The other day, my friend M. sent me a copy of a letter that was written by an editor of a press to another person, in which the editor solicited a small essay for a line of books that would contain small, one hundred page essays on a variety of topics. M. suggested that this was definitely up my alley – and I have to agree.
So I have been thinking of carving out a small bit from my human limit project for a book to be tentatively entitled, Homo Oeconomicus: the biography of a myth. Much of what I’ve been writing lately (about the origin of the equilibrium idea in economics) would flow very easily into a book about the rise of the idea of the homo oeconomicus – the rational actor whose ectoplasmic calculations are at the center of mainstream economics. To paraphrase Paul Veyne’s book, “Did the Greeks believe their myths”, I think an essay about whether the economists believe theirs – and more importantly, how their belief has helped form the political and economic order of modernity – is worth a nice one hundred pages.
This essay would have to begin in Rouen. I’d like to start with Pascal, Boisguilbert and Fontenelle and go forward until, in the 20th and 21st century, I bump into Robert Lucas, the Ownership society and the Browne report. The essay would really be the development of a phrase of Fontenelle, who, in his Eloge de Montmort, wrote that the scientific spirit will in the end bring about the belief “that the political world as well as physics is ruled by weight, number and measurement.” The great transformation of the economic and political arrangements under capitalism, outlined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto and Karl Polanyi in the Great Transformation, took place not only in the vast recombination and recreation of everyday routines, but also in the thoughts entertained by the clerks, the policymaking intellectuals, the poets, the dissenters, the political arithmeticians, the pamphleteers and scientists, and in general the entire crowd of Burke’s “theorists”. Such is the ‘spirit’ of capitalism.
Historians have long been convinced that Adam Smith’s conjectural history is basically right Smith puts “commercial society”, or a society based on the cash nexus, at the endpoint of history. Myself, I want to dispute one of the premises of this idea, which is that we have gone from a society in which the dominant form in which the matrix of exchange occurs is barter to one in which the dominant form is money. I think this claim is made, to an extent, by engaging in a definitional tour de passe-passe, in which a system of exchanges is mysteriously expelled from economics, and is then, as mysteriously, crunched into a system of rational choice, a method by which mountains regularly give birth to mice, and all is dissolved in the triviality of a decisional form without, of course, explaining decisions at all. I take the term “exchange matrix” from Robert Cowen, who was very concerned with the fact that, in the Walrasian and neo-Walrasian schemas which are at the heart of neo-classical economics, the stripping away of the “veil of money”, which is meant to help us understand the self-regulating nature of money, is the equivalent of the claim that, in essence, money simply is a refined form of barter. D. Dillard, in The Barter Illusion, helps us to see what Cowen tries to show formally in matrix form – namely, that the idea that money is barter undergirds a completely fictitious view of firms, which premise that they exist solely for the sake of consumption. As Dillard – echoing Marx – points out, a firm’s output is ‘reconstituted as money capital” for the very good reason that firms do not exist – except on the most abstract level – to increase consumption. “What is real from the point of view of the objective of the firm is money.” As Dillard points out, “A corollary of the barter illusion is that money is neutral with regard to output and unemployment.”
All of which is one part of the illusion of the pure exchange system – that is, that barter and money are essentially the same. So the first part of understanding the myth of homo oeconomicus is to remove the illusion of the equivalence of money and barter, and the corollary illusion that, on the one hand, there is a pure barter system, and, on the other hand, that there is an equilibrium towards which markets tend.
Homo Oeconomicus, that eternal calculator of profit, operates within these larger mythical frameworks. My proposal is, firstly, to go from the mixed matrixes of the late medieval European economies up through the genesis of political arithmetic in the early modern period by looking at some plays – I’m thinking of Everyman, King Lear, the Alchemist, L’avare; secondly, to look at some analogies of the wheel – the wheel of Fortune or Nemesis, the circulation of the blood, and the circulation of money; thirdly, to examine Pascal’s meditations on the difference between reasoning and authority, against the background of Pascal’s development of a theory of probabilities based on the example of the game; fourthly, to examine the Enlightenment development of man the machine as man the calculating machine; fifthly, to go from Smith’s pin-factory to Marx’s theory of alienation, with its deep reach into how he conceives the economic sphere; sixthly, to discuss Polanyi’s double movement – that fold in the development of Capitalist culture in which the state intervenes as a guarantor (of social welfare, of banks, of farming culture, etc.); and finally, to discuss the social coordinates of individualism.
This may be too ambitious. Hey, commentors, tell me what you think!
“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
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads