The Fable of The Bees
8 min, HD installation, Stereo, 2012
The Fable of the Bees by Jan Peter Hammer is a 8 min. long video based on the 1705 poem by Bernard Mandeville “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits.” In his poem and ancillary prose Mandeville brings into being the counter-intuitive argument that better people make the world a worse place, since so-called vices such as egoism or greed stimulate social prosperity, whilst altruism or honesty result in collective atavism and disinvestment. In spite of the harsh reception of Mandeville’s work, which gave great offense to contemporary readers, his core idea that private vices lead to an increase in public benefits was later recovered and popularized by the British Utilitarian School. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” parable is an off-shoot of Mandeville’s fable minus the cynical crudeness, with an added veneer of scientific respectability that makes the argument much more palatable and less contentious. Fables and parables are moral tales whose aim is to instruct, each of which contains a lesson to be learnt by its readers. Though 18th century’s classical political economy embraced a moralizing function, economics has since gone to great lengths to hide its ethical foundations. Claims of neutrality notwithstanding, choices of economic policy remain largely political.
In Jan Peter Hammer’s eponymous video “The Fable of the Bees” – shot in the guise of a You Tube home-made production – an eager young professional unwittingly channels Mandeville’s reasoning, providing a good illustration of the adage that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."(J.M. Keynes)