Adam Smith and Historical Pessimism

The second of two posts of  thoughts about Adam Smith’s lectures, as I work on two conference papers on the man from Kirkcaldy.

There is an element of pessimism in Adam Smith, despite the general expectation that Enlightenment thinkers are humanist optimists. While arguing against slavery, Smith suggests that it might never be eliminated from the world. It still has not been absolutely eliminated from the world, not that there is anywhere it is still legal, but a mixture of abuse of power by traditional elites in more isolated parts of the world, and the vulnerability of migrants in a world of immigration controls means there are certainly persistent pockets of effective slavery. Smith’s reasons for such pessimism seem to include an element of geographical determinism. I have come across no discussion of the element of geographical determinism in Smith, which he shares with Montesquieu and Rousseau. It is not something that he has a lot to say about, and of course though I have read quite a lot of Smith scholarship, on and off in recent years, and intensively in the last couple of years, my knowledge is not exhaustive. It may have become subsumed under discussion of the element of the primacy of agriculture within Smith. There is a tendency to think of wealth as coming from the land because that use of the land is the first form of economic activity, and that it must always have primacy within any national economy. That is maybe more of a tendency, than an explicit theory, but it has been quite widely noticed with regard to An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Getting back to slavery, the element of reduction of wealth to agriculture fits with a view of the determination of societies, and their possible development, by physical geographical conditions.

The tone of pessimism comes partly from a way of looking at the past, shared with two other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, David Hume and Adam Ferguson, and with many precedents, in which commerce and culture accompanies declining military capacities, leading to the conquest of cultured commercial peoples by savage peoples. Tough that is compensated in the world Smith knows with the hope that commerce and culture is generally winning, he does have a pessimism still poking through. Towards the end of the  Lectures on Jurisprudence, Smith reverts to a version of the savages defeating commercial cultured peoples when he refers to French invasion of the Netherlands in the early 18th century. This presumably refers to an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands (roughly what is now Belgium) in 1701, in which France undermined conditions the Dutch had imposed on trade by the Spanish Netherlands and removed Dutch fortresses within the Spanish Netherlands near the French border. Smith refers to a plan to evacuate the Netherlands and move the population to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). This is all rather bizarre and I can only think that Smith is confusing the 1701 events with the 1672 invasion of the Netherlands (as in the independent Dutch state) by France, as part of a four party coalition which also included Britain, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (in practice the lands controlled by the Austrian Habsburgs). This event was a terrible threat to the Netherlands, which lead to the murder of the Grand Pensionary of Holland (roughly speaking the de facto prime minister of the Netherland, based on control of the largest province) Jan de Witt, an event witnessed with great horror by the philosopher Spinoza. The Dutch did not attempt to move to colonies of the East Indies. The newly empowered Stadtholder (military chief of Holland and other provinces, a position always held by the Princes of Orange) organised the breach of dams flooding large parts of the country. So far from the cultured commercial Dutch giving in softly to an invasion by French brutes, desperate measures were undertaken to maintain independent national life, following brutal measures so that those who thought they could organise such resistance could assume complete power. In addition, as Smith often mentioned, France was a cultured, wealthy and complex nation at that time, if less free of onerous government than Britain.

So, at least some of the time, Smith was more melancholic in his view of history, and associated view of the possible futures of humanity, than some might assumes. I’m inclined to associate this with his view of antiquity and of the history of republics. While discussing the undoubted horror of antique slavery, he seems at times to overstate things  bit. Though he mentions an anecdote about the horror of the Emperor Augustus at the cruelty of one of the nobility with regard to his slaves, and a subsequent decision to emancipate them, Smith has nothing to say about the general improvement in the condition of slaves during the Empire, compared with the Republic. Smith does mention the miserable condition of slaves under the republic, but more to suggest that  a republic of free people may be less willing to emancipate slaves than an absolute monarch, than to create an optimistic narrative about the history of slavery. Smith is  very conscious of how republics may fail to give rights to slaves, or to free poor citizens, or the lower orders in general, though not so much it seems to me to advocate monarchy, which he does not, but to suggest that even the antique, medieval and early modern republics were limited and even counter productive in pursuit of liberty, while monarchy inclines to distortions of the nation economy through luxury, palaces, and an over burdensome state.


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