Philip Pilkington: Debt and the Decay of the Myth of Liberal Individualism

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.

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  1. Boston Scrod

    I find your argument that Adam Smith constructed a mythology of exchange that ignored debt intellectually interesting. I do have a quibble with one of your comments.

    You write: “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.”

    I am far from convinced that the reality of money is primarily fetishistic among those who have grown up in poverty and who have suffered hunger and homelessness. Whatever its mythic qualities, money (however acquired) is a tangible means by which individuals can escape from great material deprivation. To equate a desire to fill one’s belly with mythic denial seems to me a bit of a stretch. If my own ad hoc research is any guide, the spiritual purity of poverty is highly over-rated.

    1. Aquifer

      “Whatever its mythic qualities, money (however acquired) is a tangible means by which individuals can escape from great material deprivation.”

      ISTM that it is only “a tangible means” to the extent that it is useful in that escape, and it is useful only to the extent that the folks who have the stuff the poor need to escape believe in the myth. If all considered it worthless paper and metal, it would be a “tangible means” for no one except for those who had some utilitarian value for paper and metal …

  2. The Dork of Cork

    I find the FOFOA site the most fetish like…..

    Dork : “Walking into the FOFOA site is like walking into some weird Baptist congregation

    There is very little critical thought…….

    Its different from the MMT crew who appear more then slightly autistic……

    But they are all useful idiots……………in the FOFOA crowds case they are consumed by Greed and cannot think clearly.

    Soon enough I was met by a real live baptist…..

    Good thing you don’t want to stereotype people, DoC. Then you close with this capper:

    “But none of this will happen – we will have 200 years of chaos like the last time……..”

    Hopefully not, because some people (rather smarter than you) have created a system to hopefully survive the transition from the dollar. Maybe you will ‘get it’ after the fact, but I rather doubt it. There’s not much critical thinking going on with you.

    Cheers, boyo.


    It’s a slang Cork pronoun. Cork is a place in Ireland where they all talk incomprehensibly, and anyone from the rest of the country just nods, smiles and backs away.

    “A’right boyo, didja see the langer o’er there like?”

    Being a dumb hick is nothing to be proud of, and the Roman republic ended a couple thousand years ago; it’s not coming back. Your anti-government pipe dreams are popular with ZH’s ‘cult of the self’ crowd, but they aren’t reality.

    IM A BAPTIST and you are clueless. I’d rather be baptist

  3. Boy with machine

    The weird thing is I just happened to be reading this passage from Anti-Oedipus, wondering what it meant, a few minutes before I visited NC and read Pilkington’s article.

    I took this as some kind of sign that the passage had to be connected to Pilkington’s article…well, it’s got to be, after all it mentions Adam Smith and the Physiocrats but I need coffee before I can connect the dots, so I’ll just leave you with the following passage:

    “Marx has shown what was the foundation of political economy properly speaking: the discovery of an abstract subjective essence of wealth, in labor or production – and in desire as well, it would seem…..But Marx is quick to add that this essentially “cynical” discovery finds itself rectified by a new territorialization, in the form of a new fetishism or a new “hypocrisy”.

    Production as the abstract subjective essence is discovered only in the forms of property that objectifies it all over again, that alienates it by reterritorializing it. Although they had a presentiment of the subjective nature of wealth, the mercantilists had determined it as a special activity still tied to a “money-creating” despotic machine; the physiocrats, pushing this presentiment still further, had tied, subjective activity to a territorial or reterritorialized machine, in the form of agriculture and landed property.

    And even Adam Smith discovers the great essence of wealth, abstract and subjective, only by immediately reterritorializing it in the private ownership of the means of production…..Moreover, if it is not a question of writing the history of political economy, but the real history of the corresponding society, one is better able to understand why capitalism is continually reterritorializing with the one hand, what it was deterritorializing with the other.

    In Capital, Marx analyzes the true reason for this double movement: on the one hand, capitalism can proceed only by continually developing the subjective essence of wealth or production for the sake of production, that is, “production as an end in itself, the absolute development of the social productivity of labor”, but on the other hand, it can do so only in the framework of its own limited purpose…..”the self-expansion of existing capital”….

    Under the first aspect, capitalism is continually surpassing its own limits….”displaying a cosmopolitan, universal energy which overthrows every restriction and bond”…but under the second, strictly complementary, aspect, capitalism is continually confronting limits and barriers that are interior to and immanent to itself, and that, precisely because they are immanent, let themselves be overcome only provided they are reproduced on a wider scale (always more reterritorialization – local, world-wide, planetary).

    An important consequence emerges from the above considerations…on the one hand, the modern State forms a break that represents a genuine advance in comparison with the despotic State…but, on the other hand, there has never been but one State, the Urstaat, the Asiatic despotic formation, which constitutes in its shadow exercise history’s only break, since even the modern social axiomatic can function only by resuscitating it as one of the poles between which it produces its own break.

    Democracy, fascism or socialism, which of these is not haunted by the Urstaat as a model without equal? The name of the local dictator of Duvalier’s chief of police was Desyr.”

    from Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)

    1. Lambert Strether

      Maybe you can explain “desiring machines” to me then. It’s such a great phrase (like “market state”) but (also like “market state”) it slips away from me when I try to define it.

      1. Tim Mason

        The term ‘desiring machines’ comes to Deleuze via Descartes, for whom animals are machines, while men, having souls, are not, through La Mettrie, for whom men are also machines – souls not needed here – and then via Freud (the machines are set in motion by subterranean desires). For Deleuze, I believe, desire is oceanic while post-Freudian psychoanalysis has reduced it to ‘stories of Mom & Pop’). Desiring machines resurface in Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, in which the motivators are the genes themselves, which use desire in order to further their own game of infinite replication. Dawkins returns to La Mettrie, whereas Deleuze (and Freud) are inhabited by the need to make humans a special kind of machine. As is Pilkington.

        For what it’s worth, I think Graeber can stand without Pilkington, but that, like other such attempts to construct a grand story – Chris Knight, or René Girard – the lines of descent drawn in ‘Debt’ need to take more account of the other machines. Any liberatory history we are going to write will need to find a goodly place for dogs, goats, pigs and chickens. Not to mention tigers and bugs (McNeil made a good start on the latter).

        (I once wrote a spoof on sociobiology which centred on the relationship between humans and lice. It turned out that someone had done the work for real)

          1. Tim Mason

            Immense, diverse, and containing more than just a pinch of salt.

            D & G’s schizophrenic sets sail upon an infinite ocean, having liberated himself from Mom & Pop and other mere parochial concerns. (At that time, specialists would distinguish between ‘social drinking’ and ‘oceanic drinking, a figure which, on those occasions when I find the gin bottle mysteriously empty, still comes to mind).

            Deleuze romanticizes insanity, a failing of the time.

    2. Boy with machine


      I’m kind of curious about the answer to that myself. Desiring-machines? What the hell are they going on about? It sounds crazy. But here, let Deleuze himself try to explain in his own words:

      The Psychoanalyst no longer says to the patient: ‘Tell me a little bit about your desiring machines, won’t you?’ Instead he screams: “Answer daddy-and-mommy when I speak to you!’” (AO 45).

      “Anti-Oedipus was written during a period of upheaval, in the wake of ’68, whereas A Thousand Plateaus emerged in an environment of indifference, the calm we find ourselves in now.

      Anti-Oedipus was a big success, but this success was accompanied by a more fundamental failure. The book tried to denounce the havoc that Oedipus, “mommy-daddy,” had wrought in psychoanalysis, in psychiatry (including anti-psychiatry), in literary criticism, and in the general image of thought we take from it. Our dream was to put Oedipus to rest once and for all. But the job was too big for us. The reaction against ’68 has demonstrated all too clearly just how intact the Oedipus family remains, to this day imposing its sniveling regime on psychoanalysis, literature, and thought. Indeed, Oedipus has become our albatross. (308-9)

      The three major claims of Anti-Oedipus were the following:

      1) The unconscious functions like a factory and not like a theatre (a question of production, and not of representation);
      2) Delirium, or the novel, is world-historical and not familial (delirium is about races, tribes, continents, cultures, social position, etc.);
      3) Universal history indeed exists, but it is a history of contingency (the flows which are the object of History are canalized through primitive codes, the over-coding of the despot, and the decoding of capitalism which makes possible the conjunction of independent flows).

      The ambition of Anti-Oedipus was Kantian in spirit. We attempted a kind of Critique of Pure Reason for the unconscious: hence the determination of those syntheses proper to the unconscious; the unfolding of history as the functioning of these syntheses; and the denunciation of Oedipus as the “inevitable illusion” falsifying all historical production (309).

      Instead, it’s all about machines—desiring machines: “Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections”. (AO 1)

      Deleuze, reflecting on Anti-Oedipus in the preface for the Italian Edition of A Thousand Plateaus writes (from Gilles Deleuze: Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, pp. 308-9)

  4. Kristiina

    Ah, what an interesting, refreshing read! A million thanks!

    Gives some form to some interesting, though feeble, new sprouts that make the disinterested economic actor seem a bit last season: people are willing to pay more to give fair deals to producers, as in fair trade labeled products. And likewise with ecological products. One can always argue that these will not save the world, but the preference to choose these products very clearly speaks about concerns that go beyond homo economicus. There has been some effort to prove that ecological products are somehow “better” for you – maybe to make those products viable for the economical man, but the results are mixed. I think interest in ecological/fair trade is simply a way to admit that extortionate methods of profit-making don’t make for products that feel good.

    This seems to indicate, that at least some people are willing and able to observe the true obligations that come with consuming. We are inescapably interconnected. Maybe we are ready to take in the reality and consequences of that interconnectedness. Like in admitting I do stand in debt to those Chinses factory workers who keep on churning shiny gadgets.

    I’ll let Hamlet inspire me into a bit of a madness: let us think about how many people, in how many places we stand in debt/gratitude for the things that surround us this very moment? For, surely, if I had to make all that myself, my lifetime would not be enough. I see and admit my indebtedness.

    Thank you again for this inspiration! Been such a long time I’ve seen a new idea.

  5. Tim Johnson

    I am not convinced the problem originates in Smith, who was I believe was embedded within Aristotelian ideas of reciprocity and justice, just before the section you quote he writes:
    “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mutual good offices.”
    Society MAY subsist without the basis of reciprocity. I believe the issue arises out of Romanticism, which placed greater emphasis on individuality and created the environment for both neo-classical economics and Marxism.

    I have a fuller argument at

    1. Watt4Bob

      I believe it’s a mis-reading of Smith to examine these two passages in isolation from one another.

      “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mutual good offices.”

      2.”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.”

      I is clear, to me at least that he is saying society may still exhibit the organizational characteristics of systemic indebtedness even if that indebtedness is rooted in market relationships as opposed to “love and affection”.

      My reading is that this is an observation of reality, not the postulation of an alternative and superior system.

      I think we’re going down the wrong road when we blame Adam Smith for the way that his words are mis-used.

      1. Valissa


        The Betrayal Of Adam Smith

        Ironically, Smith’s epic work The Wealth of Nations, which was first published in 1776, presents a radical condemnation of business monopolies sustained and protected by the state. Adam Smith’s ideal was a market comprised solely of small buyers and sellers. He showed how the workings of such a market would tend toward a price that provides a fair return to land, labor, and capital, produce a satisfactory outcome for both buyers and sellers, and result in an optimal outcome for society in terms of the allocation of its resources. He made clear, however, that this outcome can result only when no buyer or seller is sufficiently large to influence the market price—a point many who invoke his name prefer not to mention. Such a market implicitly assumes a significant degree of equality in the distribution of economic power—another widely neglected point.

        1. BobW

          Valissa…”a radical condemnation of business monopolies sustained and protected by the state.” needs to be tatooed on banksters foreheads.

        2. kakko

          You both make a great point. The author seems to create a straw man argument. The current state of economics we wrongly call “capitalism” today would have been appalling to Smith, yet to attack this faux capitalism we incorrectly connect it to Smith.

          Not that Smith, or any of us for that matter, was an infallible profit, but this quote of beneficence and justice to me seems to say “beneficence without justice will collapse because justice itself provides nursing grounds for beneficence.” The way the author takes this quote just seems inconsistent.

  6. charles sereno

    A SHORT piece or poem to set the theme is a great idea even if it should outshine the essay. Thanks, PP. Sylvia, just like Mozart, had too many words/notes but I jump on it till something better comes along.

  7. Paul Handover

    What a deeply interesting essay. Needs to be read a few times to bring out the full extent of PP’s messages but, nonetheless, fascinating. Thanks for publishing it, Paul

  8. Schofield

    Sorry to poop the party but Adam Smith did write:-

    “Justice, on the contrary, is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice.”

    Moral Sentiments, II.ii.3.3-4: p 86

  9. Aquifer

    I am a bit confused (as usual) – is it the fact of debt or the idea of debt that is causing chaos these days? Are we in a tizzy because we, in fact, “owe more money than we can pay” or because we harbor Smiths economic view within which such a condition is incompatible with a functioning society and we “simply” need to replace Smith’s M with another …

    “But what is myth? What does it do? And how does it work?”

    With all due respect to Mr. Pilkington, methinks an exploration of Campbell’s work might give more in depth answers to these questions, and frankly, ISTM, that the answers should be more than simply backdrops to the discussion about money, but are perhaps fundamental to it …

    Myth, with a capital M, as in dealing with fundamental archetypes and their interactions, crossing space and time (unless, of course you don’t believe in the idea that there are any such things ..), as opposed to myth = lie, serves far broader functions than seem to be alluded to here, and i think the author skates on the edge of equating Myth to myth ….

    Why does this matter? Well maybe because it might be important in the great scheme of things to ask whether the “economy” and behavior embedded in it deserves archetypal status in a big M, or whether it is simply a subset of the behaviors or interactions of the characters in the M – and why does this matter? Well if it is the latter then maybe we need to pay more attention to the M …

    Is that what Mr. P is suggesting – that Smith was making his own M, and the reason that it is causing so much chaos is that it was fundamentally faulty in downplaying the role of Debt and that now that Debt has become an undeniable “force”, the M we live by, Smith’s M, is forever undermined? And when a M thus crumbles, chaos and the breakdown of society ensues until another M takes sufficient hold in hearts and minds –

    But if “debt” or even “economics” doesn’t really belong in the M league, but is really simply a subsidiary, albeit a significant one, to a “bigger picture” that’s a whole new ballgame, ISTM … Wonder if “ecological economics” might not be a much more suitable fit to a real M, in the classical sense, one that still exists and serves proper mythic functions quite well when it is understood and followed ..

    Does this really matter in the great scheme – or just another example of mental masturbation? Methinks it matters to Mr. P, at least, or he wouldn’t have raised the issue … He is opening the door, putting it “on the record”, and i am very glad he has…

    As an aside, i find it rather amusing that in a setup where one of the cardinal “virtues” of the market is its amorality, the idea of “debt” has acquired such a moral stigma …

    1. Aquifer

      Hmm, it occurs to me, a bit late, obviously, that suggesting that we perhaps should pay more attention to the M and that economics is “merely” a subsidiary, on an economics blog might be considered poor form, to say the least …

      Well chalk another one up ….

  10. Susan the other

    Just think how long it takes, a lifetime, to acquire a vocabulary you are comfortable with. And then consider that every word was once an elabaorate myth in and of itself, a myth full of chaotic explanation of the awesome thing in question, and which myth was reduced over time into a rich, flexible “word.” Boggling, no? I puzzle over whether there is a difference in idiom because a word is expressed as a pictogram as opposed to phonetic syllables. Probably not because it is all mythologizing. Myth is simply the urge to understand. Best book I have ever read on myth is Hamlet’s Mill. But even so there is always some damn thing rotten in Denmark. I think two things today: 1. The myth we are now desperate to refine is the myth of the market, otherwise there will be no market at all – which will be interesting. and 2. Justice is the finest myth we have and we should guard and preserve it better.

    1. tiebie66

      Agreed, myth is simply the urge to understand – a qualitative model of sorts. I prefer the language of quantitative models, but accept that some people prefer to move along a non-quantitative dimension. Either way, whether one creates a qualitative model or a quantitative model to understand or explain some set of phenomena, the ultimate utility depends on how good a model it is. Paradigm shifts presumably can occur wrt myths as well. So what is the novel insight of the post then? The structure of scientific revolutions cloaked in different garb?

      1. Aquifer

        Do your quantitative models have any ideas about meaning? Do they help you figure out how you fit in society or the universe?

          1. Aquifer

            As in “does life in general, or my life in particular, have any meaning, any purpose, as in what’s it all about, Alfie?”
            Or does one just make it up as one goes along – just spur of the moment ….

            Do you have a story you tell yourself about who you are?

  11. kevinearick

    Boyle’s Comet

    So, Revelations is based upon astrology, you have been brought in and normalized to a world run by eunuch admirals, the software engineers have given the global HR function the ability to target you at will, and the moneychangers are erecting the false work for the next world war. What are you going to do about it? Can you tow a proton out of the nucleus?

    The Euro US Constitution is just the latest attempt of enlightened capitalism, by the socialist elite, for the preservation of the status quo, through Ponzi demographic control, which works spectacularly, until it doesn’t, spectacularly. The State is pumping the kids with Apple credit and student loan servitude for a reason, in vain.

    You may want to get familiar with one Mr. Pierre Boyle, a proponent of atheism, who did some good philosophical work, setting the foundation for church and state separation, expanded upon by Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton, among others. Like many of his stripe, he painted all Christians as idiots, in the classic bipolar false assumption / choice.

    Ultimately, when incremental time is netted out, and the ponzi collapses, a man must choose a wife that he is willing to answer to God for, regardless, because whether he likes it or not, and the majority does not, women are tightly bound to the past on earth, gravity, due to their biological nature, along with their power over childbirth, which the State desperately seeks to subvert to its own end, and most men are quite happy to oblige, in the short run, resulting present monetization of future returns, the status quo confidence game.

    Because true wealth, quality of life, is a function of demographic success, together, a man and a woman must accept their share of responsibility for life on earth, in a negative feedback loop, which the majority will run from at the first opportunity, in a positive feedback loop with government, leaving a small minority to repopulate effectively, and the majority waiting to exploit the outcome. Fusion and fission is a pair, in relative time, in all cases.

    Lincoln had no hope of eliminating economic slavery in his tome; he simply employed it more efficiently than his contemporary confederate counterparts. That’s politics, the noble profession.

    With that, I give you Pierre:

    Judgment accommodates itself to the dominant passion of the heart, to the force of habits, and to the taste and temperament for certain objects. It is not the mind’s general opinions that determine our actions;
    Christian prudence saw that the excessively great simplicity of the worship the Apostles had taught was inappropriate to the fervor of men’s zeal;
    Changes in these matters are carried out by unnoticeable steps;
    The circularity of these requirements indicates that, far from establishing faith, both miracles and revelations presuppose it. Thus neither miracles nor revelations constitute an infallible authority and only necessary reasonings remains to us as the source of sound convictions.;
    Taken when one is not troubled either by the presence of the people or by that of bigoted doctors, two sorts of persons one must handle carefully; the first, for fear of shaking their faith, the others for fear of becoming the object of their ardent persecutions;
    Which deprived the people of an infinite number of vain imaginings on which they feasted, and diviners of the most considerable part of their employment;
    Regularly observe several painful and inconvenient forms of worship, thereby to redeem their usual sins and to make their conscience accord with their favorite passions;
    Faith in religion is apt to excite in the soul anger against those who are of a different sentiment, very unregulated in their morals and very much convinced of the truth of a religion;
    There are ideas of honor among men that are a purely work of nature;
    Morality requires no reward or punishment, heaven or hell;
    In equating God with nature, the biblical god vanishes, leaving physics and philosophy;
    It would be a thousand times better to be indifferent to all the sects of the Christian religion than to have, in favor of the true one, so impious a zeal;
    Of the kinds of republics that might make up a European Union, Holland fought, not to aggrandize itself, but solely in order to ensure its liberty and the equilibrium of the European powers;
    Nature provides monsters, keeping men in fearful awe of some higher power;
    The politics of magistrates has always exploited men’s ignorance of nature;
    The priests rely for their livelihood on the continued devotion of the people;
    To undermine religion, spread natural science, recognize that religion is at best useless as a bond of secure society, and separate church and state;
    There is no longer any reason to say, one must necessarily deny, that comets are a sign of the anger of God formed in a miraculous way, since they are altogether suited to keep men in the most criminal condition they could be in;
    The foundation of human nature is pride or self-love;
    It is to the inward esteem of other men that we aspire above all;

    So, according to the framers, religion performs a Pavlov swap of superstition for tolerance, and the answer to this religious superstition is……..state superstition.

    Labor’s response, neither, is that NPV is a function of its demographic wealth. The majority can tax labor at 85%, for capital and middle class welfare, but it will get 85% of nothing useful, and it will crash just as soon as all real tax revenue is replaced by monetary expansion, at which time the next economy will “suddenly” be born, as the curtain of false assumptions associated with family law falls of its own dead weight.

    The empire has a lot of immobile robots to feed, the old source is running dry, and it has no connection to the new source.

  12. Ruben

    “The astute reader will instantly spot the importance of this passage …”

    The astute reader would have abandoned your piece long time ago … I just picked this sentence when swiftly scrolling down to the comments :-P

  13. Jim

    “What Smith gave to humanity in his founding of economics was a great lie with which to structure our newly forming nation-state and mass society. But it was a lie that was quite fragile. And it is this that we see cracking up all around us today.”

    But what exactly was the nature of this lie?

    Did it pretend that both the market and the state, at their historical origins, were non-hierarchical?

    If it is closer to the truth to say that all human association has both a hierarchical and democratic component, then both the modern market and the modern state were inevitably set up in that manner, even though modern secular liberalism links to the political fiction of an original contract between equal parties.

    In a strange sense then, modern secular liberalism, perhaps even more than religion, seems self-concealing and cannot tell an accurate story of its own origins.

    Does this mean that both the market and the sovereign central state have colluded from the onset of the modern age?

    And does this mean that the origins of capitalism in early modern Europe are intertwined with a national state that subsumed society under the central authority of the sovereign ruler?

    And finally, does this possibly mean that the views of Smith, Marx and Keynes are grounded in a shared denial that the exercise of virtue may require a transcendent common good?

  14. Aquifer

    ISTM that the “ground” of the new myth we must formulate to make sense of it all bears a striking resemblance to the old, i mean REALLY old, ones – where there were forces in the heavens and on earth that needed to be appeased because if displeased they would destroy the puny humans ….

    A Mythology built around the increasingly obvious truth that it ain’t nice to fool with Mother Nature – She always bats last and our economic system had better reflect that ….

    I would really like to see more of a discussion of ecological economics – in which we finally realize and work out of a concept that our economics IS a subset of natural ecology, whether we like the idea or not …. How would we define “stock” and “flow” or “capital” or even “labor” in such a system – would any of these terms be even useful?

  15. Jim

    “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.”

    Of course, this is a myth in its turn.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      Haha! Very good. But I’m not so sure. Violent emotions are no myth. And they certainly seem to come from the more animalistic side of us. The difference between man and an ape lies in the fact that the former is slightly less inclined to bash your brains in if you annoy him — only slightly, but still…

  16. Adam

    Smith’s mythic construction of the individual will never be completely eroded until the more fundamental lie about the authenticity of desire is exposed. Notions of mutual obligation and debt circle this point, but avoid its complete disclosure, because the myth of romantic desire undergirds far more than the economy. Rene Girard’s elaboration of the role of triangular desire in Western literature has began this assault, and its conclusions have been extended to the realm of economics by Jean-Pierre Dupuy. More work needs to be done.

  17. Dan Kervick

    I am puzzled about the claim that Smith “banishes the role of debt” in society. The quoted passage does not lead to that conclusion. All Smith is saying in that passage is that the utility of institutionalized social relations is such that even in the absence of bonds of affection, gratitude and obligation, those institutions would tend to preserve themselves. He is not saying that these other relations do not exist, nor is he saying that they should not exist.

    Like his predecessors Hutcheson and Hume, and like the other great thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment, Smith was deeply aware of the social nature of human beings. His account of human nature is not the radically individualistic account of later capitalist thinkers.

    Smith also authored a number of lectures on jurisprudence that are full of reflections on debt, and the laws governing it. If there is anyone who is guilty of banishing debt, it is Graeber, who apparently hates the very idea of debt and seems to imagine a romantic world of spontaneity and perfect liberty in which debt is abolished.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      Again, I’ll say: I’m not interested in the “what Smith REALLY said” debates. These are just naval-gazing. In “The Wealth of Nations” where Smith founded modern econoics he made two massive and interrelated assumptions:

      (a) Unbounded, fully independent and slightly disinterested individuals.

      (b) An absence of debt and a money economy generated from barter relations.

      These are the corner stones of our modern mythology of the liberal individual. What Smith “REALLY” thought is irrelevant. This is his true legacy. I’m more interested in the Text than the Writer, you could say.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          The neoclassicals have interest and lending too. But it is assumed that there is a hard money economy in which lending is supplied out of saving. This veneers over the real part played by debt in economic systems.

          I thought these debates were well-understood since Graeber’s book… Apologies if I wasn’t clear enough…

    2. David Graeber

      “seems to imagine” – I love it. In other words, “never says, gives no real reason to indicate he believes, but I’m going to say he proposes anyway.”

    1. Philip Pilkington

         [dis-in-tuh-res-tid, -tri-stid] Show IPA
      unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives: a disinterested decision by the referee.
      not interested; indifferent.

  18. FatCat!!!

    FatCat here! Have you missed ME? Let me make one thing clear: this is MY country now, this is MY government, and this is MY planet. I am FatCat, owner and ruler of Wall Street and the Universe. Is that clear? I own this country and I own all of you. So bow down and worship ME right now, or else!

    I don’t like to repeat myself, so listen up and listen good! I have been informed by MY FBI and by MY NSA about your great adulation toward MY Mittney, and your fanatical devotion to MY plan for America, which MY Mittney shall promptly bring to pass once elected. And he shall be elected, because I and I alone have decided so. Is that clear?!

    I do not usually show kindness or mercy to MY 47%ers, but given your commitment to MY philosophy, I have decided to grant clemency to you, Ms. Smith and to your 47%ers reading your blog. As such, I and I alone have decided that after I shut down the Internet, I shall allow this site to continue to operate. I shall also allow your book to continue to be printed, but only after you rewrite it to clearly state on every page: “FatCat good, liberals bad.” Better start writing right now or else! Is that clear?!

    Furthermore, I shall bestow MY grace and mercy upon all of you by hiring you to work as “reeducators” in MY soon-to-open FEMA concentration camps. Your duties shall include torture and humiliation of those who do not show love toward ME. You must make them love ME! Your salary shall be one small loaf of dry bread per week for you and your family. Is that clear?!

    This is FatCat! I have spoken!

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  20. Steve McKenna

    This is an interesting piece in its discussion of the power of myth in relation to anxiety. But, to follow on what others have said, on the whole Pilkington ascribes an agency to Adam Smith for having authored a myth that in fact only his more careless readers have generated and sustained. Worse, he calls it a “lie,” even while he himself carelessly misrepresents what Smith wrote. This gross overreach is abetted by a kind of shoddy writing practice that Smith himself, who began his career lecturing on rhetoric and literature, would have found reprehensible. I refer to Pilkington taking a quote from The Theory of Moral Sentiments out of context, ignoring even closely adjacent text, and then quite brazenly misquoting the quote—in essence a lie in plain view. The passage quoted is a suppositional case Smith adduces to show that though a society based on bare utility is possible, it is hardly to be recommended as it is dangerously prone to instability. Hence the human proclivity to justice is necessary to save a utility-based society from lapsing into one of predatory harm, which is why nature, though having created human beings as inherently endowed with a capacity for and tendency towards “fellow-feeling” and mutual sympathy, made justice more essential than beneficence. Which is not at all to say that beneficence is inessential.

    Let’s work backwards through Pilkington’s missteps to see how he gets this so badly wrong.: Pilkington excises a partial clause from the full sentence he pulls from TMS, “no man in [society] should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other”—ignoring both the fact that the clause is preceded by the subordinating conjunction “though”, which then allows him to make it seem as if “should” were being used as a future imperative by which Smith was recommending such a society, rather than as the subjunctive conditional Smith wrote. (Claudius to Laertes: “This ‘should’ is like a spendthrift sigh / That hurts by easing.”) What this too-easy deformation “hides from view” is precisely what Smith didn’t hide from view: that though any such society based on raw utility might “subsist”, it would be a precarious subsistence, and wholly prone to implosion without a supportive system of justice rooted in the human sense of merit and demerit. So Pilkington makes ends up making the same error as the Smith mythologizers of the “invisible hand” do. Any careful reading of the Wealth of Nations beside The Theory of Moral Sentiments—Smith believed the latter to be his more important and subsuming text—makes it amply clear that he thought that any society’s real flourishing was dependent on a civilized and socially moral foundation among human beings who were mutually tied to the common good through their native capacity for sympathy.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      Talk about misunderstanding the piece, sheesh!

      Okay, let’s break it down. Smith claims that a society CAN subsist through simple self-interest. Is this society fragile? That is irrelevant, but yes Smith does imply in the TMS that such is not a sufficient condition for a society — this is at the center of the boring debates about “what Smith REALLY meant”, which I’m not remotely interested in.

      In “The Wealth of Nations” it is these selfish motives that Smith explores in founding economics. For him, economics studies these self-interested motives alone because he believes them to be sufficient.

      But — and here’s my argument: economies are based on debt. So, Smith is actually just lying. There is no MYTHIC society based on atomistic and self-interested individuals. All these individuals are tied together in a web of debt. This is Smith’s lie and his myth. That of — and this is in the title of the piece: LIBERAL INDIVIDUALISM.

      I suggest that before you tell off authors for misreading source material, you spend a bit more time digesting said authors’ arguments.

      1. Steve McKenna

        No need to use caps–I can read. But I fear you have not read Smith carefully, and you abuse him as a source. Your heated reply is a strange defense of what is now clearly a quite intentional misreading and misquotation. Though as one “not remotely interested” in what Smith meant, perhaps you view the acts of failed reading and misquotation as meaningless. That would explain your failure to account for decontextualizing the passage and indeed re-writing it to make Smith say what you want him to in support your conclusions. One not interested in what Smith meant ought to at least abjure from accusations of “lying.” Such a stance may enjoy the irrefutability of what Harry Frankfurt calls b.s., but it’s no basis for a serious critique of the myth liberal individualism–a critique to which I am very sympathetic, which is why I hope for well-made arguments. This one is, I’m afraid, fairly indigestible on that score.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          Smith said many things. Some contradicting others. All writers do this. I likely do this, if you survey all my work.

          In this strict sense I am not interested in what Smith-the-individual said at one time versus what he said at another. Instead I’m interested in the assumptions and fictions he used to construct his political economy and which has been passed down to modern economics.

          I have laid those assumptions and their errors/fabrications out above. I have no doubt that at other times, in other contexts Smith corrected or did not make these errors — frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about is that they were used to justify the broad analysis — based on calculating individuals in a hard money economy — that we find in The Wealth of Nations and which has largely been passed onto modern economics.

          This is known as reading the history of ideas as a history of texts rather than as trying to write pointless and comprehensive biographies of famous authors and trying to pinpoint exactly what they said — which is a completely fruitless endeavor, because they probably contradicted themselves a million-and-one times. Contemporary historiography of ideas is on my side, second-rate biography is on yours. I choose the former.

          1. Steve McKenna

            Well, you win the exchange if it’s scored on pithy derision and condescension as a substitute for argument. But doing so you recede yet further from my criticism of your method. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte? As a way of doing intellectual history it’s quite convenient, as it tends to do away with the history part as needed. It is therefore equally toothless, which is why your post, which I want to side with in many ways, disappoints. Moreover this approach licenses you to cherry pick texts to find assumptions Smith didn’t hold. Smith was indeed mistaken on many things, he made serious rhetorical errors, and he changed his positions over time in ways neither uninteresting nor irrelevant to the subsequent myths confected from his texts. But he didn’t “lie.” Your method makes no distinction between error and deceit, a sophistic stance endemic to postmodern individualism–no small irony there. This is probably why when other readers of your post pointed out similar problems with your take on Smith, you largely respond by brushing away their concerns about what Smith meant and what his texts say as not interesting to you, as if that alone suffices to make them wrong. I suppose the more intemperate tone reserved for my comments is because unlike the others, I tried to shine a light on the hermeneutic game being played. If you spend more time with serious scholarship done by the best intellectual historians who deal with Smith’s thought and texts–D.D. Raphael, Knud Haakonssen, Donald Winch, Nicholas Phillipson, Emma Rothschild, Jerry Muller, Charles Griswold, Jerry Evensky, Ryan Patrick Hanley, and so on–nary a second-rate biographer nor naval-gazer among them–maybe you’ll see that your well-meaning critics here have a point.

          2. skippy

            As one commenter here used to say, Philip… It reads its self, its living, its error free, one only needs to reverse engineer any new discovery… within its bindings… the truth can not be untold[!!!]

            skippy… Articles of faith, objects of ritual, self imposed befuddlement of the mind, delirious devotion… all in opposition to the events unfolding… cult.

          3. Philip Pilkington

            Error IS deceit. Self-deceit. Error speaks through us when our symbols blind us to the truth and in doing so uses us as a conduit for deceit.

            Writers don’t make mistakes as if by some accident. Their mistakes and their rhetorical slips are part of the myths they weave. Smith’s myths — and his mistakes — happened to be rather enduring, which is why they interest me.

            Smith the individual? An eccentric, I hear. He doesn’t interest me. Nor do his various opinions — as various and as multifacited as I’d imagine them to be.

            One more thing: to call this epistemological stance “individualism” would, quite self-evidently, be completely absurd.

          4. skippy


            “One more thing: to call this epistemological stance “individualism” would, quite self-evidently, be completely absurd.” – PP

            Mental pedophilia – individualism – grooming the young, so as to be, ripe for the plucking.

            skippy.. The gift that keeps giving… eh.

    2. Peter Kerr

      When I saw that the writer had misunderstood “should” as meaning “ought”, instead of “just so happened to”, in that crucial passage I judged further reading to be a waste of time. I then typed Ctrl-F to search for the word “should” to see if anyone else had pointed out the error. Thankyou for doing so in a manner that teaches a bit of the relevant gramatical terminology.

      1. Philip Pilkington

        Once again, the argument was not that Smith was being normative. But the Smith-o-philes are impossible in this regard. All hail the sacred text!? (Which one???).

  21. Steve McKenna

    Only willful error is (self-)deceit, as in your recasting of Smith’s words. Not much respect for text there. It’s not so much the inability to maintain such distinctions as simply not caring for them that is itself a symptom of individualistic mythological thinking.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      “Only willful error is (self-)deceit…”

      Keep telling yorself that, buddy. And enjoy the fruits that particular bowl of bullsht brings you. Someday you might find that people hide things from themselves. Until then, enjoy the trip.

      1. Steve McKenna

        Perhaps the most telling thing about this exchange is what you don’t respond to. Self-deceit, or just ordinary deceit?

        1. Philip Pilkington

          I don’t see a gulf of difference. People rarely lie in a wholly conscious manner. Most lies are a mixture of pure deceit and self-deceit. Perhaps it may even be productive collapsing the difference between them.

  22. JTFaraday

    “Contemporary historiography of ideas is on my side”


    There is a general consensus that people have long pulled stuff out of Adam Smith, distorting his texts. Given that general consensus, it certainly doesn’t enhance your credibility to do it too.

  23. Elizabeth

    This post is brilliant. What struck me was the paragraph:

    “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.”

    Would I be going too far if I read into this an at least partial explanation of how Consumerism allays anxieties? Not just to comfort individuals conscious of their status in a competitive society — but also to quell a certain unconscious fear that it will all fall apart if we stop buying? Remember George W. Bush urging us all to go out and buy an SUV to support the “American way of life” after 9/11?

    I find particularly striking the idea that “men might live without close ties to one another” yet not only “not descend into barbarism” but find new ties based on their common tastes in designer labels, luxury goods and entertainments, among other things.

    And we might be assured against the spread of Communism that we are voting with our dollars for the system that “works” for us without a system of gulags. In so doing, we benefit from “natural laws” of envy, greed, tribalism (the “nuclear family” and racial/ethnic superiority), and the like.

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