Philip Pilkington is an Irish writer and journalist living in London. You can follow him on Twitter @pilkingtonphil
Whose owl-eyes in the scraggly wood
Scared mothers to miscarry,
Drove the dogs to cringe and whine
And turned the farmboy’s temper wolfish,
The housewife’s, desultory.
– Sylvia Plath, ‘The Death of Myth-Making’
Myth is a peculiar thing. Like symbolic language, out of which it is built, it seems to be what sets us apart from the lower animals. Certainly a man and an ape may appear to have a lot in common, but one could not imagine a gathering of apes around a campfire telling tales imbued with symbolic meaning.
But what is myth? What does it do? And how does it work?
What is Myth?
The Structuralist school of anthropology argued that myth is the means by which we organise our world. Some anthropologists stressed the social aspects of this; others emphasize the fact that mythic or symbolic structures were important in shaping our perceptions.
Social structure as mythic or symbolic is easy to imagine. As Hamlet says in a moment of lucid madness: “The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body.” The king is a social or symbolic function, not a physical thing. A particular king – say, James II – is no different biologically from his fellow men, yet he puts on a crown, sits on a throne and assumes a symbolic position of authority. It is from this place, backed by a mythic structure (divine right, for example), that the social structure itself borrows its substance.
Perceptions are a little trickier. But it might be useful to imagine a sailor who believes that beyond a certain point on the map lie dragons and other foul creatures. In a very real sense this myth structures the spatial orientation of the sailor’s perceptions. Today it is generally rules of hygiene that structure our spatial perceptions – with taboos placed on certain “unclean” areas. A good example is the toilet seat which is generally the cleanest place in the bathroom and yet it is viewed as a space that arouses disgust and caution in most.
The function of myth, then, is to structure our world – at both a macro or social and a micro or perceptual level, with one feeding into the other. But against what is it structuring our world? Well, to look again at our two examples should prove instructive. In both of these examples the myths structure the world in such a way that anxiety is avoided. This anxiety may take the form of outright terror, as it does in the case of our sailor, or disgust, as it does in the case of our toilet seat; indeed it could take many other forms, but at the end of the day it is always some form of anxiety that is being avoided through mythic construction.
Freud knew this well. Although he did not have access to contemporary structuralist theory, he knew that the psychological formations he encountered in patients were all too similar to myths, albeit constructed at an individual level – hence why they appeared as idiosyncratic neurotic symptoms to others rather than being socially accepted norms as our myths proper. Freud also knew that ultimately all these formations – whether idiosyncratic (psychological symptoms) or socially sanctioned (myths) – were all defences against anxiety.
What Freud added was that the root causes of the anxiety being defended against were lodged in the deepest layers of Man’s psyche. The myths for Freud were the result of a person’s or a society’s attempt to negotiate between peaceful cohabitation and the primitive, anti-social emotional forces that man had inherited from the beasts. It was these primitive, anti-social emotional forces – of violent envy, murderous rage and bottomless despair – that Man negotiated through his myths. Without his myths Man stood naked in the world – a bipedal beast.
Myopia and Myth
What is so peculiar about myth is that those that live under its sway always remain semi-blind to its function. Not wholly blind, of course. At some level people do recognise the function of the mythic structures they live by, but this is pushed aside as they live day-to-day.
Money, for example, is a mythic or fetish object and most people know that it is ultimately just bits of old paper and metal. But in our day-to-day intercourse we treat money as a sacred object with mythic properties – we defend it, hoard it, accumulate it. And yet, at some level we know that it is ultimately just bits of old paper and metal. In this very real sense we repress the reality of money – we render it unconscious – in order to allow it assume its mythic and social function. If we did not do this, and instead simply treated it as scraps of paper and lumps of useless metal, the entire social economy would collapse.
It is the same with myth proper. Today many of our most cherished myths are scientificised and although most people – educated people included – remain wedded to them almost completely, it is far from impossible to recognise many for what they are and yet continue to live within their rule. The less important among them are merely tittle-tattle for dinner table conversation, usually thrown around to indicate a person’s superiority over the “backward” ways of religion; but the more substantial and important truly do function as do the myths of a jungle tribe or a religious state: they have an immediate impact on the way society is run and to genuinely shun them in “reasonable” company is to be something of an outcast.
It is to one of the most central of these that we now turn. That is, the elaborate mythology published in 1776 under the title “The Wealth of Nations” by one Adam Smith.
The Wonderful World of Mr Smith
Smith’s enduring legacy is as ill-defined and disputed as it is well-known. Some might say that it was his crowning of the capitalist economy. Others might say that it was his scientific contribution of the “division of labour”.
We look to something rather different. All these are important and, indeed, enduring points. But they do not account for Smith’s legendary, indeed mythic, status today. For Smith was by no means the first economist. Nor was he the first economist to champion free-trade. One could even make the case that he was not the first to champion capitalism. But he was the first to try to ground an understanding of economic relations in a very particular conception of Man – in a very particular form of myth.
The Physiocrats, the French agricultural economists who had come before Smith, had a very different myth structuring their economic reasoning. They claimed that society was at the mercy of certain “natural laws” and that these laws were handed down by a higher power. To interfere with these laws was to engage in folly and, in order for a leader to properly rule over a prosperous economy, he should adhere to these laws and run society accordingly because to do otherwise was to go against a set of natural laws handed down by the Creator Himself.
Here we can see the mythic structure quite clearly in that the rules of the game are set out quite explicitly. A story is being told about a Creator – the Great Other – who has created society in line with a set of constant rules and laws. The scientist (in truth, the weaver of myths) sets out to discover these laws and once they are discovered the society can be run in such a way that it reflects them. For example, the Physiocrats claimed that farming capital should not be taxed. If the French monarch went against this, in the eyes of the Physiocrat he was simply a fool who refused to play by the rules of the game set out by the Creator – and society, together with the ruler’s overall tax revenues, would suffer as a result.
Smith placed at the centre of his economic analysis a very different kind of myth, a myth that has endured as his lasting legacy right up until today; a myth that was best recognised and highlighted by the early-20th century Russian economist I.I. Rubin. The cornerstone of Smith’s mythic structure is not that of a Great Other, a Creator, who has laid out the rules of the game, but instead in a supposedly “natural” conception of Man himself.
Smith grounds his mythology in the notion that there are certain features of Man which are completely immutable, timeless and “natural”. Notice the shift here: no longer is there a divine set of rules that are called natural, but instead there are some supposed aspects of Man that are natural. The status of the term “natural” here is ambiguous. Is Smith saying that these features of Man are themselves divine rules, like those of the Physiocrats? Since “natural” is something of a metaphysical statement in this context it would seem that he is indeed saying something like this. But the gulf between the two perspectives is enormous.
Where the Physiocrats laid out a series of natural rules handed down from on high and advised rulers to follow them, Smith points to what are supposed to be innate tendencies in Man. This is a far more forceful and violent manner of reasoning because, whereas the Physiocrats highlighted their mythic laws and advised ruler to follow them, thereby allowing rulers the option of ignoring them, Smith claimed that it was completely impossible for rulers to ignore the “natural” tendencies of Man because they would always win. Smith’s argument was that the “natural” forces he had discovered in Man were always pushing against anything that stood in their way – and, Smith claimed, they would always come out on top.
This “natural” conception of Man about which we speak is the cool, slightly disinterested individual of the exchange economy. The man whose ties to much of society are impermanent and negotiated and settled on-the-spot, thus leaving no nasty social residue to interfere with his perfect, individualistic freedom. This is the individual proper: atomistic, free and without any hidden chains binding him to the social body – not yet the true “homo economicus”, but certainly a step toward him. And it is this kernel of Smith’s myth that we remain living our lives under today; not just, as we shall see, in our minds, but also in our actions.
Banishing Debt and Obligation
Recently the anthropologist David Graber, in his wonderfully popular book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”, has brought out what he seems to take as one of the most important departure points of Adam Smith. That is, his creation of the “barter myth” which he uses to plaster over the fact that most human economies are debt-based rather than money-based economies.
Smith did not invent the barter myth, traces of it go right back to Aristotle. However, he did render it more precise and it soon became the basis from which a pure monetary economy was at once assumed and justified. It goes like this: in the beginning people barter. Then they realise that it is inconvenient to do so if their wants do not overlap at any given point in time. Finally, they create a money standard to allow them to disperse trades across space and time.
Graeber is quite clear about how important this founding myth was for the emerging discipline of economics:
Tellingly, this story played a crucial role not only in founding the discipline of economics, but in the very idea that there was something called “the economy”, which operated by its own rules, separate from moral or political life, that economists could take as their field of study.
Graeber is quite correct here provided that we read his words carefully. The Physiocrats, as we have seen above, were concerned with a field of study that we could broadly call the “economy”, but for them it was tied up with moral and political questions. For while the Physiocrats thought that they had found natural laws of the economy laid out by the Creator, they were clear that the politicians of the day would have to accept them in order for them to function. For them a change in the moral and political order in line with the dictates of these “natural” laws was desirable, but in no way inevitable.
Smith, as we have seen, had a wholly different view. He thought that he had found “natural” tendencies in Man himself and that these would function regardless of whatever contingent social, political and moral system was in place at any given time. In part it was the barter myth that allowed him to do this. But his real project ran much deeper.
Smith’s true legacy runs as an undercurrent through all his work. Like all good myths in modern times, its true essence is not stated explicitly very often – instead it is allowed to structure his overall discourse itself. However, Smith does provide a lucid formulation in his earlier work “A Theory of Moral Sentiments”:
Society may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection; and though no man in it should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agreed valuation.
The astute reader will instantly spot the importance of this passage for Smith’s mythology together with its connection to the barter myth that he later puts forward in “The Wealth of Nations”. The point of connection, of course, lies in the words: “no man in [society] should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other”. What Smith is doing here is banishing the role of debt in a rather violent manner in order to create a mythology of free individual agents, unbounded to one another except in the act of mutual and free exchange.
The Breakdown of the Myth of the Unbounded Individual
But why is this so important? Let us recall once again what the function of myth is. As stated earlier, myth is essential in that it structures peoples’ relations to one another and society at large and in doing so banishes both acute anxiety and the more violent emotions. If structuring myths break down the result would, on a personal level be that of anxiety, but on a social level it might be far more profound – the violent emotions might begin to break through.
Recall our discussion of money earlier. There we proposed that, despite the fact that money is just pieces of paper and lumps of metal, its mythic function allows economic relations to be bound together. Without this mythic function, the social economy would break down. Similarly, without structuring myths about who we are and how we find our place in the world the concern is that the anxiety generated within society at large would be sufficient to result in the emergence, on a mass scale, of crude behaviours and primitive emotions.
Smith was well aware of this. Immediately after the passage cited above, which founded the myth of the fully independent individual, he writes:
Society, however, cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another. The moment that injury begins, the moment that mutual resentment and animosity take place, all the bands of it are broke asunder, and the different members of which it consisted are, as it were, dissipated and scattered abroad by the violence and opposition of their discordant affections… Beneficence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it.
The myth of the unbounded individual, the lone merchant with the devil-may-care attitude toward his fellow men allowed Smith to conceive of a society in which men might live without close ties to one another and yet a society which would not descend into barbarism. Emotional distance, a lack of love or compassion, need not descend into violence and murder, according to Smith, because of the principles of disinterested commerce and exchange which he thought that he had uncovered in Man.
This is the legacy that Smith has left us today. Not just in the field of economics, but also as a sort of moral or mythic code by which we arrange our social intercourse in mass society. When we step into a shop and purchase a good or a service we are acting as Smithian individuals. We see ourselves as unbounded to those around us and free to make whatever decisions we please. And we believe that once the transaction is complete we can wash our hands of it.
The problem is that this is not true and it probably never has been. Today, instead, we see all too clearly the importance of debt. Debt is what ties us together. We may be in the position of creditor or in the position of debtor – or we may even be in the position of neither – but debt affects all of us. Even those of us that balance our books perfectly and do not engage in any form of lending nevertheless rely on banking systems and systems of government founded on the simple and timeless principles of debt. And it is these principles that bind us together.
We are not, in any way, “men who owe no obligation to one another”. Our entire social system is founded on obligation and interconnectedness. This was likely true even in Smith’s time, but his genius was to have hidden it from view and in doing so to construct the founding myth of liberal individualism as it exists in modern times.
Yet today the debt issue explodes once more. And because Smith’s mythology cannot contain it we see all around us anxiety together with its attendant primitive emotions such as envy, anger, spite and malice and, in countries such as Greece, a general collapse of the entire social economy. We see politicians obsessed over government debt sending their countries into ruin simply because they adhere to a redundant mythology. In short, we see the chaos that terrified Smith of a society in which, in his words, injustice prevails.
What Smith gave to humanity in his founding of economics was a great lie with which to structure our newly forming nation-states and mass societies. But it was a lie that was in many ways quite fragile. And it is this lie that we see cracking up all around us today. The question is whether we, as a species, will continue to live within this crumbling fiction or whether we can construct a different mythological system founded on principles that are a closer fit to our really existing circumstances.
Almost every moral pillar of our contemporary societies – from the discipline of economics, to ideas that dominate about what constitutes good statesmanship – militates against the formation of such a new mythology. And, as psychopathology teaches us well, people are quite stubborn in their giving up of their mythologies, despite their possibly high degree of dysfunction. But given that the stakes are rather high and humans are a fairly adaptive species, we may surprise ourselves yet.