Adam Smith and death in the life of the universal

RP 134 () / Article

Louis Althusser began Reading Capital with the statement, ʻWe have all certainly read and are all reading [Marxʼs] Capital.ʼ While Althusser is undoubtedly addressing here his seminar, the focus of which was precisely Marxʼs Capital, the sentence that follows elevates the act of reading this particular text to the status of the universal: the entire world has read and is reading Capital. Marx has been read for ʻnearly a centuryʼ not only by ʻusʼ (that is, all of us) but for us and to us even, and especially when we are not aware of it. And this paradox – that of our having read a text without knowing it – is made possible by the fact that Capital, Marxʼs theoretical work, is not limited to or contained by a book or set of books: ʻwe have been able to read it every day transparently in the dramas and dreams of our history, in its debates and conflicts.ʼ1 It is thus written in the history of the ʻworkersʼ movementʼ and therefore in the words and acts of its leaders and its partisans, as well as its adversaries, whose works represent both a commentary on and a continuation of Marxʼs text. Althusser insists, however, that the very universalization of Capital, the text, which undoubtedly occurs simultaneously with the universalization of the capital which is the object it seeks to analyse, renders a reading of Marxʼs words, ʻto the letterʼ, all the more urgent.

To take Althusserʼs position seriously today, forty years since he articulated it to his seminar, is to recognize that coextensive with, but distinct from, the theoretical imperative that requires us to read Marx ʻto the letterʼ is the correlative necessity to read Adam Smith. For if the last forty years have shown us anything it is that we all have read and are still reading Smith, that he is read for us and to us far more than was ever the case with Marx and that his words shape our dreams and destinies especially when we cite them without knowing it, taking his words as our own. Smith is then the universal element within which our theory and practice takes shape, within which what lives on in Marxʼs thought has its existence. This universality does not derive from the force of argument or empirical proof; the universality of Smith, a universality once contested and now reasserted, is immanent in a certain global balance of forces. Smith is the very idea of this now more or less stable balance of forces, the idea it has of itself. How, then, is it possible to read Smith or to make sure that the Smith we read is not himself already a reading, Smith read for us rather than by us? Perhaps the best way, or even the only way, to begin to read him is to examine a reader in the act of reading Smith. I propose, then, to take as my starting point a reader who neither admits that he is reading Smith nor in his reading is particularly faithful to the text or texts he reads, but whose reading, by virtue of its singular force, opens a certain space for thought, making it possible to read Smith in a new way.

The virtue of greed

I will begin by following Hegelʼs reading of Smith, not where he explicitly refers to Smith in the discussion of the ʻsystem of needsʼ in the Philosophy of Right, but in the Phenomenology of Spirit at the point where reason understands that its essence cannot exist in observation alone but only in its own actualization. Hegel argues that reasonʼs actualization of itself necessarily takes the form of a community (Gemeinschaft), the universal community, not as an ideal or in a formal, juridical sense, but as a reality produced by concrete individuals. He is careful to note, however, that the universal is produced by individuals who not only do not labour with the aim of producing the universal community, but who, on the contrary, seek only to satisfy their own needs, even at the expense of others. It is at this precise point that Hegel invokes Smith, specifically Smithʼs concept of the market, as the concrete form …