Adam Smith and death in the life of the universal

RP 134 () / Article

Louis Althusser began Reading Capital with the statement, ʻWe have all certainly read and are all reading [Marxʼs] Capital.ʼ While Althusser is undoubtedly addressing here his seminar, the focus of which was precisely Marxʼs Capital, the sentence that follows elevates the act of reading this particular text to the status of the universal: the entire world has read and is reading Capital. Marx has been read for ʻnearly a centuryʼ not only by ʻusʼ (that is, all of us) but for us and to us even, and especially when we are not aware of it. And this paradox – that of our having read a text without knowing it – is made possible by the fact that Capital, Marxʼs theoretical work, is not limited to or contained by a book or set of books: ʻwe have been able to read it every day transparently in the dramas and dreams of our history, in its debates and conflicts.ʼ1 It is thus written in the history of the ʻworkersʼ movementʼ and therefore in the words and acts of its leaders and its partisans, as well as its adversaries, whose works represent both a commentary on and a continuation of Marxʼs text. Althusser insists, however, that the very universalization of Capital, the text, which undoubtedly occurs simultaneously with the universalization of the capital which is the object it seeks to analyse, renders a reading of Marxʼs words, ʻto the letterʼ, all the more urgent.

To take Althusserʼs position seriously today, forty years since he articulated it to his seminar, is to recognize that coextensive with, but distinct from, the theoretical imperative that requires us to read Marx ʻto the letterʼ is the correlative necessity to read Adam Smith. For if the last forty years have shown us anything it is that we all have read and are still reading Smith, that he is read for us and to us far more than was ever the case with Marx and that his words shape our dreams and destinies especially when we cite them without knowing it, taking his words as our own. Smith is then the universal element within which our theory and practice takes shape, within which what lives on in Marxʼs thought has its existence. This universality does not derive from the force of argument or empirical proof; the universality of Smith, a universality once contested and now reasserted, is immanent in a certain global balance of forces. Smith is the very idea of this now more or less stable balance of forces, the idea it has of itself. How, then, is it possible to read Smith or to make sure that the Smith we read is not himself already a reading, Smith read for us rather than by us? Perhaps the best way, or even the only way, to begin to read him is to examine a reader in the act of reading Smith. I propose, then, to take as my starting point a reader who neither admits that he is reading Smith nor in his reading is particularly faithful to the text or texts he reads, but whose reading, by virtue of its singular force, opens a certain space for thought, making it possible to read Smith in a new way.

The virtue of greed

I will begin by following Hegelʼs reading of Smith, not where he explicitly refers to Smith in the discussion of the ʻsystem of needsʼ in the Philosophy of Right, but in the Phenomenology of Spirit at the point where reason understands that its essence cannot exist in observation alone but only in its own actualization. Hegel argues that reasonʼs actualization of itself necessarily takes the form of a community (Gemeinschaft), the universal community, not as an ideal or in a formal, juridical sense, but as a reality produced by concrete individuals. He is careful to note, however, that the universal is produced by individuals who not only do not labour with the aim of producing the universal community, but who, on the contrary, seek only to satisfy their own needs, even at the expense of others. It is at this precise point that Hegel invokes Smith, specifically Smithʼs concept of the market, as the concrete form of the universal:

The labor of the individual for his own needs is just as much a satisfaction of the needs of others as of his own, and the satisfaction of his own needs he obtains only through the labor of others. As the individual in his individual work already unconsciously performs a universal work, so he again also produces the universal as his conscious object; the whole becomes, as a whole, his own work, for which he sacrifices himself and precisely in doing so receives back from it his own self.2

The reference to Smith here is clear. As he argues in the Wealth of Nations, an individual in ʻa civilized society … stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudesʼ. And, despite the apparent qualification introduced by the phrase ʻin a civilized societyʼ, Smith a few lines later posits cooperation as the necessary condition of human existence per se, going so far as to ascribe it to the natural condition of the species. The individual member of ʻalmost every other race of animalsʼ is ʻentirely independent and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creatureʼ, while the human individual remains dependent and has for mere survival ʻalmost constant occasion for the help of his brethrenʼ.3 Read from Hegelʼs perspective, then, society or community is not simply necessary for humanityʼs development and progress, it is necessary from the point of view of human life itself. The species cannot reproduce or survive in the absence of cooperation. The life of the individual, for Hegel, depends upon the ʻlife of a peopleʼ (dem Leben eines Volks) which furnishes ʻthe universal sustaining mediumʼ necessary to human life. It is thus only the ʻpower of the whole peopleʼ (die Macht des ganzen Volks) that confers upon the individual sufficient power to exist. In the universal there is life; in the particular only death.4 The term ʻpeopleʼ should be understood here as a biological entity, the concrete form of the universal that arises in the course of the natural history of humanity and the irreducible foundation of life, human life, itself.

Yet if the cooperation necessary to the sustaining of life itself characterizes the life and power of a people, this cooperation itself must be explained, and it was precisely in explaining this cooperation that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophy divided into two opposing camps. Smith alludes to this division as he develops his analysis of the optimal form of cooperation. In particular, he is compelled to confront the argument that there exists in the human individual a social instinct as powerful as self-interest that drives individuals to assist others in the satisfaction of their needs with the same urgency that impels them to satisfy their own. Here, Smithʼs discussion of Hutchesonʼs moral philosophy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is particularly interesting. Because Hutcheson, following Shaftesbury and Butler, postulates the existence of what Smith calls an ʻinstinctive good-willʼ,5 he is led to devalue those actions which originate from other motives, especially selfinterested motives, so that, regardless of the effects of such actions, their self-interested origins deprive such actions of any consideration of benevolence. The latter becomes, in effect, the principle in relation to which even the mere attempt to secure oneʼs survival – that is, the principle of self-preservation – is subject to moral condemnation. Significantly, Smith sees Mandeville, otherwise his predecessor in so many ways, as tending merely to invert the philosophy of benevolence. The ʻfellow-feelingʼ or benevolent inclination that ought to reign over our sentiments is redefined as a base, nearly animalistic passion that the most hardened criminal feels, given that its involuntary, instinctual character can no more be described as virtuous than the supposedly selfish passions of greed and lust.

Further, greed ought to be judged by its effects rather than by its motives, and the effects of the mass of individuals acting at the behest of the passion of greed are far superior to the effects of self-denial and benevolence. Therefore lust and greed, if not virtuous in themselves, lead to the production not only of a prosperous world but a world which can be regarded as virtuous in so far as it will relieve the sufferings of the poor more effectively and to a far greater degree than any system of charity based on self-denial or asceticism. For Smith, the problem is that Mandeville refers to all self-interested actions as vices (even if ʻprivate vices are public benefitsʼ), a reduction that prevents him from distinguishing between the rational and laudable self-interest of a merchant seeking to maximize the return on his investment and the vicious behaviour of a common thief seeking to convey my property into his own possession. Smith does not regard the ʻpopular ascetic doctrinesʼ6 to which Mandevilleʼs system, as he read it, constituted a response as a serious threat to the prosperity of society. The social passions that he groups together under the label of benevolence are not even common enough to interfere with the degree of self-interest necessary to progress. The cooperation that constitutes the necessarily universal existence of human individuals derives from each seeking his own betterment at the expense of others. Precisely because individuals believe that their actions will lead to their advantage, they act in such a way that will produce the very universality that they appear to deny. For Smith, this ʻveil of ignoranceʼ that prevents individuals from knowing the benevolent consequences of their self-interested actions is necessary to the design of the whole.7 As Seneca put it in De Providentia, a crucial text for Smith, the problem of evil in a world governed by providence is a problem of knowledge: ʻWhat seem to be evils are not actually such.ʼ8 Thus, individuals are governed by self-interest that they may better serve their fellows by producing and exchanging as much as they possibly can. In the famous passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith remarks of ʻthe richʼ that

in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labors of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interests of the society and afford means to the multiplication of the species.9

It is here, in relation to a passage that certainly furnished one of the major reference points for Hegelʼs reading of Smith in the Phenomenology, that the precise effects of Hegelʼs reading become clear. First, in Smithʼs work, the discrepancy between the intentions and knowledge of individual actors and their actions on the one hand and the consequences of these actions on the other is, as we have seen, a necessary and permanent feature of society. It is in fact, as Smith himself clearly says in the lines following the passage from the Theory of Moral Sentiments cited above, the providential design of a society that is itself part of a universal Providence, neither a secular theodicy nor an economic theology but a continuation in the human world of the Providence that governs all things. Interestingly, Hegel, who does not reject providential thinking (even if by historicizing it he ends up positing an end that can only be perpetually deferred), cannot allow the dislocation between consciousness and action, between intention and consequence, to become functions of a stable system, the very principles of a social equilibrium. Instead, this dislocation marks the site of a contradiction that propels Smithʼs system beyond itself, namely into the becoming conscious of universality, in which consciousness begins to undertake the work of its own rational actualization, not merely discovering and observing a world but making it. By rejecting the theodicy proper to Smithʼs theory, Hegel allows us to see the essential role of the concept of theodicy, understood both as a natural and as a human system for Smith. For this concept alone will allow us to understand the emergence of another notion that otherwise would appear absent in Smithʼs works, that of life itself.