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TURGOT AND THE CONTRADICTION OF PROGRESS

 Paul Vinit

If one man can be blamed for the misconception that there exist immanent laws of social progress; that these laws lead to moral consequences without our needing to make moral choices; that to permit these laws to work freely is to ensure human perfectibility; it is Turgot. It is rare to be able to pinpoint with precise accuracy the moment at which a major intellectual error entered the human mind, but in Turgot' s case we can do so. His famous second discourse at the Sorbonne, delivered on 11th December 1750 and entitled: PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW OF THE SUCCESSIVE ADVANCES OF THE HUMAN MIND, put forward for the first time the inchoate idea of laws of social advancement and adumbrated the notion of unintended outcomes which became so important for Adam Smith and which has played such a crucial role in diminishing the sense of humankind as a species characterised by its capacity for moral choice. 

It is best to go straight to the heart of Turgot's error: if society were the product of immanent laws, society would be impossible. Human society is not simply that of other species writ large, it is of a fundamentally different kind, In so far as other species have a society, they can do nothing about it. As far as we know, rats, cockroaches, whales, eagles, snails, do not have a history, other, that is, than what is known as" natural history." The latter is, of course, governed by laws. Natural selection explains what happens to species in and through time and survival , the need to pass on your genes, explains much of animal behaviour. But if we were to ask for an explanation of, say, the history of Europe over the last thousand years, natural selection would tell us little. The theory of evolution ends where human freedom begins, and human history is the story not of necessity, not of the working of laws, but of freedom, of choice. If human history were governed by laws, then we would be unaware of it. The ability to write history is characteristically human. lt is an expression of our selfconsciousness, our self-transcendence. To conceive of history is an act of freedom. Now, it is true that we enjoy this freedom because of the structure of our brains, but the one cannot be reduced to the other. That freedom is a product of the structure of my brain does not mean that the structure and freedom are the same entity. My brain is a thing. My freedom is an idea, a value. 

Sociobiologists are keen to point similarities between human societies and those of other species. The reductionism of sociobiology persistently plays down what is characteristically human. As far as I am aware, no other species has written its history, elaborated a constitution, set up courts of law, created an education system, composed symphonies or staged dramas. Everything that marks us as human is an expression of our freedom, including the nature and history of our societies. If we accept, for example Levi-Strauss's idea that human society has its origin in the incest taboo, does this imply that there is a law which determines that all human societies are established by its implementation ? It certainly looks like it, but then, it looks as though the sun orbits the earth. The fact that the incest taboo is found in every culture of which we have knowledge and in societies separated by time and distance which preclude knowledge of or contact with one another, suggests that there is a law behind it. Human beings, we might say, do not have any choice in the matter. They are forced to implement incest taboos in order to bring something recognizably social into being, and this is the beginning of a long process of social evolution determined by laws which ensure that every society will progess in the same way, through the same inevitable stages. If you are looking for laws you will find them. If you wanted to find a law that explains why I prefer brunettes to blondes, you could get hold of something. But supposing we leave aside this a priori search for laws and look for freedom. Could it not then be true that the incest taboo is found in all human societies precisely because it is an expression, not of laws but of our freedom? Might it not be true that the incest taboo is a universal human choice? Must it be true that whatever is universal is the product of determinism? 

The power of science to uncover laws that regulate physical phenomena makes us rush towards deterministic explanations. There is security in determinism, things are as they are and what you think and feel about them makes no difference. But human life is exciting precisely because it is not like that. The incest taboo expresses human freedom in the same way as song, dance, poetry, myth, religion. It is not because it is determined that the incest taboo is universal but because it isn't. But then again it is, in the sense that our freedom is a necessity or, as the existentialists say, we are condemned to be free. The incest taboo is a universal choice because without it there would be no such thing as society. But it is still a choice. The space in which this choice is made may be minutely small, but it represents the difference between animal and human life. In exactly the same way, there is no law that determines that we must sing or write poetry. There is no mechanistic link between our biological endowment and our art. When we produce art we choose to do so. The same is true of society: it comes into being because we choose it and we can just as easily' choose to destroy it. The incest taboo is a human rule and we can transgress it. We cannot, however, transgress biological rules. Natural selection, imperceptibly slow, continues to work in human beings. The rapid change of the twentieth century was not determined, there was no law behind it. It is something we chose. 

Turgot believed in three fundamental stages of human social development: hunting, pastoral and agricultural. This is neat. All human societies must pass through these phases, though they do so at different rates due to the influence of environmental factors. Such regularity points to a law. If choice were involved, surely the progression would be different from society to society. The fact that it is so uniform suggests an absence of choice which in turn points to inevitability. Humankind has, since its inception, been on an historical conveyor-belt which shall deliver it to the perfect society. But why isn't it possible that, if all societies have indeed passed through these three stages, they have done so out of choice? Why can it not be the case that this progression is an expression not of the determined nature of human history, but of its freedom? To argue that the similarity of development from one culture to another points to determinism is like arguing that because all cultures produce art of some kind, they are forced to do so. But here we return to the absurdity that if art were necessary, in the sense that it were the product of law it would be impossible. The essential characteristic of art is that it is something we choose to create, even though there is no biological necessity for it. The same is true of religion which is a more or less universal human phenomenon. There in no need for it in order to ensure that your genes are passed on. Supposing the same were true of human society. Supposing the creation of human society is akin to writing poetry. Supposing it has nothing whatsoever to do with our biological survival and everything to do with the expression of our freedom. 

Ever since 11th December 1750 thinkers have been searching for the laws of social progress. It is a wild goose chase. No such laws exist. In creating a society we express our freedom to choose how to live with one another. That is what a society is. It is not merely a nexus of instrumental relations through which we seek to fulfil ulterior ends. It is the realization of the mutuality of human seltbood. However, lest anyone think that I am arguing that this mutuality forces us into social relations, let it be clear: we have to be aware of ourselves as mutually dependent and to choose on the basis of that awareness in order to create a society. We can choose to deny this and turn to fascism, barbarism, destruction. We can choose to destroy society. In postcommunist Russia, for example, we can speak of social breakdown. What do we mean ? That people have lost a sense of shared values on the basis of which they can live together without fear or violence. Yet if this stands as a definition of society, then for thousands of years humankind has lived in something less than the definition implies. This is so. As society is a choice so it is an ideal. The struggle to create and maintain society is always counterbalanced by a refusal of the idealism required to do so. Call it, if you like, the struggle between good and evil.

Turgot believes in no such struggle. The laws of social development dictate the stately progress from one stage to the next and society is brought into being, not by what we choose, but as a by-product of the conflict of wills. Society, Turgot believes, is an accident brought about by necessity. This is the idea, taken up by Smith, which has had such a disastrous impact on the modem world. According to this view, the establishment and continuation of capitalism is nothing to do with human moral choices. Rather, permitting the law of "laissez-faire" free play ensures that,as each seeks his own profit, the unintended result is social beneficence. If you believe that "laissez-faire" is sufficient to hold a society together, go and spend a fortnight in Moscow. 

Nobody actually believes it, which is why capitalists depend upon the power of the State to protect their interests. Turgot, when he put on his economist's hat was a free-marketeer avant la lettre. The capitalism whIch he astutely envisaged emerging in mid-eighteenth century France was the next inevitable phase on the road to perfection. Much of his economic work is a defence of the rights of those who hold power and wealth. Only when they are allowed to exercise both do the poor and disenfranchised benefit. Today' this piece of rank hypocrisy is called "trickle down" - Turgot led the way in attempting to expel human moral decisions from the sphere of economics. If social beneficence comes about unintentionally, if we turn out to be behaving well to one another when we intend the opposite, then not only is there no compulsion upon us to behave well, to struggle for common values that offend no-one's freedom, there is rather a compulsion to pursue our "self-interest". Sophists try to claim that "self-interest" can embrace many' things other than selfishness, but "self-interest" cannot build society. Society is a choice and an ideal. It must be striven for. If you strive for its opposite, society will fall apart. To believe that social cohesion will follow from the pursuit of its contrary is as foolish as believing that a poem will result from second-hand car dealing. Necessity forces us to survive. It does not force us to love one another. 

The second half of the eighteenth century in France is a good period within which to explore the notion that society' moves onwards by necessity, by law and not by human choice. It was a time of struggle which led to a revolution which remains, probably, the most important historical event of the past two hundred and fifty years. In the last years of the ancien regime one of the most fierce struggles was between peasant proprietors and possessors of seigneurial rights. Now, in all my reading about this I have never succeeded in convincing myself that the latter were not trying consciously to pursue their advantage at the cost of the former. The most important word here is "consciously." The actions of the possessors of seigneurial rights were not merely "self-interested", they were selfish. They deserve moral condemnation. They imposed burdens upon those less well-off than themselves with no purpose other than their own enrichment. Are we supposed to believe that they did this because of the operation of some hidden historical law? Are we supposed to believe that this self-complacency somehow aided social cohesion? All the evidence points to the opposite: their actions were part of the "feudal reaction" which led to the Revolution, hardly an outstanding example of social harmony. Their actions were the result of conscious choice. They knew' perfectly well what they' were doing and they knew the outcome they sought. If that outcome was scuppered by the Revolution, that was the result of a contrary set of conscious intentions and wished outcomes. Peasants and holders of seigneurial rights thought about their situations and their desires and acted accordingly. No immanent laws of history made the Revolution inevitable. It was not inevitable until people chose to bring it about. 

If human society changes by the dictate of necessity and not by choice, how can we decide that one form of society is preferable to another? If Nazi Germany was merely a phase in an inevitable progress, from what standpoint can we offer moral condemnation? People cannot be blamed for that for which they are not responsible. Once admit that it is possible to make moral judgements about society and you have lost the argument from necessity, for to make moral judgements is to imply that people have choice and can therefore be blamed for their actions. Yet perhaps it is possible to arrive at a halfway house. Perhaps we make choices within a necessity which is real but not absolute. Perhaps there are laws of societal development which are modified by our choices. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. A law is a law. Either the earth orbits the sun or it doesn't, We can't argue that there are 365 days per year but if we choose to make it 320 physics will obey. If there are laws of social development, then we are not free to choose and if we are free to choose, then there are no laws. Freedom and necessity are mutually exclusive. If I am forced to make you my friend, then friendship between us is impossible. Only if I can choose to be your friend can it work, for friendship is freedom. Such a simple example makes clear the absolute incompatibility of a view of society governed by immanent law and one founded on a belief in freedom. 

The realm of necessity is free of value. If capitalism is a product of the working of laws of necessity it is impossible either to defend it or attack it. You cannot defend or attack mortality. It is a fact. You must live and die with it. Turgot, however, defends the capitalism he is helping to create and all those who have followed him in espousing the false doctrine of "laissez-faire" as a means to social harmony and unintended outcomes as the source of social beneficence defend it too. Yet if capitalism has to be, why does it need to be defended? It requires defence only if it is a choice, in which case it doesn't have to be. Further, if there are laws of social movement, why should they have any concern for human welfare? Sooner or later the sun will mercilessly devour the earth. That is necessity. If what happens in society is driven by the same unfeeling laws, why should the process conveniently halt at that form of society which seemed best to Turgot? Why should the laws of social advance which obliterated feudalism not also obliterate capitalism? 

If we do not choose our forms of society then moral debate about them is futile. Some of those who took up Turgot's theme believed this. For Comte, science was the means to a good society and experts in social science would be in control. Yet even here we run into a logical difficulty for if social development is governed by fixed laws of necessity, what difference will experts make ? The laws will operate whether we know about them or not. The earth turned around the sun even when we believed the opposite. It is only when we effect a radical distinction between the laws which determine the physical universe and the freedom which characterises human culture that we escape from absurdity. Turgot sent humanity running down the wrong track. Society is built and changed through human action which is the result of conscious intention and choice and for this reason we can judge our societies from a moral perspective for we are responsible for them. We have chosen capitalism. Its injustices and irrationalities are not the result of the operation of abstract economic or historical laws, but of our intentions. We have made the pursuit of personal wealth our highest social aim and this does not lead to the unintended outcome of social beneficence but to the culture of narcissism, self-complacency, alienation, isolation, opportunism, cynicism, nihilism and violence with which we are so familiar.