Smith’s “Invisible Hand” and the Tribal Genius
I woke up this morning thinking about neo-liberal economics, Jean Gebser, Adam Smith and his “Invisible Hand”, and how this metaphor (or simile) of the “Invisible Hand” morphed into “mechanism” in the term “market mechanism” — and, in those terms, whether in the form of “Invisible Hand” or “mechanism” (Mumford’s “Megamachine”), we aren’t dealing with a superstition masquerading as “science” or ideology.
There is, actually, an ancient antecedent and precursor to this benevolent “invisible hand” — it is the tribal “genius” (“genie”), or tutelary deity. And this relationship between Smith’s “invisible hand” and the tribal “genius” reveals something very significant about Jean Gebser’s philosophy of “consciousness structures” as well.
[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They 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 among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. (from The Theory of Moral Sentiments).
This is a very curious statement, in fact, because it contains elements of magic and myth, and exploring those elements will also reveal something very important about what Gebser means by writing, in The Ever-Present Origin, that when dialectical or systematising rationality (“the mental-rational consciousness structure”) falters or breaks down, it reverts to older, legacy or repressed forms of magical and mythical consciousness to compensate for the lacunae in its logic.
The word “genius” comes from the Latin “gens” — meaning the people or tribe. “Gens”, in turn, informs many of our common everyday English words like “genesis”, “general”, “gender”, “generator”, “generation”, “genitals”, “genie”, and so on — and “genius” as well. This interesting fact reveals the persistence of the tribal origins of much of our speech and language, including the magical and mythical elements which remain encoded in speech and grammar. And, in fact, the very word “grammar” is related to words for “magic”.
The word “genius” is, in Latin, the possessive case of the word “gens” and means “of the tribe” or “of the people”. The original “genius” was the tutelary deity of the tribe — the protector god that guaranteed its integrity and its fertility, and so was very much involved, magically, in the tribe’s fertility and pro-creation or generation. The association of genius with creativity or with distributive justice in the tribe stems from that earlier form of the “Genius”. In effect, the Genius is the tribal “We” person of grammar, the original “field of force” as it were in which the members of the tribe lived, moved, and had their being. Elements of this tribal “Genius” are still very much evident in Biblical descriptions of Jehovah, the Genius of the Hebrew tribes.
The “genii” (plural form of genius) are still described, even as late as the 19th century, as the fecund spirits of lake, forest, river, mountain, field and so on. and who may be benevolent or hostile or mischievous. These are the “genies”, in other words, and are related to the Arabic djinn. The Islamic djinn, though, were formerly the various gods and deities of the desert tribes, said to have numbered some 360 prior to Mohammed. (The number 360 is peculiar, since this is the number of days in the old calendar and the number of degrees in a circle). There is a quite evident linguistic link between the “genii” and the “djinn“.
Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” bears some striking resemblances to the old form of “the Genius” of the magical consciousness structure, which probably accounts for why the “Invisible Hand” is treated with near religious conviction by its followers, even though it has now morphed into a more technocratic form as the “mechanism” of the “market mechanism”, largely under pressure of Smith’s critics, and critics of classical liberal capitalism, who charged that the Invisible Hand was a rationalistic superstition. Describing it, rather, as “mechanism” tries to give it legitimacy and to dispel the odour of a misplaced “mysticism” that attends the idea of the “Invisible Hand”.
Smith isn’t the first example of someone having resorted to largely “irrational” forms of myth and magic to try to fill the gaps — the lacunae — in the mental or logical structure of consciousness. Newton was accused of resorting to magic and “occult” notions of force in trying to account for how gravity functioned as a “force at a distance” without any evident mechanism or medium of transmission of that force, ie, magic.
There is a peculiar relationship between the meanings of the words “substantial” and “superstition”. They are actually contraries in the sense of what “under-stands” (or sub-stands as also in German Ver-stehen) and what “over-stands” (super-stare). The old understanding, so to speak, was that the noumenal was the true or “sub-stantial” reality while the phenomenal or sensate world was the “superstition” (as “veil of Maya” for example). Materialist philosophy inverted this relationship. The material became the “substantial” while the invisible or numinous became the “superstition” (this was largely Galileo’s doing who inverted the relationship between primary and secondary qualities). The material particles or atoms now became the “substantial” reality underlying the appearances, while the noumenal or “the spiritual powers” or “creative forces” that were formerly understood to be the “substantial” reality and which in-formed the appearances were now relegated to the “superstitious”, and were repressed.
This inversion and repression has made the mental-rational consciousness structure vulnerable to “invasion” by these repressed elements as “return of the repressed” in all sorts of ways, and I think we have examples of that in Smith’s deus ex machina in terms of the “Invisible Hand”, or Isaac Newton’s appeal to the notion of “force” when an obvious and evident material explanation or “mechanism” failed to account for gravitational “force” or “attraction”.
These are rather simple instances that illustrate Gebser’s concerns about how a faltering dialectical rationality, such as we are seeing with “post-modernity”, becomes vulnerable to “invasion” by “deficient” aspects the return of the repressed — ie, the unintegrated or inhibited aspects of the psychic whole. Unintegrated with consciousness, even as “irrational exuberance”, they rampage and maraud, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Mr. Hyde”, and even without the ego-nature’s awareness or the mental-rational consciousness structure’s awareness, that it is being itself usurped by “deficient” forms of the magical and mythical modes of consciousness because it does not recognise these modes as valid or real. In the extreme case, this is the situation of the “berserker” of the old type (the “wrath of Achilles” being an example) — and possibly of the new as well.
And this is the danger that Gebser sees — a vortex or “maelstrom of blind anxiety” — as a result of the breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness and the weakening of the inhibitions it has erected against the return of the repressed. And that is the situation, now, with what we call “post-truth” or “post-rational” society or “identity crisis” — a rampage of the “Shadow”, in Jung’s terms — the marauding unintegrated fragments or aspects of the psychic whole.
That’s also the essential warning in Yeats’ ominous poem “The Second Coming“. Rationalists are no more prepared for, nor inoculated against, this “return of the repressed” than anyone else, which is not only Gebser’s great concern, but is basically the fundamental concerns of many other contemporary authors we have examined in The Chrysalis who have noted the peculiar relationship between technics, the machine, and resurgent older forms of myth and magic which are insinuating themselves, largely unawares, into technics and thinking with potentially disastrous consequences unless penetrated by insight and understanding.
We have, after all, seen this breakdown of reason and the eruption of ancient psychic forces in a “maelstrom of blind anxiety” before. Nazi Germany was that example of the return of the “irrational forces” of myth and magic disguised as technics and “rationality”. Historians still struggle to understand what happened between 1920 and 1945. We don’t need to see such things again.