Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Bogus Visualisation of the Invisible Hand

Wmellin posts HERE

The invisible hands behind The Invisible Hand”

Towards the end of his chapter “The Great Exhibition of Things,” Thomas Richards relates the transformation of the commodity as bland in 1776 to the commodity as spectacle in 1851. He grounds this discussion with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “’the market price of every particular commodity is…continually gravitating towards the natural price’ (162)…Clearly Smith believes himself to be describing the workings of the commodity in essentially neutral terms” (67). Richards writes of Smith’s “Invisible Hand” – the mysterious arrival of a market at the intersection point of the downward sloping demand and upward sloping supply curves to create an equilibrium price and quantity for a given good or service.

In this chapter Richards highlights the juxtaposition between the work that goes into supplying the objects displayed at the Great Exhibition and the leisure spent enjoying said presentation. Twenty-five pages earlier he describes this dichotomy, “Though the manufactured objects displayed were often bright and new, Mayhew cannot ignore ‘the sunken eyes and other characteristics of semi-starvation’ that he sees on every face [of streetsellers]” (42). Now, street vendors were not necessarily the ones crafting the objects housed in “The Chrystal Palace,” but the conditions and treatment of factory workers in Industrial Great Britain is no secret. The workers who made the commodities that guided The Invisible Hand to the free market’s equilibrium were themselves invisible hands, intermediate labor inputs who created final, finished and polished objects yet were unseen in the goods’ ultimate display.

The Invisible Hand is a fascinating metonymical phrase because it captures the labor involved in a free market yet simultaneously negates its presence in the final stage, or the acting out of what constitutes the market: buying and selling


Wmellin articulates a myth about Adam Smith that is totally wrong. Smith never discussed the IH metaphor in relation to his discussions of markets in Books I and II of WN.

His singular use of the IH metaphor is made in Book IV of WN (p. 456) and does not refer to market prices at all. In Smith’s account, he does not refer to anything guiding ‘the invisible hand’ to ‘equilibrium’. That it does is an wholly invented idea, originating in the imaginations of modern economists in the 20th century.

‘Wmellin’ sees the invisible hand metaphor as “a fascinating metonymical phrase”, by which he means ‘the substitution of a word referring to an attribute for the thing that is meant the use of the crown to refer to a monarch’ (Dictionary) but in Smith’s use none of ‘market equilibrium’, nor supply and demand’ or such like, is in that sense metonymically substitutable in Adam Smith’s use of the metaphor of an invisible hand. If Smith was thinking metonymically, he was not thinking of these words when he used the IH metaphor in Wealth Of Nations. If me is thinking thus, fine, but it has nothing to do with Adam Smith.

Adam Smith was an accomplished grammarian. He lectured on Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow from 1751-64, and had delivered lectures on rhetoric at his public course in Edinburgh from 1748-51 to wide acclaim – his public lecturing reputation made him a credible candidate for the vacant chair at Glasgow. His rhetoric lectures of 1762-63 were found in a house clearance as student notes in 1958 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and were published as ‘Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ by Oxford University Press, 1963.

In these lectures he traces the use of metaphors from the classics (Homer, Virgil, etc.,) and in English literature up to the 18th century. He is careful to define metaphors as ‘describing in a more striking and interesting manner’ their ‘object’ (p.29), giving clear examples of objects for his students for the use of metaphors. One of his students, Hugh Blair, went on to become a distinguished Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh University.

In Wealth Of Nations Smith demonstrates to what he refers when he used the IH metaphor in Book IV, chapter 2, p 456, where he used it. He describes how some, but not all, merchants are so concerned at the risks of exporting their capital or goods to foreign countries or the colonies in the Americas, that they prefers to invest only in ‘domestick industry’. It is their concerns for the security of their capital that leads them to invest locally. He states this clearly in WN, pages 452-56, where Smith analyses how from this insecurity they are, 'led by' the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’, to enhance domestick investment.

And that is the extent and limit of Smith’s metaphoric intentions. All other attributions and accretions are bogus, including those attributions of ‘wmellin’ in ‘Victorian Visual[!] Culture’.


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