Adam Smith, Deleuze, and Compositionalism

Adam Smith is often held up as the darling and founding father of neoclassical economic theory, and by extension neoliberal attitudes towards the market, Smith does indeed question the effectiveness of state intervention within the market. Beginning with the premise that ‘No regulation of commerce can increase the quantity of industry in any society beyond what its capital can maintain,’ (Wealth of Nations, p. 453). Smith will conclude that ‘trade which, without force or constraint, is naturally and regularly carried on between any two places, is always advantageous, though not always equally so, to both.’ (ibid. p. 489). Rather than regulate markets, one ought instead to allow the ‘invisible hand’ of market dynamics to operate, for by virtue of this invisible hand ends may be promoted that were not part of the intentions of the market participants. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, Smith argues that since the rich ‘consume little more than the poor’ of the bounty produced from their land, a bounty produced ‘by their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements,’ rather than let it go to waste. Consequently, as Smith concludes, the rich ‘are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions…[thereby] advanc[ing] the interest of the society…’ (Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp. 264-5). For Smith, therefore, it would seem that it is the market that maintains, by an invisible hand, its own self-sufficiency and autonomy, and it is the state that undermines this autonomy when it forces markets to comply with its own demands.

But Smith is far from being a laissez-faire capitalist. In a famous passage Smith laments how as a consequence of the inexorable ‘progress of the division of labor’ men have generally become ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…unless [Smith adds] government takes some pains to prevent it.’ (Wealth of Nations, pp. 781-2 [emphasis mine]). What precisely Smith believes is to be avoided, therefore, is the dissolution of autonomy. On the one hand the autonomy of the market is threatened by government intervention and on the other the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the individual is undermined by the unfettered powers of the division of labor. To state this argument in terms I have developed elsewhere, the passions and desires –  our ‘own vain and insatiable desires’ as Smith puts it – are the multiplicity/virtuality that comes to be actualized as two divergent tendencies (following through on a point Deleuze makes in an early essay on Bergson: virtuality ‘actualizes itself as it dissociates itself; it must dissociate itself to actualize itself’ [Desert Islands, p. 40] . The passions can be actualized as nomadic violence, as the lawless, irrational, and immoral outburst of the passions that undermines the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the self and society. The passions can also be actualized as institutional violence, as a force above the law, the transcendent power that acts upon passions and keeps them in check. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith’s  theory of the impartial spectator can be seen to be an attempt to maintain the dynamic tension of these divergent tendencies while resisting actualizing them. By examining ‘our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it,’ (Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 129) Smith is calling upon the passions themselves, but a polite and polished passion as this was widely understood in the eighteenth century. At the same time the impartial spectator, ‘the demigod within the breast’ as Smith puts it, does not transcend the law but rather reflects its general contours, nor does the impartial spectator abolish or excessively restrain the passions. A ‘polished person,’ for Smith, is ‘accustomed to give way, in some measure, to the movements of nature,’ whereas ‘Barbarians,’ by contrast, ‘being obliged to smother and conceal the appearance of every passion, necessarily acquire the habits of falsehood and dissimulation.’ (Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 244). What is key for Smith in understanding how the impartial spectator functions is precisely that it function as an abstract impersonal man, a ‘substitute of the Deity’ that allows for a dynamic movement and tension between the two divergent tendencies without allowing either one to be actualized. The impartial spectator thus prevents one from sliding into the blind pursuit of one’s passions and self-interests, in contrast to Bernard de Mandeville, and yet it allows for a lawful politeness without relying upon the transcendent powers of the state.

Deleuze and Guattari follow a similar path. In the nomadology chapter of A Thousand Plateaus DG discuss the ‘two poles of the war machine.’ On the one hand, there is the war machine that ‘takes war for its object and forms a line of destruction prolongable to the limits of the universe.’ (TP 422) When the state captures the war machine and yet allows the war machine to take over the functions of the state then what one ends up with is the suicidal trajectory of totalitarianism (and there is more than a passing similarity to Hannah Arendt on this point). This aspect of the war machine is thus not to be confused with the functions of the state, with royal science and the other disciplines (in the truest sense of that word) that seek to preserve various forms of identity. Although the state has its forms of violence—police, law, bureaucratic institutions, etc.—that foreclose the improper and the nomadic, it is not a suicidal violence. The other pole of the war machine occurs when it ‘has as its object not war but the drawing of a creative line of flight, the composition of smooth space and of the movement of people in that space.’ (ibid.) This creative line of flight entails its own violence for it will break with and undermine established patterns in order to create, as Whitehead puts it, ‘novel togetherness.’ When this creative line of flight is successful it will manage to avoid the violence of the state, the policing and repression that maintains the forms of identity that are nonetheless necessary; and it will avoid the suicidal violence of the war machine that simply destroys all forms of identity and composition. And it is this last term, ‘composition,’ that is key. For Deleuze to be creative is not to become beholden to an either/or mandate: either you abandon established forms of identity, break all the rules, or you are not creative. To the contrary, one finds between the two poles, between the ‘organization and domination’ of state violence and the suicidal destruction of the war machine a multiplicity of elements that are to be organized, composed, and set in motion such that they result in processes that are irreducible to either of the two poles, even though they forever risk collapsing into them. Deleuze and Guattari are thus compositionalists, much like Latour.


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