Conrad's Praxeolog

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

Conrad's Praxeolog

Like Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad was a great economic novelist who maintained a contemptuous distance from the “economic” novel. Cather asked the rhetorical question: “[W]ho wants any more detail as to how Carmencita and her fellow factory-girls made cigars?”1 Not Cather; not Conrad, either. Both were interested in a deeper and broader subject, the vast field of exploration that surrounds and includes economics. Ludwig von Mises called this field “the general theory of human action, praxeology.”2

That is a preposterously unliterary word, a word that neither Conrad nor Cather would ever want to see, let alone use. Probably neither of them ever got the chance to see it. They lacked the word—but they had the thing. They understood economic relationships, and they saw that such economic concepts as scarcity, price, profit, and investment have implications that go far beyond the scope of economic behavior as ordinarily represented in works of “economic” or “social” fiction. They tracked those implications far into the praxeological hinterland, mapping the points where economics encounters fundamental principles of human action.

The fullest, indeed the virtually inexhaustible, expression of Conrad's praxeology is his novel The Secret Agent (1907). Cather thought that her era was characterized by “the revolt against individualism.”3 Conrad saw something larger: a revolt against human action as it really is. The Secret Agent attempts to explain both the revolt and what it revolts against.


The praxeology of The Secret Agent emerges from Conrad's interest in a certain group of characters, political radicals who are engaged in plotting, or at least in ardently desiring, the downfall of the capitalist system. These people have their own theories about human action, theories that Conrad finds enticing targets for ridicule. From the ruins of their ideologies, he retrieves much that is useful by an opposing system of thought.

One of the easiest theories for Conrad to dismantle is economic and historical materialism, the belief that all human action, even intellectual action, is determined by material conditions. What is material or “economic” in this sense would also be “collective” in its operation and effect. The association of materialism with collectivism is especially attractive to Conrad's revolutionaries, all but one of whom want to replace bourgeois-individualist society with some form of collectivism. They call themselves “anarchists,” but they would be more accurately described as communists. Materialism gives them the opportunity to ground collectivist politics in larger ideas about reality.

To refute the materialist theory of action, Conrad provides an example of the theory in action, trying to explain itself. His example is the radical ideologue Michaelis, who maintains that “the material side of life” is the source of “all ideas.”4 History, he believes, is “dominated and determined” by “the force of economic conditions.” Mere “consciousness” is not a significant factor. “Moralists” can think and talk all they want, but they can never change history. Their subjective “phantasies” (unlike material “conditions”) lack all “objective value.”5

There is nothing unprecedented about Michaelis's ideas— they are garden-variety Marxism—and there is nothing inappropriate about Conrad's choice of Michaelis as their exponent. In contrast to Marx and Engels, he can actually boast of working-class origins. But can his materialist theory explain its own discourse?

It would certainly have a hard time with his attack on moralism as irrelevant to human action. Everything he says and does is inspired by moral concerns. His “objective” analysis of capitalism is just a sermon about the “inherent viciousness” of “all private property.”6 The discourse of Marx himself was moralistic in the same way. But the more important thing (and here is the central thrust of Conrad's satire) is that moralism is an essential ingredient of this kind of discourse. People become revolutionaries not because they experience certain material “conditions,” but because they regard those conditions as morally wrong. Revolutionaries are made by moral judgments.

And that is the problem: Michaelis's discourse is wrong by its own rationale. There is no material reason for him to talk as he does. To Conrad, the idea of a material motivation is a joke, and the source of other jokes—easy, obvious, enormously effective jokes. One of them has to do with the tremendous materiality of Michaelis himself. He is not exactly one of the “prisoners of starvation” invoked by the Internationale. He was imprisoned, indeed, because of his revolutionary activity, but

[h]e had come out of a highly hygienic prison round like a tub, with an enormous stomach and distended cheeks of a pale, semitransparent complexion, as though for fifteen years the servants of an outraged society had made a point of stuffing him with fattening foods in a damp and lightless cellar. And ever since he had never managed to get his weight down as much as an ounce.7

Michaelis is the reductio ad absurdum of the materialist philosophy. He is drowning in matter, but his consciousness keeps on breathing moralistic ideals.

The oddest thing is that someone who can scarcely move should feel so confident about his ability to explain human action. Yet that is the way it is. Imprisoned, first within a jail, then within himself, Michaelis discovers that “confined space, seclusion, and solitude” are the only conditions “favourable to his inspiration.” Marx, as we know, was not a busy traveler to factories and stock exchanges. He was nevertheless inspired to theorize very copiously about capitalist industry and finance. Michaelis, following the master, confidently expects to produce, from his own isolation, a masterpiece of collectivist thought, “a book of Revelation in the history of mankind.”8

If he tried to square his personal expectations with his materialist theory, he would have to say that confinement in solitude—a kind of enforced individualism—has a surprising amount of objective and material value for collectivism. But materialist theory is never very good at assimilating the surprises of human action, as experienced by particular human beings. In this case, personal experience directly refutes the theory. The value of Michaelis's confinement isn't objective at all. It is purely subjective, purely a matter of his individual response to material conditions, not of the conditions themselves.

At the moment, those conditions are provided by a wealthy woman whom Conrad calls Michaelis's “Lady Patroness.” She is an aristocrat of leftist sympathies, a type that recurs pretty frequently in the history of collectivist movements. As an aristocrat, the Lady Patroness nurses a class hatred for “parvenu” capitalists who engage in making money instead of inheriting and keeping it. Capitalism undermines the social authority of people like her; she therefore welcomes the spectre of communism, believing that the “disappearance of the last piece of money” will somehow “leave the social values untouched”: “She could not conceive how it could affect her position, for instance.”9

Just as Marx and Michaelis would predict, the material circumstances of the Lady Patroness have an influence on her political values. What a materialist would find hard to explain is the bizarre result of that influence, the aristocrat's easy embrace of communism. To explain this effect, not unprecedented, to be sure, and yet grotesquely personal, one must consider such individual factors as ignorance, vanity, and spite. The Lady Patroness hates capitalism and wants to get back at it, so she seizes the heaviest weapon she can find, not bothering to consider that it might possibly destroy her, too. Like Michaelis, she takes so much pleasure in hearing herself talk that she mistakes her own discourse for “incontrovertible demonstration.”10 Like him, she lives in a world of words, an arbitrary state of consciousness that transcends all barriers of economic class. That is why she and Michaelis, two people who are obsessed with their own, quite different, class positions, get along so well together. Michaelis, at least, might find this a problem, if he ever tried to test his praxis against his theory. Fortunately for his material circumstances, he never tries.


As a radical materialist, Michaelis objects to mere individual speculations about the future; material forces will decide what happens.11 But the culmination and payoff of his theory is the prophecy of a new, more truly “social” world. Of that world he is certain. No political-materialist theory has ever left room for doubt regarding the possibility of such a world, and little regarding its inevitability. If materialism lacked the promise of a better world, there would be small emotional or political profit in materialism.

Michaelis's theory is typical of materialist theory in another respect. Its new world of the future will be produced by “conditions,” but it will be the kind of world that can be maintained only by a great deal of conscious planning. Constant social engineering will be needed to ensure that what is contributed by “each according to his ability” actually gets distributed to “each according to his need.” This is a contradiction, but it is a traditional and predictable one. The servants of destiny have always (to quote Albert Camus) submitted “destiny to a plan”—their own individual plan.12 Without individual determiners, determinism might not work. The determinist philosophy arrives at its payoff only by tacitly incorporating crucial elements of a rival system of ideas that emphasizes the significance of human choice and direction. The determinists are, like Shelley's poets, unacknowledged legislators of the world, unacknowledged even by themselves.

Michaelis is such a poet. His “book of Revelation”—the writing of which was prompted by a capitalist publisher who offered to pay the modern equivalent of $50,00013 for the privilege of selling it—contains a defense of determinism and the blueprints for large-scale social engineering. According to the scornful comments of “the Professor,” one of Michaelis's fellow radicals, the book elaborates “the idea of a world planned out like an immense and nice hospital, with gardens and flowers, in which the strong are to devote themselves to the nursing of the weak.”14 The Professor, who is Conrad's only intellectually alert revolutionist, finds this ridiculous. It is ridiculous.

But in case you're wondering, the Professor's idea of the great society is even less credible (or creditable). He dreams “of a world like shambles, where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination.”15 Who would want either kind of world? And that brings us back to the reason for Conrad's emphasis on the bizarre and ridiculous extremes of anti-capitalist thought. Only a mind that was, shall we say, somewhat eccentric could harbor such ideas as the Professor's. But this is another sign that the materialists are wrong when they say that ideas are determined by general economic conditions. To be sure, even the radicals in The Secret Agent are affected by very general conditions. They make judgments of value, pay prices, and try to maximize utilities. In this, they behave like everyone else. Yet they have their own idea of what constitutes a utility. Such ideas indicate that particular economic values are subjective and relational, not “objective” and intrinsic to economic “conditions.”

A well-known Marxist literary critic has argued that The Secret Agent is caught in a contradiction: it represents the external conditions of capitalist society as natural and unchangeable, while emphasizing the importance of the internal and subjective.16 But there is no contradiction here. The objective (“external”) conditions of capitalist society, or any other frame of human action, require people to choose one good, one goal, one course of goal-directed action over another; and the choices that they make are internal, individual, and “subjective.” The radicals understand quite naturally that they have to make decisions, and they demonstrate the very individual and subjective quality of their judgments when they decide that the greatest possible utility will come from the ending of all messy subjective differences (and objective conditions, too, but we'll get to that).

The radicals can reach their goal only if other people can be brought to share their values, especially the value they assign to their own efforts and abilities. These goods are woefully undervalued by the free market, and the radicals are incapable of viewing this as a mere aspect of materially determined reality. They view it, instead, as a grievous injustice. For all their supposedly advanced ideas, they retain the medieval notion of the “just price.” They know they are not getting that price. So they consider themselves entitled to destroy the market.

The Professor is a good example of their way of thinking. He once respected the capitalist system and hoped to find his place in it. What attracted him was the possibility of winning ample rewards for himself. He was not attracted by the necessity of earning these rewards by offering other people something that they valued enough to give him what he wanted in return. In other words, he was attracted by myth, not reality: “[H]is imagination had been fired early by the tales of men rising from the depths of poverty to positions of authority.”17 Such Horatio Alger tales are usually thought to embody a myth of capitalism. They do offer an idealization of modern capitalist society. But Conrad identifies the real source of their attractiveness, which has nothing in particular to do with capitalism. These tales are attractive because they reiterate the oldest and most reassuring of all economic theories, the labor theory of value, and they give it a decidedly moralized form. This is, however, the form most likely to produce disappointments, moral grievances, and demands for political retribution.

The Professor's experience shows how that happens. His theory is that “hard work” is valuable in itself and reveals intrinsic “merit,” and that “merit” will be rewarded with “authority and affluence.” He has the “puritanism of ambition”—a greedy but unworldly faith that is bound to be destroyed by events. Yet the Professor discovers that the market does not value him as he values himself. It stubbornly refuses to pay him what he considers the just price of his labor. In his opinion, therefore, he has

been treated with revolting injustice. His struggles, his privations, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice—the standard of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual.18

Like Cather's Frank Shabata, the Professor is the victim of an arbitrary sense of entitlement resulting from the application of an arbitrary standard of value. Having once “considered himself entitled to undisputed success,”19 he continues to demand that he be paid what is owed him, with interest. He has no idea that he might owe anything in exchange. Like the other radicals, he wants to control both the prices of the commodities he receives (setting them as low as possible) and the prices of the commodities he purveys (keeping them as high as possible). This, in practice, is what economics means to him. Obviously, as Conrad says, most “revolutionary reformers of a given social state” are not in

revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid for the same in the coin of accepted morality, selfrestraint, and toil.... There are natures too, to whose sense of justice the price exacted looms up monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating, extortionate, intolerable. Those are the fanatics.20

Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson has noticed Conrad's emphasis on ressentiment as a political motivation and has (somewhat resentfully) dismissed it as a product of Conrad's own ressentiment. As far as Jameson is concerned, this Conradian form of psychologizing has no value at all as an explanation of political action. He writes disparagingly of “the fiction of the individual subject” in “so-called bourgeois individualism.”21 But without the individual subject, how shall we explain the political revolt against the marketplace, so widespread and yet so varied in the modern world? To put the matter plainly: people revolt in different ways, and far from everyone revolts; the poorest are commonly not in the vanguard, or even near. Conrad gives a crucial role to the individual “fanatic,” and surely that figure is worth trying to account for.

The very existence of the fanatic, a person whose values are permanently at odds with those of the rest of the world, shows the predominance of individual economic “convictions” over general economic “conditions.” The Professor, indeed, is an extreme “individualist by temperament.”22 But if individualism implies a special interest in asserting private convictions against public conditions, then poor, obtuse Michaelis and his aristocratic patron are individualists, too, and so are most of the other politically engaged characters. The eccentric feature—to their minds, the truly social and progressive feature—of their individualism is its unwillingness to accommodate any individuality but their own. Standing firmly on their private standard of economic justice, they will allow no rewards but the rewards they desire, no prices but the prices they decree, no payments but the payments they require of others.

The Professor wants to exterminate “the multitude” of “weak” people who nevertheless “have power”—the power to ignore his demands for justice.23 Michaelis and the Lady Patroness have more modest goals; they merely envision “the complete economic ruin of the system,” “the annihilation of all capital” and the abolition of “all the multitude” of capitalists who have the “profound unintelligence” to scorn their “humanitarian hopes.”24 Despite such comparatively petty differences, all the revolutionaries in The Secret Agent—even Michaelis, whose ideal is a world-wide hospital state—somehow believe that their aim is freedom. Its real aim is control. The revolutionaries are not rebelling against the capitalist system because they want people to be free to do as they please. They are rebelling because they want the power to create a social system that is congenial to themselves, a system that will give them the respect and authority they could never obtain in any imaginable free market in such commodities. The payment they seek can be secured only in a world that they have the power to plan.

In this regard, Conrad's characters are not isolated political cranks or members of a “nonexistent” movement25 that Conrad, for reasons best known to himself, decided to satirize at the length of 100,000 words. The revolutionaries are actuated by commonplace ideas and ideals, which they carry to picturesque and exemplary extremes. They want justice, measured by an instinctively precapitalist theory of value. They want freedom, defined as the power to do and possess certain things. Nothing is more common in the twentieth century than this conjunction of ideas and motives.

John Dewey, with his admirable ability to expound the tendencies of his time, defined “liberty” as the “effective power to do specific things”; he said that “the demand for liberty is [the] demand for power.”26 Dewey was hardly a radical in any crude sense. He was certainly no advocate of the Professor's program or even of Michaelis's. But when you start to identify freedom with power, you may find it hard to know where to stop. You may think that because people have a right to freedom, they also have a right to commensurate degrees of power.

All modern political movements, even those of the fascists and Stalinists, have held that they are struggling for “freedom” of some kind. Their adherents have held, in fact, that they are struggling for economic justice. They have rejected the idea of defining freedom as the absence of coercion and referring economic questions to the marketplace. To embrace that idea would be to surrender their power to plan a better world, “better” being defined in accordance with the particular economic values of the would-be planners. To give up the power to plan human action—that is a steep price to pay. To modern intellectuals, the “socialists of all parties,” as Friedrich Hayek called them,27 the price of political self-restraint “looms up monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating, extortionate, intolerable.” They will not pay that price; they revolt against it. An unplanned, spontaneously functioning society appears to them primitive, irrational, inhuman.

The Professor is the archetype and extremity of this revolt. He looks at a busy commercial street, full of people intent on their private purposes, and he sees them as so many insects: “They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed.... “28 Their activity, which seems to lack all conscious planning because it is not planned by him, is monstrous, repulsive, thoughtless.

He is wrong, of course. As Conrad indicates in the final sentence of the novel, things are just the other way around: the Professor himself is “a pest” in a “street full of men.”29 But the reader, who is one of the alleged insects, already knew that the Professor's theory was wrong. The people in the street are not “thoughtless like a natural force”; that is simply a determinist fantasy. It has nothing to do with the way in which human action takes place. The people in the street, the readers of Conrad's book, the readers of this essay, are constantly making individual choices of values and pursuing individual rewards. That is why they act; that is how they are “industrious”; that is what human action is.

Further, human action is not an anarchic mess; whenever permitted to do so, it constantly evolves new forms of spontaneous order (as the classical-liberal praxeologists call it), social systems, large and small, in which people cooperate chiefly because they want to do so and need to do so in order to realize their private purposes. That kind of order is what the Professor fears and hates. To him, other people are just so many entities that are not obeying him, entities that have achieved, somehow, a nightmarish solidarity, like that of ants: “What if nothing could move them?”30

The verb is well chosen—“move.” The Professor wants people to be inspired or “moved,” but only by himself. If they will not be moved by him—and they won't—then all motion must be stopped: “Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress.”31 The Professor's idea of progress is the indiscriminate use of dynamite, the property of which is to make all motion cease. But isn't that what power means: the ability to stop anything that won't obey?

Action to arrest action: the irony is everywhere in The Secret Agent. It is a praxeological irony that runs much deeper than the novel's numerous political and economic ironies. To be sure, the Professor's specific way of acting-to-arrest-action fails to win endorsement by all the other revolutionaries. For many of them, action consists of endless talk about the impersonal movements of history. That is their way of making sure that nothing happens. But every major character enlists, in one way or another, in the revolt against human action. All of them act so as to bring the varied, unpredictable, individually conducted and misconducted actions of life to a halt.

To such apparently simple, if preposterous, pursuits the plot of The Secret Agent is wholly given up. That may be what Conrad had in mind when he called the work “A Simple Tale.” But that subtitle is merely the first of the novel's million ironies, for the plot of this little book is one of the most complicated in modern literature. The complications stem from the characters' apparently simple aim of controlling all complications. Each character's attempts to master or even to know the dense surrounding plot merely multiply its branches and render them less knowable by anyone. It makes no difference why the characters want to change, control, and stop human action. Some are revolutionaries, some are reactionaries, some are apolitical. Their specific aims are different, but they all revolt against praxeological principles; and they produce, as a result, a full exposition of praxeological principles, concretized as a novel's plot.

We need to look closely at that plot.


Action begins not with impersonal “conditions” but with the personal and private aims of Adolf Verloc, the Secret Agent. Verloc could be placed in any of the three political categories: he is simultaneously a revolutionary, a reactionary, and a man with no ideological commitments. Political terms can be confusing here; praxeological terms are better. What matters for praxeology is, of course, action; what people do, in preference to every possible alternative choice. The ultimate praxeological fact about Adolf Verloc is his quest for immobility. It expresses an individual preference “as profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which directs a man's preference for one particular woman in a given thousand.”32 Verloc is a man who will choose any job, enlist in any cause, so long as it helps him evade action.

So highly does he value immobility that he secures two jobs in which immobility is the principal occupation. He is hired both by the English police and by the embassy of a reactionary foreign government to infiltrate anarchist organizations and make sure that the anarchist movement never actually moves. These jobs are easy. The anarchists with whom Verloc does his “work” ordinarily choose talk over action anyway. In fact, they spend a lot of time complaining about how anarchists almost always choose talk over action. These people may not have the power to immobilize the capitalist system, but they certainly have the power to immobilize themselves.

Unfortunately, Verloc's success at making nothing happen appears insufficient in the eyes of Mr. Vladimir, a new official of the embassy. Vladimir's opposition to human action is—incredible to say—even stronger than Verloc's. Verloc wants to make sure that nothing happens while he himself is around; Vladimir wants to make sure that nothing ever happens. He wants to see revolutionaries totally suppressed. He wants to lead Great Britain into a confederacy of reactionary powers that will end any hope of political change. He demands that Verloc contrive a bomb outrage that will make the British public face the facts about anarchism and force the government to crack down on it. Should Verloc fail to perform that mission, he will lose his “job.”

Vladimir's plan for a bomb attack is a symbolic assault on progress. He commands Verloc to bomb Greenwich Observatory, which is associated, in the public's mind, with forward movement in science and therefore with forward movement in general. The Observatory has a more fundamental symbolic association: it is the point from which all motion on the earth is measured. When Vladimir tells Verloc to “[g]o for the first meridian,”33 he proposes, in effect, an attack on human action of any kind.34

He introduces his idea with a lengthy theoretical argument intended to demonstrate the necessity of using revolutionary means for conservative ends. His theory is almost as comprehensive as Michaelis's, and just as self-assured. But Vladimir, like everyone else who tries to command human action on a truly broad front, has a serious intellectual weakness: he has no idea what he's talking about. If he had any understanding of human action, he would be much less confident about his ability to command it. Only people who fail to comprehend the enormous complexity of a real society can confidently expect to make it reverse its course and conform to their plans. Verloc is astonished at Vladimir's ignorance of political facts, even facts about the anarchist movement. Verloc is far from an intellectual, but he can see that the bomb plot is absurd; Vladimir, the fountainhead of social theory, has no worries at all. This sort of thing very frequently signals the difference between members of the intelligentsia and everyone else. But Vladimir is right about one matter: Verloc will do almost anything to maintain his career of doing nothing. He will assault the prime meridian.

To do so, he requires two things: an explosive device and someone to carry it. He gets the first necessity from the Professor, whose occupation is making bombs and who is more than happy to help destroy Greenwich Observatory or any other feature of bourgeois life. As to the second necessity: Verloc certainly does-n't want to carry the bomb himself. So he enlists his brother-inlaw Stevie. Stevie—young, retarded, maladroit—advances toward the observatory, bomb in hand, and manages to destroy himself instead of the prime meridian.

This is the great, indeed the sole, public event of the novel; but its causes and most of its effects are lost to public view. They are hidden in a complex of individual choices and preferences that no one in the novel ever fully understands. Who would guess that a terrorist bombing was intended for the conservative purpose of making sure that no social change will occur? Vladimir knows this intention; it was his own. But he fails to realize that a number of other people are trying to stop things, too, and that their intentions are of considerable importance to the story that he believes he can control.

One of these people is Verloc's very unrevolutionary wife, Winnie. To Winnie, any unexpected movement, even a cab ride to the other side of town, seems to result from a “mania for locomotion.”35 Her goal is to keep her brother Stevie from contracting any such disease. She is wholly devoted to Stevie's welfare, and she knows that he requires a controlled environment. That is why she made the otherwise inexplicable decision to marry Adolf Verloc. She cherished few illusions about Verloc's character, but his very inertness was appealing; it gave good promise of an inertly protective home life. The promise appears to have been fulfilled. Stevie is comfortably immobilized in the Verlocs' living quarters, where he passes his time with a compass and a piece of paper, drawing “circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles”— concrete forms of stasis and enclosure.36

But somehow, when you see them all together, those innumerable, intersecting circles, “concentric, eccentric,” suggest something else, too—they suggest a “cosmic chaos”; they suggest, perhaps... a bomb explosion. That is what happens. Winnie's attempt to keep Stevie tucked firmly inside the family circle is sickeningly self-defeating. Immured in Verloc's home, Stevie overhears the violent propaganda of the radicals who hold their meetings there. Not being very bright, Stevie “believes it's all true.”37 His doom is secured when Winnie tries to anchor him more deeply in her husband's affections by encouraging them to do more things together. Verloc acts on her encouragement. He uses his tête-à-têtes with Stevie to enlist him in the bomb plot. Inspired by an impulse of humanitarian revolt against the world of suffering and oppression that he has heard the anarchists describe, Stevie tries to bring it to a stop. He attacks the observatory and—in a gruesome over-fulfillment of his sister's desire to immobilize him permanently—is blown into a thousand pieces.

His destruction is also hers. To prevent him from getting lost, she has carefully labeled his clothing with his address. The address survives. With amazing speed, it brings the police to Winnie's door. She learns that her brother is dead and that her husband is responsible for his death. Now the action of the novel—the action initiated by Stevie's, Winnie's, Verloc's, Vladimir's, and the Professor's variously motivated attempts to bring things to a stop—approaches its secret climax. Alone with her husband in the depths of the family circle, Winnie reaches for the carving knife and plunges it into her husband's heart. He dies as he had hoped to live, “without stirring a limb,” his final action a faint verbal revolt against action. “Don't,” he says.38

For Winnie, that word quickly develops a special significance: “Don't let them hang me... !”39 But to keep that from happening, she can think of no other way than to get to the river and drown herself. She is planning the final preventive action of a life devoted to preventing action. As we will see, she accomplishes her purpose, in a way. But this is not the only line of action that Conrad is developing.

While these misfortunes befall Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, other people are becoming agitated by the explosion at Greenwich. The revolutionary establishment is distressed to find that someone has actually done something. Police Inspector Heat is distressed to find that Verloc, who has been working as Heat's spy as well as Vladimir's, is implicated in the affair. Heat's superior, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, is distressed by Heat's attempt to cover up what happened. He is even more distressed when he discovers that Verloc has been involved with a foreign embassy. All these dignitaries want the many-branching sequence of events to stop before it causes serious embarrassment to themselves.

The Assistant Commissioner succeeds in lopping one branch. He visits Vladimir and lets him know that somehow, in some way that remains mysterious to this brilliant theoretician of human action, his attempted meddling in British politics has been discovered. Vladimir is now finished in the London diplomatic corps. His attempt to suppress the anarchists has resulted in his own suppression. So much for his part of the story. He has stopped.

But events keep developing in other directions. Simply by investigating and attempting to manage the sequence of actions, the Assistant Commissioner extends it into areas that he can neither understand nor control. His investigation calls Heat's competence into question and activates his self-protective desire to keep things as they are. Heat revolts against his superior, or at least against his superior's way of suppressing revolt. He discovers that the Assistant Commissioner plans to use Verloc as evidence, thereby inviting unwelcome revelations about the “system of supervision” by which Heat monitors the anarchists.40 Heat tries to procure Verloc's silence. He tells him to skip town.

Verloc resists. Afraid that the anarchists will try to kill him, he looks to the Assistant Commissioner to preserve his life. He wants protective incarceration. Characteristically, he doesn't want to move. But now it is his turn, and Heat's, to experience a gruesome over-fulfillment of desire. Verloc will be still and silent, all right, because Winnie has overheard his conversation with Heat and has gathered the truth about her brother's death. She makes sure that Verloc will engage in no future conversations. She kills him.

These plot lines suggest that the Professor was right. The only way to command human action is to “exterminate” all the “swarming,” “industrious,” “thoughtless” human insects.


But what kind of story is this?

Literary critics often regard The Secret Agent as an anatomy of bourgeois society and a diagnosis of its chronic, perhaps fatal ills.41 A century after the diagnosis, the patient appears more alive than ever. Who is mistaken: Conrad or the critics?

In fact, the physicians have read the wrong chart. The Secret Agent neither anatomizes nor diagnoses society, if by “society” one means that aggregation of economic and occupational classes so minutely catalogued by the ordinary “social” or “economic” novelist. Conrad's characters have extraordinarily diverse social origins, but that is not enough to make them a cross-section of society. For one thing (has anybody noticed?), none of the major participants in this tragedy of capitalist society is engaged in any kind of capitalistic enterprise.42 None of them makes anything, except the Professor; he makes bombs. And none of them sells anything, in the normal way of selling, except Verloc; he keeps a store that dispenses soft-core pornography. But his enterprise runs at a loss; it is just a front for his real business, which is spying. There are “no commerical reasons” for it.43 What unites the characters in this book is the fact that they either work for the government or work by opposing the government— or both, in Verloc's case. They are perfectly innocent of the commercial or “consumerist” mentality that the literary segment of the intelligentsia has always regarded as the sickness of bourgeois society.

That does not mean (to return to an earlier point) that they are immune to economic considerations. Their behavior is thoroughly economic; they make investments, encounter risks, exchange goods, pay prices (which they generally regard as “enormous” and “extortionate”), enjoy profits, conclude contracts, and so forth. But their behavior shows that economics is not confined to financial transactions. In this novel, as in the real world, economic values and incentives extend far beyond the financial band of the spectrum.

To Michaelis, for example, dialectical materialism is a compelling, though a wholly nonmaterial, business occupation. He has paid for his interest in the enterprise with fifteen years in prison, and he regards himself as profiting by the exchange. Because he has paid so much for materialism, he feels justified in treating it as his private property, doling out rations of theory as if he were sole owner of the franchise. He finds this gratifying. Materialism is worth at least as much to him as Inspector Heat's pay envelope is worth to Heat—more proof that Mises was right when he argued that economic values are individual and subjective.

Heat himself notices that materialist ideas of profit and loss do not apply very well to the revolutionaries' pursuit of their “morbid ideals.”44 He would like to think that revolutionaries are the only eccentrics he has to deal with, the only people who are driven by nonmaterial incentives. But a chance meeting with the Professor establishes the fact that despite Heat's pay envelope, his own chief incentives are as nonmaterial, and perhaps as eccentric, as those of his adversaries. As the Professor suggests, Heat is inspired by a love of intrigue, a desire to win, and a desire to be seen as a winner. Next to his love of life, he loves “[t]he game.”45 Heat can bluster all he wants, but the Professor is as right as Mises was about the unpredictable and subjective nature of values.

And Conrad's critics are also right, righter than they know. They have worried a good deal about the defects of capitalist society, as revealed in its effects on the characters in this novel, but none of them imagines that Winnie, Stevie, Vladimir, Michaelis, the Professor, or the Assistant Commissioner is chasing the almighty pound. All of these people are, for want of a better term, idealists. Verloc might seem the great exception to the rule that nonmaterial motives prevail; his relationship to his jobs is purely mercenary. Yet money in itself is not his object. Money has value for him only as a means of purchasing idleness, the nonmaterial, the spiritual commodity to which he is “devoted... with a sort of inert fanaticism” or “fanatical inertness.”46 After his fashion, Verloc is an idealist, too; even a fanatic.

The central group of characters is surrounded by a penumbra of other, chiefly anonymous folk—the people in the street, the people who have nothing to do with revolution, the people whom the Professor scorns as subhuman. These people may be more influenced by material rewards than those who dwell within the novel's deep umbra of political intrigue. That, anyway, is what Mr. Vladimir thinks. He believes that the typical member of bourgeois society worships “material prosperity” and is virtually innocent of ideas.47 But Vladimir's theories are of doubtful reliability. If he ever met Inspector Heat, for example, he would surely assume that the hypothesis applied to him; but we know better. Vladimir's ideas are a helpful contrast to Conrad's own. Material interests, Conrad suggests, are not without importance, but they are only one aspect of a larger marketplace than the materialists can imagine. The marketplace embraces everyone, even people who, for nonmaterial reasons, want to destroy it.

Because The Secret Agent is praxeological, rather than social or economic in the narrow sense, it includes in its marketplace everything that people are willing to buy, every kind of thing that provides a motive for human action—including the idea of ending human action as we know it. The novel identifies the existence of markets in every kind of good and service. It illustrates the curious ways in which markets establish costs and prices and organize human action across all barriers of social class and status and political affiliation.

Consider Adolf Verloc as a site of market activity. Verloc has things to sell, mainly nonmaterial things: his political and social services, such as they are. These things have value; other people are willing to pay for them. In the “exchange” process, he gets commodities that are “worth something to him.”48 Vladimir pays him with cash, Heat with police protection, Michaelis with revolutionary solidarity and credulity, Winnie with conjugal toleration of his shady operations, Stevie with doglike obedience, the Professor with explosives. Each person expects, in return, to get something that he or she regards as valuable: clandestine information, a place for political meetings, a good home, a bomb outrage.

These expectations of profit are as diverse as the various individuals' social origins and psychologies. Markets—legal and illegal—have a strong tendency to unite all the weirdly assorted strands of society in “a causal web of high complexity.”49 They do so, not by imposing common pursuits or common values, but by allowing shared access to the many types of goods on sale. The result is not a static but a dynamic set of relationships.

We see this in the Verloc affair. Verloc's local market, like any other, is an arena of rising and falling prices, rigorously subject, in its fluctuations, to the law of marginal utility.50 When Vladimir indicates that the embassy is reluctant to pay the same price for the next unit of Verloc's “work” that it paid for the last few units, Verloc suddenly has to provide a lot more service to keep himself in business. He renegotiates his contract, strikes a new bargain: if Vladimir insists, he will go so far as to blow up Greenwich Observatory. At some point, however, it is useless to bargain, because no one wants any more of what you have to sell. Verloc reaches that point when the bomb plot miscarries. Thereafter, the Assistant Commissioner is the only person who sets any value on Verloc, and the only thing that interests him is Verloc's testimony, which he can get for practically nothing. He doesn't value Verloc enough to lodge him immediately in a safe jail cell. Tomorrow, he decides, will be soon enough; but by that time, Winnie has intervened and destroyed the merchandise.

Once she was willing to pay an enormous price for Verloc. She was even willing to marry him. He, and the home he made for Stevie, represented “[h]er contract with existence.”51 Like virtually all agreements by which people spontaneously structure their lives, Winnie's contract was only implicit.52 It was real and significant nonetheless. Winnie agreed to marry Verloc and fulfill all the duties normally regarded as part of marriage; Verloc agreed to give Stevie a protective home. But Verloc ceased to fulfill the terms of the contract. He ceased to give Stevie protection. He caused Stevie's death. Winnie's “bargain” has therefore ended.53

That is how Winnie sees it, at any rate. But the difficulty about implicit contracts is that people are so prone to misinterpret them. Ever since John Locke published his unguarded statements about implicit contracts as a basis of people's obligations to government,54 the possibility of over- or under-interpretation of contracts has vexed liberal social theory. Winnie encounters this problem in the domestic sphere. She believes that her contract with her husband is broken and that she is free. But Verloc's interpretation is evidently not the same as hers. Certain disturbingly sexual signs in his behavior indicate that he believes the marriage contract is still in force. He still expects to be obeyed, even loved. Now that he has “murdered Stevie,” Winnie concludes, he will “want to keep her for nothing.”55 Naturally, she refuses to renegotiate the contract on such unfavorable terms. She wants no further units of Verloc's life; in fact, she has a fluctuating, though a generally declining, interest in further units of her own life. By the end of the novel, she has liquidated both investments. For good or ill, all of this is explicable in market terms; in materialist terms, little or none of it makes sense.


Winnie is not the only person who wants to liquidate an investment. Inspector Heat, the embassy, and the anarchists have all made losing investments in Verloc, and none of them is anxious to maintain the connection. Nobody has lost as much as Winnie, but everybody has paid something for failing to see just how shaky Verloc's enterprise was. But what went wrong?

Part of the problem was the simple stupidity of Verloc and his investors. But part of it (to be scrupulously fair) was the peculiar nature of his business. Here the analogy between Verloc's establishment and a commercial enterprise breaks down. Verloc & Co. is not a satire on free enterprise; it is a satire on political attempts to control or destroy free enterprise.

Verloc's most potent investors—Vladimir, Heat, the “anarchists”—have dealings with him because they want either to manage the political marketplace or replace it, substituting a tyranny or a police superintendency or a collectivist utopia. Because the investors are motivated by mutually intolerant political ideas, each can ultimately profit from his investment only if the others do not profit from theirs. This is not a normal business. The best that the management can do is nothing; and although Verloc is the right man for that job, he is finally forced into action because one investor, Vladimir, insists on taking his profits now. That insistence destroys the enterprise.

But (again to be fair) the enterprise always presented difficulties for the investors as well as for the entrepreneur. The investors always had to deal with what economists call high information costs. If you want to invest or continue to invest in an enterprise, you have to pay some price in time, energy, or money to find out how well it is doing. Money itself is usually the cheapest source of information. In most cases, you can ask, “How much money does this company make?” and find the answer in a financial report. In this respect, as in others, money is not a problem for human action but a partial solution to its problems—as classical-liberal praxeology has always maintained.

But Verloc is not running a typical capitalistic enterprise. His business is strictly political; it can even be called nonprofit, as nonprofit enterprises are usually defined. Its dividends, if any, are nonmaterial. Investors in such enterprises can have a very hard time finding out if any dividends are being paid. Investors in specifically political enterprises, whether these are states or parties or little spy shops like Verloc's, often have to pay extraordinary prices for any information they can get. And that is what Verloc's associates have to do.

For Heat and the anarchists, the final price of information is a distinct loss of professional prestige: they trusted Verloc, and he made fools of them. For Vladimir, it is loss of prestige coupled with loss of a job. For Winnie, who is the least connected with politics and knows the least about it, the cost is higher still. Instinctively understanding that information can come at too high a price, she has “wasted no portion of this transient life in seeking” it—a policy that Conrad's narration describes as “a sort of economy,” a saving of information costs.56 When Winnie finally does get reasonably full information about Verloc's business affairs, the cost is life itself. What happens to her is a parable of power politics in the modern world, a parable of what happens to the small investor, not in Toyota or Microsoft, but in the political apparatus.57


Information has a cost, however, in any social or economic system. Conrad dramatizes this axiom by making The Secret Agent a peculiarly inconclusive novel of detection, a novel in which everyone is too enmeshed in the web of causation to see to the end of more than one short strand.

This is praxeological realism. Everyone is connected by the transactions of daily life with the lives of countless other people, most of them total strangers. The web of relationships is woven by an uncountable number of invisible hands. It transcends all social barriers; it eludes all attempts to direct or destroy it. These attempts, indeed, ordinarily redouble its complexity by redoubling the relationships that constitute it.

How can a novel capture this complexity? Part of Conrad's solution is an unusually realistic arrangement of characters. Novels are usually written about groups of people who either know one another or are well known by some one person. In The Secret Agent, knowledge is harder for characters to organize, and the narrative pattern enforces the sense of difficulty. The general pattern is this: the reader is introduced to character A, who knows character B; then to character C, who is also known to character B;58 but C and A know nothing of each other, despite the fact that C may exert a crucial influence on A by means of their mutual transactions with B.

Begin, for example, with Mr. Vladimir. We see him in chapter 2 transacting business with Verloc. He orders Verloc to blow up Greenwich Observatory. We next see Verloc at home with Stevie and Winnie. They know nothing about Vladimir, and Vladimir knows only that Verloc is somehow, inexplicably, married. But before the story ends, Vladimir's bright idea will have caused the deaths of all three people in the Verloc household, and these people will have somehow, inexplicably, caused him to lose his job.

In chapter 3, Verloc introduces us to the anarchist Ossipon, whom we follow into chapter 4, where Ossipon introduces us to the Professor, who by this time has supplied Verloc with the explosives for Vladimir's bomb plot. Both Vladimir and the Professor would be amused to learn that they had cooperated in the production of a revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) act, but neither of them knows of the other's existence, and the Professor can only speculate about Verloc's affairs. Leaving Ossipon, the Professor enters chapter 5 and accidentally encounters Inspector Heat, who happens to be investigating the bomb outrage. Heat knows nothing about the Professor's role in the bombing, and he learns nothing from the Professor himself. After an exchange of insults, Heat goes to confer with the Assistant Commissioner, his boss, who by the time we reach chapter 7 is on his way to confer with his own boss, Sir Ethelred, the Home Secretary. It goes without saying that Sir Ethelred is wholly unacquainted with the Verloc household, and vice versa; neither does he appear to be acquainted with Mr. Vladimir, who started this sequence of actions.

In just a few steps, we have journeyed from a point near the top of the social hierarchy (the cultivated Mr. Vladimir) to a point near the bottom (Comrade Ossipon, who lives as a parasite on poor working girls), and then to a point near the top again (the aristocratic Sir Ethelred). Yet the shape of the staircase is largely invisible to the people who are on it. At each step, conversation takes place and information is exchanged, as much information as each individual considers profitable to exchange; but it is never sufficient to provide any of them with anything like a prospect of the whole. They are all intimately involved in the same affair, but none of them can see more than one or two steps away from his or her own position. In ways that the characters do not understand, for all their theorizing, they are united in a spontaneous order, an order woven by their most private transactions but extending throughout society.

In this great web of relationships, invisible and informal hierarchies are often more potent than visible and formal ones. That is the hidden significance of Michaelis's Lady Patroness. When she finally appears in the novel, it is because of her relationship with the Assistant Commissioner, not her relationship with Michaelis. The revolutionary and the head policeman have no dealings with each other, but they happen to have the same Patroness. While Michaelis profits from her public charity, the Assistant Commissioner profits from her private ministrations to yet another of the novel's third parties, his wife: “Her influence upon his wife, a woman devoured by all sorts of small selfishnesses, small envies, small jealousies, was excellent.”59 In exchange for this excellent influence on his wife, the Assistant Commissioner is willing to flatter the old lady's pride. He goes farther. He is willing to protect her friend Michaelis from the machinations of Inspector Heat, who plans to blame him for the bomb blast at Greenwich.

Such a charge would be nonsense. Michaelis knows nothing about bombs, because he knows nothing about anything. But Heat could easily take advantage of his ignorance and frame him. Crime control of that kind, carried on by the Assistant Commissioner's subordinate, would have a distinctly unfavorable effect on the Assistant Commissioner's relationship with the Lady Patroness and, consequently, with his wife. That possibility makes the Assistant Commissioner more interested than he would otherwise be in investigating Verloc and tracing the crime to him rather than Michaelis. He does so immediately and successfully, using the address that Winnie so providently sewed into Stevie's clothing. With the confession of Verloc, the case is closed, the profit made, so far as the Assistant Commissioner is concerned—and so far as Michaelis is concerned, too, if he only knew it.

But this is one of the many things he never learns. The Lady Patroness finds out about it because the Assistant Commissioner makes sure to tell her, so that he can gain the extra profit of her gratitude. But only the Assistant Commissioner knows why Michaelis has been spared. Only he knows the extent of the influence exerted on public business by a certain kind of private business. And, naturally, the Lady Patroness, that great humanitarian, remains sublimely unaware of the fact that Michaelis's freedom has been bought with Verloc's life, and Winnie's. The Lady Patroness has never heard of Winnie Verloc.

Every hierarchy has a top and a bottom—the exploiters and the exploited, as the political materialists would have it. But in a complex society, characterized by many types of human action, top and bottom can be variously defined. In strictly economic terms, the top of the pyramid, at the end of this novel, seems to be Michaelis. In the action of the book, Michaelis is the person who pays least and profits most. Everyone works for his benefit. It is for the benefit of Michaelis, the enemy of all markets, profits, and hierarchical relationships, that aristocrats, police officials, publishers, spies, and women who are simply trying to gain a measure of security for their families all contrive or suffer.

Here is a praxeological irony that the Assistant Commissioner presumably would not find amusing, if he perceived it. But even he, the novel's best detective, cannot see the full extent of the tragicomedy in which he has been acting. There is too much human action standing in the way.

At 10:30 p.m. on the day that began with the bomb outrage, the Assistant Commissioner believes that he does see all the significant things. He has discovered who carried the bomb, and whose idea it was that there should be a bomb; he has obtained Verloc's confession, and he has put Vladimir on notice that his career as a diplomatic terrorist is over. Having accomplished all this, and it is a lot to accomplish, the Assistant Commissioner looks at his watch and congratulates himself on “a very full evening.”60 He cannot know how full it has been. He cannot know that by pursuing Verloc he has stopped one sequence of events, only to start other sequences. He cannot know that because of his investigation, Winnie has killed Verloc and is now attempting to escape from England. At precisely 10:30 p.m., while the Assistant Commissioner is relishing what he regards as his perfect command of the facts, Winnie is leaving Waterloo Station on a train that will carry her to death by drowning in the English Channel.

This is a detective novel that has room for the tragedy of paying too much and the comedy of getting by without paying much at all, but it does not have room for a really conclusive act of detection. That is another of Conrad's jokes, for which he has to pay comparatively little. He merely has to represent the real conditions of human action—although, as Cather wrote, “The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”61


Few stories are more intricately and obviously contrived than The Secret Agent. But “contrived” is not synonymous with “false.” Any reader who thinks that this novel is false to human action has failed to notice that the only implausible element is the reader. It has well been said that most of the mysteries of The Secret Agent “remain ultimately unresolved—for the characters, that is, not for the readers.”62 Every exchange in the marketplace of a complex society results from so many causes and generates so many effects that only that curious literary invention, the omniscient reader, could possess all the relevant information about it. Even authors are not omniscient until their stories are finished and they read the final product. A novel that allows omniscience to any participant in human action is, to that degree, unrealistic.

But again, every kind of information has its costs, and even godlike readers have to pay. For them—for us—knowledge of human action is purchased at the price of an inability to affect its course. Human action in a work of art is knowable, in a way that other forms of human action are not, because it is permanently frozen. Its economy is finished; it is over before we, the observers, start on it.

We are used to paying this price; it is customary, and like many other customary economic obligations, it has become invisible. But things might have been different. One can imagine a society in which it is customary for audiences to walk on stage and revise the action of King Lear. What would happen? Quite probably, Gloucester's eyes would not be put out. But that is a guess. Every intervention would unsettle the economy of the text; every intervention would provide new occasions for choice and action by both the characters and the audience. Gloucester might lose his eyes in some other way.

The reader's omniscience is made possible by the author's omnipotence, the author's ability to plan the text and finish it. There can be no power of this kind in the economy of the world.63 The text of the world is a spontaneous collaboration that none of its human authors can conclude, despite any delusions of grandeur they may have. As Hayek's work maintains, the “fatal conceit” of our century is the idea that someone could actually know enough to design a world while living and acting inside it.64 “Conceit,” with its literary associations, is a good word for this delusion, which is essentially a delusion of authorship.

It appears as such in The Secret Agent. Conrad's intellectuals (or those who pass for intellectuals) cast themselves as omniscient plotters of human action, deriving their inspiration from literary sources that lead them to believe that the shape of history's narrative can be perceived by the genius of certain characters within it—perceived (as if from a distance) and, paradoxically, created.

For Michaelis, the guiding light is Marx's historical romances, in which the unnamed but obvious hero is the genius of Marx himself. Marx believed that he was changing history while charting its predestined course. Michaelis believes that about himself. He sees himself as a hero of authorship. He follows an even stricter principle of literary economy than Marx: his book of revolutionary theory, the Autobiography of a Prisoner, doubles as the story of his own life. It represents the history of the “prisoner's” ideas as the history of the world, a history that the book itself will help to write.

The anarchist Alexander Ossipon (“nicknamed the Doctor”) has also been reading and writing works of self-aggrandizing social “science.”65 He despises Michaelis, but he does not despise the genre of omniscient social theory in which Michaelis operates. “[A]fter all,” Ossipon says, “Michaelis may not be so far wrong. In two hundred years doctors will rule the world. Science reigns already. It reigns in the shade maybe—but it reigns. And all science must culminate at last in the science of healing.”66 Ossipon does his best to write himself into that story. His imagination transforms him from a failed medical student into a member of the future ruling class, scientists for whom knowledge will truly be power. He thus acquires “that glance of insufferable, hopelessly dense sufficiency which nothing but the frequentation of science can give to the dulness of common mortals.”67 Ossipon, who has written such pamphlets as “The Corroding Vices of the Middle Classes,”68 surveys the world as if he had been put in charge of it.

The Professor has been reading somewhat different material. His attitudes owe something to Marx but more to Max Stirner, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herbert Spencer. A strange assemblage: but the Professor does what imaginative people usually do with their sources; he makes them his own, adding and subtracting and using tricks of emphasis to obscure the contradictions. It is not fidelity that matters; it is literary effect. What emerges is a proto-fascist narrative about a world in which the strong will revolt against the weak and subject them to “utter extermination.”69 The Professor refuses to specify the details of this interesting plan; he even denies that he has a “plan.” Nevertheless, he knows (as Michaelis knows, and Marx once knew) that the climax of the story will be an entirely “new conception of life.” Once that is in place, he will generously allow the “future” to “take care of itself.”70

At the other side of the political spectrum are Vladimir's fantasies about “international action,” “universal repressive legislation,” and a total “cure” for anarchism.71 For these imaginings there is no specific, readily identifiable literary source, but there is a strong odor of decaying words. Vladimir's social theory is a collection of literary stereotypes. “The imbecile bourgeoisie”; “the damned professors”; “the boot blacks in the basement of Charing Cross Station”; moronic tradesmen, as interpreted by comic fiction: these are the substance of his theory. Nothing suggests that he has any substantial knowledge of the kinds of people he discusses, but he has evidently read enough to absorb some useful images, which he recreates as if communing with the muse—“from on high, with scorn and condescension.”72 He enforces his opinions (his soi-disant “philosophy”) in self-consciously literary ways. He tells stories, asks rhetorical questions, cracks little jokes, mobilizes symbols (“Go for the first meridian”), and personally enacts a series of dramatic roles: British aristocrat, Cockney, Eastern despot, social scientist.73 Again, what counts is the impression, not the truth—in this case, the truth about human action. The purely verbal text is worth more to Vladimir than the praxeological one.

When his grip on concrete evidence fails him, which it does not take long to do, he retreats to the modern intellectual's last refuge, dialectic—a literary means of turning hopeless contradictions into helpful paradoxes, “droll connections between incongruous ideas.”74 Other characters practice this method, too. Michaelis's dialectical theory begins with an observation that is unusually accurate, for him: “No one can tell what form the social organisation may take in the future.” But it ends with the very different idea of “a world planned out.”75 And by whom is that world to be planned, if not by people like Michaelis? The most useful paradoxes are those that allow the greatest scope for authorial power.

Vladimir tries to perform the same kind of dialectical parlor trick. He describes a world cursed by revolutionary violence and the disorganized minds of the bourgeoisie, and from this chaotic world he proposes to create an unyieldingly firm social order. His tools? The same revolutionary violence, reacting on the same disorganized minds. Perhaps the books that lurk behind his ideas are Marxist books, after all. Vladimir, famed for his wit, has found an amusing way to get the Marxist narrative of “social contradictions” to operate in reverse. It is a demonstration of literary skill, a quality that Vladimir, like Conrad's other ideologues, would like to transform into political control.

Vladimir's complaint against the English middle class is that it has “no imagination” and no sense of defining form; it simply wants to continue its spontaneous ways of thinking and feeling. Hence the “sentimental regard for individual liberty” shown by this “imbecile bourgeoisie”; hence its refusal to embrace his version of “finality.”76 This is the kind of political grievance that one expects to hear from a literary artist. It is characteristic of all those men and women of letters who have turned against bourgeois liberalism, not because bourgeois society has broken down or failed in its competition with its adversaries, but because it lacks a satisfying artistic shape, an ability to banish every ugly problem. Such critics were right, to this extent: the liberal social order can never achieve a final form. It is not a work of art. It is not planned by anyone. It is a collaboration of everyone involved in its sphere of human action, a collaboration of immense and indefinite extent, the form of which is constantly subject to change by the unpredictable actions of every collaborator.


Modern liberals have been as dissatisfied as anyone else with the sloppiness of the liberal order. That is one of the major reasons, as Hayek suggested, for the prevalence of the “fatal conceit” of power and planning.77 The embodiment of modern liberal ideas in The Secret Agent is the Home Secretary, Sir Ethelred, an enthusiastic social planner. Sir Ethelred appears at the point in British history at which the old liberalism of laissez-faire was yielding to the new liberalism of the welfare state. It was a revolution, and like many other revolutions it was directed from the top down, by men of established social position and power. Sir Ethelred is such a man. He can be compared to Vladimir and the Lady Patroness, highly placed personalities who also believe that their social position entitles them to see to the needs of the lower orders. They are all Patrons; they are all people who want to lay hands upon the world and confer upon it the benefits of their own social stability.

In a novel that is full of heavy, controlling people, Sir Ethelred is one of the heaviest and most controlling. But this is not enough; he even appears to be “expanding.”78 Certainly he wants expanded powers. His current project is a Bill for the Nationalization of Fisheries. This is “a revolutionary measure,” according to his well-born private secretary Toodles, “the revolutionary Toodles”; and as you might expect, “[t]he reactionary gang” in Parliament considers it “the beginning of social revolution.”79 They're right.80 It's not exactly Bolshevism, but it represents something equally powerful, the rebellion of the new liberalism of social planning against the old, “reactionary” liberalism of limited government. And from Conrad's point of view it is susceptible to some of the same difficulties. Like Michaelis and everyone else who wants to manage the world, Sir Ethelred just doesn't know enough to do it.

True, his office has access to economic information of some kind. Toodles has some statistics, since he claims to know that the reactionaries have “shamelessly cooked” their own. But the important thing is Sir Ethelred's private meditations, the ideas that he comes up with when, as Toodles says, he is “sitting all alone” in a dark room, “thinking of all the fishes of the sea.”81 This solitude does not inspire confidence. Toodles says that his boss has a “massive intellect,” but that is what somebody named Toodles would say about his boss.82 Sir Ethelred's conversastions with the Assistant Commissioner offer more evidence of mass than of intellect, so far as Sir Ethelred is concerned. Regarding mere information as beneath his notice, he refuses to hear the Assistant Commissioner's report on the Greenwich explosion unless all the annoying particulars are excluded.83 In the absence of facts, he shows a tendency to jump (if that's the right word for a man who can barely walk) to entirely wrong conclusions. The Assistant Commissioner needs considerable skill to keep him from ruining the investigation by imposing ideas of his own, ideas that are commanding but inadequate to the situation they would command.

Sir Ethelred exemplifies the fact that intellectual incompetence is not confined to avowed enemies of the state. He is one more illustration of the affinity between scarcity of knowledge and pretensions to power.84 He has another function, too. He helps Conrad address the general problem of scarcity—scarcity of knowledge, scarcity of time, scarcity of means of every type— that is embedded in every form of human action. Sir Ethelred is in rebellion against the very idea that anything he needs should be scarce and costly.

This is a reaction against something more fundamental than the liberalism of laissez-faire. It is a reaction against the nature of the world itself. When the Assistant Commissioner happens to mention the fact that “this is an imperfect world,” Sir Ethelred hastily cuts him off: “Be lucid, please.”85 The offending remark was extremely lucid; Sir Ethelred merely resents having to hear it. To be more specific, he resents having to take the time to hear either it or any other elucidation of fact. The price of facts is enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying. “Don't go into details,” he says. “I have no time for that.”86

The world that Sir Ethelred longs for, the world that he tries to create in the isolation of his room, is a world in which he has fully sufficient means to command such grossly imperfect things as terrorists, policemen, fish, and time. To some degree, he succeeds in his assault on time; at least he creates the impression of success, which is valuable for political as well as artistic purposes. In either case, an impression carries its own weight and authority. The Assistant Commissioner has to hurry through his report while Sir Ethelred, the “great Personage,” stands as massively portentous as power itself. The tableau suggests an audience granted by an eternal “oak” to a frail mortal “reed.”87 The current of time that bore the Assistant Commissioner into Sir Ethelred's office, where he dared to imply that the great man lacked perfect knowledge of a (nearly) perfect world, will soon bear the intruder out again, leaving Sir Ethelred still glaring down from his high place in the forest.

Among the furnishings of Sir Ethelred's perpetually darkened room is a clock, “a heavy, glistening affair of massive scrolls in the same dark marble as the mantelpiece.”88 In the presence of old Sir Ethelred, time itself seems to age and grow heavy, almost too heavy to squirm out of his control. But any attempt to subdue time is ultimately as futile as Stevie's attempt on Greenwich Observatory. Time is the counter-revolutionary that always wins. While Sir Ethelred is haughtily not looking, “the ponderous marble time piece with the sly, feeble tick... take[s] the opportunity to steal through no less than five and twenty minutes behind his back.”89 The tick of Sir Ethelred's clock is the tiny, unobtrusive, yet decisive evidence that even he is mortal.

To put this in a more praxeological way, the tick of the clock is decisive evidence that all human action—even the Home Secretary's brief chat with his Assistant Commissioner— takes place under the sign of imperfection and scarcity. Scarcity is part of the objective framework of human action. It necessitates choice, it evokes subjective preferences, but it cannot be mastered by choice or preference, no matter how strongly it incites them to express themselves. No matter what Sir Ethelred tries to do or not to do, his clock slyly confirms this fact.

Sir Ethelred can react to the scarcity of time in many ways: he can look at his clock or turn his back on it; he can break his clock or sell it; he can become a mystic and transcend the normal human concern with clocks. The objective conditions of human action require only that he make some choice and assign some preference at each moment of his limited time. He cannot be, do, have, and control everything, all at once; at each moment he has to prefer one course of action to all others, and he has to risk the possibility that his choice may be wrong, that he may never get the profit he expects from it. These are the requirements of all human action, and as such, they are the requirements of every attempt to do without requirements. Sir Ethelred makes an attempt of this nature when he tries to cheat time and deny the imperfections of his knowledge and control. But the clock is still moving; its sly, feeble tick can still be heard.


Scarcity is the basis of choice and action. This is not a particularly cheerful fact. The modern age has been marked by many attempts to thrust that ponderous detail into the background, to create a world in which scarcity will no longer be regarded as a condition of human action. Freedom from scarcity has been considered both a human right and a technological possibility.90

Of course, a world without scarcity would be a world in which there would be no incentive for human action, and thus no human action. In response to this tritely obvious reflection, exponents of a post-scarcity economy have usually restricted the definition of “economy” to the production and distribution of material goods, and the definition of “scarcity” to the lack of certain necessary goods that modern technology can (and therefore should) provide for everyone. The ideal of a society in which all material necessities are supplied to everyone has decisively shaped modern concepts of economic justice and personal entitlement. It has inspired countless political movements of the left, right, and center. It has provided a source of high inspiration for people throughout the world. Every practical frustration of the ideal has thrust it back into the seedbed of political hopes, thence to flower in renewed efforts at social planning. It is obscurely felt that the ideal must, somehow, be realizable.

Marxist critics of ideology show imaginative insight when they postulate the existence of a “political unconscious” that can be marvelously resistant to reason and experience. Some of the best evidence for the hypothesis can be found in their own adherence to the post-scarcity ideal as a standard by which to measure the failings of bourgeois society. But who will decide what is “necessary” for any other individual's life? Who, precisely, will decide what is just for everyone to demand from the economy, when the standard of economic justice “depend[s] so much” (as Conrad indicates) “upon the patience of the individual”?91 Who will judge these matters, and how will the judgments be enforced?

To make plans for the allocation of material things is hard enough. Every successive attempt to guarantee an “abundant” distribution of these goods through taxation, rationing, welfare and social security plans, or outright nationalization (the older methods), or “sanctions,” “incentives,” and “guidelines” (the newer ones) testifies to their persistent scarcity. But how shall we remedy the chronic scarcity of such nonmaterial things as courage, competence, and common sense, without which even the largest supply of material goods may be worth exactly nothing to the possessors?

And this is a mere detail, compared with the failure of post-scarcity idealists to answer (or even, in most cases, to ask) one other question. Assume that everyone can agree on some definition of necessity and justice; assume that “necessities” can be equated with “material necessities”; assume that “technology” can be guaranteed to supply all necessities of this kind, to everyone. What will guarantee that the technological necessities will be supplied? Tools do not spontaneously generate themselves. They can be provided only by heavy investments of such resources as time, energy, and intelligence. These resources are necessities, but they are always scarce. Ours is a world in which people do everything that they do only by not doing everything else. It is a world in which Cather's Alexandra Bergson can “write” her story only by taking “a big chance,” only by giving up on all the other possible stories.92 It is a world in which Alexandra, and everyone else, must die.

Efforts have been made to ignore such commonplaces of human action. But to ignore them is to deny what may be called the metaphysical basis, the final facts, of praxeology. Albert Camus, who made “metaphysical rebellion” a central part of his explanation of the past two centuries of human behavior, defined that kind of revolt as a “claim against the suffering of life and death and a protest against the human condition both for its incompleteness, thanks to death, and its wastefulness, thanks to evil.” It is a rebellion against scarcity in general. Metaphysical rebels, Camus says, respond to this fact about the world by trying to plan the world anew, to reconstruct it wholesale “according to their own concepts.”93

Fortunately or unfortunately—for the rebellions in Camus' book range from romantic attempts to live without boredom to Marxist attempts to live without real economics—the attempt always fails.94 It has to fail, because it is a rebellion against the conditions of all human action. That is how both Camus and the classical-liberal praxeologists frame the problem. They emphasize the idea that all subjective “claims” are situated within objective conditions—objective because they are both real and readily apparent. If attempts are made to deny them, they will make themselves known.

Certain permanently true things can be said even about such subjective things as economic valuation. This too has been denied by philosophers like Michaelis, who preaches the great truth that “everything is changed by economic conditions—art, philosophy, love, virtue—truth itself!”95 But time, space, and matter, all of them agents of scarcity and therefore of choice and valuation, are not social constructions that will be replaced by other social constructions. Conrad evidently believes that this virtually self-evident truth needs to be insisted upon. He therefore repeatedly shows his characters in revolt against the metaphysical framework of human action, and he pictures their revolt as tragically and comically self-defeating.

This is the final meaning of the attempt to destroy the prime meridian, which is the beginning and the end of the world's measurements of time, space, and matter. “Nothing easier,” Vladimir says, as if he had not been driven to concoct his plan by the hard facts of scarcity.96 Time is running out; there will soon be a conference of diplomats who will need to be impressed by an act of terrorism; if they are not impressed, then the reactionary age that Vladimir envisions will not come to be. Under these circumstances, no better project comes to mind than the destruction of Greenwich Observatory, and no better tool than Adolf Verloc. Vladimir, hurrying, orders Verloc to attack the prime meridian. Verloc, hurrying, finds no better tool than his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie, hurrying, takes the bomb and, stumbling with it, perishes. Or perhaps, as the Professor thinks, Verloc underestimated the speed of the detonator and “ran the time too close.”97 Anyhow, Stevie is dead, a victim of time and the scarcity of time. The human technology that would be necessary to produce either revolution or reaction is just too scarce to do the job. The prime meridian endures and triumphs, a symbol of the imperturbable context that surrounds and provokes all human action: scarcity of time, scarcity of means, scarcity of life itself.

These are heavy burdens for anyone to bear. They seem especially heavy to Conrad's revolutionists, who make especially heavy demands on reality. Ossipon, the scientific revolutionist, emerges as their archetype. He encounters Winnie soon after she kills her husband. She sees him as her last hope to escape the police without the necessity of suicide. She pleads with him to help her, and he agrees; he wants her money. He would probably say that he needs her money. But he has a greater and more basic need, the need for time; his mind is fixed on “the shortcomings of time-tables.” He realizes that it may be too late to catch the last boat-train to France. In his view, this scarcity of time and poverty of means is manifestly unjust; it is a form of political oppression. “The insular nature of Great Britain obtruded itself upon his notice in an odious form. ’Might just as well be put under lock and key every night,’ he thought irritably.”98 Ossipon considers it unfair that islands should be surrounded by water. Like Conrad's other rebels, he will accept no scarcity; he must have what he wants. All he requires to satisfy his needs is that there should be no such thing as objective reality.


On his characters' political rebellions Conrad lavishes all the “indignant scorn” of which he speaks in his Author's Note.99 Yet he is willing to make certain rebellions almost succeed. If time is a chief source of resentment, he will oblige time's adversaries by “stopping” time. Then he can show what would happen if that could happen, albeit... momentarily. He “stops” time twice in The Secret Agent.

The first moment of timelessness occurs during a cab ride. The cab has been hired to convey Winnie's stout, crippled old mother from Mr. Verloc's residence in Soho to a charity home on the far side of the Thames. The journey is macabre in every way. The old lady's destination is a place that resembles “the straitened circumstances of the grave.”100 This is her “last cab ride”; she is riding in the “Cab of Death.”101 Her purpose in thus evacuating the world of human action is to relieve Verloc of financial responsibility for her, in the hope that he will then be more likely to continue supporting Stevie. She has decided, in effect, to bring her life to a stop so that Stevie's life can stop where it is.

Acting, in this way, to arrest action, she gets into the cab; and Winnie and Stevie go along to assist her. Sure enough, time appears to be shuddering to a stop. The “Cab of Death” moves with such funereal solemnity that when it reaches Whitehall, “all visual evidences of motion” are rendered “imperceptible”: “The rattle and jingle of glass went on indefinitely in front of the long Treasury building—and time itself seemed to stand still.”102 What remains of time is just that faint rattle and jingle of time's inseparable opponent, action, and not much of that.

Has the progress of death been arrested, or is this death itself? A metaphysical question—but not one that occurs to Winnie Verloc, whose mind is on other matters. A woman of “unfathomable reserve” who has spent her life maintaining a decorous silence and inertness, she is scandalized by her mother's strange desire to go somewhere.103 Yet once involved in the cab's weak but stubborn confrontation with the inertness of the Treasury Building, Winnie becomes concerned. Her concern is practical and (in broad terms) economic. She wants to get something for the three-and-sixpence fare; she wants to go somewhere. She wants action; she wants the horse to move. In her inert way, she even protests. “This isn't a very good horse,” she says.104 And it isn't. The poor animal, which seems prepared to die even before it can remove Winnie's mother to her place of death, is an apt symbol for every kind of scarcity in this “imperfect world.”

This is something that Stevie can intuitively understand. He knows that if human action is to continue, the horse must be whipped. He feels the horse's suffering, but he recognizes the scarcity of alternatives. The cabman raises his whip; Stevie has to choose what he himself will do. He must do or not do something. He chooses to protest the motion of the cab. “Don't whip,” he orders the cabman. “You mustn't... it hurts.”105

Now it is the cabman's turn to contemplate a world of scarce alternatives and the choices that they require: “’Mustn't whip?’ queried the other in a thoughtful whisper, and immediately whipped.”106 But Stevie has one means of protest left. He jumps down from the cab, hoping to lighten its load and his own sense of responsibility. The driver hastily pulls up. The cab finally, definitely, stops. The timeless moment is complete.

Or is it? Before the wheels have ceased their motion, action has already resumed. The driver is cursing, people are running forward, people are shouting, Winnie is giving commands... time is visibly moving forward, and the cab is soon moving forward also, with Stevie back on board. His protest has merely contributed to the onward motion of events.

Part of that motion is an intensification of his revolt against the conditions of life. He learns that the problem is much bigger than he thought. The horse is not the only victim of a scarcity of needful resources. The cabman who whips the horse is a victim too. “This ain't an easy world,” he remarks, when his passengers finally arrive at their Hades-like destination. “’Ard on 'osses, but dam’ sight 'arder on poor chaps like me.” The cabman's idea of consolation is a stroll to a nearby pub.107 But this is a purely individual solution. Stevie needs something more general.

Letting his thought expand into the highest reaches of dialectic, he reaches the conclusion that the conditions of reality necessitate a total change in the conditions of reality. Michaelis envisions “a world planned out like an immense and nice hospital”; Stevie's idea is similar: he wants to create “a heaven of consoling peace” where he can take both horse and driver “to bed with him.” The idea is absurd, but not quite as absurd as Michaelis's idea; Stevie, unlike Michaelis, is capable (for the moment, at least) of a degree of self-criticism. He is able to see that his scheme is “impossible. For Stevie was not mad.”108

He is, however, rapidly becoming as angry and aggrieved as any professional revolutionist. He has always been the kind of person who feels “that somebody should be made to suffer” for the fact that he himself has scarce resources to relieve other people's suffering.109 His pity now transforms itself into “pitiless rage.” His “universal charity” makes him feel that this is a “bad world,” and that “[s]omebody... ought to be punished for it—punished with great severity.”110 He has limited means of punishing anyone. But like many other people of generous ambitions and limited means, he quickly thinks of supplementing them with political power.

His first political idea is more reformist than revolutionary. He wants to call the police. Their job, he believes, is to annihilate “evil,” so it is clearly their duty to wage war on poverty.111 But he discovers—as other humanitarians have discovered—that bourgeois institutions are simply not up to comprehensive purposes of reform. When Winnie hears his idea about using the police to promote his vision of social justice, she tells him flatly that “[t]he police aren't for that.” Well, Stevie asks, “What for are they then, Winn? What are they for?” Her answer is chilling: “Don't you know what the police are for, Stevie? They are there so that them as have nothing shouldn't take anything away from them who have.”112

This is a terrible blow to Stevie's respect for legally constituted authority. He is surprised to find that the police have limited powers and that their powers are limited to imposing limitations. They are dreadfully implicated in the world of scarcity. At one time, before Stevie learned what the police are for, he cherished an “ideal conception” of them. Now he realizes that ideals are not the same as realities, and he suffers a loss of confidence— not in himself but in the institutions of bourgeois society. He adopts the ideology of suspicion that is customary with modern intellectuals who are concerned about “the problem of the distribution of wealth”: he decides that the police were just “pretending” to play a benevolent social role.113 Wishing “to go to the bottom of the matter,” he is now prepared to listen when Verloc invites him to join the “humanitarian enterprise” of demolishing the bourgeois system.114 He is ready to go for the prime meridian.

The momentary stoppage of time that followed Stevie's “don't” (the command that in this novel comes so easily to people's lips) has been followed, in turn, by an explosion of activity—activity devoted, like his mother's “mania for locomotion,” to the futile task of bringing human action to a stop. Stevie goes for the prime meridian, and is killed there.


The second occasion on which Conrad “stops” time is one of the many unpredictable results of the first occasion. When it happens, Winnie is standing motionless. Her husband is lying motionless before her. He is not merely motionless; he is dead. She has killed him. In response to Stevie's fatal development of political ideas, Winnie's own political ideas have also developed. They have led to a seizure of power. With one stroke of her carving knife, she has destroyed what she regarded as an outmoded “contract with existence.” As a consequence, action has stopped. Time has stopped. She is “free”:

She had become a free woman with a perfection of freedom which left her nothing to desire and absolutely nothing to do.... [S]he did not think at all. And she did not move. She was a woman enjoying her complete irresponsibility and endless leisure, almost in the manner of a corpse. She did not move, she did not think.115

Winnie has achieved the condition to which every political figure in The Secret Agent aspires. She has abolished scarcity. She has nothing left to “desire,” and nothing, therefore, to “do.” She is beyond the world of human action. She might just as well be dead; and that, of course, is the significance of this moment in her life. A really successful metaphysical rebellion would entail the elimination of human action. It would mean something more than stopping the Cab of Death; it would mean death.

But Winnie has not yet arrived at the condition of her husband. He is dead and can remain that way without doing anything more about it. That is an objective fact. Winnie, however, cannot remain as she is without taking some action. That is an irony. It is also an objective fact. No matter what anyone thinks about the evolution of social and economic conditions, no condition of human existence will allow people to repudiate their contract with human existence itself, and live to enjoy the effects. So far as human beings are concerned, existence means action; we are, in Mises's words, not merely “homo sapiens” but “homo agens.”116 And all human action occurs in a context of scarcity.

An historian of economic thought has said that before the development of marginal utility theory, economists “never fully assimilated” scarcity into their systems.117 Strange: one might have expected them to start with that concept and its implications. Scarcity provides the basic terms of the praxeological contract on which all economic and social contracts are based. Only by ceasing to exist can one withdraw from that original contract, which is more primitive and authentic than any marriage contract, or any social contract in Locke, Rousseau, or Hume.

Winnie discovers this philosophical truth in a curious manner. Resting in silence and immobility, “car[ing] nothing for time,” she nevertheless discovers a sign of motion. There is a sound: “Tic, tic, tic.” It picks up speed; it comes “fast and furious”; it becomes “a continuous sound of trickling”; it is “blood!” Verloc's body is leaking blood “like the pulse of an insane clock.”118 With that realization, the world of time, space, and matter—the whole context of human action—comes rushing back around her, all its features as real and permanent as Greenwich Observatory or Sir Ethelred's clock. The context is completely objective and inescapably knowable. Winnie cannot ignore it; if she tries, it will return to her. It has done so.

With it comes a perception of the world of economics that exists inside the world of praxeology. This economic world is full of subjective desires and valuations, and hence of unpredictably fluctuating scarcities and surpluses. A few minutes ago, Verloc was worth something, at least to Winnie and himself. Now, as she thinks, he is “nothing. He [is] not worth looking at.”119 His worth, in fact, is less than nothing. There is far too much of him on hand. He is a liability from which she would like to escape. No doubt she would pay a good price to have him quietly removed.

Too much of one thing usually means too little of another. It seems to Winnie that her environment contains far too much matter of every kind—that body over there, this “maze” of London buildings that surrounds and imprisons her—and far too little time to get away from it. Where can she go? Even if her mother could help her, she is miles away: “too far”!120 Too little time, too much space; and, from another, admittedly subjective, point of view, too little space. Winnie remembers what the newspapers say about the hangman's procedures: “The drop given was fourteen feet.”121

As she returns to the world of action, and therefore to the world of relative valuations and marginal utilities, the value that she places on the successive moments of her life increases dramatically. Moments are precious to her again, because they offer the faint but all-important hope of doing something to save herself from what she fears the most. For the same reason, even Comrade Ossipon, whom she formerly loathed and attempted to avoid, begins to seem enormously valuable. When, by accident, Ossipon appears, she seizes the moment and binds herself to a new contract: if he will help her escape from England, she will give herself to him. That is the bargain she is now willing to strike.

But Ossipon keeps his contract with Winnie no more faithfully than Verloc kept his. Ossipon is sincere about only one thing, his devotion to the collectivist program of extracting wealth from people who have it and distributing it to people who don't. Implementing this program in the most direct way possible, he takes Winnie's money and gives it to himself. He also abandons her, just at the moment when she is leaving on the last train for the Channel. The walls of scarcity contract; Winnie has no help, no money, and almost no time. She uses the little time she has to buy a last measure of freedom, freedom from the hangman. She finds her way onto the Channel steamer and, in mid-journey, drowns herself.

This praxeological parable is similar to the parable of Stevie and the cab. The moment at which Winnie kills Verloc is a moment in which time and action seem to stop; its result is an explosion of action and an implosion of time. By denying her “contract with existence,” she succeeds only in confirming her contract with the fundamental conditions of existence. Like her brother, she can withdraw from those conditions only by surrendering the full price of withdrawal, existence itself.


If Conrad's purpose is to vindicate the existence of an objective framework of human action against all metaphysical objections and rebellions, he has certainly accomplished that purpose. But that is only one of his aims. He has something more to say about freedom of choice, which he has made to appear, in Winnie's case, such a pathetically limited thing.122 An author who is sensitive to Conrad's dislike of certain bourgeois values has said that “Conrad does not sentimentalize freedom.... Still, he shows freedom as clearly preferable to its lack.”123 Freedom is also, in Conrad's view, an essential part of any explanation of human action. He makes the final action of his story an argument for the existence and importance of individual freedom, for the ability of individuals to do what Cather said they could do—write their own stories.

The last chapter of The Secret Agent emphasizes this point. Ten days have passed since Winnie's death, but Ossipon is still meditating on a newspaper report of her suicide: “An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair.”124 Nobody but Ossipon knows the identity of the woman who disappeared from the Channel steamer; nobody but he can guess her motives; and as we know, even he sees only a fraction of the story that his decisions helped create. But, oddly enough, considering his earlier air of insufferable self-sufficiency, he understands enough to regret his dogmatism about the force of material conditions.

That dogmatism was pronounced. While Winnie hysterically expressed her feelings about the prospect of being hanged, Ossipon's “sagacity” had been “busy in other directions. Women's words fell into water, but the shortcomings of timetables remained. The insular nature of Great Britain obtruded itself upon his notice in an odious form.”125 Women's words are merely the signs of their personal intentions, and what do intentions matter? Ossipon was above such individual and subjective considerations. They had no economic or scientific relevance. Only the material context counted, the world of the time-table. But Winnie was not killed by a time-table. She died by her own intention. Constrained by circumstances, constrained still more by the scarcity of something entirely individual and subjective— hope—Winnie yet retained the power to write her own death scene.

The image of women's words falling into water turns out to be ironic. Winnie's body fell into the English Channel, but her words did not. Those faint verbal signs of her intentions, her consciousness, her existence as something more than a body, survived her death. They linger as unwelcome guests in Ossipon's mind. He escaped from the shortcomings of time-tables by getting Winnie to the train station, taking her money, and running away. He thus escaped from certain forms of scarcity. But he could not escape from consciousness. He could not expel the memory of his conscious choice to betray a woman who chose to trust him. His thinking has changed in unpredictable ways. It's marginal utility again: he no longer values additional units of his life; he doesn't really want any more. And he has learned that even the value of money is dependent on individual states of mind. He no longer sees the cash that he liberated from Winnie as an asset; he tries to give it away. What matters is the private economy of his mind. The state of that economy can easily be summarized in business terms: “It was ruin.”126

Winnie's suicide was a sad, residual demonstration of her freedom of choice. Ossipon makes a similar demonstration. He chooses death—preceded, in his case, by drunkenness and the closest thing to slavery that the capitalist system has to offer, “the leather yoke of the sandwich board.”127 He thus demonstrates that the individual consciousness, that deeply economic thing, is a permanently significant, though a permanently mysterious, fact; and that consciousness has very efficient means of producing other significant facts, such as death. How this happens is often as mysterious as anything else. Through their choices, Ossipon and Winnie decide their fates, and only omniscient readers can fully understand the effects of their collaboration. But Ossipon has seen enough to know that human action results from choice, not determination, and that choice can entail responsibility.

The last chapter of the novel is mainly concerned, however, with the choices of the Professor. From the beginning, he has prided himself on his ability to face the facts about human action. He has a boundless contempt for people who refuse to face them. He considers Michaelis particularly contemptible. As he explains to Ossipon, he saw the manuscript of Michaelis's great book, and he dismissed it at a glance: “The poverty of reasoning is astonishing.”128 The Professor tries to be objective about his own work as a revolutionist. He knows that it depends on hard choices, the assumption of risks, and what he calls “character.”129 He believes that the police will hesitate to arrest him if they think he has enough of that commodity to blow himself up—and, more to the purpose, blow them up—if he is ever threatened with arrest. So he carries explosives with him at all times, and a detonator. He is gambling, so far successfully, on the importance of individual differences and subjective states of mind. Because he has more “character” than the police, he has a chance of survival. So far, his praxeological insights have proven sound. He is still alive.

His program of self-insurance was introduced in his conversation with Ossipon in chapter 4. There he cold-bloodedly described the process of self-explosion. He would simply press a little rubber ball, which would activate a detonator, which would produce certain other effects...

“It is instantaneous, of course?” murmured

Ossipon, with a slight shudder.

“Far from it... A full twenty seconds must elapse

from the moment I press the ball till the explosion

takes place.”

“Phew!” whistled Ossipon, completely appalled.

“Twenty seconds! Horrors! You mean to say that you

could face that? I should go crazy— “

“Wouldn't matter if you did.”130

Perhaps it wouldn't. At certain moments, a slight scarcity or surplus of something in the material world—a scarcity of time to escape from a bomb explosion, a surplus of time to wait for it to happen—may be enough to make personal reactions and valuations seem irrelevant.

Nevertheless, this particular combination of surplus and scarcity would still be the product of the Professor's personal choice, just as Ossipon's abundance of guilt and scarcity of means to assuage it are products of his preceding, quite personal choices. Choices matter, despite the fact that this is an “imperfect world” in which consequences cannot be certainly predicted.

Unlike Sir Ethelred, the Professor is capable of admitting that fact. No detonator, he concedes, can be “absolutely fool proof,” especially when entrusted to a fool like Adolf Verloc. Perfection is something “[y]ou can't expect.”131 And yet—here is the contradiction in the Professor's applied praxeology—he is spending his time trying to invent “a perfect detonator,” a little machine that will allow him to transcend the limitations decreed by time and space and the risks of other people's meddling.132 His scientific objectivity is clearly not complete, unless you mean by “objectivity” a complete independence from normal human life.

It is that latter kind of “objectivity” that permits him to experiment without any moral compunctions. Stevie died in one of the Professor's experiments with detonators: “They must be tried, after all.”133 They must be tried, because the Professor feels a personal need to try them. He has the freedom to make that kind of moral choice. Yet his own special concept of freedom remains controversial. Its status needs to be clarified. The only kind of freedom that the Professor recognizes is the freedom actually to satisfy his self-defined needs. To Conrad, however, this is freedom that has been confused with power, absolute power over human action. Give the Professor a detonator, or—as he tells Ossipon in their final conversation—a terroristic “lever” of “madness and despair,” and he will use it to “move the world.”134 Conrad's last chapter shows the defects of this conception of freedom-as-power.

Consider the Professor's image: the lever. It is a hackneyed image. It is as old as Archimedes, and its use has not been confined to geometry texts. It has appealed, in one way or another, to every solitary theorist who has ever advocated a comprehensive change in the conditions of life. All the profound political thinkers in The Secret Agent amuse themselves with this conceit. Viewing the world from a distance, they decide that its course must be changed and that all they need to effect the mighty alteration is a political tool that will multiply their power over other individuals. The chosen instrument may be “history” or “science” or “terror.” In any event, a lever will descend from the sky, and the world will be changed. The authors of the transformation will then be permanently free from the burden of other people's imperfect judgments and valuations. They will have what they believe they are entitled to.

But there are other kinds of levers, and other ways of regarding them. When Cather thinks about the means of gaining leverage on life, she thinks of the pen and the plow, the archetypal tools of individual skill. She thinks, indeed, of occasions when an author's pen is “fitted to [his] matter as the plough is to the furrow.”135 She values the kind of human action that responds to the challenges of circumstance, not the kind that tries to decree their end. Anybody who has ever plowed a field can tell you that plowing is not an exercise of political or social power. Neither is it an effect of material forces or (strange as this may seem) of mere “labor.” It consists of countless individual decisions about risks and opportunities, about the limitations and advantages of equipment and terrain—decisions whose success is never guaranteed but that may, despite the risks, succeed.

The Professor's image of the one lever that will move the world is a great deal simpler. It is brutally simple. It does not even suggest that the tools meant to transform human action should be fitted to human action itself. It implies that they must be operated from someplace outside, beyond this earth. And it complacently accepts the consequence of using such tools. The consequence would not be evolution, reform, or somebody's idea of social democracy. It would be the removal of the earth from its orbit. This is indeed a fatal conceit, and the Professor knows it. He raises his glass and offers a toast. “To the destruction of what is,” he says “calmly.”136

The Professor has particularly advanced views, but his desire to make the world stop and obey him establishes his similarity to the other politicians in The Secret Agent. The problem for all of them is how to make the world stop without being stopped oneself, how to engineer a decisive change without being destroyed by the crash that follows. The Professor's literary image neatly dispenses with that problem. He himself will be standing at the far end of the lever, the end that is beyond the world. He will not be hurt. Only one difficulty remains: there is no such place.

Certainly the Professor does everything he can to get beyond the world of other people. But he can oppose himself to their system of action only by acting within it. In reality, he has no tools that exist apart from it. In the final chapter, Ossipon emphasizes that irritating fact. His opportunity comes when the Professor announces that he needs just one thing to complete his work: “The time! Give me time!”137 But time is a condition of this world; if the Professor needs it, he must be in this world too, and unable to live in any other—as Ossipon tauntingly points out.

Suppose, Ossipon says, that science eventually attains the ability to lengthen the human lifespan:

Just now you've been crying for time—time. Well! The doctors will serve you out your time—if you are good. You profess yourself to be one of the strong—because you carry in your pocket enough stuff to send yourself and, say, twenty other people into eternity. But eternity is a damned hole. It's time that you need. You—if you met a man who could give you for certain ten years of time, you would call him your master.138

The Professor denies it. Besides, he suggests, that is merely a hypothetical situation. He is wavering. He confesses disappointment at his inability to get any leverage with the “mediocre” people who surround him. Every one of them—Ossipon, Verloc, “everybody”—is too mediocre to do anything.139 At this point, the Professor is merely rebelling against one form of scarcity rather than another—scarcity of allies rather than scarcity of time; and rebellion against one leads very naturally to rebellion against the other. If enough people shared his values, he could do what he wanted without further loss of time. There would be no scarcity. But “[t]ime is pressing,” as Camus says. “Persuasion demands leisure... thus terror remains the shortest route to immortality.”140 That is why the Professor's chosen lever is “madness and despair.” It's quicker that way.

If he can just get that tool! Then he will have the right leverage on the praxeological material. He retains his hope. Ossipon, however, knows more than the Professor about madness and despair. He knows that human emotions are exactly like time in one respect: they are an inextricable part of the web of human action. They cannot simply be abstracted from the lives of individuals and used as tools for some external purpose. Winnie died of despair, the last victim of the explosion that the Professor helped to engineer. But her suicide was irrelevant to the Professor's goal; it was a fatal reflex of her will to self-preservation, and its effects were wholly unpolitical. He himself has no information about the matter.

“Mankind,” he declares in a “self-confident” way, “does not know what it wants.” He thinks that mankind needs to be told. But Winnie proved him wrong. She knew what she wanted. That is why Ossipon can say with authority, “Mankind wants to live—to live.”141 Yet Winnie's suicide, the suicide of someone who wanted to live, but only upon her own terms, shows that Ossipon isn't entirely correct. “Mankind” isn't one thing, and it doesn't want any one thing. If it did, it might actually be able to provide people like the Professor with a tool that would be simple and strong enough to accomplish some of their aims. But mankind wants an uncountable number of things, because mankind consists of an uncountable number of individuals responding to an uncountable number of situations. Their diversity of wants and needs is a fundamental praxeological fact. One of Conrad's commentators has said that “the central theme of The Secret Agent” is the “contrast between what is fully human and affirmative toward life and what is wretchedly less than human and revolted by life”—meaning the Professor.142 True; but human life, as the action of the novel shows, is always the life of individuals. It does not exist en masse.

This is not a thought that the Professor wants to entertain. He prefers to think of other people as an undifferentiated mass. It is a terrible thought, but less terrible than the thought of their individuality. After arguing with Ossipon, he vaingloriously toasts “the destruction of what is”; then he considers how hard the existing course of human action is to destroy.

The thought of a mankind as numerous as the sands of the seashore, as indestructible, as difficult to handle, oppressed him. The sound of exploding bombs was lost in their immensity of passive grains without an echo. For instance, this Verloc affair. Who thought of it now?143

He envisions himself surrounded by millions of passive, interchangeable grains of sand, as determined by “conditions” as any inert physical target.

But that's not right. That's merely the arrogant way in which he chooses to visualize all those human lives that are immune to his dream of total power. What he hates and fears is precisely the spontaneous, unpredictable freedom of human action. What drives him to madness and despair is the fact that other people are active instead of passive, planning instead of planned. The variety of their plans and motives denies him control, imprisons him in a world that is always being shaped by a multitude of levers of its own invention—far too many levers for him to “handle.” That is why he wants to bring it all to a stop.


The Professor leaves his debate with Ossipon before it can pose more danger to his morale. We see him receding into the perspective of a busy street, “averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind” that surrounds him:

He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.144

And that is the end of The Secret Agent. It is a striking end for a novel that has been focused on the Professor and his fellow revolutionaries (of both left- and right-wing varieties) as if they were anything but “insignificant,” as if, indeed, the big story were about them and not about the world that they want to “regenerate,” the process of human action that they struggle to dominate or destroy. The final moment comes with the force of a revelation: what is most significant is the life of the busy street, of the multitude whom the Professor is pleased to consider “odious,” and not the Professor himself, or anyone like him. He is “deadly,” but the street is alive; he can kill, but it can heal; he is a “pest,” but it is “men.”145

Compare The Secret Agent with a contemporary political novel that also has an unexpectedly epiphanic end: Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901). Both authors are interested in the principles of human action, but they see them differently. Norris's novel is an attempt at a comprehensive realization of a collectivist philosophy. For 650 pages, it details the complicated and, to Norris, sinister methods by which capitalism works. Using the example of wheat farmers beset by banks and railroads, Norris shows the money power monopolizing land, despoiling labor, killing its individual opponents, trampling all collective opposition. He shows the people victimized by a bourgeois government that will do nothing to stop these depredations. He describes these things as if they happened naturally and in accordance with the laws of economic history. He shows an essentially hopeless situation. If ever there was a novel that begged for some final, redemptive irony, some dramatic revelation of the multitude's self-regenerative power, that novel is The Octopus.

And the redemptive irony comes; but when it does, it is not about people at all; it's about an economic product. Norris suddenly, triumphantly, announces that regardless of anything his characters may have done or had done to them, “the WHEAT remained. Untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless, moved onward in its appointed grooves.”146

It is one of the great sentences of modern literature, the grandest effect of Norris's remarkable powers of abstraction and intensification. He has spent his whole novel trying to demonstrate that the means by which the wheat is produced and distributed are vicious, oppressive, and destructive; now he declares, in that thrilling final sentence, that the wheat is good, its production is good, its distribution is good. Compared with the godlike wheat, so active and yet so nirvanically calm, the people whom one had supposed to be the heroes of the novel amount to nothing more than a “little, isolated group of human insects,” bugs in the human “swarm.”147

We have arrived at a destination far beyond the realm of human action. In this strange, modern Eleusis, the priest holds up the miraculous stalk of wheat and tells the initiates... what? Not that they have been reborn after their symbolic deaths, but that they are and always will be the nothings that they were before.

Meanwhile, Norris makes sure that his embodiment of evil, an investment capitalist, is drowned like a bug in the miracle wheat. He bought it, and it kills him. But his death is not a comment on the risks of doing business; it is something more—a judgment handed down from an abstract court of moral justice, a court that is preoccupied with the transactions of this world but that operates at an “unassailable” distance above it. A lever descends from the courts of theory, and the vile S. Behrman is no more.

The end of The Secret Agent involves no such revelation of a priori powers. No economic values are imposed from a location beyond economics. No “grooves” of enterprise are “appointed” without human beings to appoint them. Here we discover no material objects that possess the power to transcend risk, banish scarcity, triumph over space and time. We discover only people, the same people who perform, in their imperfect, non-nirvanic way, whatever actions take place in this world, and who feel the effects of their actions. These people are the plow and the furrow, the authors and the story, the means of action and the shape of action—and, in their capacity for enjoyment, the goal of action, too. They are “the wheat.”