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


This book explores the possibility that forms of economic thinking sympathetic to capitalism may be able to illuminate our understanding of literature in new ways. For example, the idea that free competition spurs creativity and progress in commerce and industry is well-established and well-documented. Might it be possible that competition is a healthy force in the cultural realm as well? In the introductory essay, Paul Cantor argues that in the case of serialized novels, the highly competitive nature of the publishing industry in nineteenth-century Britain in some ways actually improved the quality of the literature produced. This notion would seem obvious to most economists, but some literary critics may find it difficult to accept. Ever since the Romantics, commerce and culture have been viewed as antithetical, and many authors and critics have hoped to shield literature from the supposedly harmful effects of a competitive marketplace. Marxist literary theory has only deepened what was originally an aristocratic contempt for and distrust of market principles and practices. And in the field of literature and economics, Marxism and its offshoots, such as cultural materialism and the new historicism, have achieved a virtual monopoly in the contemporary academy.

Like any monopoly, this Marxist domination needs to be challenged. In the academy, just as in the economy, people who face no competition grow complacent, failing to question their assumptions or to adapt to new developments. There have of course been many attacks over the years on Marxist approaches to literature, but they have generally come from critics who simply reject economic discussions of literature in any form, and support a purely aesthetic approach that disdains any consideration of the marketplace. To our knowledge, this is the first collection of essays that accepts the idea that economics is relevant to the study of literature, but offers free market principles, rather than Marxist, as the means of relating the two fields. As the introductory essay explains, we have turned specifically (though not exclusively) to what is known as the Austrian School of economics, represented chiefly by the writings of its most important theorists, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. We argue that this brand of economics, which focuses on the freedom of the individual actor and the subjectivity of values, is more suited to the study of literature and artistic creativity than a materialist, determinist, and collectivist doctrine such as Marxism. The Austrian School is the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed—hence we regard it as the most relevant to humanistic studies. Still, most of the principles we draw upon—the advantages of private property and free competition, the disadvantages of central planning and collectivism, the value of sound money and the dangers of inflation— are not unique to the Austrian School but are embraced by a wide range of economists today.

Marxists themselves have increasingly been struggling with their Marxism, and trying to moderate its economic determinism. This is especially true in the field of Cultural Studies, where in recent decades scholars who basically associate themselves with Marxism have nevertheless begun to develop an understanding of the virtues of the marketplace. They have broken with the old Frankfurt School model of consumers as the passive dupes of an all-powerful capitalist marketing system. In spite of their anti-capitalist leanings, some scholars have found that they cannot appreciate and celebrate popular culture without to some extent appreciating and celebrating the commercial world that produces it. We applaud these efforts, but suggest that these scholars could make more progress if they finally broke with Marx. His materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic view of reality stamps him as very much a man of the mid-nineteenth century. A great deal has been discovered in the sciences since Marx's day, including the science of economics, and our model of reality is no longer a steam engine. The more we have come to understand the nature of complex systems and what is called their non-linearity, the more unpredictable they appear to be, and that is above all true of social systems. Marx's laws of inevitable economic development now look like relics of the age of Newtonian physics, Hegelian historicism, and Comtean positivism. Modern discoveries in fields such as physics, biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and chaos theory have stressed the importance of contingency in nature and thus opened up a space for indeterminacy and human freedom, especially in the realm of culture. Austrian economics, with its emphasis on chance, uncertainty, and unpredictability in human life, is far more in tune than Marxism with these trends in modern science.

How might thinking in terms of free market principles give us fresh insights into the relation of literature and economics? To begin with, the free market itself provides a valuable model—it at first appears chaotic but upon closer inspection it turns out to have an underlying order, a self-organizing order that never achieves a static perfection, but is always working out imperfections over time. The idea of the market as a self-correcting feedback mechanism helps explain how commercial publishing could actually nurture the development of literature. Moreover, several of the essays in this book use the model of what Hayek calls “’spontaneous order” to rethink the issue of literary form. The evolution of language and the growth of cities are good examples of what Hayek means by “spontaneous order”—human activities and developments that are not centrally planned and commanded but rather involve the free and uncoordinated interaction of individuals who may be aiming at their own limited goals but nevertheless end up producing a larger social good that only appears to have been designed in advance. Languages, for example, are profoundly ordered, but not because anyone planned them out in advance. A language develops its rich vocabulary and complex syntax over time in an evolutionary process to which all the speakers of the language contribute, usually without even knowing that they are doing so. The precise determination of the meanings of words and the rules of grammar is a late cultural development, and involves ex post facto reasoning. Lexicographers and grammarians discover and articulate the logic that a language develops on its own and without their help.

Language, in fact, often looks messy to lexicographers and grammarians, but their attempts to clean it up and regularize it usually fail as popular usage overwhelms academic attempts to dictate linguistic order. Efforts to design a more logical language from the ground up, such as Esperanto, have even less success when their inventors try to get people actually to use the artificial language in their daily lives. Academicians want language to achieve a static perfection, but fortunately real languages continue to evolve and develop new possibilities. As the history of Latin shows, only a dead language can truly please academicians. A living language never settles into an equilibrium, a fixed form that follows the grammarian's paradigms perfectly. The irregular verb is the lifeblood of language. Language is a tribute to the creativity of human beings and their ability to cooperate in productive ways without advance planning or supervision by so-called experts in the field.

The way languages resist attempts by central authorities such as national academies to regulate them illustrates what Hayek means by “spontaneous order.”1 In his Law, Legislation and Liberty, he discusses the evolution of British common law in similar terms. He argues that common law judges do not make the law; rather they discover and articulate the principles and rules of conduct that human beings develop gradually over the years on their own in the course of their social interaction. The economic marketplace itself is Hayek's primary example of spontaneous order, involving unregulated and apparently chaotic activity that nevertheless results in a deeper and more complex order than any individual or set of individuals would be able to plan in advance. Drawing upon this idea of a deeper order beneath an apparent disorder, several of our essays argue for the possibility of a more open-ended and looser conception of literary form than the one championed by the New Criticism, with its ideal of the perfectly integrated work of literature. Cantor's essay on Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, for example, and Thomas Peyser's essay on Whitman's Song of Myself suggest that the chaotic appearance of these works mirrors the paradoxically ordered disorder of the commercial societies they portray.

In our effort to secure a place for freedom in the understanding of culture, “spontaneous order” is in many ways the central concept of this book.2 We show that works of literature often have the “look” of a spontaneous order, that they can be generated in a process of spontaneous order, and that they sometimes celebrate the spontaneous order of society, especially in its economic form, the marketplace. Indeed, if one believes in the value of economic freedom, one will look for authors who share this attitude, and not dismiss them, as Marxist critics tend to do, as mere captives of capitalist ideology. Several of our essays explore the ways in which authors have celebrated the vitality, flexibility, and productivity of free markets. We have found such celebrations in unexpected places. Darío Fernández-Morera's essay on Don Quijote reveals Cervantes portraying the advantages of economic freedom as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century—long before Adam Smith is supposed to have “discovered” the free market. Stephen Cox's essay on Willa Cather's O Pioneers! shows why a woman had special reasons for supporting economic freedom. Contrary to the common idea that women should view capitalism as oppressive, Cox demonstrates that Cather found it liberating—both for her characters and herself as an author. Chandran Kukathas's essay on Ben Okri shows that a favorable treatment of market activity can be found, not only in classic works of the Western canon, but also in works of non-Western literature. Beginning with Cervantes and Jonson at the fountainhead of European literature, this book fittingly ends with a contemporary Nigerian author. It thus reminds us that economic freedom is not the exclusive discovery or preserve of Western nations, but potentially the common heritage of human beings everywhere.

Marxist critics often practice what is known as the hermeneutics of suspicion—that is, they question the motives of authors and seek to explain why some would ever choose to support capitalism. If one believes that socialism is the best economic system and that capitalism oppresses humanity, one would of course not accept a favorable portrayal of capitalism at face value. But once one adopts a free market perspective, the positions are reversed and one begins to wonder why so many authors have supported socialism. One might then turn the tables on Marxism and apply its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they may have dubious motives for attacking capitalism. Several of the essays in this volume explore the issue of what Mises calls the anti-capitalistic mentality. Cox in his essay on Conrad's The Secret Agent and Cantor in his essay on Wells's The Invisible Man pose the question of whether anti-capitalistic intellectuals have their own kind of parochial class interest. Both essays argue that these intellectuals believe that they are not sufficiently respected and rewarded under capitalism and thus turn to socialism as the only way to give the cultural elite they think they belong to its “rightful” place in society—namely, ruling over the ignorant masses.

The free market perspective also leads to reinterpreting economic history, and hence literary history as well, insofar as it reflects or even seeks to portray economic history. In the standard view of economic history, especially in Marxist versions, capitalism is blamed for much of the suffering of humanity. But Austrians and many other economists would counter that capitalism has vastly improved the human condition and that many of the evils laid at its doorstep are really the result of government interference with the normal functioning of the market. The essays on Cervantes and Shelley show how these authors directed their criticism against the war, tax, and monopoly policies of their governments; the Shelley and Mann essays look at how these authors trace the economic suffering of their day to governmental tampering with the money supply and the inevitable—and corrosive—inflation that results. Cantor's revisionist essay on Shelley, for example, shows that the Romantic poet blamed the misery of his day, not on the Industrial Revolution as is commonly supposed, but on the mercantilist and anti-market policies of the British government.

These are just some of the ways in which a free market perspective might shed new light on literature and literary history. In relating literature and economics, everything depends on the form of economics one uses, and, contrary to what most literary scholars seem to believe, alternatives to Marxist concepts are available. Our essays demonstrate how fruitful and liberating concepts of economic freedom can be in the understanding of culture. Some of these essays have been published in preliminary versions, but even they have been extensively revised and rewritten for this volume. As the work of a group of individualists, this book was not centrally planned, and the topics of the essays emerged independently over the years. Thus we do not claim to offer a systematic and comprehensive treatment of our subject. We have neglected many interesting points at which literature and economics intersect, including some of the most frequently discussed texts in this field, such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Goethe's Faust. Nevertheless we hope that we have spontaneously produced a book that offers a well-balanced coverage of its subject. Most of the essays deal with fiction, but one deals with drama and another with poetry—demonstrating that our approach works across the boundaries of genre. The historical range of the essays is broad, beginning with the early seventeenth century and extending almost to the present day. The geographic scope of the essays is also wide ranging; they deal with authors from six different countries and three different continents.

We hasten to point out that what we are offering in this book is only one approach to literature. Although our subject is large and important, this book is in a sense narrowly targeted—we are developing an alternative to Marxist and quasi-Marxist analyses of the relation of literature and economics. We are not monomaniacally claiming that in Austrian economics we have found the master key to all literature. We readily acknowledge that there are many other valid ways of discussing literature, including purely aesthetic approaches that have nothing to say about economic matters. As we will show, one of the differences between Austrian economics and Marxism is that it does not present itself as a master science, with an underlying explanation for all phenomena. Thus our reliance on Austrian economics allows us to avoid the reductionist tendencies of readings of literature that are rooted in Marxist assumptions. The emphasis on freedom and individualism in the Austrian School means that when we analyze authors in an economic context, we do not treat them as representatives of a particular ideology, class consciousness, or historical moment. We look at each author as an individual and seek for his or her distinctive ideas. If we find specific economic ideas in the authors we discuss, we believe that the ideas are genuinely those of the authors and worthy of being taken seriously and treated with respect.

Some may accuse us of being just as ideologically motivated and biased as Marxist critics—simply trying to impose a free-market perspective on authors where Marxists have been imposing socialist ideas. However, our analyses are based on detailed, careful readings of individual texts treated in their integrity—in sharp contrast to the Marxist tendency to disregard authorial intention and, in the style of Fredric Jameson, to seek to ferret out the “political unconscious” in literary works. Our readings are not Marxist-style interpretations with a free market twist. Although our claims about the relevance of Austrian economics to literary criticism are novel, our mode of interpretation is actually quite traditional, with a respect for conventional canons of literary evidence and procedures that could generally be described as close reading. Our Austrian perspective helps make our readings concrete and practical, rather than abstract and theoretical, and it keeps us focused on what the authors have to say as individuals and not in Marxist fashion on how they reflect a class position (the closest we come to a Marxist-style reading is Cantor's essay on Wells, which turns Marxist ideology critique back on itself).

In one respect we have set ourselves an especially difficult task in this book. The majority of our readers, particularly those coming from a literary background, are unlikely to be familiar with Austrian economics. Unlike Marxist critics, who can assume at least a passing acquaintance with Marxism among their readers, we have had to spend more time than is usual in a book of literary criticism expounding some of the principles of Austrian economics. In addition, to be fair to the schools of criticism we are challenging, we have had to demonstrate our familiarity with their work and also with Marxist economics itself. As a result, the scholarly apparatus of some of these essays may at times seem excessive. To the targets of our critique, however, it may appear insufficient. We have tried to strike a balance—to document our claims adequately, while not overburdening our readers with scholarship. We have used the notes to point our readers to the literature of Austrian economics, especially the writings of Mises and Hayek, where they can find the full articulation of the principles we refer to and rely on. Books of Marxist or quasi-Marxist literary criticism do not contain a full exposition of Marxist economics. Similarly, this book is not a treatise on economics. It is fundamentally a book of literary criticism, and we cannot replay the whole dispute between Marxism and Austrian economics. Nevertheless, we are trying to contribute to this all-important debate by opening up a new, cultural front in the ongoing conflict.

In the end, we do not fool ourselves that Marxist critics will be persuaded by our arguments, although we hope that they will give us a fair hearing. But this book is principally directed to anyone who is interested in the relation of literature and economics, but is not committed to a Marxist approach and may in fact be searching for an alternative to it. Literary scholars should appreciate our pointing them in the direction of a more humane form of economics and sketching out some of its basic principles. They may be surprised to see how different literature looks when viewed from the perspective of an economic school that presents the marketplace as a site of freedom and creativity. And they might gain a new appreciation of the free market when they realize that it operates on the same principle—spontaneous order— that is at work in language and culture. By the same token, economists should appreciate our demonstrating that literary scholarship does not have to be Marxist and that free market principles can be profitably applied in the humanities. Economists will be interested to see that principles they are familiar with from the spontaneous order of the market, such as the division of labor, can be observed operating in the realm of literature as well.

We ask only that people from all fields read our essays with open minds. Much that we argue may initially sound strange, but that is just one more sign of how dominant the Marxist paradigm has become in the humanities in recent decades and how it has limited the horizons of what passes for legitimate scholarly discourse on literature and economics. Once one suspends the misleading assumptions about human action that Marxism has promulgated, the principles of Austrian economics begin to sound a lot like common sense—human beings are free and make their choices as individuals. What the Austrian School can offer literary criticism is a way of thinking that is fully grounded in economic reality and still supports the principles of freedom and individualism. And, as we show throughout this book, the principles of freedom and individualism are vital to understanding literature and artistic creativity.