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

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Svevo's Zeno 2: the croupier's rake

The individualism of methodological individualism is a strange beast. On the one hand, it promises a robust defense of the individual as the ultimate level of social analysis. All collectives, go the doctrine, are composed of individual behaviors. There are no collective agents – like a pantomime horse, when you see a collective – a state, a firm, an organization – you are seeing the sheeting over the actors inside it. And yet, this defense of the individual is, at the same time, an emptying out of the individual. Whatever his or her beliefs, passions, or promises, in effect the content of the individual consists of an algorithm for calculating the maximization of his or her advantage. It is thus that the pantomime horse of capitalist organizations gets to its feet and proceeds to walk all over you. Hayek, who was a great believer in individualism, was conscious of this paradox and explains it in The Counterrevolution in Science.  It happens that those who are not entirely sold on individualism and those who emphasize ‘historicism’ – the interpretation of social action that does not hold that a universal maximizing principle is at the heart of it – are pretty much synonymous. This gives us the paradox that those who emphasize the collective level are also those who oppose the universalism of a conjectural history going back to Smith. Thus, historicists would dispute that, say, price or monopoly as categories developed in contemporary economics could be usefully imposed on social behavior in Egyptian society in 1400 B.C. - the example Hayek uses. 

But, according to Hayek: "What this contention overlooks is that “price” of “monopoly” are not names for definite “things”, fixed collections of physical attributes which we recognize by some of these attributes as members of the same class and whose further attributes we ascertain by observation; but that they are objects which can be defined only in terms of certain relatins between human beings and which cannot possess any attributes except those which follow from the relations by which they are defined. They can be recognized by us as prices or monopolies only because, and in so rar as, we can recognize these individual attitudes, and from these as elements compose the structural pattern which we call a price or a monopoly. Of course the ‘whole” situation, or even the “whole of the men who act, will greatly diiffer from place to place and from time to time. But it is solely our capacity to recognize the familiar elements from which the unique situation is made up which enables us to attach any meaning to the phenomena.” (66)

Hayek’s notion – which appeals, in the end, to an "us" who is above the wholes of the situation and the men involved – reflects a pattern of social meanings that capitalism introduced into Western Europe in the 19th century, and with which, especially, intellectuals caught up in the sphere of circulation wrestled: the seemingly unbridgeable difference between the individual as an accounting entity and an individual as an existential mystery. The latter is on the side of ‘experience’ – but the former rides mankind. Experience fills in the empty algorithmic unit – the economic individual – with matter that seems, well, beyond the bounds of his maximizing reason, or the reduction to individuals that is theoretically called for in analyzing economic action. The money in my pocket passed to me from some individual, truly, but the individuals involved in the chain that touched that money are all, with regards to me, rather empy and automatic – the man who put the money in the ATM machine, the woman who gave me change at the grocery store, the software engineer who designed paypal, the client who paid me – all are in my life to varying degrees, but their roles, the money, and myself seem to be bound together by arithematic more than intimacy. “The technical form of commerce creates a ralm of values that is more or less commpletely loosened from its subjective – personal substructure,” Simmel says (30)

It is in the conflict between the two aspects that is brought to bear on the discourse on freedom that was passed down from the ancien regime to the increasingly capitalist dissolution of the ancien regime in the  nineteenth century. “Commerce always strives – never fully unreal and never fully realized – towards a stage of development in which things determine their value through a self-acting mechanism – unmarked by the queion of how much subjective feeling this mechanism has taken into account as its precondition or as its matter.” (Simmel, 30)

These conflicting aspects of individualism are very much part of Svevo's novel, Zeno's Conscience - for the conscience is, too, both a peculiar personal thing and a sort of introjection of norms and rules that the individual was never consulted about. At one point Svevo’s narrator,  Zeno Costini, who, as the  heir of his father’s business, has nothing to do – by which we readers understand that he does not need to do anything to have money – insists on being given a job with his Olivi, the man to whom Zeno’s father entrusted the management of the business. Consequently, Zeno is instructed in accounting - or 'economics':

“Olivi’s son, an elegant, bespectacled young man, erudite in all the commercial sciences, took over my instruction, and I honestly can’t complain about him. He annoyed me a little with his economic science and his law of supply and demand, which seemed to me more self-evident than he would admit. But he showed a certain respect for me as the owner, and I was all the more grateful because he couldn’t possibly have learned that from his father. Respect for ownership must have been part of his economic science. He never scolded me for the mistakes I often made in posting entries; he simply ascribed them to ignorance and then gave me explanations that were really superfluous.
The trouble came when, what with looking at all those transactions, I began to feel like making some of my own. In the ledger, very clearly, I came to visualize my own pocket, and when I posted a sum under “debit” for our clients, instead of a pen, I seemed to hold in my hand a croupier’s rake, ready to collect the money scattered over the gaming table.” (166)

The croupier’s rake instead of the pen! – one seems magical, a wand that brings us back to the archaic, pre-capitalist world of treasure, while the other seems anything but magical, imprisoning us in double columns. The libido of the sphere of circulation flows into this image, which has urged itself upon theorists and clerks since the days of Law’s system.

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