Eric Schliesser Introduces Foucault
Eric Schliesser follows last week’s ‘Philo of Economics’ with this week’s on “Foucault and the Invisible Hand”.
Eric refers to Michel Foucault's treatment of Smith in “The Birth of Biopolitics”. While commenting on Smith's use of "invisible hand" in the Wealth of Nations (hereafter WN), Foucault insists that Smith is committed to the claim that:
“Everyone must be uncertain with regard to the collective outcome if this positive collective outcome is really to be expected. Being in the dark and the blindness of all the economic agents are absolutely necessary. The collective good must not be an objective... Invisibility is not just a fact arising from the imperfect nature of human intelligence which prevents people from realizing that there is a hand behind them which arranges or connects everything that each individual does on their own account. Invisibility is absolutely indispensable. It is an invisibility which means that no economic agent should or can pursue the collective good” (Foucault 2008: 279-80).
I am not going to comment on Foucault’s general reasoning on Adam Smith’s use of the IH metaphor in this post. His reasoning tends to be obscure.
To argue that “human intelligence prevents people from realizing that there is a hand behind them which arranges or connects everything that each individual does on their own account” is a strange way of putting it. The “hand behind them which arranges or connects everything that each individual does on their own account” is either saying that “human intelligence” stops them fantasising about an IH that actually exists or prevents them fantasising about one that does not exist. That is what makes philosophy such a tormented subject; it’s never really clear as to what they mean except by engaging in constant “deep thinking”. Those excellent teacher’s of philosophy (such as Eric Schliesser) are unfazed by textual ambiguity and are among the brightest and best of social scientists. They are always stimulating when listened to in conversation or in seminars and stretch their student’s critical faculties.
The “hand behind them which arranges or connects everything that each individual does on their own account” has to be a fantasy, suggesting that the (invisible?) “hand behind them” and therefore behind every one of the billions of others on the planet is super intelligent – even well beyond mere god-like superstitious superiority – who/which ‘controls’ everything down to the smallest detail.
I suggest Hayek’s defiant conjecture (Fatal Conceit) that knowing every action of 7 billion of people about matching possible choices among billions of products and services (36 billion choices in New York alone each minute of the day – only a few dozen choices for gatherer-hunter upper Amazonian tribes) is well beyond human comprehension or understanding, let alone practical even in a Providential fantasy of the imagination. Surely it is an extreme theological idea, even as a figure of speech.
Smith’s IH passage in TMS contrasts with the brutal realism of Cantillon’s 1755 passage dismissing providential explanations for land division. Even Smith’s more brutal, non-providential, passages in his accounts of the evolution of land divisions in his Lectures on Jurisprudence undermine the seriousness of his surel unserious literary account in Moral Sentiments, which in my view should not be taken too seriously.
In TMS (1759) Smith goes on from the IH passage to discuss the “patriot” whose “love of system”, “the same regard to beauty of order, of art and contrivance, frequently serves to recommend those institutions which tend to promote the public service. When a patriot exerts himself for the improvement of any part of the public police, his conduct does not always arise from pure sympathy with the happiness of those who are to reap the benefit of it” (TMS IV.1.11: 185).
Smith gives examples and summarises of what he means:
“It is not commonly from a fellow–feeling with carriers and waggoners that a public–spirited man encourages the mending of high roads. When the legislature establishes premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen or woollen manufactures, its conduct seldom proceeds from pure sympathy with the wearer of cheap or fine cloth, and much less from that with the manufacturer or merchant. The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects. The contemplation of them pleases us, and we are interested in whatever can tend to advance them. They make part of the great system of government, and the wheels of the political machine seem to move with more harmony and ease by means of them. We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions. All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end. From a certain spirit of system, however, from a certain love of art and contrivance, we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow–creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy (MS IV.1.11: 185).
I am not minded to take Foucault's (2008) distraction as a serious commentary on Smith. I do not know where Eric is taking this argument and await his further explanation with interest.