a little justice for condillac


In 1776, the Abbe de Condillac made the mistake of publishing his thoughts about the political economy, Commerce and Government. He should have chosen 1777, or 1778, since his book came out at the same time as the book from a Scottish philosophe, Adam Smith. Piss poor timing has undone many a man. Overshadowed by the Wealth of Nations, it took two hundred some years for Condillac’s book to be translated into English. Not that he was totally ignored. Menger, that semi-founder of the marginalist school, liked him – and subsequently, Condillac, as the founder of the subjectivist school of economics, has been held in warm regard by the Austrians. Marx, on the other hand, reserved one of his minor thunderbolts for the man. Quoting Condillac in Das Kapital, Marx remarks:

“We see how Condillac not only throws together use value and exchange value, but childishly foists upon a society with developed commodity production a state in which the producers produce their own means of subsistence and only throws into circulation the surplus (Uberschuss) over their own needs, the superfluity. Yet Condillac arguments is often repeated by modern economists….”

Recently, the scary free trader, Jagdish Baghwati , claimed that Condillac understood trade better than Smith. And then, of course, there is Derrida’s stunning essay on Condillac which uses one of his great economic ideas – les besoins factices, or factitious needs – to analyze the frivolous.

LI just started reading the book. As we have mentioned, we are translated a book on economics, which has stuffed us to the very gills with talk about money.

Marx was wrong to be so dismissive. Condillac was not a writer of what Marx called Robinsonades – the myth at the heart of methodological individualism that we begin with man, the bare forked thing, on his island. He does, in a sense, begin with islands however. Or the separation of one people from another.

SUPPOSONS une petite peuplade, qui vient de s’établir, qui a fait sa première récolte, et, qui étant isolée, ne peut subsister que du produit des champs qu’elle cultive.

(Let’s suppose the following situation: there is a small group of people, just established, which makes its first harvest and, being isolated, is forced to subsist on the product of the fields they cultivate.)

As in all histories of beginnings, the history is supplemented with a beginning before the beginning. But that criticism shouldn’t blind us to what Condillac was doing, which – pace Marx – was to ask about excess. That is, what is an excess, a surplus? How would a petite peuplade decide this question? And what would it mean?

I'll return to this in the next post.