Friday, 14 February 2020


In his seminal An Essay on Civil Society, Adam Ferguson tackles frontally the problem of how human beings can be studied scientifically. Specifically, he decries the tendency of all purportedly scientific theories of human society to reduce human affairs to a few fundamental axioms or hypotheses from which it then seeks to draw almost syllogistically conclusions about the past, present and future course of human history. Indeed, argues Ferguson, this Euclidean axiomatic tendency, misguidedly thought to be the only “scientific” method valid, has the inevitable effect to eschew and extrude all historical perspectives from the analysis of human society. According to Ferguson, it is a fallacy to try to reduce human beings to specific aspects of their existence for the purposes of ostensible scientific analysis for the simple reason that human beings cannot be examined as isolated atomic indivisible individuals. This ontogenetic approach must be supplanted instead by a more holistic phylogenetic one because human beings cannot exist in separation from one another and because indeed they are incomprehensible without this socio-logical approach. Human beings are congenitally – and therefore genetically and physiologically – inseparable from one another. They are zoa politika in the literal physiological sense - because all human attributes, even the most anatomical, are incomprehensible without reference to the historical development of the human race. Insensate, therefore, is the attempt to reduce human behaviour to that of the single individual because such a hypothetical individuum simply does not exist – not in terms of actual separate existence away from human association, and not in terms of hypothetical possessive individualism or selfishness surmised to take primacy over all other human instincts. Who says – that human beings are naturally and ineluctably selfish and possessive? Where is it written – that the reduction of human beings to incurably self-interested egoistic beings is the most or even only “scientific” way to begin the study and theorization of human society? So far as we know, maintains Ferguson, from the study and observation of human behaviour throughout history, human beings exist not as atomised individuals but rather within organized societies or groups. Nor are human beings more prone to be selfish than they are to be altruistic toward one another. Therefore, the tendency for the “scientific” study of human society to begin with the hypothetical positing of an atomic self-interested and infinitely possessive individual is so counterfactual and fictional as to be simply unscientific!

It must be noted that here Hobbes’s social theory quickly rejoins that of Adam Ferguson in a devastating reproach to Adam Smith’s Panglossian optimism of the capitalist market’s Invisible Hand. Both Hobbes and Ferguson realize that human beings are equally prone to conflict and to co-operation. But in that case it is undeniable that the possibility of all-out conflict obliterates the sustainability of a “liberal State”, let alone its unproblematic emergence as a “state of natural rights” theorized by Locke. Once we allow that it is “possible” for human society to degenerate into all-out civil war, then the liberal State theorized by Locke becomes theoretically unsustainable because there can be no historical and theoretical recuperation for human society from universal conflict!
Put differently, whereas it is possible to conceive of a civil society degenerating into civil war, it is theoretically impossible to see how a state of civil war could ever progress to a civil state! It follows that Hobbes’s devastating critique of liberalism is founded on both the theoretical impossibility and the historical unviability of a liberal State of Right. For Hobbes, a liberal state as that theorized by Locke is theoretically unstable and historically doomed. Indeed, (as Cacciari notes in Dialettica) it is arguable that Hobbes’s Sovereign state is one by acquisition and not by institution, given that his state of nature of “war of all against all” could never have existed historically! For there is simply no return from civil war. Civil war is the Euclidean axiomatic hypothesis on which the bourgeoisie builds its conventional parliamentary representative politics. Thus, the avoidance of all-out civil war must set out the conditions for a coercive hypothesis for a capitalist state of exception on which and from which all consensual conventions – the free market, parliamentary democracy – must later be founded and originate.
The principles of political economy set out by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, which have since become the unassailable foundation of all “economic science”, are based on strictly Hobbesian pessimistic assumptions. This may seem strange in the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiment. For in this later work, Smith finally welcomes the theses presented by his noble predecessor in the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Ferguson, who, in his path-breaking An Essay on Civil Society, adroitly and perspicaciously demolishes the notion of an elemental and invariant “human nature” – and most pointedly the presumption that human beings are indivisible atoms, in-dividuals, whose only purpose is to protect and enhance their self-interest. In a devastating tirade against philosophical pessimism – and with Thomas Hobbes clearly in mind – Ferguson shows irrefutably that human “moral sentiments” are just as likely to be altruistic as they are to be selfish. And that not only have human beings established historically their ability to live in civilised society, but also indeed such communion or common-wealth is an ineluctable aspect of being human!
Yet, in laying out the principles of political economy, Smith chose to ignore completely the irrefutable arguments advanced by his illustrious predecessor. Surely enough, Smith elaborates his scientific principles in such a manner that ultimately individual self-interest turns out to be “enlightened”, to lead to economic “equilibrium” and even to increase “national wealth”. But this Panglossian optimism is reached through the stultifyingly unjustified intervention of an “Invisible Hand” that – like the Deus absconditus of mediaeval theology – providentially leads humanity to the best of all possible worlds. Given the axiomatic assumptions laid out by Smith in Wealth of Nations, this optimal end-result can only be the redistribution of existing wealth between freely-exchanging, self-interested individuals. It stands to reason, of course, that if self-interested individuals are allowed to exchange “freely”, then the “self-interest” hypothesised by Smith can only be “enlightened” in that it will lead to an economic equilibrium that maximises individual welfare! These assumptions are (a) that human beings are entitled to their possessions, (b) that they agree on exchanging them “freely”, and (c) that these “exchanges” do not include their living labour.
Smith’s political economy – the foundation of all future bourgeois economic theory – is based then on the Hobbesian hypothesis of the unlimited selfishness of humans, on one side, and on their simultaneous ability to agree to conventions including rules of exchange and of ownership. It is this combination of pessimistic hypothesis and optimistic convention in the founders of bourgeois capitalist theories of economics (Smith) and politics (Hobbes) that is our central focus here.
Because he chooses to begin with the atomised self-interested in-dividual, Smith wrongly assumes that it is through the “exchange” of produced goods that human beings maximise their individual welfare by choosing to engage in time-saving specialised production. Thus, for Smith, it is exchange that leads to the division of labour. Two erroneous conclusions follow from Smith’s assumptions: the first is that exchange between individuals precede and engender the division of social labour, when in reality the contrary is true. The second is that “labour” is seen as a homogeneous quantity that can be dissected and divided, and not as “social labour”, that is to say, as a totality of human living productive activities that are ineluctably social and heterogeneous in nature. Had he followed Ferguson instead, Smith would have seen and understood that it is the human division of social labour that makes exchange possible – and not the other way around! And that because, in John Donne’s fatidic words, “no man is an island unto himself”.
Smith then believes that this occurs through a natural division of labour as “separation/appropriation” - when in fact it occurs through a particular political form of social co-ordination – a “division of social labour” that emanates from a “civil society” that already contains a ‘State-form’, a status politicus, in which social labour has been forcibly homogenised into an abstract quantity called “labour” and in which the “possessions” of individuals have been set as the ‘preservation’ of “natural rights” presumably “acquired” in or “transferred” from the “state of nature”!
This leads us neatly to the third false assumption made by Smith – that of possessive individualism which Smith adopted from John Locke. Locke, the founder of liberalism, relies on the social contract merely “preserving” pre-existing “natural rights” that first arose in the status naturae. In Locke there is “the pre-supposition” of the political State, the status politicus, in the status naturae. This is perhaps one of the most important and delicate passages in the whole of political theory. It is here that Hobbes’s political theory poses a fundamental challenge to the “ideology” of liberalism. That ideology, as we have seen, was founded on two premises: first, the existence of “natural rights” in the status naturae accruing to “self-interested individuals” which form the basis of “civil society” in which these “natural rights” are guaranteed by the State pursuant to “positive laws” under which the State is “constituted”. And second, the reconciliation of these “self-interests” in the “self-regulated market” through “the price mechanism” – the identity of supply and demand.

Both Hobbes and Smith describe a pre-statal, pre-political state of nature to which the State is purely extrinsic, in which the State does not arise organically but is rather mechanically super-imposed as the guarantor of social peace (salus publica), as Police. But whereas for Hobbes the State is fundamentally necessary to the institution of human civil society, for Smith instead the State is merely the adventitious seal of the intrinsically “enlightened” self-interest of individual atomistic human beings. Whereas for Hobbes the state of nature that precedes the foundation of political society by the State does not and cannot be a civil society without conflict degenerating into all-out civil war, for Smith this is possible and the State is merely the guarantor of this pre-existing civil society in the state of nature. Whereas Hobbes does not canvass the social fabric as independent of the State as "mortal God" (deus mortalis), as the founder of civil society, Smith fails to explain how self-interest could ever be "enlightened" and give rise to a civil society in which atomistic individuals can exchange their wares peacefully, without conflict. In Hobbes, of course, no such “enlightenment” is possible – no agreement to exchange goods is imaginable: human beings decide to abandon their blind self-interest and to erect a State solely to preserve their own lives! For him, the State constitutes a restauratio ab imis fundamentis of human society – a total constitutional order (Habermas).

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