Chris Allsobrook
Chris Allsobrook

The metaphysical order of the invisible hand

Margaret Thatcher shared with Thomas Hobbes, the great English political philosopher, a typically British, myth-busting receptivity to common-sense. Thatcher saw through the self-serving rhetoric of moralists whose ideals were bankrupting the economy. She pushed government to basic accounting principles and put Britain back on track. Yet “there is no such thing as society” is the heartless, bean-counting claim for which she is remembered by community-oriented lefties. She gutted societies with the logic of mergers, acquisitions and downsizing, then in vogue, erasing the entity whose existence she denied.

We should interpret Thatcher’s claim more and less charitably. Three hundred years earlier, when Hobbes argued, “there is no such thing as ‘the people’ ” he, admittedly, supported monarchy. But his enlightened point was we should never forget the faces of real human beings, with artificial, abstract concepts like “we, the People” (or, to emphasise this “they, the Africans”). It’s fine to raise appeals on behalf of “society” but who represents individuals on the ground, if not they themselves, in person or in contract? Thatcher was right, sociologically, there is no “society” in the real world; only the members which make up the set. But her anti-essentialist kudos (also in vogue, at the time, like big hair) was unmatched by naïve faith in economic entities of mythic proportions, like, the “market” and its omniscient, omnipotent author, the “invisible hand”.

There is no invisible hand guiding the market; just the grubby hands of individuals engaged in transactions. Moreover, the “market”, like “society”, is not a category into which each member identically fits. And, just as the term “society” often assumes illicit commonality between politicians and “the people”, so, the concept “market” masks contracts and relations of power between actual people, some in large, lonely mansions, many crowded into broken, little homes. Yet, realistic economists — who may baulk at a “common good” beyond the actual goods of individuals — are committed to more laws of the behaviour of this abstract entity and are prepared to sacrifice more corpses to it, than any religious order has paid its gods.

I mention this to draw attention to the public, secular concerns of a young, private, Catholic university in South Africa. St Augustine College is not battling as one may expect to balance conflicts between old-school universalism and modern religious tolerance; that is a balancing act Catholics have managed for several centuries. Rather, the dominant tension this institution anxiously, even, pedantically confronts, all year long, in its teaching, funding and administration, lies between its values of integrative education for the common good, and radically private “market” principles now used, globally, to replace the outmoded values of traditional universities.

As a newly employed philosopher at St Augustine, accustomed to the commercial logic driving the administrative restructuring of universities into supermarkets, I am surprised to find such conflicts of values still fought out, high up in the administration. Yet, despite their insistence on these standards, these poor Catholics struggle to “market” the universal Intellectual Traditions they hold dear, even as many state universities drop standards beneath a tsunami of numbers. One may rail against lack of state support, but the “state”, here, is, mostly poorly educated parents, embedded in “market” norms, determined to ensure their children are trained by the most expensively branded institution, in a narrowly defined skill that can be directly connected to a clearly determined career path.

This is not a call for popes, cathedrals and castles, but, when your children go to university, stop expecting them to know what they’re going to do with an arts, humanities or social sciences degree, so they can invest in theoretical reflection on abstract ideas, for one liberating moment, and find out. Since religion is devoted explicitly, perhaps, absurdly, to immaterial purposes, it is no accident religious institutions, historically, were the only places black elites could get a theoretical education, as opposed to the practical, “adapted” education provided by the apartheid state. “Practical education” has been used for over a century by classically educated elites to support a lower stream of uncritical, industrial education for the “mob”.

This is not to reject practical training but to call for awareness of the implications of efforts to align the “supply side” with the “demand side” of universities, that is, provide labour for the “market” (see the recent green paper on post-school education and training). These demands are important. But, first, South African companies under-invest in practical training, especially in comparison with industrial economies, like Germany, who provide us with engineers, who often practise here, in their early careers, as our experts. We expect the state to provide essential practical training but trust it to manage nothing else. Second, we must learn, as a “nation” to appreciate the value of education the state traditionally provided, in elite universities, teaching abstraction to rich, white men, so we can reclaim this value for the “common good”. It’s not just inheritance but training in abstract reasoning that helps rich, white men stay wealthy.

There is no “society” but there is a dangerous quota of barely literate, unemployed, restless people. There is no “career” but a series of salaried activities you will perform until you’re retired, fired or dead. One requires a critical, rational capacity to adapt principles, learned in theory, to these unique, changing contexts that can never be captured in a textbook, and which no theory can settle, once and for all. We are a strangely religious “nation” for this day and age, yet we treat our faith with the disrespect with which we treat real, individual members of “Mzansi” — as means to a narrow group concerns and interests. Likewise we place high value on “education” but disrespect its fundamental public value by reducing it to profitable private practice. Given our history, you would think we’d be wary of the metaphysical order of the invisible hand. But too few of us study history.

  • Dave Harris

    Another blog with a hidden agenda, peddling the value of an expensive education from a private institution and predicting doom and gloom if not supported. Eish!
    ” as many state universities drop standards beneath a tsunami of numbers”
    Whose standards must the previously disadvantaged masses conform to? Certainly not the standards that preach white supremacy and exclusivity based on eurocentric values and language!!!

    ” historically, were the only places black elites could get a theoretical education”
    Not true, the apartheid has a few “bush colleges”- one for Africans, one for Indians and one for Coloureds… Entrance to other colleges required “ministerial consent” from one of the apartheid collaborators, so only wealthy blacks with family connections to the apartheid state were able to attend “white” educational institutions until the 90s.

    You place far too much emphasis on our university’s ” training in abstract reasoning” , than on an individual ability and motivation. Other cultures have alternate ways to accomplish far more efficiently than your overprices, eurocentric religious university education. Are you on a recruiting mission?

  • The Creator

    Well, since the author is a right-wing neoliberal Catholic with very limited understanding of South African history, this bewildered little screed is probably fairly healthy. At least the author has a dim notion that the for-profit, elitist education which he is providing is problematic in the South African context.

    Once he realises that he is serving as a camouflage screen for the brain-dead business-school education which is the goal of such corporate institutions as his, he will have two choices: to go along with the system and trample on his own principles, or resign from the institution and start working somewhere which teaches the poor and serves the interests of humanism.

    I won’t insult him by suggesting which choice he will ultimately make. What would the Pope say?

  • Jens Bierbrauer

    Oh dear, Chris. You mentioned one of their Satanic Majesties of the 80s in your opening paragraph and it was not an insult. I have this feeling that you will not be read through without bias.

    Your ideas about power and education, “practicality” and the practicality of power relations in different education “streams” will not get past the keyword filters. It’s Pavlovian, I’m afraid.

    Best wishes for your task. I do not envy you.

  • Enough Said

    Ya, there is no metaphysical invisible hand guiding the market. Adam Smith used the imagery of the invisible hand as a metaphor in an attempt to describe what guides the market, and most suckers with since then have believed the ‘invisible hand guiding the market’ is a fact set in concrete.

  • jandr0

    @The Creator: Would it be possible that you could get even more derogatory?

    “[V]ery limited understanding,” “bewildered little screed,” “[a]t least the author has a dim notion,” “elitist education,” “brain-dead business-school.”

    No hypotheses from you, no abductive, inductive, or deductive reasoning from you. Only adjectives.

    Personally, I do not agree with everything Chris says, but I do acknowledge that he tried to make a reasoned, fair argument.

    @Chris: Those “grubby hands of individuals engaged in transactions” ARE the “invisible hands!” I have observed them in action even amongst the most vocal socialists I know. Once we walk into the supermarket and they don’t realise I am taking careful note, they are buying the cheapest good, or the one with the most “bling,” etc. But when we walk out, they want to insist I (note, not them any more) should buy (say) “Proudly South African.”

    Just like me, they are making their life choices on their psychic valuations – which seems to be to preach different from how they themselves act.


    They themselves don’t “walk” their “talk,” and then they want to salve their guilty conscience by insisting I should live up to standards which they themselves fail to live up to.

    However, the “invisible hand” of all those individual “walks” (more than the “talks”), will be driving education as well.

    In the end, social engineering loses against the invisible hand – even in education.

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  • Brent

    That ‘Grubby hand’ operates millions of times per day on a voluntary basis, in spite of Govts intervention and thuggery. It all started thousands of years ago when the farmer made a better hook from cattle bones for the coastal fisherman. result a win/win, more fish for the fisherman and in exchange for the hook the farmer got fish. This co-operation flourished and both did well causing other farmers plus fishermen up and down the coast to copy and also trade (grubby hands!) and flourish beyond subsistance. Then some handy men started building boats, allowing the fishermen to just take off by catching more fish and flourishing, the rest is human interaction (excluding war) history. The problems started when ‘inferior’ fishermen and non handymen farmers got annoyed at their fellow men being better off. This resulted in the birth of the society ‘do gooder’ ie politicians and their fellow travelers, the intellectuals/thinkers. Those who sit around and use their brains/ideas and resent that this does not give them a better position in society. Their brains and clever thinking should always allow them to be elevated above those who soil themselves in ‘grubby hands’ economic transactions. The world of free/voluntary transactions was never the same afterwards. The people who ‘sell’ ideas always win debates plus have the ‘monolopy’ of the media, which is why they are the heros and not the developer of better hooks/boats and efficient transactions.


  • Garg Unzola
  • Fr. John

    @ The Creator

    “Well, since the author is a right-wing neoliberal Catholic with very limited understanding of South African history, this bewildered little screed is probably fairly healthy.”

    Do you devolve into personal attacks much, I wonder?

    Perhaps if you did your homework a little bit you would find out that although Chris teaches at a Catholic institution, he is not Catholic himself. I guess that ad hominem attacks only really work when you have nothing of value to contribute, no?