Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy

Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy

by Richard Halpern


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According to traditional accounts, the history of tragedy is itself tragic: following a miraculous birth in fifth-century Athens and a brilliant resurgence in the early modern period, tragic drama then falls into a marked decline. While disputing the notion that tragedy has died, this wide-ranging study argues that it faces an unprecedented challenge in modern times from an unexpected quarter: political economy.

Since Aristotle, tragedy has been seen as uniquely exhibiting the importance of action for human happiness. Beginning with Adam Smith, however, political economy has claimed that the source of happiness is primarily production. Eclipse of Action examines the tense relations between action and production, doing and making, in playwrights from Aeschylus, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton to Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Sarah Kane. Richard Halpern places these figures in conversation with works by Aristotle, Smith, Hegel, Marx, Hannah Arendt, Georges Bataille, and others in order to trace the long history of the ways in which economic thought and tragic drama interact.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226433653
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/13/2017
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Halpern is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Literature at New York University. He is the author of several books, including Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Eclipse of Action

Tragedy and Political Economy

By Richard Halpern

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-43379-0


"Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand"

Tragedy and Political Economy

"A public mourning raises the price of black cloth." Adam Smith was so fond of this sentence that he used it twice within seventy pages of The Wealth of Nations. I want to employ it as an inroad into the thesis that the publication of Smith's great work on political economy was a significant event for the history of tragic drama. If the law of unintended consequences is the principal doctrine of The Wealth of Nations, this might well be the most unintended and unanticipated consequence of all. Smith repeatedly invokes tragedy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments but has nothing to say about it directly in The Wealth of Nations. It is in the latter and later work, nevertheless, that Smith poses a fundamental problem for tragic drama by upending the classical conceptions of action that underwrote it.

"A public mourning raises the price of black cloth." Smith is discussing the question of how market prices — the amount actually paid for commodities — fluctuate above and below their "natural" prices as a result of shifting relations between supply and demand. A public mourning temporarily increases the market for black cloth and thereby its price. The example does not seem to be chosen at random. A tragic event of some kind has occurred, and of a magnitude that engulfs not just an individual or a family but the public as a whole. Quite possibly the death of a monarch or a great military leader — the quintessential occurrence of tragic drama. Indeed, classical tragedy can be understood as ritualized acts of public mourning. Yet the economic effect of this cataclysm is but a momentary blip in the price of a rather minor commodity. In the passage from the political sphere to the economic, the reverberations of public death have been both drastically reduced in magnitude and recoded into something purely numerical and thus without qualitative or affective resonance of any kind. Human significance is dipped into a strange bath that petrifies it and hollows it out. Whatever terrible thing happened, it is "outside" the marketplace, which registers only the relative prices of commodities and not their external causes. The death of a beloved public figure is thus indistinguishable from a bumper crop of cabbage or an unexpected shortage of candle wicks.

That Smith repeats the statement suggests he was proud of it. Yet while his formulation has a kind of aphoristic compactness, it lacks aphoristic wit. There is no striking rhetorical turn to underline the shocking disparity of magnitudes that the sentence yokes by violence together. In its place is a flat neutrality that may be even more effective than rhetorical footwork in emphasizing the contrasts at work here. Through its deadpan tone, the sentence seems to be speaking not only of but also from the place of a market that is entirely unperturbed by events of tragic amplitude. It is as if the impartial spectator of The Theory of Moral Sentiments had been mortified into an insensible spectator, unmoved not only by public mourning but also by its disturbing conversion into minor price fluctuations. This is a rather naughty sentence after all, and Smith seems to enjoy the ethical fillip it delivers to the reader.

I am by no means claiming that The Wealth of Nations as a whole, or the voice that Smith adopts within it, is consistently or even predominantly amoral. But in this one sentence, Smith memorably demonstrates that the market as such is buffered from human concerns, knowing nothing of mortality or loss in its abstract adjustments of pure quantities. By producing in the reader a slight frisson, however, the sentence reminds us that we are on the outside of this tragedy-free zone looking in. What we witness from without is the thoroughness with which economy neutralizes the tragic.

A not dissimilar process surrounds Smith's concept of the "invisible hand." The most obvious possible source for the phrase itself is Macbeth 3.2.49–53:

Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale!

Macbeth invokes night's invisible hand not merely as something that is itself unseen but as something that blots out ethical vision in general, thus transferring its own invisibility to the human bond that ties him to Banquo. It thereby enables Macbeth to act "blindly" and without respect to the interests of Banquo as other. Not just a coincidence of phrasing, then, but the conceptual context that the passage generates would seem to confirm Shakespeare's status as inspiration for Smith's most famous term, and yet modern commentators can hardly be blamed for not making much of this fact. And that is because Smith's concept of the invisible hand manages to neutralize its tragic origins almost completely. This fact is all the stranger because the invisible hand is essentially a machine for producing irony, systematically inverting the intentions of economic agents and thus potentially resembling tragic Fate. Mercantilist efforts to intervene in the market through tariffs, regulations, or monopoly inevitably produce results both harmful and the exact opposite of those intended. For example: "Even the regulations by which each nation endeavors to secure to itself the exclusive trade of its own colonies, are frequently more hurtful to the countries in favor of which they are established. The unjust oppression of the industry of other countries falls back, if I may say so, upon the heads of the oppressors, and crushes their industry more than it does that of those other countries" (Wealth of Nations, 679). Reversals of this sort pepper The Wealth of Nations. I select this instance from among many simply because Smith's critical language rises to an unusual level of violence. An attentive reader can be forgiven for hearing echoes of Milton's Samson Agonistes and the collapse of the Philistine temple on the heads of Samson's captors. Yet the consequences of the policies Smith critiques here, while certainly unfortunate, fall far short of tragedy. And they do so because the more pervasive effect of the invisible hand, which is to turn the blind actions of self-interested agents into shared economic prosperity, invests the market with a resilient vitality that ultimately trumps misguided efforts to subject it to intentional manipulation. The invisible hand is not the agent of tragic irony but rather of something that looks more like comic (or more properly, Stoic) Providence. Not only does Smith's market tend not to produce tragic outcomes, it also tends to buffer the populace as a whole from even the most ill-considered stratagems of statesmen and mercantile interests. If we don't hear Macbeth when we say "invisible hand," that is because Smith's invisible hand itself is not merely nontragic but profoundly antitragic in its workings. The Smithian market tends inexorably in the direction of increasing happiness. While this happiness is not yet evenly distributed and while its progress can be delayed through misguided policies, Smith insists, that progress cannot ultimately be derailed. But what kind of happiness is this?


The Wealth of Nations is a book concerned with "the public happiness" (447). Smith borrows this term from the theorists of police, that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century "science" of government that sought to provide for both the material and moral well-being of national populations. If Smith's use of it retains a moral dimension (and I would argue that it does), this remains largely implicit. For Smith, "public happiness" refers more explicitly to "subsistence, conveniences, and amusements" (311), those material means by which a people are enabled to live, and to live comfortably. For Smith, moreover, this form of happiness depends not only on an accumulation of material goods but also on the "flourishing" (374) condition of the economy — a dynamism that leads in the direction of increased production and prosperity.

One way to understand "the public happiness" is as the form of happiness that pertains to populations rather than persons. In this sense, material happiness is the only pertinent kind, since moral happiness as Smith understood it is experienced only by the individual. Nevertheless, Smith does not conceive material happiness as extravagant wealth. Vivienne Brown observes: "Although WN welcomes the better living standards made possible for the poor by rising annual revenue, it shows little sympathy for consumerism and a clear disdain for the new consumer goods such as 'trinkets and baubles' (WN V.i.b.7) and the 'diamond buckles' (WN III.iv.10) that provide consumption expenditure for the rich landlords." Smith's paradigmatic figure for the commercial economy is not the dashing merchant adventurer who hazards all in pursuit of fabulous riches, but rather the frugal, industrious, and parsimonious laborer who exhibits "the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition" (Wealth of Nations, 373). Public happiness is a flourishing material condition that follows upon the incremental improvements made available by a commercial society.

I have been dwelling on the question of happiness in Smith because one's conception of happiness and of how to achieve it has an obvious bearing on one's conception of unhappiness, including those disastrous forms of unhappiness known as the tragic. Indeed, the phrase "public happiness" is the counterpart to the phrase "public mourning," with which I began. Adam Ferguson asked: "in what sense can a public enjoy any good, if its members, considered apart, be unhappy?" This formulation suggests that private and public versions of happiness are inseparable; indeed, the second is merely the sum of the first. Yet there are readings of Smith that understand public happiness as not only consistent with, but in some sense as predicated on, individual unhappiness. This would be a significant, perhaps tragic, irony endemic to public happiness from the start. My concern in what follows, however, will not primarily be the relation between public and individual happiness, but rather the new concept of action entailed by a novel understanding of happiness as something experienced by populations or nations. What must be done to foster public happiness, and by whom?

For the theorists of police from whom Smith borrows the term, public happiness is ensured by the wise governing actions of the sovereign or state. Smith's great innovation is to argue that public happiness results not from action, and certainly not from sovereign action, but from production. Making, not doing, generates the revenues that support national wealth. Smith thereby both implicitly invokes and radically revises the classic philosophical distinction between praxis and poiesis. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that happiness not merely results from but simply is action: "activity of soul in accordance with excellence" (1098a 16–17). Aristotle's understanding of happiness makes it definitionally inaccessible by way of production, while Smith's understanding of public happiness makes it inaccessible by way of action as understood in an ethico-political sense. The attainment of public happiness rests on productivity, not active virtue. Indeed, any attempt to act virtuously in the context of the market generally produces harmful, unintended consequences. "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good" (Wealth of Nations, 485).

Aristotle places making or poiesis on a lower rung than doing or praxis because the activity of making always aims at an end other than itself — the useful, made thing — while an excellent action is performed for its own sake (Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a1–1140b10). Action is autotelic while production is subordinated to external purposes. Yet the fact that Aristotle is so careful to distinguish production from action at all bespeaks the similarities that otherwise bind them. Both are practical activities that can be done well or badly and hence are subject to judgment. Both improve as the result of practice. And both are temporally bounded in a way that grants them narrative closure. Making a shoe, like performing a courageous or generous action, is something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

For Aristotle, the thing that brings the distinct categories of making and doing into the most intimate propinquity is poetry. Tragic drama, in his famous definition, is a poiesis or making that imitates a praxis or action (119b24). Yet the tensions inherent to this formula should give us pause. Neither common sense nor Aristotle's definitions make it at all obvious how a making can imitate a doing. How can something that serves another end imitate something done for its own sake? If the two can be brought into a tense relation, surely this relies in part on their temporal resemblance.

But Smith disarticulates precisely the narrative coherence of Aristotelian poiesis, which takes artisanal acts of making as its model. On the one hand, artisanal production is internally broken down by the division of labor, such that a worker no longer makes a finished shoe or nail, but only performs a component procedure that does not by itself directly result in a made thing. In addition, and more importantly, production is not governed by the temporal or utilitarian finality of the made object. Smith's emblematic pin-making factory churns out 48,000 pins a day, every day (Wealth of Nations, 5). While Aristotelian poiesis always has its end in the finished, useful object it crafts (though that end is merely a means), Smithian production is an endless, ongoing process. It thus loses the narrative and temporal structure that allowed Aristotelian poiesis at least to be discussed together with praxis. In the Poetics, Aristotle insists that the action imitated by a tragic play must be "complete" (Poetics, 1449b25). But in the realm of Smithian production, not only has doing given way to making, but any notion of narrative completeness has also disappeared.

If the realm of the economic is immune to tragedy, we now see that this has to do with more than an absence of mournful affect. In addition, the achievement of happiness has been divorced from action, while the productive activity that takes action's place lacks its narrative coherence. I want now to look more closely at Smith's concept of productive labor, and particularly at his chapter "Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor." A good deal turns on the title's "or," as we shall see.

In that chapter Smith states: "There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer [Smith means a factory worker] adds, generally, to the value of the materials he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master's profit. The labour of a menial servant, to the contrary adds to the value of nothing" (360). Here Smith expounds not the famous labor theory of value but rather its usually silent counterpart: the value theory of labor. In other words, he claims that, among the great variety of human activities, the one that counts as true, that is, productive labor, is that which creates value. What makes labor productive is not primarily the creation of a thing but rather the transfer of value to that thing, which then serves as a kind of battery in which the labor expended in making it can be stored: "But the labour of the manufacturer fixes and realizes itself in some particular subject or vendible commodity, which lasts for some time at least after that labour is past. It is, as it were, a certain commodity of labour stacked and stored up to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion. ... The labour of the menial servant, on the contrary, does not fix or realize itself in any particular subject or vendible commodity. His services generally perish in the very instant of their performance, and very seldom leave any trace or value behind them, for which an equal quantity or service could afterward be procured" (360–61). If your menial servant adjusts your tie, or cooks your dinner, or cleans your room, that effort imprints itself on nothing and so vanishes at the moment of its expenditure, while the labor of the factory worker fixes itself in a material substrate. It can then be both preserved and, thereby, accumulated — hence the crucial "or" in the chapter's title. Productive labor makes possible the accumulation of wealth or capital, while unproductive labor fritters it away. Therefore, productive labor, and only productive labor, contributes to the public happiness at which Smith aims.


Excerpted from Eclipse of Action by Richard Halpern. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One    “Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand”: Tragedy and Political Economy
Chapter Two   Greek Tragedy and the Raptor Economy: The Oresteia
Chapter Three Marlowe’s Theater of Night: Doctor Faustus and Capital
Chapter Four   Hamlet and the Work of Death
Chapter Five   The Same Old Grind: Milton’s Samson as Subtragic Hero
Chapter Six     Hegel, Marx, and the Novelization of Tragedy
Chapter Seven Beckett’s Tragic Pantry
Postscript        After Beckett

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