“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, May 13, 2006

the seventies show

LI was going to write about an important issue today: the American Idol election. According to the Washington Post, all America voted for whoever it was that won the contest. And this puzzled me – since it is clear evidence that I’ve been sleepwalking again. Damn. My enjoyment of America’s show, a show that is American as idolatry with less calories, but more filling, with four on the floor, Ram tough, built to last, I’m lovin’ it, is a bit baffled by the fact that I can’t watch it – my tv being so sensitive to the many waves and follies that float invisibly through the air that I can only watch one channel – Fox – and every show looks like a heavy blizzard having an epileptic seizure.

This puts the keebash to the only show I really want to watch – the Simpsons – and definitely would make viewing American idol, which depends, I believe, on sound, a little boring. Of course, I could get the DVDs of American idols past and see what I voted for. I also could slit my wrists with the kitchen scissors. Life is full of possibilities.

Instead, I’ll go back to my own previously interrupted show, your favorite and mine, Philosophe idol. The seventies show – the 1770s. Or, Condillac and expectation.

As I wrote in the last post, Condillac starts not with Robinson Crusoe, but with Crusoe’s island, so to speak. That is, a small group of people who grow their own food. Marx criticized the economists fatal penchant for methodological individualism by jeering at the notion of Robinson Crusoe as a starting point for explaining a social phenomenon like exchange. However, Marx ignored something that is interesting about Condillac’s Commerce and Government – which is that Condillac embedded exchange and use in the framework of expectation. In Condillac’s version of little people on the prairie, an islanded group growing its food, over time, learns how much it needs to plant and how much it needs to store. And that learning is related to its desires and fears. In other words, the superfluity of the product does not begin as a judgment about an objective quantity, but begins as a judgment about risk and uncertainty:

“Let’s suppose that after having picked out the grain necessary for sowing the land again, there remains one hundred bushelweight (muids – about 2 and a half bushels); and with this quantity, they could expect a second harvest without fear of lack.”

After reconstructing a little narrative about harvests, Condillac comes to the main point:

“It is thus in opinion that one has quantities, rather than in the quantities themselves; it is where abundance, surabundance, or shortage (disette) is discovered: but they are found in opinion only because they are supposed in the quantities.”

This may seem upside down (Marx will invariably use figures of topsy turviness or things being upside down when he comes upon ‘ideology’ – like St. Paul, he thinks we see now, as through a glass, darkly, but unlike St. Paul, he prescribes an astringent and earthly corrective for this problem), since after all disette is marked by more than opinion – it is marked by sickness and death. But this, which is the objective, corporal basis of fear, does not of itself make opinion “objective.”

This is where Condillac is more sophisticated than one might think at first. For C., the little people does not exist as the individual times x, but has a separate existence that emerges and animates the group. This grounds economics in two things –physical need and opinion – and allows Condillac to posit, at the beginning of his story, a bifurcation in need.

“We have two sorts of needs. One are entailed by our physical disposition: we are disposed to have need of nourishment – we cannot live without food. The other is entailed by our habits. Such and such a thing, of which we can do without, since our physical disposition does not make it a need, become necessary to us by usage, and sometimes as necessary as if we were physically disposed to need it.

I call natural those needs entailed by our physical disposition, and factitious (factice) the needs we owe to the habit contracted by the usage of things.”

That distinction ramifies into a whole history of civilization in Condillac – for whom the political economy is just one way of telling that history. Adam Smith, of course, has the same notion of the political economy, but he is, as we know from our little textbooks, wedded to the classical ideal of objective values – and in particular, labor. Condillac’s conventionalism is often discussed in terms of use and exchange – Jessica Riskin, a marvelous historian, in her essay The Spirit of the System and the fortunes of Physiocracy, writes:

“Condillac… rooted value, not in nature, but in social convention. He opposed the tendency to “regard value as an absolute quality, inherent in things independently of the judgments we make.” The value of a thing, Condillac said, arose primarily from assessments of its “utility”, the needs and uses people had for it. He therefore argued for free trade on the basis of the social, rather than natural, origins of value. Condillac’s conventional origin of value implied that commerce was not sterile, despite the claims of the physiocrats; exchanges between people who valued what they received over what they traded always maximized value. Taxes would inhibit such exchanges, and it was for this reason, and not the sterility of commerce, that Condillac opposed them.”

Now, the history of expectation in economics is a convoluted one. Currently, the neo-classicals rejoice in a theory, rational expectation, in which government activity is so thoroughly encoded in the expectations of the market that there is no need for it – in fact, the government acting is, by definition, an upsetting of the equilibrium posited by rational expectation. Government is the drunken daddy, the market is the sleeping baby, and drunken daddy will just stumble in the nursery and make the baby cry. This is so obviously ridiculous that it has been unanimously embraced by the conservative ideologues as the perfect explanation of the bad state theory of economics (otherwise known as, one hundred and one excuses why absentee owners should be allowed to ruin the planet and enslave the working class), and awarded nobel prizes in economics, and extended to explain why, for instance, the stock market is perfectly rational (which got rather hit on the head after 2001 – no matter. The ideologues then explain why the market is perfectly irrational. In any case, bad daddy state can’t wake up the baby.)

Of course, it should be pointed out that the ideological windowdressing only operates to prevent the state from exerting itself on behalf of the working class. When the governing class needs help, economic theory is quietly stashed in a closet and the government spends like a drunken sailor, most notably on some convenient war that it discovers that it has to wage.

However, the Keynesian notion of adaptive expectation, the realistic explanation of expectation, would seem to have its origins in Condillac. So – we shall return once more to the Abbe, but I don’t know when.

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