Radical punishment: the economic rationality of the Marquis de Sade

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by Sanjay Perera

…he would greatly have loved to make a formidable death machine of universal life. But mere nothingness is not his goal. What he has striven for is sovereignty, through the spirit of negation, carried to its extreme. Putting this negation to the test, he has alternately employed it on…Men, God, and Nature: the moment each of these notions comes in contact with negation it seems to be endowed with a certain value, but if one considers the experiment as a whole, these moments no longer have the slightest reality, for the characteristic of the experiment consists precisely in ruining and nullifying them one after the other. – Blanchot, “Sade”

To have ‘really seen with his own eyes’ a gas chamber would be the condition which gives one the authority to say that it exists and to persuade the unbeliever. Yet it is still necessary to prove that the gas chamber was used to kill at the time it was seen. The only acceptable proof that it was used to kill is that one died from it. But if one is dead, one cannot testify that it is on account of the gas chamber. – The plaintiff complains that he has been fooled about the existence of gas chambers, fooled that is, about the so-called Final Solution. His argument is: in order for a place to be identified as a gas chamber, the only eyewitness I will accept would be a victim of this gas chamber: now, according to my opponent, there is no victim that is not dead; otherwise, this gas chamber would not be what he or she claims it to be. There is, therefore, no gas chamber. – Lyotard, The Differend

A. Into the dungeon

It should be no surprise that ideas from science underlie texts of books and films such as 2001: A space odyssey or Interstellar; and just like those films we see a fine blend of the imagination, the spiritual and the scientific as in Lem’s novel Solaris and Tarkovsky’s eponymous film. However, it seems to work differently for neoclassical economics. It is a curious case where rather than just the ideas of economics forming the subtext of other works it too has a central narrative anchoring it. In fact, it is claimed that economics in itself is a narrative underwritten by a fundamental narrative of violence.

In this sense it is a double narrative, and while it may not always be twice the fiction of any other work of creativity, it is indeed a concoction that has nothing to do with science proper. While it can be said that various works of fiction may reflect aspects of economic thinking (e.g. Dickens, Zola, Gissing, Frank Norris, Steinbeck or Orwell) the basic harshness of the field of economics may sometimes arguably be hidden by other thematic and stylistic considerations, plot or characterization.[1]

This essay takes a step further into drawing out the violence underlying economic thinking and practice.[2] In taking this pace forward we also have to enter the dungeon of thoughts of the notorious Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) which facilitates a sharp examination of economic thinking. In our time, it should be easier for people to see that key ideas from Sade are effectively a subtext for central ideas of (neoclassical) economic theory.

What is claimed is that Sade uniquely issues forth the fundamental undercurrent of economics. Economic thought at its root is pinned down by the barbs and ideas of Sade. So, if we take Sade’s ideas seriously, their logical progression and final end coincide with the driving narrative of the central assumptions in economics and its final goal because, at its most basic level, the field is rooted in Sadean thinking. This, however, is not apparent on a cursory discussion of the pitfalls of economics. Thus, what Sade clarifies to us in all his terrible intensity economics obfuscates with a highfalutin self-proclamation of being ‘scientific.’ In other words, Sade gives us the narrative truth that uncannily brings into full relief the functioning and end goal of economics.

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Thus, no claim is made that economics or economists are consciously influenced by Sade; rather that in the latter we find the radical source of economic thinking: so Sade provides the violent grounding for economic thought, that is, key economic ideas are predated by Sade. Therefore, it is claimed that via a Sadean examination of economics we understand better the violent outcomes of adhering to much economic theory. In any case, it should be unsurprising if unconsciously economists or their thinking are a form of acting out Sadean ideas, and in this regard Freud and others may have a lot to say.

What is also clear is that in looking at examples from the good Marquis’ work that was often banned, destroyed, lost and miraculously recovered again—notwithstanding how disturbing and at times unreadable they can be (due to the extremity, perversity and bizarreness of its content): we are forced to confront a brutally frank expression of human history and thought that is also a prescient statement of our times.

In a way, so much of Sade is an urtext for socio-economic-political thought and practices of the last few centuries. What is extraordinary about his ideas is that they are a dark distillation of excess economic rationality and the attempt to set humanity up in a world that is apparently reflective of only sheer reason, cause and effect, materialism, the rule of Nature and the godlessness of it all. Within (and without) this context, economics as we know it is but a mathematically pretentious pseudo-scientific endeavour—which helps keep us mind-locked in the Sadean dungeon.

It may be easy to characterize Sade as insane and this is enhanced at times by the seeming incoherence of his thought (being incarcerated for years including at the Bastille and Charenton asylum strengthens this view for some); yet his clarity and insight in many instances are disconcerting in the way they bring to light the dark facets of human thought and action. What makes his vision terrifying is that he is able to weave it into a consistency for the most part, and reinforces it via a repetitiveness and patience in exposition that defies expectations: there is clearly method in the ‘madness.’ And so he can quite correctly be regarded as a philosopher.[3]

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B. Economics and Sade

It can be said: what fundamentally underlies economic rationality is a justification for the distribution of resources that allows the individual to maximize utility. It is the use of what is termed scarce resources in ways that are also meant to be optimum in giving the greatest satisfaction to consumers. Everything is calculable and measurable and all is meted out through the operation of demand and supply for the greatest satisfaction of the majority of people. We are given a utilitarian system apparently designed to allow everyone to gain as much happiness—through the satisfaction of the senses—as possible.

But not all is well with such a system. As Ismael Hossein-zadeh points out with the striking example of a group of economics graduate students in France publicly criticizing their field as pathological.[4] The point on pathology is important as it signifies a trait in much of Sade’s ideas when stretched to their utmost on the rack of his reasoning which is the space in the dungeon of his thought that holds the basic apparatus of economics.

Moreover, the use of mathematics largely does a disservice to economics in that it creates a closed system which is not informative but tautological as the conclusions drawn are inherent to the theory presented and so not reflective of the world as such. This is not to say that mathematics has no relevance to our lives, but that closed models meant to maintain their consistency above all else have nothing to do with human motives, passions and aspirations as such.[5]

While it is claimed that the economic narrative is underpinned by the Sadean urtext Gordon Bigelow, however, believes that economics “offers the dominant creation narrative of our society, depicting the relation of each of us to the universe we inhabit, the relation of human beings to God. And the story it tells is a marvelous one” (Bigelow 33). His point is important for it highlights the fact that economics is indeed a narrative we use to explain our world in many ways as it not only dominates the secular world, but is a sacred text in a sense of secularism; but it can also be viewed as supporting the ideas or even the values of the so-called religious. Economic theory has been rationalized by many who claim to be religious and who constantly try to justify its basic assumptions via scriptural readings-hermeneutics so as to argue for dominance and exploitation of the world, resources, life forms and man himself (needless to say it provides a basic tenet for the defence of property ownership and expansion).

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However, while Bigelow essentially claims that the economic narrative in itself is predicated upon religious sentiments that underlie free market fundamentalism (and perhaps he may be correct to do so), Sade gives us the antithesis and hopefully it will be apparent that he issues us the authentic take on economics, the market and capitalism as such: for Sade painstakingly points out that orthodox religious attempts to justify, or rather explain away, man’s cruelty to man are but hypocrisy and that we are operating under the influence of another force. So to Sade it is not the case that religion underlies economics or some form of economic thinking influences religion, but that all attempts to justify brute force and exploitation or the instrumentalist use of humanity and the world through religious framing—or via any other form of rationalization—are mere hypocrisy for they are ultimately based on some form of non-existent morality which the religious and others use to give themselves airs of superiority.

The actual force behind all is Nature which is amoral and downright ‘immoral’ in the conventional sense. And for Sade, the sovereign man who defies and crushes all in the way of his sensual consummation while revealing the non-existence of morality is Nature’s true representative: this is the Sadean hero par excellence.

It is indeed unsurprising that Bigelow picks up on this albeit for different reasons; economics has this affinity for Nature as part of its attempt to grasp at giving itself scientific respectability, and so it inevitably brings into play an abstracted version of natural law in which there is a balancing effect in operation at the centre of its sterile heart. Bigelow states:

This understanding of markets—not as artifacts of human civilization but as phenomena of nature—now serves as the unquestioned foundation of nearly all political and social debate…‘the market’ would provide its own natural limits to growth…

Neoclassical economics tends to downplay the importance of human institutions, seeing instead a system of flows and exchanges that are governed by an inherent equilibrium. Predicated on the belief that markets operate in a scientifically knowable fashion, it sees them as self-regulating mathematical miracles, as delicate ecosystems best left alone (Bigelow 33-34).[6]

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But for Sade, Nature is not representative of a moral balance—it is the balancing force which is beyond good and evil that relentlessly makes man exercise his nature within as reflecting nature without (both termed ‘Nature’ by Sade) to provide a type of equilibrium. Thus, at a basic level, Sade’s is a non-moral equilibrium. Moreover, this idea of mathematics as providing a closed system that confers strength and consistency to natural law and thereby creating some form of equilibrium is hijacked by economics (see end note [6]). However, as the equilibrium in economics is similar to the non-morality of that in Sade their end goals converge as the outcome of sheer rationality. And as will be discussed, Sade’s is the finest instance of economic rationality in its utmost form for there are no limits to its expression as it unsentimentally dishes out with disconcerting exactitude what the poet calls “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to….”

In other words, we have a system of rationality in Sade and economics that insists on its divorced-from-reality operation of maximizing satisfaction and satisfying maximization of the greatest happiness (for the individual and the greatest number) that like an incessant engine chews away to it final end. This unabated system of consumption-satisfaction generation goes on as the world’s population grows but resources seem limited. So the question then is: what do we do with the excess people if resources are in such inadequate supply as we have been led to believe. Economics does give the answer but it is masked by theoretical verbiage; Sade, however, responses with unrelenting honesty. Whatever else can be said of Sade (and it tends to be unpleasant), his integrity as a thinker and writer are difficult to deny.

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C. Utilitarian values and individualism in Sade

When looking at Sade proper, the utilitarian values that are predicated on individualism stand out in his thinking as they do in economics. As we learn from Sade’s Justine (my italics),

‘You will grant me that everybody draws his pleasure from the exercise of his particular faculties and attributes: like the athlete from wrestling, and the generous man from his benevolent actions; thus also the violent man from his very violence. If you are completely in my power, it is from oppressing you that I am going to reap my greatest joys…as the mighty man takes pleasure from the exercise of his strength, so does the gentle or the weak man profit from his compassion…It is his own way of having a good time; and that is his business.

…Civilization has changed the aspect of Nature; civilization nonetheless respects her laws. The rich of today are just as ferocious in their exploitation of the poor as the violent used to be in their vexation of the helpless. All these financiers, all these important personages you see would bleed the entire population dry if they fancied its blood might yield a few grains of gold’ (Paulhan 23).

At this point one may wonder if anymore needs to be said of Sade’s summation of our socio-economic system and the subtleties of capitalism, but in Sadean tradition: indeed, much more will be said.

And so Blanchot elegantly informs us that Sade’s “philosophy is one of self-interest, of absolute egoism: Each of us must do exactly as he pleases, each of us is bound by one law alone, that of his own pleasure…and, conversely, to hold as naught anything which, as a result of my preferences, may cause harm to others…the equality of all human beings is the right to equal use of them all, freedom is the power to bend others to his own will” (Blanchot 40-1).

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This is truly the creed of individualism in economics and capitalism where everything is instrumental to sensual satisfaction and profit maximization, and nothing must get in its way. Economics’ principal legacy is that life and the planet itself are monetized for profit, the ends justify the means; and it is in a way quaint that economic jargon and thought that essentially rationalize misdemeanour, exploitation and inequity are not seen as purely ideological incantations meant to conjure up social abuse, but are instead regarded as scientific mantra. Yet unlike science, no replacement theory is regularly needed or sought, for in economics no theory can be falsified which means it could be true simply because it is a theory; nor is any theory needed to present an alternate reality as all theories presented are supposedly representative of the actual world though strangely enough the world is then regarded as an externality.

Economic theory is unique in that it bootstraps above all scientific endeavour in giving immutable models of instrumentalism and viciousness on which more variations are built upon and offered to promote social violence.

In fact, in trying to be a work of reason and rationality alone devoid of any moral content or ethical implication economics is a reductionist reagent in our lives that ensures that strong or admirable human qualities/values are dissipated through contact: it is poisonous to humanity. It must be said that science can be ethically self-conscious regarding its practice, perhaps not as much as it should but self-questioning abounds as in issues involving euthanasia or human cloning. There is hardly any self-questioning in economics other than from those wise and brave enough in the field who challenge the basis of what their work is about in the first place.

Ironically, unlike economics, Sade’s ideas have been subject to scrutiny and criticism for quite some time. It is time, however, to see what can be gleaned positively from so much of the negativity that abounds in his thought. Simone de Beauvoir correctly says “Sade’s world is essentially rational and practical. The objects, whether material or human…are tools which have no mystery” (de Beauvoir 27). As in economics everything is up for sale, exchange and violation in the marketplace of desire: nothing is sanctified, the economy is but a mercenary realm in which labour power is bought, sold and exploited, and wars and acts of terror can be purchased at pre-packaged deals. And she adds “promises of happiness and justice conceal the worst dangers. Sade drained to the dregs the moment of selfishness, injustice, and misery, and he insisted upon its truth” (de Beauvoir 63-64).

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Indeed, Sade revels in flaying away our hypocrisy and it can be said that he highlights what economics extols subconsciously. We pretend (or are so indoctrinated) that it is acceptable to institutionalize selfishness, injustice, and punishment on a wide scale: for after all there are economic reasons for this. The moment the term ‘economic’ is used, we encounter a talisman that absolves us of all. No matter how unjust or punishing, for instance, austerity measures can be they are justified when they are termed economic.

The utilitarian principle of economics is meant to weirdly overcome all doubts or objections in the minds of many as to its damaging effects. The moment instrumentalism comes into play we are also supposed to be oblivious to its ensuing potential for damage. As Sade says, “‘There now remains the harm I may do others by being vicious and the evil I myself would suffer were everyone to resemble me. Were we to acknowledge an efficient circulation of vices, I am certainly running a grave danger…but the grief experienced by what I risk is offset by the pleasure I receive from causing others to be menaced: and there, you see, equality is re-established….’” (Sade Justine, 545-46).

In this passage and the lines that follow, Sade believes that the risk of being abused if everyone reciprocates violence cannot dilute the potential for pleasure from abusing others for the intensity of the experience compensates what torments may come one’s way. With his extreme rationality in a world of hurt and deliberate injury, the pleasure gained from this makes all things equal. This may also help explain why ever so often those in a position to lord it over others are gladly their bullying selves as it may be pleasurable for them to crush others and they judge others as themselves, that is, potential abusers who should be struck at first.[7]

Additionally, it must be pointed out that the utilitarianism and instrumentality of economic thinking stab our life and activity, bleed them of any morality, then with the ensuing emptiness that becomes a vacuum fill us with only the need to satisfy the senses, inflate the ego and enhance fear through reminders of lack and a survivalism that is the function of the need to compete viciously. An honest look at the advertising and marketing world which exemplifies the vacuous monetized bubble of economics will reveal this.

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Moreover, lest there be doubt about the alienation and individualism we are led to accept as an eternal verity, Sade informs us we are “‘alone in the universe’” and that if we think of others it is in the way of “‘profit…from the business’” of the relationship; and he continues that when the individual “‘is no longer in need of others…he then abjures forever those pretty humanitarian doctrines of doing good deeds to which he only submitted himself for reasons of policy; he no longer fears to be selfish, to reduce everyone about him, and he sates his appetites without inquiring to know what his enjoyment may cost others, and without remorse…there you have it: egoism’” (Sade Justine, 608).

Speak to anyone who owns varieties of sports or luxury vehicles and ask them do they not care about added pollution due to greater petrol consumption and whether such expenditure on items are of value to the health of society and those who are underprivileged, and see if they do not in the end provide an explanation that is but a variation of what Sade says.

Sade also states with confidence—“‘A little more philosophy in the world would soon restore all to order and would cause magistrates and legislators to see that the crimes they condemn and punish with such rigor sometimes have a far greater degree of utility than those virtues they preach without practicing and without ever rewarding…Guilt is an illusion…’” (Sade Justine, 695).

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And indeed given the utility derived and profit gained, it is unsurprising that we condone corporations being treated as persons and thereby allow boards of directors, executives, staff and shareholders to be protected as much as possible from being taken to task for the harm their products and activities cause. Ethical behaviour and moral principles are externalities—as economics tells us—that should not be permitted to deter growth and the sustained exploitation of people and life forms. The effort and struggle involved in indicting corporate criminals and organizations that damage the environment is phenomenal, and there is always economic theory around to shelter and allow those who are a clear and present danger to us to do as they please.

Furthermore, we unfortunately do not have a system on this planet that actually or properly rewards virtue or justice. Again, anyone with any integrity will note that for the most, especially those high up the economic food chain, a response they give as to whether there be any reward for virtue in the material world tends to be a watered down re-hash of Sade. Which is why the full title of Sade’s well-known work is Justine, or Good conduct well chastised for in his world which sadly has become ours, and as economics has indoctrinated us to accept, the virtuous will be punished and only those and that which are harmful or purely sates the appetite are rewarded and said to have utility. It is a wonder why some of Sade is not part of economics courses at graduate level or at least required reading in business schools.

The great irony, of course, is that we think Sade as dysfunctional and our lives and world as normal (see end note [7]).

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[Graphic: Virgil Finlay]

D. Sade’s laissez-faire system

It must be understood that Sade gives us the ultimate form of a laissez-faire system of exchange that allows for the freedom to exploit and be exploited and if you make it to the top, cause even greater havoc and harm as an expression of egoism and utilitarian optimization; and in that case, you would have proven to be quite productive. We discover that for Sade “the man of absolute egoism can never fall upon evil days; better, that he will, without exception, be forever happy, and happy to the highest degree” (Blanchot 45). It is upon egoism and utilitarianism that the free market system is built and its proponents abide to this with religious fervour for it is apparently also meant to promote earthly happiness.

Sade is certainly no socialist in the making but instead someone with anarchist leanings. It is also important to note that his laissez-faire approach is not meant to be capitalist though it represents the culmination of that ideology: so the extremism of his views allow for unbridled sensual indulgence limited only by resources available (as in money/capital); thus, his system underwrites the extremism of free market capitalist fundamentalists. So this reading of Sade prima facie sounds right: “The ideal regime, for Sade, was a kind of reasonable anarchy…what [he] understood remarkably well was that the ideology of his time was merely the expression of an economic system and that a concrete transformation of this system would put an end to the humbug of bourgeois morality. Very few of his contemporaries developed such penetrating views in such an extreme way” (de Beauvoir 49).

However, for Sade economic forces are an expression of Nature’s balancing-rationality which creates a system of harshness and violence and so his anarchy is predicated on this rather than a political doctrine as such. But what he is genuinely against is the snide morality imposed by the elites, clergy and the institutions and structures of his time (and bourgeois attitudes thrown in) that hide the true nature of desire and dominance implicit in life. In this and much else, his influence can be discerned in Nietzsche and Freud, among many other writers and thinkers. Sade is not against violence from desire and need; he is dead against hypocrisy in any form.

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[Graphic: Leif Parsons]

Forcefully, Sade expounds on how the law with the complicity of the government works in favour of the wealthy and powerful:

‘What is the spirit of the vow taken by all a nation’s individuals? Is it not to maintain a perfect equality amongst citizens, to subject them all equally to the law protecting the possessions of all? Well, I ask you now whether that law is truly just which orders the man who has nothing to respect another who has everything? What are the elements of the social contract?…[B]y what right will he who has nothing be enchained by an agreement which protects only him who has everything? If, by your pledge, you perform an act of equity in protecting the property of the rich, do you not commit one of unfairness in requiring this pledge of the owner who owns nothing?’ (Sade Philosophy 313-4).[8]

It must be clear that Sade is not advocating social justice as such, what he is enunciating is a doctrine of natural balance that is the order of the world and the universe which perforce brings about a readjustment of things through violence. Sade’s claim is not that the wealthy or powerful should not exploit others but that it is ridiculous (and hypocritical) for them to design laws and institutions that pretend to justice. This situation eventually leads to uprisings and violence by the oppressed that are quite justified as a means of re-instituting balance.

So Sade’s envenomed point digs deep into a judicial system that favours the rich and powerful. When crimes result that are given spectacular prominence they seem to originate with the lower orders; in many instances those of us who are seemingly in contravention of the law and not connected to the wealthy and/or powerful may end up with severer court sentences than any of the exploiters of this world. We see this still in our age of failed capitalism and heightened austerity. Yet even today, his incisive take on the root causes of violence is glossed over by the assumption that the law operates fairly regarding the disadvantaged in society when instead it is more concerned in ensuring a soft approach towards the wealthy; this social bamboozling is worse in our era as it is boosted by theoretical jargon that buries justice as evinced, for instance, by the ostentation of economics.

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[Graphic: Jason Schneider]

In another sense, the Sadean laissez-faire system not only induces crime but the proliferation of crime for that is what full freedom in the most basic material sense is about. And his laissez-faire system is undergirded by his fundamental tenet of the equilibrium demanded by Nature. Yet again, Sade pointedly states:

‘…were murder not one of the human actions which best fulfilled her [Nature’s] intentions, would she permit the doing of murder? May to imitate then be to injure her? Can she be incensed to see man do to his brethren what she herself does to him every day? Since it is proven that she cannot reproduce without destructions, is it not to act in harmony with her wishes to multiply them unceasingly?…The primary and most beautiful of Nature’s qualities is motion…this motion is simply a perpetual consequence of crimes, she conserves it by means of crimes only; the person who most nearly resembles her, and therefore the most perfect being, necessarily will be the one whose most active agitation will become the cause of many crimes…’ (Sade Justine 520).

In essence, Sade’s words provide a central feature of economics where free markets which automatically reach equilibrium of their own accord are but a concept meant to allow violence as the best way to settle things. Market adjustment means the freedom to have the violence to make such changes. The perfect being as described by Sade is, of course, homo economicus: that abstracted being who is a homunculus of the economic test-tube cloned to move endlessly and productively in a manner calculated to agitate life and the well-being of the planet into a whirligig of destruction. No crime or act of viciousness is to be stopped if it boosts economic growth, unless it is an act against the class interests of those asserting their sovereignty over everyone and life forms for profit extraction, heightened status and sensory indulgence.

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[Graphic: Delphine Lebourgeois]

E. Sadean economic equilibrium

It is Sade who leads the way in conceptualizing economic equilibrium in an honest and unsettling manner that brings into relief the destructive nature of economics, for after all, if all should be representative of the violent energies of Nature, then economics is the perfect fit albeit a sanitized doctrine of calculated mayhem. Without any compunction economists will explain why their field is relevant and will manufacture reasons to justify, or explain away, situations that have led, for example, to farmers committing suicide, the consumerist pathology of civilization and the eco-destruction of the planet.

Like economists who are still energized in insisting on their relevance, Sade never tires in trying to explain and justify what Nature means in his thought and how it works through equilibrium. For instance, for everything Nature gives it subtracts—“in each individual as in the most sublime operations, the laws of equilibrium are the prime laws of the Universe, those which at the same time govern everything that happens, everything that vegetates, and everything that breathes” (Sade Eugénie 375). Nature is an all powerful force not only to be reckoned with but it is the universal demiurge that orders everything.

What need is there for divinity when Nature is a better and more acceptable substitute for as Sade says, “‘Nature…by reason of her energy, is able to create, produce, preserve, maintain, hold in equilibrium within the immense plains of space all the spheres that stand before our gaze and whose uniform march, unvarying fills us with awe and admiration…who is naught else than matter in action…Do you suppose your deific chimera will shed light upon anything?’” (Sade Philosophy 210-11).

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This is Sade’s explanation for the world. We do not need religious or otherworldly explanations for our lives and the world when all is needed is to posit Nature. And all is energy for Nature is all that is energy which animates matter into motion. Energy is creative and destructive so for us to act that way is to abide by Nature’s laws: “‘that nothing would be born, nothing would be regenerated without destructions… Destruction, hence, like creation, is one of Nature’s mandates’” (Sade Philosophy 275).

There is nothing abnormal in Nature producing equilibrium through massive destruction. For,

‘The entire species might be wiped out and the air would not be the less pure for it, nor the Star less brilliant, nor the universe’s march less exact. What idiocy it is to think that our kind is so useful to the world that he who might not labor to propagate it or he who might disturb this propagation would necessarily become a criminal! Let’s bring this blindness to a stop and may the example of more reasonable peoples serve to persuade us of our errors’ (Sade Philosophy 276).

Of course, Sade is also writing at times in a context to justify what many would perceive as sexual aberrations or other activities that may be castigated by society; and his point is that we cast judgment on such acts not only hypocritically but ignorantly through the lens of a non-existent morality. However, we are trying to show that the essence of his ideas are the kernel for economic rationality and when compared to the obsession with utility and claims toward equity (or equality) that some economists still think their field provides—the hypocrisy of economics and its practitioners (willful or otherwise) comes into focus. Like Sade, economics too posits a materialist undercurrent that sweeps away all that gets in the way of its didactic linear thought which has no room for ethics, human sanctity or spiritual values.

Precisely because there is no moral element in Sade, nor any sense of ethics or sense of fairness in economics other than impersonal laws, any perceived injustices can and are resolved through some kind of so-called natural balance (read: economic equilibrium). To Sade, robbery is fine as it is a natural way of recompense for it “‘maintains a sort of equilibrium which totally confounds the inequality of property….’” (Sade Justine 477). The difference between Sade’s attempt to be true to his thought and the hypocrisy of capitalists is that the latter are excited by theoretical justifications of extraction and robbery of the world and people for profit but will call for state law, in addition to natural or economic ones, to protect themselves and their own.

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Not being a moralist Sade has no problem with the crimes promoted through his ideas (contra the hypocrisy of many economists and capitalists), for they reflect one of his eternal verities—“‘[Nature’s] inspirations dispose us to evil, it is evil she wishes, it is evil she requires, for the sum of crimes not being complete, not sufficient to the laws of equilibrium…she demands that there be crimes to dress the scales…’” (Sade Justine 495). The point is that when evil is done through socio-economic-political practice—cleverly shrouded by and sadly emanating from whatever theoretical justifications dumped on all of us—it is time to call it as it is. The denial so many of us still live in, despite the problems of our daily pathology coming back to roost on a planetary scale, is disgraceful.

There is no need to supply us with Walrasian equilibrium or Pareto optimality when we have the harsh truth told to us bluntly by Sade with almost scientific exactitude: “‘Nature…a perpetual action and reaction, a host of vices, a host of virtues, in one word, a perfect equilibrium resulting from the equality of good and evil on earth; the equilibrium essential to the maintenance of the stars, of vegetation and, lacking which, everything would be instantly in ruins’”(Sade Justine 608).[9]

And again, the use of mathematical models in economics tries to simulate what Sade has already stated with clarity: after all, the need for balance and to have this expressed in a form that is calculable in economics could well be based on trying to emulate scientific expression of other such ideas which have also been precisely discussed through the language of mathematics with the caveat that these have been empirically verified (e.g. laws of motion, gravity etc.)—unlike economics. In Sade’s case he extends what may be seen as his scientific approach to the application of values, that is, all is but a reaching for some semblance of equality between good and evil. But he is no Manichaean.

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With Sade we have someone who honestly addresses the issue of Nature, natural balance and natural law as applied to his idea of good and evil but in the final analysis presents a balance of various kinds of evil and criminality as defined by the categories of social hypocrisy. For reality is but struggle, harshness, and the attainment of happiness through transgression rooted in sensual gratification.

In Sade, the mystery enshrouded by the pretentiousness of economics is brought into the light, darkly. Economics in its ignorance and enraptured sense of scarcity gleefully abrogates morality as a badge of honour of its scientificity. For what economics does in Sadean tradition is to use utility as an equalizer of good and evil. Once you can measure the end product of existence as mere consumer satisfaction which is apparently the alpha and omega of life, right and wrong is leavened into sensual gratification subject to enumeration and mathematical models: and so morality becomes namby-pamby stuff unlike the hardcore expression of realities through numbers and materialism.

Here is one of the central teachings of economics as Sade eloquently explains:

‘…poverty is part of the natural order; by creating men of dissimilar strength, Nature has convinced us of her desire that inequality be preserved even in those modifications our culture might bring to Nature’s laws. To relieve indigence is to violate the established order, to imperil it, it is to enter into revolt against that which Nature has decreed, it is to undermine the equilibrium that is fundamental to her sublimest arrangements; it is to strive to erect an equality very perilous to society, it is to encourage indolence and flatter drones, it is to teach the poor to rob the rich man when the latter is pleased to refuse the former alms, for it’s a dangerous habit, and gratuities encourage it.

…They complain about beggars in France: if they wish to be rid of them, the thing could soon be done; hang seven or eight thousand of ‘em and the infamous breed will vanish overnight. The Body Politic should be governed by the same rules that apply to the Body Physical. Would a man devoured by vermin allow them to feed upon him out of sympathy? In our gardens do we not uproot the parasitic plant which harms useful vegetation? Why then should one choose to act otherwise in this case?

…Religion….benevolence…humanity…are but chopping blocks of all who pretend to happiness’ (Sade Justine 689-90).

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This is one of the crucial passages in Sade and helps us gain insight into so much that is suppressed and repressed in our world and attitudes; for this is the essence of economics, capitalism and its neoliberal manifestation. The stark materialism of Sade is the vicious materialist mode that economics operates in. All the ideas of equilibrium and rationality culminate in the Matlthusian pyramid in which the bottom layer must be large enough to sustain the elites but needs a culling on a regular basis.

The purpose of economic theory is ultimately the rationalization of not only social violence but war, poverty, hunger and disease. For what it tells us is that in a world of brutal utility, excess rationality and vicious instrumentality the best way to mask and yet paradoxically explain mass murder and social death is through a system of economic concepts, mathematical models, charts, diagrams, and equilibriums. The Sadean balance of economics is showcased by a murderous equilibrium in honour of which we have a whole range of institutions and academic degrees conferred to ensure its ardent execution: scrolls in testimony to the schizophrenia of capitalism—mindlessly producing through destruction for the benefit of the few but sold as a good for the many—framed elegantly on a wall.

Indeed, any attempt to counter this by pointing out the humane, ethical and spiritual issues of existence end up on the chopping blocks of the free market and is sometimes duly celebrated by the mainstream media as success and progress.

It gets better. The underlying assumption of economics is as Sade states in remarkable honesty (my italics):

‘While the general interest of mankind drives it to corruption, he who does not wish to be corrupted with the rest will therefore be fighting against the general interest; well, what happiness can he expect who is in perpetual conflict with the interest of everyone else?…[I]n a completely corrupt society… my vices outrage the vicious only and provoke in them other vices which they use to square matters: and thus all of us are happy: the vibration becomes general : we have a multitude of conflicts and mutual injuries whereby everyone, immediately recovering what he has just lost, incessantly discovers himself in a happy position. Vice is dangerous to naught but Virtue…but when it [Virtue] shall no longer exist on earth, when its wearisome reign shall reach its end, vice thereafter outraging no one but the vicious, will cause other vices to burgeon but will cause no further damage to the virtuous’ (Sade Justine 694-5).

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This passage is important in a number of aspects that highlights the vicious cycle of self-interest amorality-immorality that is the fabric of economics and utilitarian ideas. But taking Sade’s words as they are do they not again present precisely the socio-economic-political practices of our world? At long last we have been told publicly that the Central Intelligence Agency is a hothouse of torture with a global network of prisons; its violent practices are its trademark. While Sade has been attacked for his sexual obsession it is not he but our world that has produced an international porn industry for mass consumption and a host of websites and services that make some of his writings almost blasé.

With the violence of the twentieth century, the use of tax dollars to buoy the western military-industrial-torture complex beneath our noses, and the sexual abuse by that bastion of democracy (America) of so-called enemy combatants in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: Sade’s work surely speaks for the world we have sadly created.

Indeed, energy that operates at the vibrational level of violence in Sade is symptomatic of those of us who choose to live by norms and practices of economic theory, that is, we vibrate at the lower levels of condoning exploitation and profit-maximization at all costs. Blanchot also explains the importance of energy in Sade:

Energy…is both a reserve of forces and an expenditure…both potential and kinetic, an affirmation which can only be wrought by means of negation, and it is the power which is destruction….[N]o conduct is granted any special privileges: one can choose to do whatever one likes; the important thing is that…one should be able to render coincident the maximum of destruction and the maximum of affirmation…It is not the degree of Vice or Virtue that makes people happy or unhappy, but the energy they put to use, for, in Sade’s words: ‘Happiness is proportionate to the energy of principles; no one who drifts endlessly would ever be capable of experiencing it’ (Blanchot 65).

And Blanchot correctly states this “principle of energy” in Sade is that in which the “individual today represents a certain quantum of force: generally he squanders and disperses his forces….” (Blanchot 67). This is something Bataille might agree with.[10] We have through the ages wasted and expended much energy in a Sadean cycle of materialist violence and satisfaction maximization that has been part of the squandering of global resources. Economic theory has masked not only injustice through so-called equilibrium but obfuscated through rationality arguably the largest amount of economic force qua energy expenditure: literally and socially on war, military and security matériel, and a mass media-entertainment industry that lowers the interest for serious reading and thought.

So much of this is facilitated by academic activity-literature that generates a limiting effect to actual social progress and harmony via rationalistic socio-economic thinking: this has channeled our human energies, even our spiritual energies away from the higher vibrations and side-tracked us towards a violent materialism; this keeps us enmeshed at the lower depths or entrapped in a black hole of mindless materialist accumulation that prevents us from breaking through to the higher levels of light.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

F. Economic punishment à la Sade

Sade’s insistence on the sovereign man as expressed through maximizing satisfaction and using resources solely towards that end is the basis for not just inequality and injustice but its concomitant of punishing millions. As Blanchot says “Others have risen to power, and the sign of their success is that, once having resorted to crime to acquire power, they use it to acquire the freedom to commit any crime whatsoever. Such then is Sade’s world: a few people who have reached the pinnacle, and around them an infinite, nameless dust, an anonymous mass of creatures which has neither rights nor power…the rule of absolute egoism” (Blanchot 44).

This is not only the narrative undercurrent of economics, but what so many who are indoctrinated by the education system, mass media, and socio-political structures aspire to as the ‘good life.’ Through this instrumental and materialist aspiration that fits the capitalist pyramidal structure of dominance over others, economics masks the use of capital as power. This ends-justifies-the-means ditty of economics-capitalism is exactly what is used by so-called ‘democracies’ like the US which not only condone but perpetrate extreme acts of military, political and social violence domestically and beyond.

The entire edifice of academia in promoting economics and business schools is the soft aspect of a state of perpetual punishment as epitomized by the punishing state. But this state is also a passionate practitioner of the punishing economy. Every time economists, the media, governments, banks and large businesses support the wealthy and powerful zealously and claim that the profit motive is the incentive for growth: we are fed a code which when broken translates into austerity, lack and scarcity for everyone else. A principal reason for lack is because the few control and amass wealth, consume luxury items incessantly, waste and expend so much for a Sadean fulfillment that has set the standard for a pathological normality.

This attitude of being attuned to or willing to be submitted to a ‘dominatrix’ treatment in society is then accepted by the rest of us largely due to not only indoctrination but fear of the state and security apparatus which tend to primarily protect dominant/capitalist interests. What most of us experience as lack as we struggle and compete viciously to survive is nothing but economic punishment. That so many of us see the need to slave as a necessity and derive excitement sometimes from it, and that it clearly gives pleasure to the controllers of the world to perpetrate this, shows how much Sade is the subtext of our times.

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[Graphic: Phillip Saunders]

The attempt to be unapologetically scientific and provide an instrument to maximize satisfaction without compunction clears the way for a proper expression of not only the schizophrenic tendencies of capitalism but those of economics—just as Sade’s way of thought reflects this: “His accounts have the unreality, the false precision, and the monotony of schizophrenic reveries” (de Beauvoir 37). But this is part of the greater social picture of a pathological society as Sade is

…quite right in cutting through sophisms and exposing the inconsistencies of a society that protects the very things it condemns, and which, though permitting debauchery, often pillories the debauchee….If the poor are not reduced to hopelessness, they may rebel; and the safest thing would be to exterminate all of them…His thinking is clear—either do away with the poor or do away with poverty, but do not use half-measures and thus perpetuate injustice and oppression, and above all do not pretend to be redeeming these extortions by handing out a trivial dole to those you exploit. If Sade’s heroes let some poor wretch die of hunger rather than defile themselves by an act of charity that would cost them nothing, it is because they passionately refuse any complicity with respectable people who appease their consciences so cheaply (de Beauvoir 51).

These forceful words flush out the lies of our world as corrupted by economic thinking that is happily promoted through the academy and the economic, business and political spheres. Ours is a pathology that is clinical in many ways as it shows those saturated with it as completely self-absorbed in economic constructs, models, being listed on stock exchanges, price/earnings ratios, CEO remuneration, bonuses and even severance packages: but all the while oblivious to the punishment dished out via wealth enhancement concentrated for one group. This is facilitated through economics syllabi which are partially the source of the punishing ideas spread; yet, we can locate the point of this radical punishment at the core of economic thinking: the justification of the misdistribution of resources by a rationality that rationalizes violence. This diseased thinking has become an epidemic that continues to contaminate the mind and spirit of new generations of youth (see end note [4]).

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G. Breaking free of the asylum…

In much of Sade, as in economics, we have a condition of refusing to admit to modalities that take us out of a linear form of thinking which rotates around extreme logicality. We mean the kind of thinking that blocks out the richness and complexity of the human spirit and what people in their better moments and when given the opportunity can do for themselves, others and the world. It is a mode of thought that only sees the darkest aspect of humanity to its final end. Our subservience to the ‘scientific endeavour’ called ‘economics’ which omits all that is vital or significant or positive in humans and our interaction with the world, and our insistence that this is good for us—is a form of denial of the highest order.

Would it be unrealistic to say that Sade suffered from an anosognosia of a social kind?[11] This is a psychological condition of severe denial in which not only one believes what one wants to no matter what, but is a disturbing instance of how perception shapes and creates our reality. Economists who mimic Sade in this and subliminally or otherwise share his mode of linear thought may well be termed anosognosics. Indeed, not only are economists and those who subscribe to their ideas anosognosic, but they are unable to be aware of it. This claim is based on a notion from psychologist David Dunning drawn from his study of the pathology.

Dunning informs us about the Dunning–Kruger effect:

There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem—namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.[12]

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For in order for us to know the limitations of our thought we must not only be aware of (or admit) our limitations: we need to have the knowledge that enables a self-awareness of this. If we do not have this kind of awareness or block it out or are in active denial of this, we remain ignorant and dangerously so.[13] This becomes further apparent in a recent essay by Dunning aptly called “We are all confident idiots” in which he points out (his italics):

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge….

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq)….

What education often does appear to do, however, is imbue us with confidence in the errors we retain.[14]

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This is quite an insight and economics as it is taught, preached and practised avidly in our time reflects this to near perfection. This field of study has invaded schools and institutions of higher learning and has influenced those that occupy positions of authority and power. And this alone helps partially explain (also thanks to the mainstream media being mired in this form of thinking) why the world is the way it is. One can hardly get into a discussion about economic issues or distributive justice without at some point referencing economic theory, the very thing that is the cause of the debacle, and it seems bootless for most to try and get out of this ineluctable aporia.

The adage that critical thinking is essential to education, especially higher education, sounds right but how effective can this be in the end? For even those supposedly encouraging and teaching critical thinking skills may have to fall back on failed paradigms as in using the language of economics (for instance) to try and somehow show a way out of it: to do so requires understanding not only its limitations which may be intuitive to some but also to be exposed to alternative ideas which is needed for most. At every turn even those promoting critical thought have to work their way through their own prejudice and much that hinders people from acting when their livelihood may be threatened if they push boundaries too much. Though the role of the public intellectual is crucial we are facing a socio-intellectual austerity where there is signal lack of such people; moreover, mainstream education and the media are too frightened (and ignorant) to be able to identify such people and involve them in public discussion regularly.

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And so Dunning rightly sums up:

Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs—narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these views demand fealty from other opinions. And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed…

The built-in features of our brains, and the life experiences we accumulate, do in fact fill our heads with immense knowledge; what they do not confer is insight into the dimensions of our ignorance. As such, wisdom may not involve facts and formulas so much as the ability to recognize when a limit has been reached. Stumbling through all our cognitive clutter just to recognize a true ‘I don’t know’ may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we are traveling in the right direction toward the truth.[15]

It is about time we admit to economics being a narrative of how the world may work, and yet even with its severe limitations perhaps some insight may be gleaned from it the way fairy tales sometimes make you ponder. Like many other aspects of creative storytelling we must acknowledge a narrative for what it is rather than something that is itself an immutable truth; we must be willing to put aside failed narratives (e.g. racial, national or religious superiority) to seek new ways and higher paradigms in formulating pathways to justice, fair-mindedness and compassion that go beyond the amalgam of scarcity, ignorance, prejudice and social violence as forms of existence.

Before trying to get things right, we must acknowledge what is wrong and unless we realize that we are already in the asylum we will never be able to break out of it. The challenge is how to understand that we are stuck in a world of madness of our own making, carefully instigated by the controllers of this world, before we can even start imagining a way out.[16]

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H. …and coming out of the cave

What is needed is to go beyond the three-dimensionality (3D) of linear thought and embrace multidimensionality which surpasses the limitation of Sade’s obsessions and that of economics.[17] It takes us out of the limited nature inherent to the logical extremity of thought, the slavish collar of scarcity and the inevitable violence that stems from immorality.

The balance we need is a rich one, it is one that is rounded up fully through the grace and beauty that also emanates from nature and its supportiveness of life—it is to see and focus on this rather than the destructive aspects of our existence which can help us perceive the positive aspects of regeneration instead of expecting a genuine evolution to specifically stem from devastation. It is that which can help bring about a moral equilibrium that is of importance.[18]

The upshot is that we are indeed the prisoners cocooned within Plato’s renowned cave (“Allegory of the Cave”). If we are ever able to recognize our anosognosia we may begin to allow ourselves to be guided out slowly away from shades of ignorance on the wall of our consciousness. These illusory images are cast from across the primitive fires of unbridled desire, anger, prejudice, obsession with scientificity, and a 3D- linear mode of thinking: this keeps us captive to shadows as we are similarly enthralled by that projected on television, cinema and mobile phone screens. We mistake such images as reality and/or the truth when they are so often manufactured by the manipulators of the shadows—the controllers of this world of punishment and their apparatchik.

But not all fiction or narratives are meant to deceive. As in Plato’s work language is the ineluctable though restrictive tool used to put forth his “Allegory of the cave” which in turn provides signposts meant to awaken and guide us out of our quagmire. The difficulty is in recognizing the anosognosic in us to be able to begin breaking out of the mind control that has been openly and subtly unleashed not only through educational institutions and the media, but also the socio-economic-political structures of our time.

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And so the ending of Virgil’s Georgics is instructive. For one way to interpret those challenging lines is to see how nature provides a way of healing through sacrifice:

But Cyrene stayed. Unsought she addressed him, shaken:
‘Son, you may lay down your soul’s heavy care.
Here the whole cause of sickness, for this the nymphs
with whose troupe she used to trip through ancient groves
woeful brought this woeful blight upon your bees.
Suppliant, you must extend
an offering, praying peace, and do homage to the lenient
wood nymphs,
for they will grant pardon for your orisons, and ease their
anger.
But first I will explain how you should supplicate in
sequence:
select four choice bulls, outstanding in form,
who now with your herd graze the green ridge of Lycaeus,
and as many heifers with necks unworked.
For these erect four altars at the goddesses’ high shrines,
and from their throats cascade the hallowed blood,
and leave their oxen carcasses in a leafy grove.
Later, when the night dawn flaunts her rising,
you will send Lethean poppies to Orpheus as a funeral
offering
and sacrifice a black ewe, and return to the grove.
There honour Eurydice, now appeased, with a slaughtered
calf.’

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No delay—like a shot he performs his mother’s
instructions:
to the shrines he comes, rears the altars assigned,
leads in four choice bulls, outstanding in form
and as many heifers with necks unworked.
Later, when the ninth dawn had paraded her rising,
he sends a funeral offering to Orpheus and returns to the
grove.
Here—…They spot a wonder, sudden and marvelous
to tell: in the oxens’ liquified guts and through the whole
belly, bees buzz and swarm through the split flanks
and trail in unending clouds, and now surge
to a treetop and dangle in clusters from the limber boughs.

This I sang, about the care of fields and flocks
and about trees, while Caesar the great thundered in war
beside the deep Euphrates, and conqueror dealt out
laws to ready nations and pursued his course to heaven.
I, Virgil, at that time by sweet Parthenope
nurtured, flourishing in the study of inglorious leisure,
I who toyed with shepherd songs, and bold with youth,
sang you, Tityrus, beneath a vault of spreading beech (Virgil, IV, 530-566).[19]

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[Graphic: Lalita Hamill]

However, in Virgil’s narrative we can read yet another subtext for economics. We but need only read in ‘Walrasian equilibrium,’ ‘price mechanism,’ or ‘optimality/suboptimality’ in that last section of the great poem and instead of mythical names place those of Jevon, Marshall, Walras, Pareto, Friedman, Greenspan, Bernanke or anyone among the pantheon of grandmasters from the ultima Thule of economics. We can see how sacrificing morality, humanity, justice and compassion on the altars of the sacred bull of Wall Street is what society, economics and politics are apparently about.

Economics is that ancient paganism sans the magic of myth which it substitutes with its own scientism-magicism of occult practice. In this we see the theoretical framework for constant self-destructive growth which benefits the elites at the expense of everyone else, life forms and the well-being of the planet itself.

Virgil’s final stanza powerfully but carefully states his stand in contradistinction to—but without having to directly confront—Rome’s imperialism; and rather than opt for a constant busyness of justifying economic and political expansion as an extension of a power-over-others mentality imbued with a service-to-self ideology: the poet chooses a certain type of balance, a moral one, of communing and being one with Nature. To him, Nature is that soothing balm which as that other poet says “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care;” it takes us away from the pathology of monetary obsession or blind materialism; Nature that shows us the incalculable value of being calm and centred in the spirituality of “inglorious leisure.”

Even as we remember the fascism of Italy-Germany-Japan, and endure the extreme violence of a Pax Americana, we can still learn from the man who sang to us of men and warfare. Virgil does tell us of the destructive capacity of natural forces; but it is counterbalanced by the better angels of our nature through respect, harmony and oneness with Nature, the earth and life itself.

We are bombarded and presented with different narratives and we must choose soon which one we want to develop and evolve with.

But even with the brutal description of war there is more wisdom, grace, and truth in the Aeneid, Eclogues and Georgics than all the self-justifying clever mathematical models, lustful money grubbing, and instrumental rationality that perpetrate the perpetual violence of a Sadean economics.

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References:

Bigelow, Gordon. “Let there be markets: the evangelical roots of economics,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2005.

Blanchot, Maurice. “Sade,” Justine, Philosophy in the bedroom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

_____. The infinite conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis and London, 1999.

de Beauvoir, Simone. “Must we burn Sade?” Trans. Annette Michelson. The 120 days of Sodom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

de Sade, D.A.F.. Eugénie de Franval. Justine, Philosophy in the bedroom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

_____. Justine, or Good conduct well chastised. Justine, Philosophy in the bedroom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

_____. Philosophy in the bedroom. Justine, Philosophy in the bedroom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

_____. The 120 days of Sodom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

Dunning, David. “We are all confident idiots,” Pacific Standard (Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy), 27 Oct. 2014.

Hossein-zadeh, Ismael. “Taking notes 41: Ideological foundations of neoclassical economics: class interests as ‘economic-theory’.” Philosophers for Change, 25 Nov. 2014.

Johnson, Kimberley. “Introduction.” Georgics. Trans. Kimberly Johnson. Penguin Classics: London, 2009.

Klossowski, Pierre. “Nature as destructive principle.” Trans. Joseph H. McMahon. The 120 days of Sodom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

Morris, Errol. “The anosognosics dilemma: something’s wrong but you’ll never know what it is” (in five parts), New York Times, 20 Jun. 2010.

Murdoch, Iris. “Philosophy and literature: dialogue with Iris Murdoch.” Men of Ideas: some creators of contemporary philosophy. Ed. Bryan Magee. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986.

Paulhan, Jean. “The Marquis de Sade and his accomplice,” Justine, Philosophy in the bedroom and other writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Arrow Books: London, 1991.

Savage, Luke. “New atheism, old empireJacobin Magazine, 12 Dec. 2014.

Virgil, Georgics. Trans. Kimberly Johnson. Penguin Classics: London, 2009.

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End notes:

[1] Not everyone will agree with this since these authors are obvious as to their sympathies and socio-economic leanings, and may be regarded as reflecting economic brutality without obstruction from other narrative features. Someone who needs further scrutiny in this regard is Jonathan Swift. His infamous and unforgettable tract “A modest proposal” (published in 1729) is thought to have influenced Sade.

[2] This essay is part of a series trying to give insight into the violence of economic theory; it is in preparation to providing a contradistinction between the current economic paradigm and a new morally driven one. The purpose of this is to allow for some form of philosophical underpinning to take shape for a moral economy. This process will unfold gradually. For more on this please see: “A critique of capital (1): The problem with economics,” and “A theory of economic violence.” Just as economics which some regard as a ‘social science’ is a form of narrative, it is not denied that science too is a narrative in itself, but looking into this is beyond the scope of this piece.

[3] Lest the comment that Sade is a philosopher seems facetious—we would do well to consider Iris Murdoch’s remark: “‘Philosophy is a matter of getting hold of a problem and holding on to it and being prepared to go on repeating oneself as one tries different formulations and solutions. This patient relentless ability to stay with a problem is a mark of the philosopher…” (Murdoch 232).

[4] Hossein-zadeh’s article provides a concise look at important aspects of economic theory. He mentions the example of the French students’ dissatisfaction with economics by citing Gordon Bigelow whose essay also provides insight into problems of economic theory. Bigelow states that the students (my italics) “declared that the economic theory taught in their courses was hopelessly out of touch, absorbed in its own private model of reality… The discipline of economics was illpathologically distant from the problems of real markets and real people” (Bigelow 34).

And Hossein-zadeh adds “Although most mainstream economists proudly characterize their discipline as scientific, adornment of the discipline by a façade of mathematics does not really make it scientific. In reality, the math superstructure simply masks the flawed or unreliable theoretical foundation of the discipline” (Hossein-zadeh “Ideological foundations”).

[5] As Hossein-zadeh aptly states:

…most economists do not deny the abstract and irrelevance feature or property of their discipline; but argue that the internal consistency of a theory—in the sense that the findings or conclusions of the theory follow logically from its premises or assumptions—is more important than its relevance (or irrelevance) to the real world. Nobel Laureate economist William Vickery maintains: ‘In any pure theory, all propositions are essentially tautological, in the sense that the results are implicit in the assumptions made.’

…Paul Samuelson, another Nobel Laureate in Economics, likewise writes, ‘In pointing out the consequences of a set of abstract assumptions, one need not be committed unduly as to the relation between reality and these assumptions’ (Hossein-zadeh “Ideological foundations”).

[6] For further exploration of economics as a narrative form and the fallacious use of equilibrium in economic thought, please see my “A critique of capital (1): The problem with economics.” Further expansion on the violence of economics can be found in “The economy of violence: Waste, expenditure and surplus.” And as mentioned, the use of mathematics provides an artificial closed system to economics that denies the openness and possibilities that are essential characteristics of human beings who have a willfulness and agency that defines being human.

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[7] These words from Bigelow are germane to the punishing aspect of economics that we sometimes embrace all too easily: “The Poor Law nationalized and monopolized poverty administration. It forbade cash payments to any poor citizen and mandated that his only recourse be the local workhouse. Workhouses became orphanages, insane asylums, nursing homes, public hospitals, and factories for the able-bodied. Protests over the conditions in these prison-like facilities, particularly the conditions for children, mounted throughout the 1830s” (Bigelow 36).

And:

Roughly a million people died; another million emigrated. The population of Ireland dropped by nearly one quarter in the space of a decade. It remains one of the most striking illustrations of the incapacity of markets to run themselves. When government corn supplements stopped, and food prices rose, private charities and workhouses were overwhelmed, and families starved by the sides of roads. When British leadership put its faith in the natural balance of an open market to create the best outcome, the result was disaster. Evangelicals like Trevelyan didn’t look smart and pious after the famine; they looked blind to human reality and desperately cruel. Their brand of political economy, grounded in evangelical doctrine, went into retreat and lost influence…The phrase “political economy” itself began to connote a cruel disregard for human suffering (Bigelow 37).

More recently, a CEO of a company informed me that once he was travelling first class to Europe with a top bureaucrat as his cabin mate. The bureaucrat had several staffers from economy class running about bringing papers and providing information while the person perused files possibly through most of the overnight flight. Later when they were about to clear customs, the staffers were running about trying to figure out how to manage the bureaucrat’s next flight schedule, and the person informed the CEO that it was good to see staff scurrying about doing things.

On another disturbing note, Luke Savage acutely points out in “New atheism, old empire:”

Christopher Hitchens also praised the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan as ‘pretty good, because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too.’

On the subject of jihadists, he declared: ‘It’s a sort of pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people.’ On another occasion, Hitchens stunned even sympathetic members of an audience in Madison, Wisconsin by saying of Iran, a nation of almost 80 million people: ‘As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.’

[8] Sade’s trenchant insight continues with,

‘…by the pledge to respect property the Nation has just required all the citizens to subscribe to under oath…[that] only the rich enchain the poor, the rich alone benefit from a bargain into which the poor man enters so thoughtlessly, failing to see that through this oath wrung from his good faith, he engages himself to do a thing that cannot be done with respect to himself….[O]f this barbarous inequality, do not proceed to worsen your injustice by punishing the man who has nothing for having dared to filch something from the man who has everything…Consider whether your pledge does not authorize the act, and whether he who commits it does any more than put himself in harmony with the most sacred of Nature’s movements, that of preserving one’s own existence at no matter whose expense’ (Sade Philosophy 314).

It easy to see proto-Marxian thought brewing but that is not Sade’s point which is that it is perfectly understandable that any imbalance social or otherwise be rebalanced as a natural order of things as violently as necessary.

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[Graphic: 9/11 Memorial Museum]

[9] Something that may be looked into subsequently is how Sade’s ideas of equilibrium are based on natural law in terms of being influenced by scientific ideas at the time. He was born thirteen years after Isaac Newton’s death (1727).

[10] This is expanded in my “The economy of violence: Waste, expenditure and surplus,” and “A theory of economic violence.”

[11] These ideas are developed based on a discussion of anosognosia in Errol Morris’ five-part piece in which he interviews professor of psychology David Dunning who further expands on the pathology through the concept of the Dunning–Kruger effect. For more please see Morris’ “The anosognosics dilemma: something’s wrong but you’ll never know what it is.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Towards the end of his essay Morris says:

Alas, by definition one can never be aware of one’s own anosognosia. It takes someone else to point it out, and confronted with that diagnosis, the anosognosic will deny it. Here is at least one instance where it doesn’t take one to know one. Quite the opposite. But what does this have to tell us about how the world works?

For years, I have had my own version of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In my version, God appears before Adam and Eve, and tells them that they have disobeyed Him. He admonishes them, and they will have to leave immediately. Everything will be completely grotesque, grim, ghastly and gruesome outside of Eden. God spares them no detail. Adam and Eve, both crestfallen and fearful, prepare to leave, but God, feeling perhaps a little guilty for the severity of his decision, looks at them and says, ‘Yes, things will be bad out there, but I’m giving you self-deception so you’ll never notice’ (Ibid.).

[14] Please see Dunning’s “We are all confident idiots.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] In this discussion there is no intent whatsoever to even mildly denigrate people who sadly suffer from mental illness. What is disturbing is not the fact that all of us in our own way have been subject to pathology of some form especially in our era: but that we are seriously ill in our mode of existence driven by a spiritual impoverishment that is not open to discussion as much as it should in the public sphere as it is seen as violating the so-called secular-scientific space of ‘democratic’ ideas and the blind instrumental rationality that is the dogma of so many.

[17] For more, please see end note [2] in “Making moral philosophy relevant again: the rent across the veil of ignorance.”

[18] As mentioned earlier, the problem with drawing the idea of equilibrium from natural law which in turn is a scientific abstraction, which is then turned into mathematical models and used in economics, is that it lends itself to opposing human richness, willfulness and agency. It is a straitjacket to the openness and possibilities of being human. A moral equilibrium as reflective of nature is quite different in that it expresses the balance and calm that comes from being in the flow of natural forces in its life-giving activities which guides us to doing what is right in our world and vice versa. This in turn is the driving force for a moral economy. This idea will be developed further in due course.

[19] As Kimberly Johnson states on the challenges of interpreting Virgil:

The ethical difficulties that attend acts of interpretation were as familiar to Virgil as they should be to us…If the Georgics is didactic about anything, then, perhaps it is in the hermeneutic lesson it demands its reader to learn, about the patient and fraught work of synthesis, about the challenge of locating unity without imposing unanimity. In this light, the Georgics offers its reader a striking exercise in the cultivation and control of the greedy domain of the mind. It is a poem for a time of empire.

It is a poem for our time (Johnson, xxii).

Indeed, much more can be said about this great work of Virgil’s and particularly its final lines.

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