To properly understand Marx we have to go back to an imagined primitive human condition, in which a group of putative people must survive in an environment in which their survival depends on how well they cope, collectively, with that environment.

To Marx, the first category one had to put into play was labor, that is the physical energy expended to transform parts of the environment into food and shelter. Thus the energy needed to hunt animals, kill them, get them back to camp and prepare them, as well that needed to gather plants and berries and get them to camp and prepared, all count as labor. Labor is the fundamental unit of value, for Marx, and labor represents time as well as energy. Thus when I look at the animal I have killed and skinned what that animal really stands for is energy expended and the time of my life used up in getting that labor done. The prepared animal is, in a way, frozen time. 

As fundamental to Marx' understanding is the division of labor. This means that, in order to get anything effective done with respect to acquiring either food or shelter, a primitive group is best served by dividing the energy expended as a function of the several tasks needed to get the whole job done. The principle is simple: if you want to get your Ikea desks and bookcases assembled with as much efficiency as possible it makes most sense to have guy do all the computer desks and another to do the bookcases, for the simple reason that doing more than one desk cuts the time and efficiency for doing the second, third and fourth desks drastically. We teach ourselves how to do repeated tasks more and more quickly and skillfully, where we might fumble and delay if asked to do a multiple of different tasks. 

We also get more efficient if we assign different tasks to people with different inherent gifts or limitations. For example, men have greater physical strength, generally speaking, and so, generally speaking, might be more effective hunters in cases in which physical strength is critical to the effective operation of hunting weapons. Conversely, although women might be better as trackers, the fact that they will often have small children to care for means that they are more tied to an area near the group's encampment and thus are better placed to gather plants and nuts and berries, nursing their children as they go. 

This represents a simple and cartoonishly stereotyped example of the division of labor, which might or might not ever have occurred in just this way (although there is evidence that my little story, although wildly oversimplified, is not entirely inaccurate). The point is that in this instance humans are intelligent enough to think through the tasks at hand, assess what needs doing with respect to the environment, and make the divisions that work best over the long haul. Whether this is a self-conscious process is unclear and probably irrelevant. What matters is that people, or human groups, did seem to do this kind of dividing of effort.


There is another aspect to such divisions. Marx termed the thoughtful interaction between humans and the environment as praxis, which  means, roughly, thoughtful labor with respect to the environment, with the added idea that this labor is thoughtful in the precise sense that it is programmatic: we develop a set of teachable rules for catching snipes, putting together Ikea desks, or gathering pine nuts. We regularize how these things are done and we train different people in the society to do them. But as time passes, speculates Marx, two interesting things happen. First, the shape society takes is more and more clearly determined by these divisions of labor: how we work the world shapes how we organize ourselves and how we think of that organization. Thus there might grow up a special fraternity of Ikea desk assemblers who meet together and socialize and give out awards about desk assembly and wear special hats and ask for special privileges because the work they do is so vital, and so forth.

In a society of assemblers the guys who drag in the cartons and slit them open might come to occupy a lesser place in the social pecking order because what they do requires marginally less skill than what the assemblers do, and so forth. The idea is that social order and hierarchy are functions of divisions of labor.


It is also worth noting, and important, that as soon as we have division of labor we see the end of societies operating by primitive communism, worlds in which everyone does pretty much the same thing and everyone shares an equal amount of power, because he or she is expending an equal amount and kind of labor. With divisions of labor come attendant social divisions and differences in power. 


But before we address these we need to go back to the concept of praxis. Division of labor would never occur, if it did, would never develop, unless people were continually screwing around with their relationship to the environment and therefore, by extension, with each other. That is, as labor divides it also teaches itself how to proceed. One of Marx's greatest insights and one perhaps not always properly appreciated was the idea that labor interacts intelligently with the environment in a process of continual refinement and self-streamlining. Here, using a homely example, is what I mean. We Ikea desk assemblers first follow the more or less incomprehensible written directions for putting together desks, but soon find shortcuts, slightly faster or better ways to put the desks together faster and stronger. It might just be that we develop a quicker way to manipulate the hex wrenches, or we start using two people per desk rather than one to handle the awkward joinings of pieces. Over time we might even start questioning how the desks themselves are made, and start devising ways to make our own desk parts that fit together better and faster than the Ikea ones. But developing better desk plans on paper is not the same as being able to make the right parts. So, we either get in touch with Ikea and show them how our plans work better or we devise some way to start machining our own parts.

The point is that the division of labor with respect to any shared human activity is never entirely stable. Even something as elemental as child birth changes, over long stretches of time, as people devise ways to make it safer and less painful, and this development alters our fundamental relationship to the environment, giving us more control, and reconfiguring the way we deal, socially, with this event, gradually displacing family members with midwives, midwives with physicians, then physicians with better trained widwives until a teams of doctors and nurse practiitioners and midwives and others come together in birthing centers to optimize the experience.

The point is that humans cannot leave things alone; they fiddle with their practices, and the relationship between humans and the world, in terms of getting the world to yield food and shelter, is always under revision. There are reverses and long stagnant periods and wrong turns but the revolutionary optimist Marx always sees progress across the centuries.

But this general pattern of technological advancement and increasing social complexity does not proceed smoothly and in a pleasant arc. Marx is more complex than that. Deeply influenced by Hegel's idea that human history advances by twists and turns and apparent reversals and does not follow a simple forward trajectory, Marx posits what he calls dialectical materialism, with emphasis on both terms, which we will now analyze. 

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