Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

By Gordon Bigelow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Value as signification

In chapter 1 I traced central elements of Adam Smith's political economy from founding assumptions in Smith's work on the origin of languages. Smith's linear historiography, but perhaps more importantly, his conception of human agency and character, seem to have been worked out in his early conjectural history of language and then applied to the question of wealth and poverty. Because of his historiographical and psychological assumptions, the central category in Smith's political economy is the division of labor: the principle of gradually increasing abstraction and efficiency which corresponds to the generation of signs in the history of language.

In nineteenth-century political economy, and in modern economics, the cornerstone concept is no longer the division of labor, it is value. The discussion of value takes up little space in Adam Smith's work. It takes on more prominence in David Ricardo's 1817 Principles of Political Economy, but as the century goes on, the question of value becomes the subject of an epoch-making debate. The sea-change in the understanding of value that takes place between the work of Ricardo and that of Jevons, in 1871, reveals a great deal about the cultural and political orientation of economic thought in the period. The rising prominence of the theory of value indicates a movement away from Condillac and Smith's theory of history as abstraction and toward the historiographical and philosophical assumptions I have located in Rousseau. The human subject at the center of this theory shifts radically: from the fabricator of sign-technology to the naturally expressive subject of desire.

Smith considers value early on in Book One of the Wealth of Nations, but he introduces the discussion as follows: “what are the rules which men naturally observe in exchanging [goods] either for money or for one another, I shall now proceed to examine. These rules determine what may be called the relative or exchangeable value of goods.”1 The passage occurs at the end of chapter 4, after Smith has already discussed the origin and development of the division of labor, exchange, and money. Value for Smith

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