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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The origin of laissez faire in nature itself or Fortuna and the circulation of the blood.

As Jean-Louis Billoret has noted, the modern paradigm for wealth, in the 1690s, was captured by the old analogy between the body and the social body. He does not note – but I do – that the notion of circulation is connected, connotatively, with the wheel of the goddess of fortune. Which is in turn related to the paradigm of humors – in which we cycle from deficiency to excess. This system of denotation and connotation – this semiotic – is what is in question when, changing the way in which the anatomy of the body was understood from the point of view of Gabriel Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, we begin to understand what circulates in the state by anology. Hobbes, who always worked in the shifting space between the most modern paradigms, made the analogy between human and social bodies a way of explaining the whole function of money, bringing ‘nutrition’ to each part of the body.

“By concoction I understand the reducing of all commodities which are not presently consumed But reserved for nourishment in time to come to something of equal value and withal so portable as not to hinder the motion of men from place to place to the end a man may have in what place soever such nourishment as the place affordeth And this is nothing else but gold and silver and money For gold and silver being as it happens almost in all countries of the world highly valued is a commodious measure of the value of all things else between nations and money of what matter soever coined by the sovereign of a commonwealth is a sufficient measure of the value of all things else between the subjects of that commonwealth By the means of which measures all commodities moveable and immoveable are made to accompany a man to all places of his resort within and without the place of his ordinary residence and the same passeth from man to man within the commonwealth and goes round about nourishing as it passeth every part thereof in so much as this concoction is as it were the sanguification of the commonwealth for natural blood is in like manner made of the fruits of the earth and circulating nourisheth by the way every member of the body of man.”

As Billoret notices, Boisguilbert counters this popular image with one in which the circuit of wealth is divided up between the circuit of what functions as the representative of commodities – money – and the circuit of real goods and services. While still remaining within the parameters of the circulation paradigm, Boisguilbert avoids the worship of money – the according of a primary role to money in the economy – since he has firmly established, as Marx puts it, the double aspect of the commodity, as use value and exchange value. In this economy, consumption – use – is always the horizon defining the economy, while the economy is the image of the divine order. In a wonderful passage in the Factum de France, Boisguilbert goes back to Abel and Cain for his paradigmatic economic case of the origin of civil society, which is reenacted in every exchange. It is in this light that we should regard money:

“The two primary needs are food and clothing – thus, the growing of crops and the raising of herds. “In their example, those who followed were for a long time masters and valets, and the self constructors of their needs; sale was only barter or exchange, which was made from hand to hand, without any ministry of money, which was not known until a long time afterwards. But, since, corruption, violence and volupte being put into the affair, after the necessities, one wanted the pleasurable and the superfluous, which multiplied métiers, of the two that there were in the beginning, degree by degree, into the more than two hundred that there are today in France. Thus, this immediate exchange no longer subsists. The seller of a commodity hardly ever traffics with a subject who is the possessor of that which he has the design of procuring himself in discarding the things of his own, and cannot even recover them than after a long trajectory and an infinity of sales and resales, by the means of two hundred hands or professions which today compose the harmony of polished and magnificent states, there was needed a guarantee and a sort of procuration, so to speak, of that first purchaser, that the intention of the seller would be effectuated by the recovering of the commodity that he wished to have in dispossessing himself of his own. It is in this way that the ministry of money has become necessary, by a convention and a general consent of all men –that n whatever land one may be in, irrespective of whatever great distance, or of whatever violence that may disarrange things, he who carries money is assured to procure himself of as many commodities as he has a wish for relative to his sum of it, that he allows his possessions to be taken away, and certain that the object of his desire will be delivered to him with as much diligence and exactitude as if the exchange or the barter had been made immediately and from hand to hand, as at the beginning of the world.”

From which Boisguilbert concludes: “One should pay attention, from what we have said above, to the fact that money, in spite of the corruption which makes it an idol, cannot furnish any of the needs of life begin reduced to coin, but is only the guarantee that the seller of a commodity will not lose it, and that that of which he has need in bartering his own will be delivered to him, not being found with his buyer. It is necessary here to make a reflection, to wit, that this function is not uniquely that of money, whatever ideas reign to the contrary, that it does not even make up the tenth part or even the fiftieth in the times of opulence, which is nothing other than times of a great consumption, that is to say of great wealth. – The paper, parchement and even the word make up, again, more than fifty times more than money: thus one is gravely wrong, in occasions of misery, to put the cause of disorders on its account, and to allege piteously that the greater part of it has passed into foreign countries. Why don’t we say that paper and parchment have equally gone into them, and that it is the fault of matter that traffic has ceased, and that we no longer buy and sell?”

In this way, Boisguilbert disengages his model from that in which blood equals money – and in fact departs from the individualistic consequences that ensue from a metaphor that sees life interiorized in one body. Boisguilbert’s geneology goes back to two – to Cain and Abel – and not to one – some Adamic giant in whom we still partake. He, in other words, makes money purely functional – in effect, founding the classical view of money, which makes it a substitute for barter and, in itself, only a sort of factotum, a thing with no being of its own.

However, if money represents commodities, always viewed as the fruit of labor, it also incorporates, formally, equilibrium. Wealth has two aspects – use value and ‘proportion’ – that is, the harmony of exchange value: It is the proportions which make up all wealth, because it is by their sole means that the exchanges, and by consequence commerce, can be done.” (279 – my translations throughout)

What is this harmony? Boisguilbert explains this in a wonderful passage, positing, on the one hand, hierarchy as a violence, and, on the other hand, nature as a sort of guarantor state:

“Yet, by the horrible corruption of the heart, there I no individual, even though he can expect his happiness only by means of the maintenance of this harmony, who does not work from morning to evening in order to do everything he can to ruin it. There is no worker who doesn’t try, with all his force, to sell his merchandise for three times more than it is worth, and to have that of his neighbors for three times less than it costs to make it. It is only at the point of the sword that justice is maintained in these encounters and this is just what Providence and nature charges itself with. And, just as it has managed the dwellings and means of weak animals in order that they not all become the prey of those which, being born stronger, those born in some manner armed, live on carnage, in the same way, in the commerce of life, it has instilled such order that, if only one lets it have its way, there is no power so powerful, in buying the commodities of the poor man, that can prevent that sale from procuring the latter with his subsistence, which maintains opulence; to this one as well as the other owes the subsistence he has, proportioned to his estate. We have said, if only we let nature have its way, [pour vu que on laisse faire la nature] that is to say, give it its liberty, and no one meddles with this commerce than for extending protection to all, and impeding violence.”

It should be noted that this, perhaps the first use of laissez faire, takes as its subject nature – not commerce. Not the market. Nature works through the market. One can see, here, the lineaments of Smith’s notion, except that the values are reversed – it is not simply greed to accumulate that is in question, but rather, the desire to take one’s neighbor’s property – the fundamental corruption linking theft, adultery, and all forms of hatred - which is put in play, here. Nature cannot disallow corruption – we know how the story of Cain and Abel worked out – but it produces a tool to limit corruption – real bearers of swords. The warrior class of the state.

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