Strapped Uneasily to the Pinmaking Machine

The great intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock summarizes one ambivalence in Adam Smith’s thought as follows:

[I]n Adam Smith the principle of the division of labor and exchange of goods and services has been at work since the beginning of history; it has led, not merely to the satisfaction of more human needs, but to the development of new human capacities, wants, and aspirations, so that the personality has been progressively diversified and enriched…. But we are aware of an intimation that some kind of optimum moment has been reached and passed. Those whose lives are spent in putting the heads on pins – the precursors of Marx’s proletariat and the assembly-line workers of the twentieth century – are not merely being denied the leisure to enjoy the multiplying goods now circulating in society; their actual capacity to do so is being systematically atrophied.

The prospect opens up of two discontinuous social classes: One enjoys a rich and diverse set of aspirations and capacities. The other puts heads on pins. It hardly matters how much money or free time you give the latter, it would seem: as long as a substantial chunk of their lives is to be spent putting the heads on pins, they will be pinheads.

A setup like this can’t last, it is feared. Yet the re-foundation of society – the arrival of what Pocock would have termed a “Machiavellian moment” – is typically brutal. On some level we all know this, whether or not we subscribe to the idea that industrial labor stultifies. We don’t really want a revolution. And so we remain, strapped uneasily to the pinmaking machine, wondering what that machine has in store for us.

Cultural manifestations of this fear are everywhere: Think of The Time Machine, or The Great Gatsby, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or Taxi Driver, or Infinite Jest: In each, the social tension is not necessarily from any deliberate or calibrated oppression. It’s only incidentally economic. The tension arises from the various, usually class-mediated ways that people have of being bored in an industrial or post-industrial society, and the ways, often dangerously incompatible, that they find of alleviating that boredom, and of thereby forging an identity.

Pocock traces the origins of anxiety about trade and specialized labor back (way, way back) to 17th-century fears about the uncertain nature of commerce and credit, and before that, to the ancient notion that luxury tended to bring corruption: Think of Rome under the bad emperors, or Rousseau castigating d’Alembert for proposing to add a theater at Geneva, or of how the Persians were depicted in 300. Luxury makes people… weird. And scary. And decadent. Not that poverty and pinmaking are all that great either.

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment knew very well that their society was getting richer. They knew that it came from commerce. But they’d been taught all along that virtue derived from a simple domestic independence, and not from the vast wealth (or occasional ruin) that commerce could bring. The good citizen would have enough to be comfortable, or maybe a bit less than that, but he would never owe his livelihood to anyone else, and he would never have enough to bribe anyone. Writes Adam Ferguson:

It appears, therefore, that although the mere use of materials which constitute luxury, may be distinguished from actual vice; yet nations under a high state of the commercial arts, are exposed to corruption, by their admitting wealth, unsupported by personal elevation and virtue, as the great foundation of distinction, and by having their attention turned on the side of interest, as the road to consideration and honor.

Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson were both well aware of the problem. Both thought they had a partial solution to it, albeit one that worked best for the upper classes: commerce potentially brought the refinement of manners, the growth of learning, and – just possibly – a cosmopolitan ethic that would conduce to everyone treating one another a whole lot better. Under conditions like those, wealth might perhaps be enjoyed safely.

Smith seems to have been considerably less confident about the lower classes, because specialization of labor would bring monotony and triviality to a wide range of trades that formerly held purpose and dignity. Mechanization has carried us a lot farther than Smith could ever have imagined, and there seems no end in sight. These days, everything is turning into pinmaking.

To draw on a cultural manifestation from my own childhood: Anyone could be proud, in due measure, of being a pharmacist. No one could be proud of being the guy who screwed on the tops of the toothpaste tubes, as Charlie Bucket’s father did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On that distinction may turn a citizen’s self-worth and perhaps even his allegiance to the system. Meanwhile, up at the top, we find fantasy and luxury.

But we can’t all be Willy Wonka. Not everyone is a creative genius. Not everyone even wants to be. Creative genius is one model of life authorship that will likely remain long after many others have been specialized and roboticized out of existence. But it’s not a very versatile model. Its extension to the masses seems unlikely. Other models of life authorship will have to be found.

Can we become a civilization that defines itself more by what it consumes than by what it makes? What will that do to our sense of dignity, or to our allegiances? Even within libertarianism — my own philo-capitalist tribe — many would balk at this kind of identity. Is it not parasitical? Are we not robbed of an important aspect of life authorship when we do not bring our full and considered efforts to bear on production?

(Are the wheels really going to come off? If Smith was right in his fears, shouldn’t this have happened already? An awful lot of time has elapsed between him and us. But one problem with Malthus, Marx, and the mythical Ludd is that their claims are never falsified by the fact that the reckoning hasn’t happened yet. The same may even be true of the evil effects of the specialization of labor. That the reckoning hasn’t come yet doesn’t mean that it never will. Other methods will have to be found to exorcise this demon.)

One very improbable model here might be parenting. Economic historians tell us that formerly most people had children out of – yes – biological necessity, but also out of economic necessity: Children were valued because they would provide economic support for the parents starting from a very young age, when they would work in the fields or in the family’s business. Children were, in economic terms, a production good. They served in, and derived their value from, the production process.

Nowadays children no longer begin work at a very young age. They are expected instead to spend many years in school, where they are economically unproductive, aside from building their own human capital. Raising a child is nonetheless more expensive than ever. Finally, in biological terms, children have become a choice. As a result, more people have children only if they expect to enjoy it. Once a production good, children have become a consumption good.

The language is crude, yes; the effects have been anything but: Children today are loved and valued beyond what our ancestors could manage. Our kids get literacy, leisure, and vaccinations. For many classes of crime, we have lessened our punishments since the eighteenth century, but for crimes against children, we have multiplied them. Children have entire dedicated fields of art and literature, distinctive modes of dress, and particular holidays not shared in any sense by adults. Done thoughtfully, it might not be so bad to find an increasing share of one’s self-worth, or purpose, or even virtue, in consumption.

Of course, the Eloi were the consummate children. Old fears die hard.

6 thoughts on “Strapped Uneasily to the Pinmaking Machine

  1. I’ve long been interested in this line of thought, too. In particular, it is difficult to tell whether the relatively easy readiness with which people find value in their productive activities (and less so in their consumption) is either: (1) something inherent to “human nature” (whatever that means) or (2) that it has just been psychologically healthy to do so in our long human past so far, because production has previously necessarily taken up sooooo much of our time and energies.

    If there really is something about “human nature” that renders meaningful production a huge value to individuals (and that even meaningful, i.e. value-driven consumption can’t substitute for it), then it would probably be wrong to treat training lesser-skilled humans out of wanting that as a solution to the problem of increasing automation, as opposed to creating/maintaining opportunity for them to do so.


  2. Here’s what haunts my dreams: In the far future, when robots make everything but art – who’s going to want to consume all that mediocre art? If I can’t do anything anymore but play guitar, and if I suck at it, what kind of life is that?


    • There’s nothing wrong with wanting to watch the Truman Show. And if you want to star in your own, there’s time to master what you don’t suck at doing.

      Actually being an artist requires a lot of focus; it’s more a process that allows you to make art. To play jazz, improvising music that wasn’t imagined until you and your bandmates play it, requires having the skills to improvise, and you only gain those skills through doing, over and over. Time to master those skills prevents many a great artist from making art.

      But I’m not sure I agree about computers not making art in the future. I think there will come a time when they do. William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive has a great awakening in it.


  3. Out of idle curiosity, what holidays aren’t shared by adults? The closest thing I can come up with is Halloween, but me and all my friends celebrate that heartily every year (which may be because we’re all childless 20-somethings, but still…)


    • I was thinking of Halloween above all, yes. Also the arrival of the Tooth Fairy is a sort of irregular holiday, and many adults just never celebrate Valentine’s Day or even their own birthdays, except sometimes for the big, round-numbered ones.


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