Since the seventeenth century — to put it briefly — the discourses of natural rights and moral philosophy have provided some of the building blocks for an all-purpose definition of homo economicus. These discourses connect assumptions about the state of the world with presuppositions about human nature, and they have led to a long-lasting, radical change in the moral household and in the economy of human interrelations. This means, first, that modern homo economicus appears on the scene not merely as a rational subject but also as a passionate one, whereby these passions are regulated via a mechanism of interests. Second, he acts as a blind subject with limited knowledge. It is precisely through this blindness that he produces — unintentionally and unconsciously — harmonious social relations. For this reason, he follows a specific path in life. Homo economicus acquires wisdom through his ignorance and gets ahead in life thanks to his limited awareness and narrow horizons. Incidentally, a similar contradiction can be found in the plot structure of the German Bildungsroman: Wilhelm Meister, too, arrives at his rightful place in life precisely through his limited knowledge and the unintended consequences of his actions, as if steered there by an invisible, “higher hand” […] Third, homo economicus is an enemy of the state in a special sense. As far as he is concerned, the implementation of a good system — involving laws, institutions, administration, and so on — conflicts with the good implementation of systematicity itself. […] And fourth, this hostility to government interference does not detract, as might be expected, from homo economicus developing into an eminently governable character type.
Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 27.
Precisely because human beings are asocial — this is how the surprising argument goes — they help contribute to social order; precisely because they are unreliable, they can be integrated into society as reliable, known quantities. How is this possible? By what mechanism can lawfulness be produced from anomic beings? What dynamic is at play here and what is its overall function in the system? Here too the answers given by English empiricists, French moralists, and German social engineers coincide in one essential point: all these affective dynamics come together in the mechanism of self-interest. At the heart of all (mis)deeds and passions, all desires and inclinations, lies an irreducible element which, since the seventeenth century, has gone by the name of “interest” or “self-interest.” The concept of (self-)interest probably originated in raison d’état or national interest before passing into social theory […] [p.21] Even the vilest cravings and most heated passions are stabilized by a trace element of self-interest that dictates the choice of the more pleasant, less painful option […] It is in self-interest that the inclinations and passions of all parties meet, and it is precisely in their pursuit of that interest that the social and political laws of nature are revealed.
Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University, 2015), p.20.
If, then, in modern times the earth not only begins to rotate around the sun but money too starts to rotate around the earth […] these revolutions are evidently complemented by an anthropological one, which no longer presents a mere “image” of mankind but manking as it “really” is — and this redefinition becomes the starting point for new conceptions of socio-political order. At any rate, ever since the Baroque, teachers of natural law and moral philosophers have generally agreed that human beings are no longer to be understood simply as zoa politika, as political animals who are directly and instinctively adapted to life in society. In contrast to most other creatures, human beings have instead shown themselves to be dysfunctional and quite unsuited to communal existence. By nature, they are disagreeable companions for their fellows — and an extensive literature [p.19] about such concepts as “self-love” or “self-preservation” proves that here, so far as human beings are concerned, we can only join Kant in speaking of “unsociable sociability” or a “nation of devils.” According to this view, “real” human beings find themselves in a hopelessly “ruined state”; they are “creatures filled with all kinds of wicked cravings.” […] The identification of a new type of human being thus coincides with novel conceptions of social order, conceptions in which market events and political economy will ultimately assume a privileged role.
Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University 2015), pp.18-19