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Free to Write

Understanding the marketplace of ideas.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JAMES SEATON
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Literature and the
Economics of Liberty

Free to Write

Gustavo Tomsich / Corbis

Spontaneous Order in Culture

edited by Paul A. Cantor
and Stephen Cox

Von Mises Institute, 509 pp., $25

The last few decades have taught the rulers of the People’s Republic of China that their most effective poverty-reducing tool is the market, while Arab countries now fear a nuclear Iran far more than they ever did Israel. But capitalism remains the source of the world’s ills, according to the leading theorists in the new superdiscipline of cultural studies, which on many campuses has supplanted the study of literary works.

Once books like René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature had chapter titles like “The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art.” Today the most recent additions to the prestigious Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism include titles like “Sex in Public” and “Empire.” (“Sex in Public” has nothing to say about literature but does opinionate about economics as well as sexuality: Its coauthors reject what they call “free-market ideology” while buttressing their condemnation of bourgeois “heteronormative forms” by claiming that such “forms” are somehow “central to the accumulation of capital.”) Meanwhile, in “Empire,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri oppose “the current ideology of corporate capital and the world market” and call for a new perspective on the regime in Iran, asserting that “insofar as the Iranian revolution was a powerful rejection of the world market, we might think of it as the first postmodernist revolution.”

If there are any current theoretical perspectives that are both relevant to the study of works of literature and not hostile to either bourgeois (or middle-class) values and attitudes or the free market, you would not know it from the Norton Anthology. Fortunately, there is another anthology, Literature and the Economics of Liberty, edited by Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox, and it demonstrates convincingly that it is not only possible to write perceptively about literary texts without condemning the bourgeoisie, but also that the ideas of free-market economists can provide a better stimulus to literary criticism than Marxism ever has.

Literature and the Economics of Liberty bears the significant subtitle Spontaneous Order in Culture. Friedrich Hayek famously argued that the free market is an example of an institution that, like language or the common law, develops its own rules and structure as a result of the interaction of countless individuals over time, achieving results far beyond what could be accomplished through any plan, no matter how wise or well-intentioned. Free markets, like languages, thus exemplify not anarchy but “spontaneous order.” Well-written poems, plays, and novels, on the other hand, are typically the result of a single individual who sees to it that each part of the work contributes to the overall design. It is not surprising, then, that those who derive their notion of excellence from works of literature would find it hard to appreciate the workings of the market, where everybody tries to satisfy his own needs, and nobody seems to be concerned about the whole. A socialist economy, where planners organize all economic activity in the interests of the whole, seems much more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying than the market, even if the latter generates wealth and the former poverty.

On the evidence of Cantor/Cox’s anthology, however, it seems that authors have been much less likely than critics to confuse aesthetics and economics. Paul Cantor’s careful analysis of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair uses the kind of close textual analysis associated with the New Critics to persuasively demonstrate that Jonson’s dramatic presentation of the “fair” or market indeed “exposes all the faults of an unregulated marketplace,” but also “more profoundly subjects its would-be regulators to a withering critique.” In another essay, Cantor demonstrates conclusively that Percy Bysshe Shelley, usually considered the archetype of the radical poet, was an economic radical mainly in his objections to “deficit financing,” which Shelley held “largely responsible for the economic woes of the English people.” As Cantor puts it, “Shelley’s radicalism takes the form of advocating free market rather than socialist policies.” Shelley was also, Cantor observes, a champion of the gold standard, defending it “as a way of protecting common people against the currency manipulations of a financial elite.”

Like Shelley, Walt Whitman is almost always thought of as a thoroughgoing radical, an idealist who could not help but be as opposed to capitalism as any professor. Thomas Peyser concedes that “in cultural matters, Whitman does indeed share many of the views of today’s cultural left” but adds that the poet’s “political and economic views” were decidedly on the right. For Whitman, business and even a “maniacal appetite for wealth” are finally beneficent: 

I perceive clearly that the extreme business energy, and this almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States, are parts of amelioration and progress, indispensably needed to prepare the very results I demand.

And if Whitman approved of successful businessmen, he seemed to feel what Peyser describes as “a certain disdain for people who fail to prosper once they have been unshackled from feudal restraints.” In Democratic Vistas, Whitman asserts that democratic society depends on “the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners,” while in contrast “democracy looks with suspicious, ill-satisfied eye upon the very poor, the ignorant, and on those out of business.”

The loose structure of Whitman’s free verse masterpiece, Song of Myself, is analogous, Peyser suggests, to the kind of order Hayek finds in a market where buyers and sellers pursue their own aims without reference to an overall plan. Song of Myself, “a compilation of discrete textual units that, while displaying ample signs of organization within themselves, are juxtaposed in a way that defies the strictures of rhetorical or thematic cohesion,” makes no attempt to achieve the formal unity of a sonnet or a novel like Madame Bovary. Peyser finds a parallel to the “spontaneous order” of the marketplace in the catalogues or lists so central to Whitman’s style: “great lists that aspire to capture the astonishing variety of America without either insisting we see that variety as tending towards a univocal purpose or despairing at the sheer incoherence of phenomena.”

Unlike Walt Whitman and pace some of her academic interpreters, Willa Cather had no truck with the cultural left, but like Whitman she appreciated the value of free markets and American capitalism. Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! (the title is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) climbs from poverty to the ownership of a successful farm, in the process indicating, as Stephen Cox points out, her understanding of “the modern capitalist theory of value” (in technical terms “the principle of subjective value and the closely related principle of marginal utility”). Her father was an intelligent man, but he was hampered by his (in the novel’s words) “Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable,” while her unperceptive brother Oscar cannot see the limitations of what Cox calls “the equally old-world belief that labor is desirable and valuable in itself.” Thus O Pioneers! is, among other things, “a textbook exposition of capitalist theory and practice, viewed from a perspective that is highly unusual even today .  .  . the capitalist perspective.”

Alexandra Bergson, unlike the radicals in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, had the intelligence and the determination to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the free market. Conrad’s would-be revolutionaries, on the other hand, blame capitalism for their poverty and obscurity. Their opposition to capitalism—and not theirs alone, Conrad implies—has little to do with compassion for the poor and much with resentment at their personal failure to achieve the power and fame they feel is their due. As Cox comments, the malcontents of The Secret Agent want to replace capitalism with “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.”

Cantor/Cox’s case for the relevance of “the economics of liberty” is all the stronger because they wisely refrain from making the sort of grandiose claims to all-encompassing insight that have long been a specialty of Marxists. They point out that “one of the differences between Austrian economics and Marxism is that [Austrian economics] does not present itself as a master science, with an underlying explanation for all phenomena.” Cantor/Cox emphasize that the analyses offered “are based on detailed, careful readings of individual texts treated in their integrity.” Their collection is “fundamentally a book of literary criticism,” and if they call upon “the principles of Austrian economics,” it is in large part because those principles when examined “begin to sound a lot like common sense: human beings are free and make their choices as individuals.” Thus, Cantor writes, instead of “substituting the critic’s understanding for the author’s, an Austrian approach would look to understand an author as he understood himself.”

Parodoxically, it appears that the perspective offered by free-market, or “Austrian,” economics has the effect of allowing literary criticism to regain the disciplinary integrity it loses when it is absorbed by Marxism or by Marxist-influenced “cultural studies.” Yes, Ludwig von Mises’s “praxeology” does present itself as “a universal explanation of human action,” as contributor Darío Fernández-Morera puts it; but on the evidence of this anthology, resorting to “praxeology” results in nothing worse than redefining economic terms to make common sense observations. Thus Cox writes that, according to Mises, “the quest for profit is universal,” which at first seems to imply a narrow view of human motivation, but he adds that “enjoyment of any kind can amount to profit.”

Hayek’s conception of “spontaneous order” is no doubt a conception whose full importance is yet to be appreciated, but perhaps the most important accomplishment of Literature and the Economics of Liberty is its demonstration that it is possible for literary critics to discuss works of literature with sensitivity and insight without wholesale condemnation of middle-class mores and capitalism. This sounds like mere common sense, but in the era of postmodernism, moving up to the intellectual level of common sense is a signal achievement.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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