The Old Adam, After All

A review of The Other Adam Smith by Mike Hill and Warren Montag (Stanford University Press 2014)

This review first appeared in Historical Materialism 26. 3 (2018)


A book promises The Other Adam Smith, and the title is already something of a puzzle. Scholars writing about much read philosophers have, after all, a few established ways of declaring their revisionism. If the line you are taking is programmatically modernist and decontextualizing and perhaps even contraindicated, you can signal this by saying you have made your philosopher “new”: the new Nietzsche, the new Hume, Montag’s own New Spinoza, published in 1997. If, conversely, you are resolved to scrape away decades worth of interpretive accretions and polemical anachronisms—if you have just about had it, I mean, with the neo-Kantians and not-really-quite Marxists—you can choose from a few different options: X in Context, What X Really Said, The Authentic X, as in The Authentic Adam Smith, published by James Buchan in 2006. By these standards, a book calling itself The Other X can seem hard to parse, lackadaisical and itemizing. The adjective announces a lateral move, a secret life, maybe another person altogether. A Harley Davidson dealer in Texas? A cryptographer at Penn State?  An ecologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden? You know—the other Adam Smith.

So who exactly do Hill and Montag mean to put before us? Have they written a New Perspectives on Adam Smith? An Adam Smith Reloaded? Or have they given us Adam Smith in the Eighteenth Century? Other to what?, in other words. Part of the problem is that it is no longer clear what counts as Smith’s received image. I announce the other Adam Smith, but no-one can be sure with what settled perceptions this double is being asked to share the room. Outside the academy, Smith is still widely regarded as the preeminent theorist of an austere and deregulated capitalism, the house philosopher of the IMF, Ayn Rand’s Scottish uncle. But this is precisely the view that the last forty years of Smith scholarship have been out to defeat. A person gains entry into contemporary Smith studies by offering to identify one more way in which he disagreed with Friedrich Hayek. You can begin by pointing out that Smith propounded a moral psychology of considerable scope and complexity, discerning in social actors a wide variety of motivations, ethically charged feelings, and modes of judgment. Rational utility-maximizers barely feature. You might go on to point out that when Smith defends deregulated markets, he typically does so on the grounds that they will help the poor, generating plenty and higher wages and the equitable allotment of scarce goods. The anti-capitalists might scoff that Smith has been wrong about this, but the modest point remains that his framework of justification for that error is more or less Rawlsian—that Smith is not the Malthusian or social Darwinist we have been led to expect. Next, a person goes on to read The Wealth of Nations and is surprised to discover how hostile it is to merchants and manufacturers; far from modeling the bourgeois takeover of the state, Smith’s most famous work issues an unmistakable call to roll back the power of the commercial classes. That there were identifiable Left Smithians by the time of the philosopher’s death in 1790 is now well established—proven critics of the eighteenth-century state who greeted Smith as a brother radical, an anatomist of corruption and aristocratic privilege and colonial misrule. Nor were these last some negligible eddy in the crosscurrents of Georgian politics. There were Smithians in the French revolutionary assembly for one, deregulators who considered free markets wholly compatible with famine relief and social insurance schemes, best understood in this context as innovative proposals for protecting artisans, farmers, and workers without falling back on late-feudal modes of market manipulation. One occasionally still runs into radical Smithians of this vintage. As recently as 2007, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing was making the case that it was wrong to think of Smith as the theorist of “capitalism,” which a Scot who died before 1800 could not have had access to (either as concept or mature social formation). Nonsense, you think, except if you’re the kind of person who insists that Marx was not a Stalinist, nor even much of a Bolshevik, you might want to grant the point. Reading Smith alongside Marx should teach us, indeed, to tell the difference between “capitalism” and “commercial society,” on the understanding that the latter is not the utopian misdescription of the former, but a historical rival in its own right, no less than the socialism whose vacated place it might now assume. Adam Smith should help us discern the underconsidered possibility of a market society without colonization or rule-by-investment-bankers or the de-skilling and devaluation of labor. Such, at least, was Arrighi’s pitch. Among intellectual historians, regular reminders that Marx had a lot to say in defense of capitalism are now matched by explanations that Smith had a lot to say against it.

It is this Adam Smith that Hill and Montag’s book is out to sideline—the Left-libertarian Smith, the social-democratic Smith, the anti-capitalist Smith. It will be hard for readers to appreciate what the authors are up to, then, unless they are willing to correct what is most misleading in the volume’s prefatory material—that word “other,” for a start, since the book’s chief aim is in fact to vindicate the textbook image of Smith as the ideologue of market society. The Other Adam Smith summons the philosopher back from Beijing and relocates him instead in the accustomed precincts of Vienna and Chicago. This Smith is the pensioned intellectual willing to let the poor starve, a philosopher at one with von Mises, himself discussed at length in Hill and Montag’s Chapter 4 (312 – 41); an ontological individualist who thinks the most pressing purpose of government is to protect the market from the intemperate demands of the starving; the originator, therefore, of a now dominant politics of abandonment. Hill and Montag’s alterna-Smith is the old Adam, after all.

But then the words “Adam Smith” are hardly less misleading than the word “other” and will need correcting in their own right, since Hill and Montag are interested in Smith only intermittently and mostly as the member of a movement or a scene. The authors boast early on that they have consulted all of Smith, and not just the two big books on which his reputation rests, and indeed, one important part of their case is that nothing you can read of Smith will adjust your accustomed sense of him as the arch-bourgeois philosopher: not the lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence, not the early essay on Newtonianism, certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hill and Montag might return the reader to an orthodox understanding of Smith, but their trick is to reach that point by less familiar routes. There’s no reason to believe them, then, when they promise not to impose an artificial coherence on Smith’s corpus, offering contrariwise to identify those passages where his writing is most multiple and unsettled. They pay tribute, it’s true, to the philosopher’s “complexity and contradiction” (3), and yet their Smith is fully of a piece, as witness this typical sentence: “The virtues of self-command so important in The Theory of Moral Sentiments ground Smith’s condemnation of prodigality in The Wealth of Nations” (235). And that underlying boast (to have read the complete Smith) is in its own way rather timid, since Hill and Montag have read much else besides: Henry Home, David Hume, University of Edinburgh principal William Robertson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding. The book contains extensive commentary on each, its implicit claim being that the continuity that runs across Smith’s un-varied writings extends to these several figures, as well. Smith, Hume, and the others all speak in one voice or are engaged in the same project, albeit a many-sided one—the project of “moderate Enlightenment,” premised on the love of harmony, order, and consensus, backed by repression, discipline, and “liberal indifference,” content to “pacify particularity” and build safeguards against “disruption” (75, 54, 63).

Adam Smith stands accused, in other words, of loving system too much, which is the charge automatically leveled by critical theory against any eighteenth-century philosopher. Such, indeed, might be the small innovation of Hill and Montag’s book—that rather than making Smith the apologist of liberal capitalism, they cast him instead as just another enlightener and thus trade in the perhaps overfamiliar Marxist positions on The Wealth of Nations for the stances of a barely less familiar Enlightenment critique. Sometimes the shift from one theoretical vantage to the other is rhetorical, an ornamental swapping of idioms, as when Hill and Montag propose that Smith’s economic writings, like those of his twentieth-century followers, are haunted by a certain human type, a new, quasi-legal category of person they name le malheureux, and whom they define as “the one, the many, who may, with impunity and without consequences, be exposed to starvation and allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market” (307). This Unfortunate Man is plainly a cousin to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer and is to that extent the translation of some old Marxist claims into the language of biopolitics. One can credit the elegance of the repackaging and still note that the substance of the underlying argument hasn’t much changed. The point remains that laisser faire mostly means “let ‘em die” and that Smith was the sort of philosopher who dismissed persistent malnutrition as an “inconvenience” to the hungry (302).

And yet Hill and Montag do have a case to make, as their low-key reliance on the dialectic of Enlightenment manages to flush out some under-remarked aspects of Smith’s output. Most readers, for instance, wouldn’t think to consult Smith on the topic of aesthetics, even though he had a lot to say on the subject, or at least on the subject of sublimity, whose escalations and upsurges were central to eighteenth-century conceptions of the field. As surprising as Smith’s aestheticism is, though, even more surprising is its popping up in an essay called the “History of Astronomy.” A philosophy of art intrudes itself upon the domain of science—is that what anyone associates with Adam Smith? But it’s true: When you read his reflections on Newtonianism, you will find that Smith was not interested in physics qua physics. He was interested, rather, in how the mind responds to “surprise” and “wonder”—and, indeed, in the defense mechanisms the mind possesses to cope with these latter, which Smith urges the reader to treat as threats. Smith is emphatic that we confront astonishment as a menace. Granted, this argument won’t make much of sense until one realizes that Smith’s philosophical skepticism goes much deeper than casual readers ever suspect. In the astronomy essay, he says openly that “all philosophical systems” are “mere inventions of the imagination to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature.” It is when philosophy fails us that we briefly encounter the authentically disorganized world. Sometimes we perceive a traumatic gap in the cosmos or are made to contemplate a glitch in our experiential timelines. “Surprise” and “wonder” are the anodyne names we give to these small shocks, and philosophical explanation, some more or less contrived argument to order, is how we cope. Wonder unmitigated, by contrast, can easily kill us or drive us mad. This last is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Smith’s essay—that it is making the case against sublimity. Prolonged exposure to novelty and the unexplained will destroy us, and it is the task of thought—in this case, of astronomy—to “invent connections” where none are evident. Philosophical system is the shock-absorbing fiction of balance and pattern.

It is this argument that Hill and Smith have seized upon as the key to decoding Smith in toto. Their book’s most ingenious stroke is simply to take Smith’s word on this front and so to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as producing not systems, but fantasy systems—make-believe non-structures whose unreality has been conceded to the attentive reader in advance. Three arguments follow on from here, and together these make for a nifty refinement of Enlightenment critique in its Adornian and Foucauldian modes:

  • If Smith holds that intellectual systems are inventions, then the critique of system widely regarded as the central plank of Counter-Enlightenment thought has to some degree been anticipated by Enlightenment philosophy itself. Smith is no doubt promoting system, and yet he doesn’t in any ordinary sense of the word believe in it. This is bound to be a problem for the skeptics and anti-systematizers, who will never get much leverage over Smith by insisting that system is a permanent intellectual lure, the mind’s built-in tendency towards metaphysical overreach, its preference for order, even when deceptive, over the world’s inevitable mess and shifting difficulty, for the simple reason that the philosopher has already granted the point. More important, the status of system in Smith’s most famous writings will henceforth be in doubt. Do the ethical sensibilities of my fellows and me really merge in equilibrium and consensus, as described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or are these, too, nothing more than fabricated connections? And what of capitalism’s “system of perfect liberty”? That’s Smith’s own lustering gloss on the free market, but by the time he wrote that sentence, he had already committed to the idea that “system” was a (salutary) “invention of the imagination.” So when Smith speaks of the system of perfect liberty, don’t we have to bracket the word “system”? Does Smith himself take deregulated markets to be make-believe?
  • Hill and Montag are also eager to catalogue the many terms that Smith’s commitment to imaginary system compels him to repress. The list is rather extensive: tumult, “corporeal labor,” sedition, writing, “the noise of numbers,” “material infinity,” and the multitude (104, 147, 87). What we won’t want to miss is the binary, zero-and-one character of this operation. The authors argue that there are only two positions in Smith, System and Anti-System, at which point that entire incommensurate list (tumult &c.) gets shunted into the second slot.
  • There is a name from the philosophy of history that gets to stand in for these many anti-systemic others: Spinoza. Hill and Montag’s final complaint against Adam Smith is that he was neither a materialist nor a monist—or worse, that his addiction to fake system could only bury the period’s Spinozist wisdom. One good way to read The Other Adam Smith, then, is as forcing Spinozism into a showdown with some of its eighteenth-century rivals. For us, meanwhile, it presents an opportunity to reckon with Left Spinozism in its early twenty-first century guise, to measure it against its current rivals, and in the process to consider how illuminating it is to project back into the late Enlightenment a neo-vitalist philosopheme like “the multitude.”

Much of Hill and Montag’s accomplishment on this front is appealingly odd. You can figure out whether you should read The Other Adam Smith by asking yourself right now whether you’re willing to entertain a fondly Deleuzian apology for eighteenth-century Jacobitism, the movement, if that’s what it was, to restore the exiled House of Stuart to the throne by overthrowing some sitting George or another. According to Hill and Montag, Jacobitism involved “a complex intra-dependency among multiple political players, … ‘mixed multitudes,’ who [were] not subject to traditional ideological borders” (212). Where a more conventional political historian might labor to work out why some regions went Jacobite and others didn’t, to separate out the multiple constituencies in the loose Jacobite coalition, to identify who had the authority to mobilize others into rebellion even when these latter were not committed anti-Hanoverians, to reconstruct what the Jacobites said they wanted and how they might have remade Britain had they prevailed, Hill and Montag content themselves with the claim that the Stuart party were a rhizome, the Young Pretender a sprouting potato eye.

The Jacobites were a multitudinous and borderless mixture. Even readers able to appreciate the larky quality of that claim are likely to be put off by the Manichean grind of the authors’ broader case. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, they tell us over and over again, were “divided into two opposing camps” (240). In this corner, Spinoza, novels, rioters, and the body’s barely processed stimuli. In that corner, Scotland’s urban gentry, philosophy, stadial history, and doctrines of Providence. The problem is this: Hill and Montag do not hide their distaste when summarizing Adam Smith’s account of concept formation, which holds that the mind has an innate talent for producing genera—a knack, that is, for making categories. No-one particularly needs an education on this front; the mind is the Great Sorter. Hill and Montag’s eye-rolling over this argument is one of the more obvious ways that they perpetuate an older line of Enlightenment critique. Adam Smith, they want us to know, was yet another of schematism’s dupes. But the book they have written is itself one big sorting mechanism. Their writing, it’s true, is aswarm with hard-to-follow detail, and yet all this shimmering data eventually gets subjected to an A-B coding. One balks a bit at being conscripted into this antithesis, and especially at being asked to watch as Spinoza puts a beatdown on Adam Smith. Can Spinozists consistently frame their Spinozism in these terms? Hill and Montag never ask us to think of Spinozism and the Scottish Enlightenment as eighteenth-century assemblages in their own right, complexly living ensembles capable of recombining unpredictably with other such ensembles, including, one presumes, with each other. If Hill and Montag are right, “Spinoza” and “Smith” are names for mere positions, between which the reader is expected to choose. Spinoza was right, Adam Smith rather a dummy. The Spinozism that Hill and Montag endorse as a matter of doctrine is thereby abandoned as a matter of method. Around its Spinozism, The Other Adam Smith generates a series of increasingly expansive abstractions, all of which name the multitude without having to tally its number—“popular contention,” “the mixed and the multiple,” “life”—just so many brisk flattenings of profusion. “Popular contention” is a formal category that asks us to disregard the politics of any particular movement or event, indiscriminately encompassing the Porteous Riots, the Gordon Riots, the Wilkes Riots, the ’45, “the vulgar, Jacobites, Puritans, republicans, savages and barbarians, alike” (155). “Life,” meanwhile, is Spinozism’s only agent, hence the secret subject of Hill and Montag’s every sentence: “That which resists … is perhaps nothing other than life itself” (342). Artisans and factory workers don’t (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances) resist. Peasants don’t resist (sometimes, under specifiable circumstances). Women don’t resist (sometimes, &c). The colonized don’t resist. Only life resists, and these others are at most its avatars and transient objectifications. “Network” is the word favored by those who don’t have patience enough to plot the points.



Buchan, James 2008, The Authentic Adam Smith, New York: Norton.

Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted (eds.) 1997, The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rothschild, Emma 2002, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Stedman Jones, Gareth, An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Smith, Adam 1980 [1795], “The History of Astronomy”, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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