Literature and the
Economics of Liberty
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.”