An Intellectual on the Peripheries

15. 3. 2017

Tomáš Sedláček, Ekonomia dobra i zła. Studio EMKA 2011

Don’t be misled by the title: Tomáš Sedláček is not a peripheral intellectual. This unorthodox economist is a world-class, all-round thinker, which he proved convincingly with his book The Economics of Good and Evil originally published in Czech in 2009. But Sedláček has the misfortune to be an inhabitant of Central Europe, that is the part of the world, which in Immanuel Wallerstein’s classification may at best be included in the semiperipheries of the economic system in the world of contemporary capitalism.

The fate of The Economics of Good and Evil perfectly illustrates this peripheral status. But I will return to that later, now we have to come to grips with Sedláček’s thought. He is lucky that unlike most Polish economists he was not bitten by “the sting of Balcerowicz”, that is he does not believe that the laws of economics are valid with an equal force as the laws of Newtonian physics. For one simple reason. When an apple falls to the ground pulled down by gravity, no extra-physical factors have an impact on the process. When a man operates on the free market, he is not governed exclusively by the attractive force of low prices. Human decisions are born in a complex process, with both biology and ethics taking part.

Sedláček begins his book with recalling the etymology of the name of his discipline—the art of managing a household. And then he takes the reader for a erudite journey through history and culture in order to show that economics is a social science pertaining in equal degree to moral reckoning and financial reckoning. We will understand it better when we read the story of Gilgamesh guided by Sedláček. In this oldest text of culture he discovers the main themes which human beings and societies have been preoccupied with since the beginnings of civilisation.

The discourse of effectiveness is crucial: “Until today, relations between humans—and hence humanity itself—recall the vision from Gilgamesh—writes Sedláček.—Even today we agree with Gilgamesh’s view that relations between humans—and hence being human as such—are an obstacle in work and achieving effectiveness. That people would achieve better results if they didn’t waste their time and energy on non-productive things. Even today the whole aspect of being human (human relations, love, friendship, love of beauty and art, etc.) is regarded as non-productive—with the exception of reproduction, which is the only productive thing, in a literal sense.”

The Czech scholar reveals the tension between productivity and non-productivity, analysing various important texts and interpreting various traditions, showing how culture has dealt with the temptation of economism. But the most important thing for the contemporary reader is to understand his or her current condition, which is the function of the unprecedented triumph of economism and domination of the discourse of effectiveness in all areas of life. The school is supposed to teach effectively, the hospital is to treat the patients effectively, the government is to manage the public resources effectively, funeral parlours are to bury the dead effectively. The teacher, the physician, the student, the patient and the employee have turned into Homo economicus, an agent who is constantly calculating and being measured. The human being has become a number, society has become statistics.

Sedláček traces back the origins of all that, discovering along the way one of the most interesting mystifications, which allowed the concept of Homo economicus and the myth of the invisible hand to flourish. Conventional wisdom and countless essayists ascribe the authorship of the founding myth of liberal economy to Adam Smith. Sedláček found out that Smith used the phrase “invisible hand” only three times, always in a different context. Indeed, if you reduce the achievements of Smith to The Wealth of the Nations, you may get an impression that he was an advocate of egoism.

But this work is invalid without The Theory of Moral Feelings, where the Scottish philosopher develops a more complex vision of society bound by compassion. Yes, in business people are guided by their own interest, they calculate in order to get the best possible results. But human and social life is not limited to business. Again we see the tension between effectiveness and social coherence, of which Smith was aware and did not argue that the best solution was to reduce man to Homo economicus.

For in fact the founder of contemporary economy was Bernard Mandeville, the author of the long poem Fable of the Bees, where he argues that everything which is good in society, including wellbeing, comes from egoism and bad deeds: “Mandeville was the leading advocate of the philosophy of need for greed. It says that greed is a necessary condition of social progress. Without greed, there would be no—or very little—progress. Society would reach only a basic level of development and would be unable to face international competition. Mandeville obviously supported the views of the hedonists: if there is a clash between what we want and what we possess, we should aim at increasing our possessions to the point where our desires would be satisfied. He goes even further than the hedonists: he claims that the only way of achieving progress is a continuous growth of our appetites. In this respect, contemporary economists are his followers.”

Sedláček demonstrates that the choice of the path suggested by Mandeville was not inevitable. The tension between economism and humanism was present since the dawn of civilisation and found its full intellectual expression in the philosophical debate between the hedonists and the stoics. The hedonists won but their victory was not unavoidable—it is true that we have a tendency and ability to develop our appetites but we are also able to control our desires. The hedonists won for they were capable of legitimising their philosophy through wrapping it with intellectual packaging composed of such catchy concepts as progress, development, wellbeing.

Things were going so well that as a consequence “we abandoned moral principles too easily, which economy should defend. Economic policy was left to its own devices and succumbed to the lunacy of deficit.” And the world fell into a crisis which transcends the financial and economic sphere.

Where do we go from here? The author of The Economics of Good and Evil does not answer this question. He shows the cultural sources of the current crisis but leaves aside the political aspect. And this aspect is equally important when both analysing the sources of the concept of Homo economicus and seeking the way out of the crisis. It is no coincidence that Mandeville’s economic and social ideas have been flourishing in our times under the aegis of neo-liberalism.

The social and cultural changes signalled during the revolts of 1968 led to a profound individualisation of societies. Large structures capable of articulating collective interest fell apart. The working class is now an empty concept, although a hundred years ago it struck fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie. The terrifying anger of the workers was not replaced by the anger of “The Indignant”—their protests provoke no more than irritation of the establishment. The reason for that is that “The Indignant” have so far been unable to transform the energy of their protest into a political project. They are disaffected consumers of the political system and they filed a complaint. But they do not constitute a political force capable of repairing the world on its own.

There is too much dividing them. There is no glue which would amalgamate separate individuals into a society: there are no inspiring ideologies, we are even afraid of this word. Instead of stabilising social hierarchies, the fragmented and networked postmodern culture is a source of anxiety. Even science, as Sedláček himself notes, lost its hegemonic position as an instrument used by modern society to proclaim what is true and what is not. So if you cannot rely on a common, collective interest, on a commonly recognised tradition or a commonly accepted concept of truth, only one platform of rationality remains—the market and the rationality of the invisible hand.

When we are unable to agree between ourselves, how should the public system of education look like, we say: let us leave the choice to the parents, let us introduce competition between schools and between teachers within schools. For in the name of what, in the name of what commonly accepted argument should we demand a homogenous school system, if we cannot even agree on a mandatory reading list?

Will we be able to regain control over the market and the economy, which, as Sedláček writes, have run out of control? Is this loss of control not only the cost of hedonism but also a side effect of emancipation? Such an assessment would be gladly accepted by the Conservatists, who blame the crisis on feminists and postmodernists of all stripes, who have undermined the foundations of culture. The only remedy is retraditionalisation, neo-communitarianism, a return to old, time-tested values.

Can we hope for an escape from this predicament? Can we hope for positive utopias, which would allow us to avoid the return of oppressive social structures and at the same time protect us from further development of the neoliberal project? The ultimate result of this project, as Sedláček clearly senses in his book, would be a cyborgisation of society, turning people into robots. From this perspective, neo-liberalism may be perceived as post-humanism.

Is it possible to recover both the humanist and emancipatory perspective? The time has come to start looking for seeds of new utopias, dreams of a better world showing that an alternative can at least be conceived and imagined. Where should we search for these seeds? Here I will allow myself a brief reflection on peripheries. It will have a slightly personal character. I encountered The Economics of Good and Evil in 2010 during my traditional summer journeying in Slovakia. In Kežmarok, close to the town house, there is a fantastic bookshop. A wonderful mess reigns there and the whole fun consists in finding true gems among all the publishing rubbish. The Economics was a trophy of such a hunt, I devoured it with delight, reading it alternately with a work published in the same period, L’abeille et l’economiste by the Frenchman Yann Moulier Boutang.

The two books are very different but also amazingly similar. They share the same lack of deference to the intellectual mainstream and a conviction that economics is a social science, meaning that it is preoccupied with choices which cannot be reduced to mathematical optimisation.

I presented my impressions from the reading in my blog, not counting on too much reaction. So I was very happy to learn that The Economics of Good and Evil would be published in Polish. The publisher told me that what attracted him to this book was an enthusiastic review of the English edition. Yann Moulier Boutang was not so lucky—his work has not been translated into English, it has not been anointed by the Centre. Our peripheral publishers clearly have lost their capabilities for independent searching and intellectually assessing the offer from outside the mainstream.

But if we are talking about utopias, about searching for an alternative, our quest should be largely beyond the mainstream—the most interesting ideas are usually born on the margins, in borderline areas, spaces in-between, they are written by bandit authors. Let us not wait until the invisible hand of the global market of ideas points to them. In the case of Sedláček, we were simply lucky but you should not be excessively relying on luck.

Edwin Bendyk

is the president of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a commentator for the Polityka weekly, and the author of numerous books, the latest of which is W Polsce, czyli wszędzie. Rzecz o upadku i przyszłości świata [In Poland, or Everywhere. On the Collapse and Future of the World] (2020).

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