While the division between the city and the country has been noted as far back as Homer’s description of the race of Cyclopes in the Odyssey (“The Cyclopes have no assemblies for making laws, nor any settled customs, but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody cares a jot for his neighbours”), it was Marx in the German Ideology first saw how the division functioned as a social structure: “The greatest division of material and intellectual labor is in the division of the city and the country. The opposition between the city and the country begins with the transition out of the barbaric state into that of civilization, out of the tribe into the state, out of the locality into the nation, and traverses all of history up to the present day (the anti-Corn Law League). – With the city we get at the same time the necessity of administration, the police, taxes, etc., in brief the community and thus politics in general. Here the division of the population into two great classes shows itself, which are directly based on the division of labor and the instruments of production. The city is already the fact of the concentration of the population, of instruments of production, of capital, of pleasures, of needs, while the country brings into view the completely opposite fact of isolation and separation. The opposition between the city and the country can only exist within private property.” In his work on peasant rebellions in the 1970s, James C. Scott took up this thread to explore what he called the slippage between the great tradition of the cities and the little tradition of the peasant countryside. It is in the city that theology, science, and modern economics is conceptually developed, and in the country that the little tradition, with local beliefs and cults (or from the city viewpoint, ‘superstition’), archaic modes of exchange, and a conservatism that adheres to older, outmoded strata of the great tradition reigns. The city sends the country its emissaries – its priests or doctors, businessmen or commisars – while the country sends the city its unskilled labor. The city establishes the order of progress in the Country, under the sign of ‘allochrony’ – even if the city and country are, in reality, synchronous, in the time of ideology, the city is ‘modern’ and the country is ‘primitive.’
According to this rough mapping, then, we should locate myth in the little tradition. It should be tied to the local cult, the village cosmology.
This essay, however, proposes to deviate from the outlines of this powerful conceptual grid, for I want to locate and trace a myth that emerges in the great tradition at the very heart of rationality itself: the myth of economic man. Homo Oeconomicus, which appears, as a phrase, for the first time in the writings of Pareto and Walras in the 1890s, has a long prehistory going back to changes in the system of production occurring in the late seventeenth century. In following this myth, I aim to blur the great lines laid down between the great and little traditions, and the tendency to interpret modernization – the creation of a vast monetized economy lubricating every transaction that holds together the treadmill of production – as, ideally, supplanting all other forms of exchange.