‘The very word “Christianity” is a misunderstanding – at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross’ (The Anti-Christ, 39, in Nietzsche, 1888: 151)

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that a shift occurred in Greek culture and thought from a tension between what he called the Dionysian and the Apollonian to one between the Dionysian and the Socratic. According to Nietzsche, the world of early humanity was made visible and present through eternal illumination (the Apollonian) and a perpetual re-absorption into the primordial undifferentiated flow of life (the Dionysian). Theses drives, said Nietzsche, were expressed through early Greek art, especially tragedy. However, ‘Dionysus [was] hounded from the stage by a daemonic power that spoke through Euripides. Euripides [was] merely a mask: the deity that spoke through him was not Dionysus, nor yet Apollo, but a new-born daemon bearing the name of Socrates. That was the new opposition: the Dionysiac and the Socratic, and that conflict was to be the downfall of Greek tragedy’ (Nietzsche, 1871: 12).

The famous aphorism, quoted above, that there has only ever been one Christian, is an assertion that, just as the Dionysian-Apollonian opposition degraded to one between Dionysus and Socrates in Greece, the energy for social change inspired by revolutionary thought is often lost by the generations that follow, as disciples inevitably reduce that inspiration – be it ethical, artistic, self-overcoming – into a canonical system of ‘oughts’, from creative new discipline to restrictive dogma. It is perhaps Nietzsche’s pithiest attack on what he called slave morality, the herd morality of religion and civilisation which had come to dominate over the noble spirit of early humanity, where pre-Socratic warrior-artists were guided by their instincts and expressed a truth of passion which was both authentic and creative.

This paper argues that Nietzsche’s new opposition, between the Dionysian and the Socratic, or what Nietzsche called the ‘pretentious lie of civilization’ (Nietzsche, 1872: 41), is also at work in modern economics, and explores this new opposition in Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis (2003). The revolution in economics that accompanied the publication of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), which recast economics as a multi-disciplinary theory and envisioned an egalitarian future of global equity, was soon degraded into market fundamentalism. Smith’s economics emerged from his moral theory, and recognised that economic growth must be one pattern in a system that includes equity and social responsibility. But after two hundred years of neoclassical economics, the guiding moral principle of Smith’s work – defended by Karl Marx in the 19th Century – has largely been lost. Market fundamentalism, with its epistemological roots in an arborescent structure that includes Socrates, Descartes, Kant and Mill, is now prevalent in First-World economies.

DeLillo’s Cosmopolis

Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2003) represents the very tensions I have outlined above. Manhattan becomes the stage from which Dionysus has not been quite hounded, to the chagrin of its cyber capitalist protagonist, Eric Packer, as he inches his way across town on a slow traffic day towards the nothingness of his own existence – a long day’s limo journey into naught. The following analysis is concerned primarily with the way in which Cosmopolis, like all DeLillo’s novels, reconceptualises what ails us, in this case the neo-classical economic system. In a very Nietzschean turn, DeLillo demonstrates how the seed of our self-overcoming lies within the very system in which we are trapped, in that there are alternatives in economic thought present in the paths untaken in its own history, in Marx and even earlier in Smith.

The action of Cosmopolis takes place in a white stretch limo as its occupant, 28-year-old cyber capitalist Eric Packer, crosses Manhattan for a haircut in Hell’s Kitchen, the neighbourhood of his youth. Eric is a ‘phonetic’ anagram of Kerry, and may therefore be a possible reference to the late Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer, who was often criticised for his egocentrism and lack of concern for social issues. Cosmopolis is set in April 2000, a year that coincides with the peak of the U.S. stock market and prefigures the forces of violence at work on September 11 the following year. His odyssey is filled with cameos from a typical array of DeLillo eccentrics who more often than not are introduced to the reader in the back of the limo – he even manages not to have sex with some of them – such as his chief of security (‘bald and no-necked’ Torval), his chief of theory (Vija Kinski), his wife of 22 days (the heiress and poet Elise Shifrin), his art dealer, his bodyguard, and a horde of demonstrators who have taken to the streets of New York to decry the hegemony to which Packer is very much the poster boy. The demonstration is the middle act of the novel; like Poseidon raging against Odysseus, they rock and rail at Packer’s limo, spray-paint and urinate on it, and hurl a trashcan against a window. His Ithaca is not his 48-room, $104 million triplex on First Avenue replete with shark tank, borzoi pen, lap pool, card parlour and screening room, but rather the old neighbourhood where his youth and the memory of a more authentic self remains. On this cool day in April with its wind that ‘came cutting off the river’, he returns to Hell’s Kitchen a stranger, dressed in stranger attire – an Italian designer suit rather than rags. There’s no archery contest but there is a violent encounter with a former employee that concludes the novel.

The theme of Cosmopolis is a continuation of DeLillo’s earlier Underworld (1997). The epilogue of that novel, titled ‘Das Kapital’, commences with the following statement:

Capital burns off the nuance in a culture. Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisitions, the flow of information through transnational media, the attenuating influence of money that’s electronic … untouched money … the convergence of consumer desire’ (DeLillo, 1997: 785).

This is the perspective of Underworld’s Nick Shay, who equates economics with globalisation, the will to profit irrespective of social cost. It is an understandable view, since economics is the most influential and prestigious of the human sciences today. Of course, governments only give globalisation equal billing with society and the environment, but they do it with a wink and a nod to the corporations and industry who understand that the triple bottom line of modern public administration is a triple bottom lie that privileges the economic above all else. Unfortunately, many economists believe their own hype. Robert Solow, 1987 Nobel Laureate for economics, argued, ‘The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe’ (Shiva, 1992: 206).

Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations

However, not all economists are created equal. The origins of economics are in moral philosophy. Adam Smith was the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University for twelve years before he wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In this text Smith presented his theory of ‘economic liberty’, the principle of which was that the self-interested pursuit of gain would promote a healthier social order because it is equally dependent on the restraints that individuals freely impose upon themselves. Smith argued that economic activity requires this ‘social bond’. According to Smith, without this underlying foundation for stability, there would not be the trust essential to lending money, investing in new ventures or even working for an honest wage. As early as 1776, Smith warned that the sale of public utilities and assets does not make economic sense because monopoly control of an essential service will inevitably lead to profiteering and sub-optimal service provision which, in turn, will cause social corrosion. According to Smith economic growth and the division of labour bring material benefits, but they also lead to ‘mental mutilation’ by narrowing the range of an individual’s activities and eroding those faculties (trust, empathy, interdependence) that form the basis of our social bonds and moral existence.

In the Nineteenth Century, Smith’s philosophy and concerns were further developed by Marx, Engels and Pareto who, differences aside, concluded that market economics would inevitably lead to more and more wealth possessed by fewer and fewer. Marx recognised that Smith’s fears had been realised and that capitalism was being transformed from a system where participation in production benefited a sense of self and belonging, into a system where the agent was recognised primarily for their consumption and cultural subordination. By the late Nineteenth Century the neo-classical economists Jevons, Walras and Menger had transformed this emerging system into hegemony. The neo-classical economists, or market fundamentalists, are deeply influenced by Descartes and Hobbes. They consider economics to be a science concerned with the efficient functioning of markets, and are less interested in the moral dimensions of their discipline. The marginal analysis of the neo-classical economists has dominated economic thought in the last century and forms the basis of venture, rogue and cyber capitalism as well as economic liberalism or globalisation.

In Underworld, Nick Shay’s lament is for the homogenising effect of neo-classical economics and globalisation on culture, where money and technology, the ‘untouched’ of the world, dominate the touched, where culture is imposed by consumerism, and where economic exchange operates independently of personal contact. Cosmopolis’ Packer is also confronted by the tension between these two worlds, although his response to the ‘obsolete’ capitalism of the ‘diamond district’ is very different to Shay’s. The ‘diamond district’ uses ‘a form of money so obsolete Eric didn’t know what to think about it. It was hard, shiny, faceted… intensely three-dimensional… This was the souk, the shtetl. Here were the hagglers and talebearers, the scrapmongers, the dealers in stray talk. The street was an offence to the truth of the future’ (DeLillo, 2003: 64-5). It is the personalised commerce of the diamond district, the social exchange implicit in the economic, that Packer finds so confronting. It is not mediated by technology, by the system that keeps Packer ‘untouched’. It is direct and transparent.

Cartesian Economics

The Cartesian world-view posits a reality reduced to a collection of calculable, controllable objects, a reality that, with timely elaboration by Hobbes, Newton, and Locke, was the philosophical foundation for the rational ideology of the Enlightenment. The concept that humans are complex machines and that society is a social contract between egoistic individuals is the common orientation to the world shared by utilitarianism, psychology and neoclassical economics and their collective will to order society rationally. It is this world-view that dominates Packer and filters his response to the diamond district, informing his disgust at its lack of anonymity, his distaste for the souk and shtetl that cannot be reduced to the calculable and controllable. The cyber capitalist’s tool of trade is the manufactured and well-executed risk that will generate profound uncertainty in the lives of potentially billions of people through his manipulation of financial markets, but for which he has calculated the probability that he will profit. Success is dependent on his ruthlessness, a misanthropic determination; Packer’s speculations on the yen cause ‘storms of disorder’ due to his tentacular ‘firm’s portfolio large and sprawling, linked crucially to the affairs of so many key institutions, all reciprocally vulnerable, that the whole system was in danger’ (DeLillo, 2003: 116).

The neoclassical order that informs Packer’s cyber capitalist perspective also dominates his social interactions. His market fundamentalism is apparent here as well; he expects others to compete for his affections but has no sense of reciprocal consideration on his part. By Cosmopolis’ conclusion he will have deliberately bankrupted his wife with her ‘right of blood to the fabulous Shifrin banking fortune of Europe and the world’, and murdered his chief of security Torval. Both acts are as inscrutable as Mersault’s murder of the Arab in Camus’ Outsider, and are committed with the same desensitised inevitability as his economic manipulation of financial markets where he could tout a stock and ‘automatically cause doublings in share price and the shifting of worldviews… making history, before history became monotonous and slobbering’ (DeLillo, 2003: 75). Some commentators have suggested that these acts are a Camusian acte gratuity. But the neo-rational Packer is incapable of the authenticity of Mersault, and unlike Camus’ protagonist, on several occasions Packer attempts to justify his actions, particularly the murder of his security chief: ‘Torval was his enemy, a threat to his self-regard. When you pay a man to keep you alive, he gains a psychic edge. [The murder] was a function of the credible threat and the loss of his company and personal fortune’ (DeLillo, 2003: 147-8). Later, with regard to his complete oeuvre of suffering caused, Packer asserts, ‘Violence needs a cause, a truth … Violence needs a burden, a purpose’ (DeLillo, 2003: 194, 196). Camus described Mersault’s condition as the ‘madness of sincerity’, a rebellion against the ‘machinery of justice’ in a world dominated by abstraction. Eric Packer is very much an element of that will-to-abstraction, not a force resisting its hegemony.

Packer as Odysseus

Like Homer, DeLillo has written a compelling diagnostic of his time and both authors share similar concerns regarding the impact of self-gratification on the moral order. The libertarian project at work in our economic system comes at great cost to our environmental and social realms. Eric Packer is the solipsistic and misanthropic cyber capitalist taken to his logical conclusion and, like Odysseus, he is punished for his appetites. In his final moments, he refers to his final trace of life as his ‘saturated self’, implying a disconnection with his own sense of identity, ineffable in its excesses. It recalls the superfluity of existence of Sartre’s nausea. Packer is confronted by his own accidental presence and the realization that his obsessions were never directed at the present, but always the future: ‘What did he want that was not posthumous?’ (DeLillo, 2003: 209). His appetites are unable to be sated by a world he cannot touch, a world where ‘Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance … existence is a repletion which man can never abandon’ (Sartre, 1938: 191).

In fact Packer eschews the present at every turn. He lauds neoclassical economics as the ‘truth of the future’ and justifies his wanton acts by the adage that one must make history ‘before history became monotonous and slobbering’. In his post-911 essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, DeLillo states that in the preceding decade ‘the dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the Internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber-capital, because there is no memory there and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit’ (DeLillo, 2001).

DeLillo relies on Vija Kinski, Packer’s corporate chief of theory and personal futurologist, to provide the Nietzschean critique of the drives influencing Packer’s narrow world view, a condition I have called elsewhere technosomatic subjectivity, a metaphysics dominated by our interface with ubiquitous technology and consumerism. Kinski is a prophetic character, one that the reader is supposed to identify with immediately. Her analysis of the world revolving around Packer resonates with authenticity compared to the distant, detached lackeys and accidental jurists that enter and exit Packer’s ‘thirty-five feet’ of stretched stage. It remains for Kinski to reveal to Packer the illusion of his truth, that in fact there are no ‘plausible realities … that can be traced and analysed… [no] foreseeable trends and forces’ that govern his Socratic-Cartesian world view. The order of his neoclassical economic system is only an illusion to disguise the abyss of ‘random phenomena’; the system is actually out of control. It is ‘Hysteria at high speeds … We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over’ (DeLillo, 2003: 85).


In privileging the Dionysian drive over the Socratic, Nietzsche also rejected this quest for a transcendental perspective beyond the world of becoming, from which an illusionary unified world or system of thought could be constructed: ‘Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins’ (Nietzsche, 1873: 84). Coins are a particularly apt metaphor in this instance. According to Kinski, money no longer denotes something real, it is non-referential and ‘drained of sensuous force’: ‘Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself’ (DeLillo, 2003: 77). It is an end in itself, it has ceased to even be about the ‘vulgar display or tasteful display’ of consumerism; there is no remnant of aesthetics or spectacle which might pass as a Dionysian re-absorption into the primordial undifferentiated flow of life. Consumption is ‘no longer about power, personality and command … The only thing that matters is the price you pay … What did you buy for your one hundred and four million dollar [apartment]? … You paid the money for the number itself … The number justifies itself’ (DeLillo, 2003: 78). Similarly, in detailing the purchase of an ex-Soviet bomber, there is no description of the event itself, only the remark ‘U.S. dollars, thirty-one million’ (DeLillo, 2003: 103). By incorporating this reference to war machines and the Kazakhstan desert (where the purchase took place), DeLillo emphasises yet again the continuity of his critique of capitalism from the epilogue of Underworld (and its conclusion on the Kazakh desert) through Cosmopolis. The number represents the only truth for Packer, an abstract truth for an abstract life, Socratic-Cartesian reason reduced to a single, beautiful truth. But for Nietzsche, money as number reduces Smith’s economics to dogma, akin to what Christianity inflicted on the teachings of Christ: ‘All the concepts of the Church are recognised for what they are: the most malicious false coinage there is for the purpose of disvaluing nature and natural values’ (Nietzsche, 1895: 150).

At present, government public policy and the churn and whirl of our global economy are overwhelmingly formulated on the basis of neoclassical economic theory. The economy, against Adam Smith’s prophetic warnings, is treated as a closed system, driven by greed, tending towards equilibrium, and in which society and nature are treated as resources for consuming and generating wealth. With a strong foundation in Cartesian thought, neoclassical economics assumes that the world can be defined and quantified as a collection of ‘foreseeable trends and forces’ that can be evaluated. Such analysis cannot take into account the complex interdependencies of the world, the gestalt of a myriad of systems. This hubris of truth-making resembles the conditions that Friedrich Nietzsche described when he spoke in The Birth of Tragedy of civilisation itself as a pretentious lie:

‘Poetry does not lie outside the world as a fantastic impossibility begotten of the poet’s brain; it seeks to be the exact opposite, an unvarnished expression of truth, and for this reason must cast away the trumpery garments worn by the supposed reality of civilized man. The contrast between this truth of nature and the pretentious lie of civilization is quite similar to that between the eternal core of things and the entire phenomenal world’ (Nietzsche, 1872: 41).

The ‘great sweep of life,’ Nietzsche insists, does not favour the slave morality of the thought-systemisers, Packer’s staggering numbers (the fawns of Socrates); rather it favours the dancers, the illusionists, the wily and resourceful deceivers (the fauns of Sophocles). Bio-mimicry is everywhere we look in nature, and Nietzsche acknowledges this when he writes of semblance and simulation, camouflage and mirage. He calls these illusionists the polytropoi, a term Homer applies to Odysseus at the commencement of the Odyssey. Odysseus and his many forms could have been the inspiration for Darwin and Nietzsche: his is a noble strength not born of truth, but the selective and skilful development of error. This is why Odysseus succeeds and Packer fails. And this is why more neoclassical economics is not the answer to the frenzy and mass convulsions of our economic system, because the very word ‘economics’ is a misunderstanding. At bottom there was only one economist, and he died of intestinal complications in Eighteenth Century Edinburgh.



Don DeLillo (1999 /1997). Underworld (Picador: London)

Don DeLillo (2003). Cosmopolis (Picador: London)

Homer (1973 /~700 B.C.). The Odyssey, tr. E. V. Rieu (Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1993/1872). The Birth of Tragedy, tr. Shaun Whiteside (Penguin: London)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1990/1873). “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, inPhilosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, tr. Daniel Breazeale (Humanities Press: New Jersey)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1986/1895/1889). Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, tr. R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin: Harmondsworth: Middlesex)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1981/1938). Nausea, tr. Robert Baldick (Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex)

Vandana Shiva (1992). “Resources”, in Wolfgang Sachs (ed.). The Development Dictionary (Zed Books: London)

Adam Smith (1904 /1776), Edwin Cannon (ed.). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Methuen & Co.: London; reproduced online by The Library of Economics and Liberty (http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN0.html, accessed December 11, 2007)