caste system, provided such contentment that its members left the throes of the system when given an opportunity. Given the freedom to choose, the tribesmen abandon the bosom of their tribe to come to the freer, "atomistic" cities looking for jobs and opportunity. It is curious, in fact, that those Romantics who yearn to restore the mythical golden age of caste and status refuse to allow each individual the freedom to choose between market on the one hand, or caste and tribal commune on the other. Invariably, the new golden age has to be imposed by coercion.

Is it, indeed, a coincidence that the natives of undeveloped countries, when given a chance, invariably abandon their "folk culture" on behalf of Western ways, living standards, and "Coca-Colaization?" Within a few years, for example, the people of Japan were delighted to abandon their centuries-old traditional culture and folkways, and turn to the material achievements and market economy of the West. Primitive tribes, too, given a chance, are eager to differentiate and develop a market economy, to shed their stagnant "harmony" and replace their magic by knowledge of discovered law. The eminent anthropologist, Branislaw Malinowski, pointed out that primitives are magic only to cover those areas of nature of which they are ignorant; in those areas where they have come to understand the natural processes at work, magic is, quite sensibly, not employed. [34]

A particularly striking example of the eager development of a pervasive market economy among primitive tribesmen is the largely unheralded case of West Africa. [35] And Bernard Siegel has pointed out that when, as among the Penajachel of Guatemala, a primitive society becomes large and technologically and societally complex, a market economy inevitably accompanies this growth, replete with specialization, competition, cash purchases, demand and supply, prices and costs, etc. [36]

There is thus ample evidence that even primitive tribesmen themselves are not fond of their primitivism and take the earliest opportunity to escape from it; the main stronghold of love for primitivism seems to rest among the decidedly non-primitive Romantic intellectuals.

Another primitivistic institution that has been hailed by many social scientists is the system of the "extended family," a harmony and status supposedly ruptured by the individualistic "nuclear family" of the modern West. Yet the extended family system has been responsible for crippling the creative and productive individual as well as repressing economic development. Thus, West African development has been impeded by the extended family concept that, if one man prospers, he is duty bound to share this bounty with a host of relatives, thus draining off the reward for his productivity and crippling his incentive to succeed, while encouraging the relatives to live idly on the family dole. And neither do the productive members of the tribe seem very happy about this supposedly harmonious societal bond. Professor Bauer points out that

... many admit in private discussion that they dread these extensive obligations ... The fear of the obligations of the family system is partly responsible for the widespread use of textiles and trinkets as outlets for savings, in preference to more productive forms of investment which are more likely to attract the attention of relatives.

And many Africans distrust banks, "fearing that they may disclose the size of their accounts to members of their families. They, therefore, prefer to keep their savings under the fireplace or buried in the ground." [37]

In fact, the primitive community, far from being happy, harmonious, and idyllic, is much more likely to be ridden by mutual suspicion and envy of the more successful or better-favored, an envy so pervasive as to cripple, by the fear of its presence, all personal or general economic development. The German sociologist Helmut Schoeck, in his important recent work on Envy, cites numerous studies of this pervasive crippling effect. Thus the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn found among the Navaho the absence of any concept of "personal success" or "personal achievement"; and such success was automatically attributed to exploitation of others, and, therefore, the more prosperous Navaho Indian feels himself under constant social pressure to give his money away. Allan Holmberg found that the Siriono Indian of Bolivia eats alone at night because, if he eats by day, a crowd gathers around him to stare in envious hatred. The result among the Siriono is that, in reaction to this pervasive pressure, no one will voluntarily share food with anybody. Sol Tax found that envy and fear of envy in "a small community where all neighbors watch and where all are neighbors" accounted for the unprogressiveness, the slowness of change toward a productive economy among the Indians of Guatemala. And when a tribe of Pueblo Indians showed the beginnings of specialization and the division of labor, the envy of their fellow tribesmen impelled them to take measures to end this process, including physical destruction of the property of those who seemed in any way better off than their fellows.

Oscar Lewis discovered an extremely pervasive fear of the envy of others in a Mexican Indian village, a fear producing intense secretiveness. Wrote Lews:

The man who speaks little, keeps his affairs to himself, and maintains some distance between himself and others has less chance of creating enemies or of being criticized or envied. A man does not generally discuss his plans to buy or sell or take a trip. [38]

Professor Schoeck comments:

... it is difficult to envisage what it means for the economic and technical development of a community when, almost automatically and as a matter of principle, the future dimension is banned from human intercourse and conversation, when it cannot even be discussed. Ubiquitous envy, fear of it and those who harbor it, cuts off such people from any kind of communal action directed towards the future ... All striving, all preparation and planning for the future can be undertaken only by socially fragmented, secretive beings. [39]

Furthermore, in this Mexican village no one will warn or tell anyone else of imminent danger to the other's property; there is no sense of human social solidarity whatsoever.

Among the Indians of Aritama in Colombia, the Reichel-Dolmatoffs reported:

Every individual lives in constant fear of the magical aggression of others, and the general social atmosphere in the village is one of mutual suspicion, of latent danger, and hidden hostility, which pervade every aspect of life. The most immediate reason for magical aggression is envy. Anything that might be interpreted as a personal advantage over others is envied: good health, economic assets, good physical appearance, popularity, a harmonious family life, a new dress. All these and other aspects imply prestige, and with it power and authority over others. Aggressive magic is, therefore, intended to prevent or to destroy this power and to act as a leveling force. [40]

The Reichel-Dolmatoffs also noted that if one member of a group in Aritama should work faster or better than his fellows, his place of work is marked with a cross before he arrives the next morning, and his envious colleagues pray to God to make this more able worker slow and tired.

Finally, Watson and Samora found that the major reason for the failure of a group of lower-class Spanish-speaking citizens of a mountain township in southern Colorado to rise into parity with the upper-class Anglo community, was the bitter envy of the Spanish group toward any of their number who managed to rise upward. Anyone who works his way upward is regarded as a man "who has sold himself to the Anglos," "who has climbed on the backs of his people." [41]

The anthropologist Eric Wolf has even coined the term "institutionalized envy" to describe such pervasive institutions, including the practice and fear of black magic in these primitive societies. [42] Schoeck notes:

Institutionalized envy... or the ubiquitous fear of it, means that there is little possibility of individual economic advancement and no contact with the outside world through which the community might hope to progress. No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off. Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy. [43]

And Schoeck aptly concludes:

There is nothing to be seen here of the close community which allegedly exists among primitive peoples in pre-affluent times?the poorer, it is held, the greater the sense of community. Sociological theory would have avoided many errors if those phenomena had been properly observed and evaluated a century ago. The myth of a golden age, when social harmony prevailed because each man had about as little as the next one, the warm and generous community spirit of simple societies, was indeed for the most part just a myth, and social scientists should have known better than to fashion out of it a set of utopian standards with which to criticize their own societies. [44]

In sum, Ludwig von Mises's strictures against Romanticism do not seem to be overdrawn:

Romanticism is man's revolt against reason, as well as against the condition under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and nature. The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work; he produces in order to improve his position. The romantic ... imagines the pleasures of success but he does nothing to achieve them he does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination ... He hates work, economy, and reason.
The romantic takes all the gifts of a social civilization for granted and desires, in addition, everything fine and beautiful that, as he thinks, distant times and creatures had or have to offer. Surrounded by the comforts of European town life he longs to be an Indian rajah, bedouin, corsair, or troubadour. But he sees only that portion of these people's lives which seems pleasant to him ... The perilous nature of their existence, the comparative poverty of their circumstances, their miseries and their toil?these things his imagination tactfully overlooks: all is transfigured by a rosy gleam. Compared with this dream ideal, reality appears arid and shallow. There are obstacles to overcome which do not exist in the dream... Here there is work to do, ceaselessly, assiduously... Here one must plough and sow if one wishes to reap. The romantic does not choose to admit all this. Obstinate as a child, he refuses to recognize it. He mocks and jeers; he despises and loathes the bourgeois. [45]

The Romantic, or primitivist, attitude was also brilliantly criticized by the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset:

... it is possible to have peoples who are perennially primitive ... those who have remained in the motionless, frozen twilight, which never progresses towards midday.
This is what happens in the world which is mere Nature. But it does not happen in the world of civilization which is ours. Civilization is not "just there," it is not self-supporting. It is artificial.... If you want to make use of the advantages of civilization, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization?you are done. In a trice you find yourself left without civilization ... The primitive forest appears in its native state ... The jungle is always primitive and, vice versa, everything primitive is mere jungle. [46]

Ortega adds that the type of man he sees rising to the fore, the modern "mass-man," "believes that the civilization into which he was born and which he makes use of, is as spontaneous and self-producing as Nature...." But the mass-man, the herd-man, is also characterized by his desire to stamp out those individuals who differ from the mass: "The mass ... does not wish to share life with those who are not of it. It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself. [47]

[22] John W. Aldridge, In the Country of the Young (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

[23] Quoted in Mises, Socialism, p. 304.

[24] On the strong influence of these reactionary thinkers on the anti-individualism of nineteenth century Marxists and socialists, see in particular Leon Bramson, The Political Context of Sociology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 12-16 and passim.

[25] See the critique of Ellul in Charles Silberman, The Myths of Automation (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 104-105.

[26] Thus, see the perceptively satiric article by Tom Wolfe, "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's," New York (June 8, 1970).

[27] This worship of the primitive permeates Polanyi's book, which at one point seriously applies the term "noble savage" to the Kaffirs of South Africa. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 157.

[28] Both the passive and the tribal aspects of New Left culture were embodied in its ideal of the "Woodstock Nation," in which hundreds of thousands of herd-like, undifferentiated youth wallowed passively in the mud listening to their tribal ritual music.

[29] Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), pp. 53-54. The New Left's emphasis on passivity, primitivism, the irrational, and the dissolution of individuality may account for the current popularity of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. See ibid., pp. 297ff.

[30] Mises, Socialism, p. 304.

[31] Mises, Socialism, p. 305.

[32] Silberman, The Myths of Automation, pp. 104-105.

[33] Neither is the magic used by primitive tribes any evidence of superior, "idealistic," as opposed to this worldly, "materialistic," ends. On the contrary, the magic rites were unsound and erroneous means by which the tribes hoped to attain such materialistic ends as a good harvest, rainfall, etc. Thus, the Cargo Cult of New Guinea, on observing Europeans obtaining food from overseas by sending away scraps of paper, imitated the Europeans by writing ritualistic phrases on slips of paper and sending them out to sea, after which they waited for cargoes from overseas. Cf. Ludwig von Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1960), pp. 62-66, 102-105.

[34] Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, Religion and Other Essays (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955), pp. 27-31. Also see Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics.

[35] See the inspiring discussion in Peter T. Bauer, West African Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954).

[36] Bernard J. Siegel, "Review of Melville J. Herskovits, Economic Anthropology," American Economic Review (June, 1953), p. 402. On developing individualism among the Pondo of South Africa, see Bauer and Yamey, The Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, p. 67n. Also see Raymond Firth, Human Types (New York: Mentor Books, 1958), p. 122; Sol Tax, Penny Capitalism: A Guatemalan Indian Economy (Washington, D.C., 1953); and Raymond Firth and Basil S. Yamey, eds., Capital, Saving and Credit in Peasant Societies (Chicago: Aldine, 1963).

[37] Bauer, West African Trade, p. 8. Also see Bauer and Yamey, The Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, pp. 64-67. Similarly, Professor S. Herbert Frankel reports on how West Africans habitually wait at entrances of banks to fall upon their relatives to demand money as they leave. Any man who accumulates money must go to great lengths to deceive his relatives on his actual status. Cited in Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), pp. 59-60. On the responsiveness of African natives to market economic incentives, see (in addition to Bauer, (West African Trade) Peter Kilby, "African Labour Productivity Reconsidered," Economic Journal (June, 1961), pp. 273-291.

[38] The works cited are Clyde Kluckhohn, The Navaho (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946) and Navaho Witchcraft (1944; Boston: Beacon Press, 1967); Allan R. Holmberg, Nomands of the Lon Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950); Sol Tax, "Changing Consumption in Indian Guatemala," Economic Development and Cultural Change (1957); and Oscar Lewis, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1951). See Schoeck, Envy, pp. 26-61.

[39] Clyde Kluckhohn, The Navaho and Navaho Witchcraft, p. 50.

[40] From Gerardo and Alicia Reichel-Dolmatoff, The People of Aritama-The Cultural Personality of a Colombian Mestizo Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 396. Quoted in Schoeck, Envy, pp. 51-52.

[41] Watson and Samora " ," American Sociological Review (1954), pp.

[42] Eric Wolf " ," American Anthropologist (1955), pp.

[43] Reichel-Dolmatoff, The People of Aritama, Quoted in Schoeck, Envy, p. 47.

[44] Reichel-Dolmatoff, The People of Aritama, Quoted in Schoeck, Envy, pp. 31.

[45] Mises, Socialism, pp. 463-464. See also Jos? Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932), pp. 63-65.

[46] Jos? Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932), pp. 97.

[47] Jos? Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932), pp. 98, 84. For Ortega, the great looming danger is that the mass-man will increasingly use the State "to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it?disturbs it in any order of things: in politics, in industry." Ibid., p. 133.

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