Agamben Notes: Appendix 2, “The Invisible Hand”

This brief appendix points toward ways in which the modern concept of economy can be linked to the theological concept, though Agamben leaves the full genealogy to other scholars.

At first glance, it appears that the modern term “economy” does not come from any of the sources Agamben has been investigating, but rather to have emerged ex novo from the texts of philosophers and economists. Nevertheless, Agamben believes there are subterranean connections that can be brought to light. His genealogy basically goes from Linnaeus, to the physiocrats, to Adam Smith. Linnaeus used the term “economy of nature” to mean essentially what the providential apparatus was getting at — the correlation of general laws with specific cases in a harmonious way. In a later work, Linnaeus uses politia naturae in a parallel sense. In all cases, he refers specifically to the creator who has established this order. The physiocrats bring this logic into what we now consider the “economic” realm — notably, one of the main physiocrats, Quesnay, was actually a physician. So in addition to being clearly influenced by Malebranche, he carries Linnaeus’s concept of economy into his work. Another physiocrat, Le Trosne, uses the term “social order” in much the same way — Agamben makes much of his use of “the government of order,” which he takes to be a double genetive reflecting the logic of “order” in Aquinas. The final step is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which again plays the same role of coordinating individual contingent choices into a harmonious totality — and it has clear theological roots traceable from the Bible to Augustine, Aquains, and Luther, all the way to Bousset.

The difference from the explicitly theological apparatus of providence is that liberalism denigrates Regno more and more in favor of Governo. However, “the economy that derives from it has not thereby been liberated from its providential paradigm” — it just emphasizes one half of the apparatus over against the other. “In the same sense, in modern Christian theology forces are at work that push Christology into an almost atheological element: but, even in that case, the theological model is not surpassed.”

Agamben concludes by claiming that the advent of modernity resembles a cabalistic account of the fall, wherein Adam first abstracts Reign from all the other divine attributes, then seizes that truncated divinity for himself. That is what makes messianic redemption necessary. Modernity — secularism, popular consent, etc. — does not make sense from the perspective of theology, but Agamben’s archeological operation is able to show what’s going on and thereby render the entire apparatus inoperative. [See my post The Best Practice is a Good Theory here.] Finally, he quotes at great length the theologian who he believes has pushed the theological apparatus to a point where it is almost identical with modernity, Bousset. The result of Bousset’s operation is that “God has made the world as if it were without God and governs it as if it governed itself.” In this sense, then, modernity is actually the fulfillment of the providential oikonomia.