Posted by: wmellin | November 29, 2011

The invisible hands behind The Invisible Hand

Towards the end of his chapter “The Great Exhibition of Things,” Thomas Richards relates the transformation of the commodity as bland in 1776 to the commodity as spectacle in 1851. He grounds this discussion with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “’the market price of every particular commodity is…continually gravitating towards the natural price’ (162)…Clearly Smith believes himself to be describing the workings of the commodity in essentially neutral terms” (67). Richards writes of Smith’s “Invisible Hand” – the mysterious arrival of a market at the intersection point of the downward sloping demand and upward sloping supply curves to create an equilibrium price and quantity for a given good or service.

In this chapter Richards highlights the juxtaposition between the work that goes into supplying the objects displayed at the Great Exhibition and the leisure spent enjoying said presentation. Twenty-five pages earlier he describes this dichotomy, “Though the manufactured objects displayed were often bright and new, Mayhew cannot ignore ‘the sunken eyes and other characteristics of semi-starvation’ that he sees on every face [of streetsellers]” (42). Now, street vendors were not necessarily the ones crafting the objects housed in “The Chrystal Palace,” but the conditions and treatment of factory workers in Industrial Great Britain is no secret. The workers who made the commodities that guided The Invisible Hand to the free market’s equilibrium were themselves invisible hands, intermediate labor inputs who created final, finished and polished objects yet were unseen in the goods’ ultimate display.

The Invisible Hand is a fascinating metonymical phrase because it captures the labor involved in a free market yet simultaneously negates its presence in the final stage, or the acting out of what constitutes the market: buying and selling.


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