Who Is Afraid of Adam Smith?

Watching, or listening, to conservatives and market-liberals talk about Adam Smith is probably the most pornified of experiences outside of watching actual porn. Smith, a radical philosopher and political economist of the Scottish Enlightenment, is name-dropped willy-nilly by people across the political spectrum, ranging from the neo-conservative alt-right to the neoliberal posse in perhaps the most deified manner. Which would be all right, frankly, if any of these people showed the slightest sign of ever having actually read Adam Smith. In that way, Adam Smith is, perhaps, very analogous to this popular notion of “American History” that is all-American, barely-history, and all around a feel-good fairy tale about pilgrims and Plymouth Rock meant to cover up the genocide of the indigenous and the enslavement and rape of a continent.

Unsurprisingly, then, there exists some misunderstanding and misapprehension about Adam Smith in the left, mostly through that irksome crime-by-association feeling that permeates in-group mentality rather easily. But it seems hardly fair that Smith should be blamed for things he, perhaps, never said and beliefs he, perhaps, never held. So, I started reading Adam Smith, and what I found was so drastically different from the mainstream perception of Smith that it led me into a brief period of self-doubt. Am I getting this right? Or am I a complete imbecile incapable of basic comprehension tasks? To remedy this early-onset mid-life crisis of mine, I thought I would look to better minds for a deeper understanding. Enter Noam Chomsky. Noam Chomsky, over a life that now approaches a century, has garnered two international reputations. On the one hand, Chomsky is the most cited scholar in modern history, quite literally. Considered the father of The Cognitive Revolution of the mid-50s that would forever change the disciplines of Psychology, Linguistics and Computer Science, Chomsky has been a foundational figure in Analytic Philosophy, Formal Logic, Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence, Formal Linguistics, Media Criticism, Political Economy, among a host of other disciplines. Such is the influence of Chomsky that one is often at loss when faced with the simple question, What does Noam Chomsky do? (Fun Anecdote: As the man himself once said in a DW interview, “Not enough.”) This does not get any easier when one considers that besides his formal academic megastar status, Noam Chomsky has been called the most important intellectual alive. A public intellectual of the highest order, bar none, Chomsky has been a constant critic of power structures, capitalism and imperialism ever since the mid-1950s. Such is his dedication to speaking truth in the face of the empire that it has conferred upon him two very daunting types of recognition. On the one hand, Chomsky has been honored with virtually every known peace prize and humanitarian award from virtually ever corner of the globe. On the other hand, in his own homeland of the United States, Chomsky holds the unique privilege of being a part of Richard Nixon’s enemy list, and almost a half-a-century-long gag order executed by the mainstream media. In spite of this, however, Chomsky has remained a voice that is not just heard and debated extensively across the academia, but a voice for the voiceless, and a mind that is equally revered and loved right through the annals of the third world. No small task for a white Jewish guy from the United States! But in being so revered, and at once so intensely misrepresented, Chomsky comes to resemble Smith himself in some sense.

So, here’s Noam Chomsky explaining Adam Smith like only he can:

“I didn’t do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There’s no research. Just read it. He’s pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits. He did give an argument for markets, but the argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. That’s the argument for them, because he thought that equality of condition (not just opportunity) is what you should be aiming at. It goes on and on. He gave a devastating critique of what we would call North-South policies. He was talking about England and India. He bitterly condemned the British experiments they were carrying out which were devastating India. He also made remarks which ought to be truisms about the way states work. He pointed out that its totally senseless to talk about a nation and what we would nowadays call “national interests.” He simply observed in passing, because it’s so obvious, that in England, which is what he’s discussing — and it was the most democratic society of the day — the principal architects of policy are the “merchants and manufacturers,” and they make certain that their own interests are, in his words, “most peculiarly attended to,” no matter what the effect on others, including the people of England who, he argued, suffered from their policies. He didn’t have the data to prove it at the time, but he was probably right.

This truism was, a century later, called class analysis, but you don’t have to go to Marx to find it. It’s very explicit in Adam Smith. It’s so obvious that any ten-year-old can see it. So he didn’t make a big point of it. He just mentioned it. But that’s correct. If you read through his work, he’s intelligent. He’s a person who was from the Enlightenment. His driving motives were the assumption that people were guided by sympathy and feelings of solidarity and the need for control of their own work, much like other Enlightenment and early Romantic thinkers. He’s part of that period, the Scottish Enlightenment. The version of him that’s given today is just ridiculous. But I didn’t have to do any research to find this out. All you have to do is read. If you’re literate, you’ll find it out. I did do a little research in the way it’s treated, and that’s interesting. For example, the University of Chicago, the great bastion of free market economics, etc., etc., published a bicentennial edition of the hero, a scholarly edition with all the footnotes and the introduction by a Nobel Prize winner, George Stigler, a huge index, a real scholarly edition. That’s the one I used. It’s the best edition. The scholarly framework was very interesting, including Stigler’s introduction. It’s likely he never opened The Wealth of Nations. Just about everything he said about the book was completely false. I went through a bunch of examples in writing about it, in Year 501 and elsewhere.But even more interesting in some ways was the index. Adam Smith is very well known for his advocacy of division of labor. Take a look at “division of labor” in the index and there are lots and lots of things listed. But there’s one missing, namely his denunciation of division of labor, the one I just cited. That’s somehow missing from the index. It goes on like this. I wouldn’t call this research because it’s ten minutes’ work, but if you look at the scholarship, then it’s interesting.

I want to be clear about this. There is good Smith scholarship. If you look at the serious Smith scholarship, nothing I’m saying is any surprise to anyone. How could it be? You open the book and you read it and it’s staring you right in the face. On the other hand if you look at the myth of Adam Smith, which is the only one we get, the discrepancy between that and the reality is enormous. This is true of classical liberalism in general. The founders of classical liberalism, people like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who is one of the great exponents of classical liberalism, and who inspired John Stuart Mill — they were what we would call libertarian socialists, at least that ïs the way I read them. For example, Humboldt, like Smith, says, consider a craftsman who builds some beautiful thing. Humboldt says if he does it under external coercion, like pay, for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. On the other hand, if he does it out of his own free, creative expression of himself, under free will, not under external coercion of wage labor, then we also admire what he is because he’s a human being. He said any decent socio-economic system will be based on the assumption that people have the freedom to inquire and create — since that’s the fundamental nature of humans — in free association with others, but certainly not under the kinds of external constraints that came to be called capitalism.

Phew!! That was something, wasn’t it? I must say, one of the unrelenting pleasures of reading Noam Chomsky is this near-orgasmic feeling one gets of a veil being lifted from one’s mind’s eye, so to speak. Chomsky rarely speaks in polysyllables, and avoids canonical jargon of politics and economics, choosing rather to explain everyday affairs of public life in a very publicly accessible way. Not unlike Adam Smith, as it turns out! And in Chomsky’s elaboration of Smith we find a true example of intellectual inheritance… one radical intellectual seamlessly channelling another one, centuries down the line.

No one need be afraid of Adam Smith, except those that seek to deify him and cut off Smith’s radical intellect from the public consciousness.

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