Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Luxury

In class last week we were discussing the luxury debate in the 17th and 18th centuries using  Hume and Rousseau as our points of entry. I hadn't really thought about it but Hume's contribution simply ignores the substantive moral and existential questions Rousseau makes. Whether Hume was responding directly to Rousseau or no, Rousseau's position is pretty much bog standard when it comes to the pro-luxury theorist.

This got me to thinking about David Graeber's Debt . I mentioned this text before, but this time I want to mention Brad DeLong's response to Graeber destruction of homo economicus as a natural being. He accepts, it seems, that Graeber is right but that's it. The Rouseavian idea that institutions create, he would have said corrupt, human nature doesn't seem to require rethinking economic policy. Put it this way, neoliberals like DeLong have been arguing about the naturalness of their preferred economic policies when those policies are creating or attempting to create a world that offers the greatest good to the greatest many.

This last desire lay behind Smith's argument for unleashing humanity's, he would have said man's, desire to fulfill the infinite wants of the mind.  Hume, in "On Commerce," is clear that the mindless pursuit of luxury will provide the greatest good for the greatest many and, even better, offer the state endless funds and the superfluous hands necessary to staff an army should war be necessary. Yet if Graeber is right, the wants of the mind aren't infinite until somebody or set of somebodies has come along and convinced us that they are.

When you think about it, who really does get up in the morning and say: "Today I want more than I can use and I don't care who gets it in the neck, so long as I have more tonight than I have right now; ideally with gold leaf." Surely then the neoliberal project to create the reverse Omelas in which we all live is tied up in convincing all of us that the unnatural is the natural, which requires a kind of glib contrarianism designed to show that left is, in fact, right.

So why is it that the economists cannot or do not engage with the historians, anthropologists, and other of the humane sciences when it is clear as a bell that economists are just making stuff up? This last point explains the continued assault on education as the a humanist project. If students learn how to think and write, how to research and analyze, they will become the kind of citizens with whom neoliberals and their followers cannot deal.

In other words, I need a full time job an DeLong needs to retire or the future gets in the neck. Neoliberals are dedicated to a project that avoids looking at things as they are in favor of making stuff up; historians are dedicated to looking at things as they are and avoids making stuff up.

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