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Reasonably Self-Interested

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Zadie Smith’s novel NW contains multiple stories composed of social, familial, romantic, and marital interaction. Surrounding several of these interactions are performances of economic activity, behaviour, and mentality. The stories of Leah, Michel, Natalie, Frank, and Natalie’s and Frank’s children all raise ideas of economic behavioural influences in non-economic aspects of their lives. This analysis leads to the notion of how self-interest and tendency for self-serving fundamentally drive our performance and behaviour in life.

The relationship of Leah and Michel is illustrated with economic concepts of currency, money value, volatility, and trade. Smith writes at the beginning of Chapter 13, “Currency trading. The exploitation of volatility,” (54). This is referring to Michel’s attempts at making profit by trading Leah’s inheritance online. “Some days I lose, some days I win,” (55). In economics, the act of trade involves exchange of one thing of value for another thing of value: goods for goods, goods for money, or money for money. In international trading, the currencies involved are foreign to each other, so it is necessary that they be exchanged. The value of one currency in terms of another is called the exchange rate. In order to make profit from currency trading, as Michel is attempting, he must sell his currency when it is worth more of another’s. Then, when the other currency appreciates in value in terms of the original, he will buy back the original. The difference in values of the first currency will then be the profit gained by trading. This is practicing “exploitation of volatility,” where volatility refers to the fluctuating nature of currency value. Money is something to which value is assigned so that the money can perform a certain function. This passage in Chapter 13 alludes to Leah and Michel’s relationship being analogous to currency trading, in terms of costs and benefits. A cost paid by Leah is Michel’s “arrested attention” and being “inattentive to the minutes and hours outside of [internal time].” Michel’s participation in this business – not understood by Leah, who “can only understand words, not numbers” – takes away from their time spent together or engaging in mutually-understood activities (54). Time and attention paid to one another, in this relationship, is the currency to which value is assigned and which is used to determine with worth of either member’s experience with the other. The exploitation of this currency in a relationship could be performed by taking advantage of changes in the feelings either member has towards the other. Naturally, whether participating in currency trading or in a romantic relationship, there is an extent to which the main purpose for participating is one’s own benefit and therefore any decisions made and actions performed will directly reflect self-interest.

Self-interest is a driving fundamental factor in the world of economics and economic production. Smith writes in entry 78 of Natalie’s section of NW: “It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders ‘ruthless comparison’ the basic mode of their relationships with others,” (250). Behaviour in capitalism — the economic system in which individual, private firms and corporations make their own decisions for production and prices, production and distribution of goods are determined by forces of competition on the free market – relates to Natalie’s description of women’s relationships with others. In a highly competitive market, it is necessary for entrepreneurs to be constantly aware of what their competitors are doing, how they are doing, and their relative success. Paying attention and tracking one’s own progress as well as that of competitors is essential remaining competitive and active oneself. Naturally, ruthlessness develops as a survival instinct in the market. Michelle being “the only other person from Brayton in the university” puts her and Natalie in the same ‘market,’ competing through “ruthless comparison” whatever they are hoping to achieve. “[Michelle] had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part.” She cannot fully participate in the market because she does not have enough ‘entrepreneurial skills’, not enough ‘resources’ or not enough of the right ones. Not every individual business can succeed in the market, and that is the purpose of competition: that eventually there will be a winner, as the market moves from perfectly competitive where there is ideally no possibility for one individual producer to overpower the rest, to a monopoly where eventually one firm has surpassed the rest and achieved most success. In order for an individual to succeed, one must harness their own self-interest, seek ways of performing better than the competition, and maximise output by efficiently using one’s resources. If this leads to a decrease in friendly, social relationships with others, then that will be a consequential cost of pursuing success.

Natalie and Frank’s relationship illustrates self-interest, self-serving and acting upon this driving force in the final section of the book, “Visitation.” Frank rejects and refuses to open a letter Natalie wrote and says, “Confessions are self-serving,” (390). Smith sets up the scene: “The woman was naked, the man was dressed…[she] knelt up in an imploring position.” This illustrates the woman in a position of vulnerability but also clear, direct expression of her need for something, in this case, the need to communicate with Frank. This self-serving behaviour reveals one of the bases of economics: the want or need of something one does not yet have. Natalie exposes herself in need of regaining her relationship with Frank, receiving his forgiveness and the chance to explain and confess. Effectively she is trying to purchase back the relationship with her apology, with pleading, with body language, and with offering the letter. Ultimately she wants her peace of mind and her contentedness rather than a relationship of “two silent enemies shepherding children to their social appointments.” In economics, the act of consumption requires payment of some sort, and this situation exemplifies the desperation created by extreme necessity on behalf of the consumer. Frank’s refusal to cooperate in the transaction suggests that as there has been a halting of ‘money’ flow from consumer to producer, the relationship will come to a state of stagnancy and eventually deteriorate. Without communication and without interaction, there is no dynamic remaining that holds the relationship together, so it very well may be that they will remain “two silent enemies” until business returns to normal. 

The basic economic assumption required to accept before beginning any venture into theory, application, and policy suggestion is that humans are rational beings. Rational beings, according to the assumption, seek greatest utility at lowest costs. This means that humans want to get the most value, worth, or pleasure from consuming a product or service at the lowest possible cost. This self-interest is what determines how beneficial a consumer’s behaviour is in terms of being rational. In Natalie’s nearly-final section, Smith writes, “Five pounds each, five items. Poundland. Natalie could remember doing this...back in the day, but then it was one pound, and you got so much more for your money, and everything had to be ‘useful,’” (292). This statement captures the drastic change in Natalie’s living circumstances and how what makes sense in rational economic behaviour has changed over the course of her life. Even though bargains and going to stores like Poundland are still important in spending income efficiently, Natalie’s family is not poor. Frank comes from a rich family and has an income and Natalie has worked towards attaining a job with a good income. Natalie’s performance as a parent providing the service of consumption to her children provides a solid depiction of her economic function in the family. As a result, she is pondering the future of her family life and her role in that future. The setting of this scene in Poundland reduces the family relationship between parent and child into simply the economic role of income provider, the efficacy of which is demonstrated in how successfully she can speak to her children’s desires. Once this reduction has taken place, effectively the way she can begin to salvage her relationship with her children and husband is by not failing in her economic function. The heartbreaking nature of this relationship is emphasised by Spike’s chant: “I DO WANT,” and the inaccessibility to a conversation of nurture or emotional engagement between parent and children. This, in turn, only more strongly reinforces the economic assumption that humans are rational beings.

These characters of Zadie Smith’s novel NW all provide a perspective on how one performs functionally in life in the direction of ultimate self-serving from the fundamental starting point of tendency to be primarily self-interested. This perspective seeks to communicate the colourless nature of a life lived when reduced to its basic economic role. More importantly, though, it shows how at the core of society’s economic activity, there only exist forces that bring out the basic economic roles in people, thus reducing their character to simply a member of a system rather than the socially multi-dimensional person a human has the potential to be. Perhaps, though, ultimately it is the basic actions performed by a person that serve to define one’s function by necessity. The rest is additional, decorative, and forgettable.

Works Cited 

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. Print.