Invisible Hands

by Kieran Healy on October 4, 2007

Via John Gruber, here is a striking series of photographs of workers in toy factories in China. I wish I had seen them yesterday, because this morning I did a midterm review in my social theory course and, in quick succession, students asked me about Smith’s idea of the invisible hand and about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.

Update: More photos, from their originator, here.

Smith argued that the specialization encouraged by a market system liberated people from material want, but also freed them from having to spend all their time being “butcher, baker and brewer” for themselves. He used the example of a day-laborer’s wool coat, cataloguing some of the hundreds of people who directly or indirectly contributed to its manufacture and sale: “The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production …” An implication of Smith’s view is that we won’t much enhance our personal freedom by way of material self-sufficiency or by learning how to do everything for ourselves. Rather, freedom comes from becoming deeply integrated with and dependent upon an ever larger and more specialized system of production and exchange of commodities for money. The market frees you from a vast amount of tedious work by allowing you to buy the results of the much more specialized labor of others and granting you huge opportunity benefits in the process.

Marx agrees with Smith on the benefits of large-scale production and had as little desire for “the idiocy of rural life” as Smith had for the lonely farms of the Scottish highlands. And Marx also agrees that a central feature of market exchange is that people do not have to personally produce the things they consume, or give any thought to the people who do make those things. But for Marx the problem is that those producers completely disappear from view as human beings. The market system draws a veil between producers and consumers (and also between producers and the products of their own labor). The exchange of goods for money in the market effaces social relations between real people. Instead we see—and become fixated upon—the outward manifestations of those relationships, namely the finished goods, their prices, and the money used to buy them. Those things are just manifestations of real social relations, but we lose sight of the web of people engaged in producing these goods, and our own place in that web. And that is commodity fetishism: “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective feature stamped upon the product of that labour.”

The factory photographs are a window into both visions of the market. They are also a reminder that the two views are intimately related. In the Smithian picture, the existence of places like this is precisely what the invisible hand makes possible—it’s the whole point of specialization and a large free market. When Smith’s descendants want to emphasize the many benefits of market coordination, they typically begin with an vignette that makes the same point as the example of the day-laborer’s coat. For example, Paul Seabright’s excellent The Company of Strangers begins with the question, “How did the world know I needed to buy a shirt today?” Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics asks “Who feeds Paris?”

These examples are intended to be revelatory. The intent is to draw back the veil, to reveal the complex system that lies behind a simple purchase, and to show people how their everyday livelihood is dependent on a preposterous number of other people, essentially all strangers concerned mostly for themselves. On the Marxian view, the fact that such examples are counterintuitive in the first place is an example of the problem. Normally we give no thought to the real invisible hands behind the invisible hand, and neither do we consider the substance of our relationship to them independent of the prices we pay for whatever we buy. For Smith, that’s the power of the market. For Marx, it’s the fetishism of commodities.

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{ 48 comments }

1

abb1 10.04.07 at 7:29 am

Nah, I don’t think a China sweatshop is something you could describe as Smith’s free market. I’ve read somewhere (Business Week, I believe) about workers’ ID cards taken from them so that they can’t run away, workers locked up in the factory compound most of the time, being punched in the face for taking a long bathroom break, mandatory overtime, etc. This is rather like slavery.

2

goatchowder 10.04.07 at 7:59 am

Or working at Wal*Mart?

3

yim 10.04.07 at 8:00 am

Methinks you present a false dichotomy. The disconnect between producers and end-consumers is a feature of a large-scale economy. And any economic system that has millions of players will display this disconnect, capitalism or socialism aside.

4

bi 10.04.07 at 8:26 am

Market power vs. commodity fetishism…

…or maybe, as we Computer Science wonks like to call it, it’s just the age-old struggle between abstraction and the lack thereof?

In fact, I’d say that the Mattel fiasco is a prime example of abstraction gone wrong. Maybe it sounds good that one can buy toys off the shelf… but when these toys which are made available to us by Liberating Power of the Great Invisible Hand(tm) are found to contain lead-based paint or exposed magnets, then Smith’s rosy picture clearly has a problem.

5

bad Jim 10.04.07 at 9:28 am

Isn’t it also sort of about slow food? How we Americans are killing ourselves by gobbling up whatever we can shove into our maws with minimal effort and infinitesimal patience?

We don’t manufacture anything anymore, aside from show-off trucks and blow-me houses, and our pundits find this result completely copacetic, not that they’d know a cap nut from a shoulder screw.

Manufacturing is SO twentieth century. Of course we can live on pizza and ice cream.

6

bi 10.04.07 at 10:10 am

bad Jim: I’m guessing that you’re using the word “manufacturing” in much the same sense as Bush, i.e. it includes home-cooking. :-)

7

Tim Worstall 10.04.07 at 10:57 am

“We don’t manufacture anything anymore”

Slightly odd statement isn’t it? I thought manufacturing output continued to rise: it’s manufacturing employment that continues to fall: it’s the flip side of the increase in manufacturing productivity.

But I’ll admit to no expertise in US manufacturing statistics.

8

seth e 10.04.07 at 11:06 am

Sitting having dinner in a little roadside restaurant outside Beijing what strikes me about those photographs is that except for the faces of the people and that’s the faces not the expressions they could have been taken and indeed tave been taken in every industrialized nation.
These modern factories are not brick factories manned by slave labor though that was one recent scandal in china.

I’d like to see a series of photographs of janitorial staff employed in the us university system. Those are your invisible hands.

9

sharon 10.04.07 at 12:46 pm

The market frees you from a vast amount of tedious work by allowing you to buy the results of the much more specialized labor of others

But these “others” haven’t been freed from a vast amount of tedious work, have they? Work is not less tedious because it is more specialised.

10

bert 10.04.07 at 12:50 pm

I understand why a sociologist would want to concentrate on the relations between people, and would mistrust the “fetishization” of products. But the products are central to what’s being shown in these pictures. None of what’s happening would be happening without them. To shy away from that seems as wooly as a day-labourer’s coat.

You paint Smith as the stereotypical free marketeer. In fact he leaves the door wide open for government regulation of working conditions. From Wealth of Nations, Book 5:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and 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, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life…. in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

You don’t need Marx to see the workers clearly, nor to help them take practical steps to improve their lot in life.

11

Kieran Healy 10.04.07 at 1:16 pm

12: I know, I assign that part of the WON as well. Smith wasn’t stupid. Though his ssoution to this problem does not extend much beyond free education (to give people something to talk about) and employee of the month prizes.

12

eudoxis 10.04.07 at 2:00 pm

In a perfect society, the means of production would be centrally regulated and workers could shift around at will. They could choose to be social scientists one day and toy-plant laborers the next.

One thing odd I notice about the photos is that none of the workers are wearing eyeglasses.

13

Sk 10.04.07 at 2:05 pm

“I’d like to see a series of photographs of janitorial staff employed in the us university system.”

It’ll never happen. Deconstruction is only for Republicans.

14

Kieran Healy 10.04.07 at 2:45 pm

the means of production would be centrally regulated

But the state withers away! This is Marx’s underpants gnomes problem.

15

Pete 10.04.07 at 2:56 pm

“the means of production would be centrally regulated and workers could shift around at will”

What happens when everyone wants to be a social scientist for a year?

16

Kieran Healy 10.04.07 at 3:07 pm

Profit!

17

Chris Bertram 10.04.07 at 3:28 pm

12. Really? That’s seeing workers _clearly_?

Let’s go back to that quote again:

bq. 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, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life….

That doesn’t seem to me to be an accurate picture of the moral condition of the typical industrial worker.

18

abb1 10.04.07 at 3:32 pm

But is the claim about “idiocy of rural life” positively indisputable? It’s not how Pyotr Kropotkin felt:

Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it its wars and its domestic struggles for power, its palace revolutions which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of this development there is … death!

Or the destruction of States, and new life starting again in thousands of centers on the principle of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement.

The choice lies with you!

19

JP Stormcrow 10.04.07 at 4:44 pm

The picture of the worker with toy guns reminded in particular of this great Tracy Grammer song – “Hey Ho”.

another world across the sea
home for little busy bees
sweatin in some factory
hurry, please, more of these

action dolls with laser sights
robot planes that shoot at night
faster, kid, and get it right
they’re rollin down the line

It is notable just what crap is in the pictures – but there is clearly a “demand” so who am I to argue – just another small segment of the the Planetary Dance of Hydrocarbons. It’s all good.

20

Bloix 10.04.07 at 5:42 pm

Sorry to be stupid, but what is striking about the photos? This looks like any ordinary plastics factory with ordinary factory workers.

21

mq 10.04.07 at 5:52 pm

They could choose to be social scientists one day and toy-plant laborers the next.

Under this scheme, I predict a sharp increase in the quality of social science and a sharp decline in the quality and durability of toys.

22

Tracy W 10.04.07 at 5:52 pm

Interesting summary of an idea of Marx.

One thing I’m lost though, what did Marx think a world where commodity fetishism did not happen would look like? What would be different in a world with extensive division of labour but where the “social character of men’s labour does not appear to them as an objective feature stamped upon the product of that labour.”

Or is this an inevitable consequence of large-scale production, market system or not?

23

leederick 10.04.07 at 5:59 pm

I always thought Marx’s ideas about commodity fetishism were about of the effects of capitalism, rather than the market per se. Was I missing something?

24

bi 10.04.07 at 6:12 pm

abb1:

Well, Kropotkin just successfully exhibited another form of fetishism (or abstraction): instead of summing up the vast number of people behind a wool coat as just a Product with a Price Tag, let’s instead treat the huge complex consisting of policemen, judges, clerks, lawmakers, etc. into a single Borg-like entity called The Government.

(Which incidentally is one reason why I find glibertarianism bogus.)

25

notsneaky 10.04.07 at 6:47 pm

Sorry to be stupid, but what is striking about the photos? This looks like any ordinary plastics factory with ordinary factory workers.

That’s precisely what’s striking about the photos. They ain’t evil Chinese conspirators bent on destroying the USA! USA! USA! nor are they whipped and battered slaves destroyed by the evil of new (sort of) found Chinese affection for capitalism. They’re just normal people making stuff that other normal people want to buy. Crazy.

26

Edis 10.04.07 at 7:03 pm

I think the Business Week (and other) reports were on the consequences of the Hukou system. This is the internal passport that gives everyone in China an official place of residence. If your Hukou is some remote village you do not have the right to live and work in a distant city. Millions and millions of Chinese do in fact live outside their Hukou and are vulnerable to economic pressures out of fear of police action. Internal illegal immigrants in fact.

27

abb1 10.04.07 at 7:53 pm

Bi, no, as I understand it, the Kropotkin brand of anarchism wants you to abandon most of division of labor and live in a small rural community where you don’t need a government. Division of labor is evil, that’s all there is to it.

28

Murphy17 10.04.07 at 10:33 pm

I like the one with the worker next to the pile of dolls she just built. Piles of dead looking dolls or mannequins always makes my brain stutter for a moment.

I can imagine some xenophobic propaganda poster seeing it as evil Chinese methodically killing the future for American children.

29

Dan Simon 10.05.07 at 12:45 am

In a perfect society, the means of production would be centrally regulated and workers could shift around at will. They could choose to be social scientists one day and toy-plant laborers the next.

I beg to differ. In a perfect society, the means of production wouldn’t exist, since whatever anyone wanted would simply materialize on his or her lap, and vanish without a trace as soon as he or she tired of it.

30

Brett Bellmore 10.05.07 at 1:34 am

“That’s precisely what’s striking about the photos. They ain’t evil Chinese conspirators bent on destroying the USA!”

Well, no, they’re subjects of the evil Chinese conspirators. Although IS striking that the photographer didn’t think the guard towers and barbed wire fences that typically surround such factories in China were worth photographing.

31

Brett Bellmore 10.05.07 at 1:36 am

“I beg to differ. In a perfect society, the means of production wouldn’t exist, since whatever anyone wanted would simply materialize on his or her lap, and vanish without a trace as soon as he or she tired of it.”

Well, yes, but that night they’d all be torn to shreds by monsters. Monsters from the ID! :O

32

will 10.05.07 at 2:03 am

tracy w, this is from Alasdair Macintyre:

“Secreted within Marxism from the outset is a certain radical individualism. In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like ‘when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations’..”

i.e. when relations between individuals are no longer obscured by commodity fetishism, and are completely transparent…

“…what he pictures is ‘a community of free individuals’ who have all freely agreed to their common ownership of the means of production and to various norms of production and distribution. This free individual is described by Marx as a socialized Robinson Crusoe; but on what basis he enters into his free association with others Marx does not tell us.”

33

LogicGuru 10.05.07 at 3:34 am

For the perfect society, William Morris had it right in _News from Nowhere_: wages inversely proportional to job satisfaction. So, you could choose to sacrifice job satisfaction in the interest of getting lots of bucks or vice versa–as we academics have to some extent.

Personally I think we should sacrifice even more: for the privilege of autonomy and interesting work, academic jobs should pay minimum wage. And maybe there should be elaborate hazing ceremonies, involving physical ordeals, branding, whatever. That would cut down on the competition in overcrowded disciplines. I’d pay the price.

34

Roy Belmont 10.05.07 at 5:52 am

News from another dimension. The things they make are meaningless beyond any redefining, empty artifacts, like money printed out with no backing – supported by the believers in it, it becomes central, essential, paramount to the dying age. The things that give meaning to their lives are twitch and jerk responses no different from rhesus primates clamped in laboratory hells. How they got there was a series of logical sensible seductions.
But each step in is swept clean and made invisible, until there’s nothing left but freeways and birdless forests.
Listening to the dementia of the last of their kind seek some way through, but there is no way through. That was the message at the beginning and it hasn’t changed.
You can’t go this way. If you do go that way, this will happen. When that happens you must turn back. If you don’t turn back, this next thing will happen.
And there you are.
Bloix #22 represents the preterite world now. What’s bizarre and inhuman about these images?
Maybe they illustrate your inability to imagine a full 24 hour cycle in those worker’s lives.
Who the fuck was Daniel Boone? Red Cloud?
Vercingetorix? Whaat?
The Neanderthals gathered flowers. Presented them to each other.
I promise you this is true.

35

Martha Bridegam 10.05.07 at 6:09 am

“Seth E” is right. I’ve seen people processing strawberry seedlings in Northern California with the same looks on their faces.

Kropotkin didn’t know from industrial agriculture.

36

Z 10.05.07 at 6:13 am

William Morris had it right in News from Nowhere: wages inversely proportional to job satisfaction.

There are no wages in News from Nowhere, and most people have completely lost the knowledge of the concept. I enjoyed thouroughly this comparison of Smith and Marx.

37

bi 10.05.07 at 7:39 am

abb1: That doesn’t change in the slightest way the fact that he just abstracted “government” into some sort of Borg-like entity.

“they’re subjects of the evil Chinese conspirators.” — Brett Bellmore

Ahem.

38

Tracy W 10.05.07 at 8:02 am

Will – thanks for explaining.

In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like ‘when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations’..”

I think Marx was overconfident. He was writing before electric fridges. I understand how fridges and freezers work, but they still strike me as fundamentally cheating.

More generally, if we are to understand everything in our economy or in the 19th century economy (“perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations”) we would need not merely a political revolution but a massive increase in the speed in which information can be passed from one head to another.

39

abb1 10.05.07 at 9:16 am

…he just abstracted “government” into some sort of Borg-like entity…

What, you find concepts like ‘statism’, ‘individualism’ or ‘collectivism’ completely useless because they are too general? Can’t abstraction be useful to some extent?

40

bi 10.05.07 at 9:40 am

abb1:

“What, you find concepts like ‘statism’, ‘individualism’ or ‘collectivism’ completely useless because they are too general?”

I do, actually — they’re even worse than “government”. (I mean, if a word like “collectivism” can refer to anything from out-and-out fascism to Bakunin’s anarchism to social democratic liberalism, how can it not be useless?)

“Can’t abstraction be useful to some extent?”

Yes, as long as they’re not simplistic to the point of being wrong. “Government” isn’t some sort of undifferentiated Borg-like mass of oppressors, just as Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t just a soulless entity that gives you exactly what you want every time.

41

seth e 10.05.07 at 12:19 pm

Just to add if anyone wants to see pictures of people shopping at Nike Beijing or benetton, or giant billboards for Sony, konica or chanel i can send some along.just email me at edenbaumstudio at earthlink dot net and ill blackberry you a couple.
I’m in town for a couple of days to see the forbidden city visit
a couple galleries and do a little shopping.

42

abb1 10.05.07 at 5:21 pm

I agree that an one-line caricature is usually pretty useless, but people like Smith and Marx, and even Proudhon and Kropotkin, wrote thousands of pages explaining their ideas in a more nuanced way.

Later some of their one-liners became symbols the whole body of their works, thus we often hear “invisible hand”, “proletarians of the world, unite”, “property is theft”, etc. But obviously Adam Smith had much-much more to say than just “invisible hand”, otherwise he would’ve only needed to produce a single-page pamphlet or even a fortune cookie.

43

bi 10.05.07 at 6:59 pm

abb1:

Um, Kropotkin did write a lot of stuff, but “government” is always a Borg-like entity. In _What is Property?_, for example:

“But what was monarchy? The sovereignty of one man. What is democracy? The sovereignty of the nation, or, rather, of the national majority.”

Oh, so it’s either a small Borg, or a big Borg. But “government” can only a Borg, and let’s forget that the idea of “divided government” ever existed.

44

bi 10.05.07 at 7:01 pm

My point was, writing thousands of pages doesn’t really make one more “nuanced”.

45

bi 10.05.07 at 7:09 pm

s/Kropotkin/Proudhon/ # oops

But it seems that Kropotkin doesn’t say anything about “divided government” either. Bleh.

46

abb1 10.05.07 at 8:03 pm

Hmm, I don’t really understand why this “divided government” thing is so terribly important that everyone must acknowledge it or else.

I can easily see how one could argue (as he apparently does in your quote in #46) that, divided or not, the essence of government is the same: coercion, exercising power of one group over another; the difference being only in the degree and the contents of these groups.

Of course, clearly, someone else could also (convincingly) argue that point is in finding compromises between the groups and individuals, yet it doesn’t make the anti-government angle logically unsound. I suspect most people would subscribe to the view of government as a “necessary evil”, so a guy looking for ways to make it un-necessary doesn’t strike me as totally unreasonable.

47

Tim Worstall 10.06.07 at 9:00 am

The problem with “invisible hand” as err, shorthand for Smith is that it’s not very accurate. He actually uses the phrase three times in the million words of his that we have.

48

om 10.07.07 at 1:42 am

Chris Bertram:

Let’s go back to that quote again:

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, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life….
That doesn’t seem to me to be an accurate picture of the moral condition of the typical industrial worker.

Maybe, but that’s not what Smith is trying to describe. What he is trying to describe is the condition of the typical industrial worker “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

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