The Poetics of Spontaneous Order: Austrian Economics and Literary Criticism

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

The Poetics of Spontaneous Order: Austrian Economics and Literary Criticism


To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

—Samuel Beckett

The task of art today is to bring chaos into order.

—Theodor Adorno


In the contemporary academy, to say that one is taking an economic approach to literature seems tantamount to saying that one is taking a Marxist approach. Despite the fact that there are many flourishing schools of economic thought (Keynesian, neoclassical, monetarist, supply side, public choice, to name but a few)—some of them quite antithetical to Marxism—only one seems to be employed in the study of culture, and indeed the whole field of what is called Cultural Studies is Marxist in its foundations.1 One can of course find a good deal of variation among literary critics interested in economics, but it is almost always variation among different Marxist paradigms. One critic may use Marx himself, another may draw upon a twentieth-century Marxist revisionist such as Lukács or Adorno, still another may rely on even more sophisticated interpreters of Marx, such as Gramsci or Althusser. Consider, for example, this characterization of the development of the Birmingham school of Cultural Studies, which is supposed to give us an idea of its wide-ranging intellectual roots:

[Stuart] Hall sketches the achievements of the Birmingham Centre as a series of theoretical illuminations from abroad, beginning with a progressively radical or quasi-Marxist (but not clearly Marxist enough) tripartite Raymond Williams, through the importation of French structuralism (Barthes, Lévi-Strauss) and an older German Marxist tradition (Benjamin, Brecht), to an also tripartite but much more satisfactorily Marxist and vanguard Louis Althusser.2

This passage comes close to summing up the standard recipe for economic criticism of literature—mix quasi-Marxism with vanguard Marxism, and add just a soupçon of fashionable French thought (structuralist or poststructuralist) to give it flavor.

One could easily be impressed by the dazzling array of theoretical positions in contemporary criticism—and the endless debates among them—and conclude that critics interested in economics embrace a genuine variety of schools in the field. But to cut through this deceptive complexity, one might ask a simple question: how many literary critics are sympathetic to socialism and critical of capitalism, and how many are sympathetic to capitalism and critical of socialism? On this fundamental issue that divides economists, any survey of literary criticism today would reveal a remarkable and nearly complete uniformity of opinion. Economic discussions of literature are almost all anti-capitalist in spirit, and are often avowedly pro-socialist.3 John Vernon speaks for a whole generation of critics when he defines his position:

And in this respect I am not a Marxist. I don't believe that social and economic reality always determines thought or that understanding modes of production is the single most important key to history. But I do accept much of the Marxist critique of capitalism, especially as it applies to the nineteenth century.4

In short, Vernon is not a Marxist—except when it comes to criticizing capitalism. And he goes on to cite Marx throughout his book as his chief—and virtually his only—authority on economic matters.

Francis Barker and Peter Hulme epitomize the anti-capitalist orientation of contemporary criticism in this passage from their well-known essay on Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Critique operates in a number of ways, adopting various strategies and lines of attack as it engages with the current ideological formations, but one aspect of its campaign is likely to have to remain constant. Capitalist societies have always presupposed the naturalness and universality of their own structures and modes of perception, so, at least for the foreseeable future, critiques will need to include an historical moment, countering capitalism's self-universalization by reasserting the rootedness of texts in the contingency of history.5

Barker and Hulme are trying to stress the pluralism of what they call “critique,” but of one thing they are certain—its task must be to fight capitalism.

It is odd that this kind of Marxist thinking should enjoy such a monopoly in economic approaches to literature; academics rarely achieve this kind of agreement. This situation is all the odder when one considers that Marxism has lost a good deal of its credibility as an economic theory since the collapse of the Soviet Union and much of the communist bloc. Throughout the twentieth century many economists challenged the assumptions and conclusions of Marxism, and the way economic developments worked out in practice seemed to confirm these theoretical doubts.6 Marxism, after all, claims to be a predictive science; Marx supposedly came up with laws of economic development, centering on the inevitable transition from one economic mode of production to another (feudalism to capitalism, capitalism to socialism). The triumph of capitalist over communist economies in the late twentieth century thus dealt a serious blow to the prestige of Marxism, as history appeared to reverse itself in a way that should not have been possible according to Marx's theories. Of course, loyal Marxists have come up with ways to salvage their economic doctrines; they can claim, for example, that the Soviet Union never followed true Marxist principles. This argument might be more convincing if the same theorists had not earlier been offering the Soviet Union or China or Cuba as living proof that socialism can outperform capitalism. Thus, most observers of economic developments in the twentieth century have concluded that the active competition between capitalism and socialism has proved the superiority of the free market over the centrally planned, command economies of the communist bloc.7

This situation leaves us with an oft-noted paradox—just when Marxism has lost prestige in the world at large, even in many wings of the academy, it has seemed to triumph in literature departments and the humanities in general. A cynic might speak of the retreat of Marxism into literature departments— having failed to triumph in the real world, it had to seek refuge in the one place where it is least likely to be subject to the rigorous test of objective reality. And indeed the prominent role of Marxism in literary and cultural studies has developed in tandem with the spread of postmodernism in the academy and its attempt to subvert traditional conceptions of “naive” reality and objective truth. The curious alliance between Marxism and postmodernism in contemporary literary studies has led to the further paradox of a movement that once presented itself as an objective science joining forces with a movement that denies the possibility of objective science. Having begun under Marx as an explicitly anti-utopian movement, Marxism by the end of the twentieth century seemed to have prolonged its life only by entering a world of postmodern fantasy in the humanities wing of the academy.8 As the various attempts in literary criticism to salvage Marxism as a way of analyzing the world become increasingly subtle, sophisticated, and, some might say, sophistic, the time is ripe to raise the question of whether Marxism, which has proved to be a dubious guide to economic phenomena, is any more reliable when dealing with literary phenomena. Might forms of economic thinking sympathetic to free markets be more helpful in analyzing literature than Marxism, with its unrelenting hostility to capitalism?

Of course, someone might object that this alternative simply swings from one extreme to another, substituting a pro-market ideology for an anti-market ideology. One might prefer simply to reject economic approaches to literature entirely, and try to maintain the aesthetic purity of the realm of literature by keeping it strictly divorced from the sordid, mercenary considerations of the economic realm. In view of the crudeness of many Marxist analyses of literature, one can sympathize with the impulse to keep the realms of literature and economics separate. And yet for all the high-mindedness of this approach, it amounts to a refusal to confront the entrenched position of Marxist and quasi-Marxist literary critics in the academy, thus abandoning any attempt to undo the damage they may have done to our understanding of literature. Marxist literary criticism shows no signs of going away, and it cannot effectively be countered by simply denying that economics has any application to literature. We need to put something in its place. Marxist literary critics deserve at least this much credit: they have made a plausible and even a persuasive case for the relevance of economics to literature and literary activity. Economics is a central realm of human activity, and to the extent that literature attempts to deal with human life, it must inevitably come to terms with economic issues. And however idealistic a view one holds of the creation of literature, at some level it does seem to be bound up with economic activity as ordinarily understood. If we need to raise economic questions in order to achieve a fuller understanding of literature, we should take care that we are being guided by sound economic principles, not by an outdated and discredited ideology. Those who have been repelled by Marxist literary criticism may find that it was not an economic approach to literature as such that bothered them, but only the use of the wrong brand of economics. A more humane form of economics—one that grants a central place to the human element in economic activity—may turn out to be more applicable than Marxism in the realm of the humanities. The most effective way to counter the negative effects of Marxist literary criticism is not to deny that economics has any relevance to literature, but to substitute sound economics for unsound, to offer a positive alternative to Marxism for relating literature and economics.

For that positive alternative we have turned, largely though not exclusively, to the Austrian School of economics.9 The name comes from the fact that the movement had its origins back in the nineteenth century in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire in the work of Carl Menger (1840—1921) and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851—1914), and its most famous representatives in the twentieth century, Ludwig von Mises (1881—1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899—1992), were both Austrians by birth.10 But there is nothing peculiarly “Austrian” about Austrian economics; in fact the movement is barely known in present-day Austria and it flourishes in the United States, where it developed under the guidance of a number of Mises's students, such as Murray Rothbard (1926—1995) and Israel Kirzner (1930—). From its beginning, the Austrian School participated in the most important development in economics in the second half of the nineteenth century, the marginalist revolution. Along with William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras, Menger was one of the discoverers of the law of marginal utility, and that means that from its inception Austrian economics has been characterized by its subjective theory of value. Indeed, the Austrians, especially Böhm-Bawerk, have been among the most incisive critics of the labor theory of value, as developed in classical economics (Smith and Ricardo) and adopted by Marx.11 It is one of the many ironies of literary criticism today that postmodernists, who deny all objectivity, have linked up with Marxism, a form of economics rooted in the labor theory of value, which seeks to determine value on the basis of an objective factor. The fact that Austrian economics clearly acknowledges that all economic value is purely subjective is one reason why it should be more attractive to literary critics than Marxism as an economic theory.

The Austrian School is known for the way it champions the free market as the only rational and effective form of economic organization and the way it opposes collectivist systems like communism and fascism. Mises, in particular, was probably the most uncompromising defender of pure laissez-faire capitalism in the history of economic thought; Hayek, by contrast, was more willing to make concessions to the principles of the welfare state (a good reminder that the Austrian School is not monolithic; it has over the years embraced a wide range of views on specific economic issues, within the context of an overall commitment to the free market). Austrian economics is today most famous for having predicted the collapse of communism. As early as 1920, Mises argued that a socialist economy simply cannot function because of its inability to price—and hence rationally allocate— factors of production in the absence of a freely competitive market for privately owned capital goods. Although Mises was scorned at the time by many economists for this thesis, events at the end of the twentieth century vindicated him and today he is generally acknowledged to have been the victor in what came to be known as the socialist calculation debate of the 1930s.12 The second well-known contribution of the school is the Austrian theory of the business cycle, which blames recessions and depressions, not on the normal operation of capitalism, but on government interventions in the market which distort that normal operation (chiefly the manipulation of money and credit through a central banking system such as the Federal Reserve—for the Austrians, a recession is simply the necessary collapse of a boom artificially generated by easy money/credit policies).13 The Austrian School has also made distinctive contributions on such subjects as capital and interest, money and banking, competition and monopoly, the nature of entrepreneurship, the epistemology of economics, and the history of economic thought.14

Thus, the Austrian School has something to say on virtually every issue in economics, and we have drawn upon these positions throughout this book (although not restricting ourselves to distinctively Austrian insights).15 To be sure, the views of the Austrian School are highly controversial, and have been much disputed, not just by Marxists, but by mainstream economists as well, including many who are generally sympathetic to the free market. We can, however, assure our readers that, ever since Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974, the general reputation, academic respectability, and influence on public policy of the Austrian School have all been on the rise. Austrian economics even made a favorable impression on one of the most important influences on contemporary literary criticism, Michel Foucault. As James Miller writes in his biography of Foucault:

On January 10, 1979, Foucault began his annual series of lectures at the Collège de France.... [H]is political reflections veered off in a surprising direction. Despite his own “wishful participation” in the revolution in Iran, he advised his students to look elsewhere for ways to think about “the will not to be governed.” He asked them to read with special care the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek— distinguished Austrian economists, strident yet prescient critics of Marxism, apostles of a libertarian strand of modern social thought rooted in a defense of the free market as a citadel of individual liberty and a bulwark against the power of the state.16

If the patron saint of New Historicism endorsed Mises and Hayek, we feel justified in drawing upon the concepts of the Austrian School in our effort to offer an alternative to Marxist understandings of the relation of literature and economics. I will begin this introductory essay, then, with a brief comparison of the ways Austrian economics and Marxism can be applied to literature, in an effort to suggest the superiority of the Austrian approach. Much of the essay will be devoted to showing how a key concept of the Austrian School, Hayek's idea of spontaneous order, can help to resolve one of the central dilemmas of literary theory, the conflict between the New Criticism and Deconstruction. To illustrate the applicability of the idea of spontaneous order to literature, I will examine at length the serialization of novels in the nineteenth century—a case study that will allow us to explore in detail the differences between Austrian economics and Marxism as ways of understanding literature.


One might well wonder why Marxism has proved to be so attractive to scholars in the humanities. Marxism is fundamentally reductive in its understanding of human action, displacing the human subject from the center of its concerns and turning instead to vast, impersonal forces to explain historical and social patterns. In particular, Marxist thinkers tend to view culture as an epiphenomenon; economic forces provide the bedrock of explanation in Marxist theories, and culture constitutes a byproduct, a superstructure reflecting supposedly more basic developments in material modes of production. In Marx's famous formulation in The Poverty of Philosophy:

Social relations are intimately bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production, their manner of making a living, they change all their social relations. The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. The same men who establish social relations in conformity with their material productivity also produce principles, ideas, and categories conforming to their social relations.17

This materialist approach to culture is the distinctive Marxist contribution to the understanding of human history. After all, many thinkers before Marx offered a historicist view of culture, and even argued that economic factors influence its development. What was new in Marx was his claim that economic forces are the determining factor in all history, including cultural history.18

But in its stark formulation—“the windmill gives you society with the feudal lord”—Marx's position proved too reductive and difficult to maintain. His colleagues and followers soon began to qualify the absolutism of his claim that economic factors simply govern history. In a letter explaining Marx's doctrine to Joseph Bloch, Friedrich Engels offered a more complex view of the interaction of economic and cultural factors in history:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I has ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views...—also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amidst all the endless host of accidents,... the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary.19

Engels's reformulation of the materialist position—the economic base ultimately determines the superstructure, but the superstructure can in the course of development react back upon the base—turned out to be more congenial to many Marxist literary critics.20 It freed them from a purely materialist understanding of literature, and indeed some Marxist critics can be quite subtle and perceptive in their readings of individual literary works, relating them to their socioeconomic context in illuminating ways. Many critics who call themselves Marxist have in fact rejected the base/superstructure model of culture.21 For example, in perhaps the dominant form of quasi-Marxist criticism today, New Historicism, energy is viewed as circulating back and forth between economic and cultural forces.22 But these more sophisticated forms of Marxist criticism are still fundamentally materialist in outlook (one prominent movement is known as “cultural materialism”) and ultimately remain reductive in their application to literature. After having made all their qualifications concerning Marxist materialism, contemporary critics eventually circle back to what is essentially Engels's original position: “We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one.”23 In short, in explaining history, for Marxists and quasi-Marxists economics trumps culture after all.

One can see this tendency to privilege economic factors in the way contemporary literary critics carry on the Marxist polemic against the “great man” theory of history, the supposed bourgeois propensity to overrate the importance of individuals in historical developments.24 Much of Marxist literary criticism has been devoted to attacking the Romantic idea of genius, calling into question the very notion of artistic creativity as traditionally understood.25 Where traditional critics speak of artistic creation, Marxists speak of cultural work or cultural production, thereby assimilating aesthetic activity to economic.26 While traditional critics analyze the way that the great artist creates an individual world out of his private imagination, Marxists stress the social dimension of art, viewing literary works, for example, as mirroring a particular historical moment or the consciousness of a distinct socioeconomic class. With its collectivist impulses, Marxism downplays the role of the individual in artistic creation, wherever possible treating the work of art as the product of some kind of collaborative effort in which the individuality of the artist dissolves in a web of socioeconomic relations. Moreover, as a form of historical determinism, Marxism undercuts the idea that the artist is free as a creator. For Marxists, economics is the realm of harsh necessity (at least until the coming of the Communist Revolution). Thus, for a Marxist to show an artist involved in economic relations and especially in any form of marketplace activity is ipso facto to expose his lack of freedom. In classic Marxist literary criticism, authors operating in a market system are routinely portrayed as captives of capitalist ideology, and today's cultural materialists and new historicists, for all their critical sophistication, basically still operate within this tradition.

As a doctrine that undermines the idea of individual human agency, Marxism seems inappropriate to the study of art—a realm often taken to be the highest form of human self-expression, creativity, and freedom. Marxism is especially inappropriate because it is a species of what Hayek calls scientism.27 Captivated by the success of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century, especially their ability to predict events in the physical world, Marx sought to create a science of economic and social phenomena modeled on Newtonian physics, one that could discover historical laws that operate with scientific regularity and hence strict predictability. Marx prided himself on the fact that he was offering for the first time a scientific socialism, as opposed to the utopian socialism of earlier thinkers like Saint-Simon and Fourier.28 Marx writes in his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “the material transformation of the economic conditions of production... can be determined with the precision of natural science.”29 Marxism thus involves a fundamental category error—it tries to understand economic and social phenomena on the model of events in the physical world, that is to say, human events on the model of non-human events. In modeling higher or more complex phenomena in terms of lower or less complex phenomena, Marxism loses sight of what is fundamentally distinctive about human action. In particular it oversimplifies human history in order to make it seem predictable (and above all to make the triumph of communism seem inevitable). Having sought to understand economic phenomena in terms of material forces, Marxism compounds the error by trying to understand cultural phenomena in terms of economic, and thus it becomes doubly reductionist in its treatment of art. In short, in the longstanding conflict between the natural sciences and the humanities, Marxism leans toward the former, making us wonder even more why scholars in the humanities ever embraced Marxism.

But the reductionism of Marxism has actually turned out to be attractive to many critics. After generations of the Romantic celebration of artistic genius, many critics were happy to see authors taken down a peg or two.30 Marxist analysis works to efface the distinction between the great author and the ordinary run of humanity, thus lessening the critic's sense of subordination to the figures he studies and in fact giving him a new-found power over authors. Knowing the truth of Marxism, the critic can, for example, expose the fallacies of capitalist ideology—the false consciousness—in the writers he discusses. Marxist reductionism provides a way of elevating the critic over his subject matter. Since Marxist analysis has been by far the most common form of applying economic theories to literature, the very notion of the enterprise has come to be suspect in many quarters. In its Marxist forms, criticism seems hostile to the literary imagination, or at least primarily interested in debunking it, exposing its limitations and above all its biases (originally class biases, but now extended to racial and gender biases as well).31

Here is where the Austrian School can come to the aid of critics who are interested in the relation of literature and economics but who are troubled by the reductionist implications of Marxism for the study of artistic creativity. Some Marxist literary critics have struggled to liberate themselves from the scientific/materialist/determinist biases of Marx's doctrine, when they could instead have turned to modes of economic thought that are free of these tendencies to begin with. The relation between literature and economics looks very different when one works from a form of economics, like the Austrian School, that celebrates freedom and the individual, rather than determinism and the collective. In its epistemological foundations, established by Menger and elaborated by Mises and Hayek, the Austrian School explicitly rejects the idea that the natural sciences provide the proper model for economic analysis.32 In its concern to establish the autonomy of economics as an intellectual discipline, the Austrian School respects the heterogeneity of phenomena and hence of a variety of methods of studying them. The Austrians do not accept the idea of a master science, one method of knowing that provides the key to understanding all phenomena. Far from being reductionist, Austrian economics refuses to study the human in terms of the non-human. As the title of Mises's magnum opus indicates, the focus of Austrian economics is on human action, and it places the acting human subject squarely at the center of its concern. The Austrian School distinguishes itself from most other forms of economic thought by the fact that it views economic matters from the perspective of the acting individual and avoids dealing in macroeconomic abstractions like the Gross National Product. In epistemological terms, this is referred to as the “methodological individualism” of the Austrian School, an approach that one would think would be more attractive than the collectivism of Marxism to scholars in the humanities.33

Moreover, the way the Austrian School conceives economic activity ought to make it more congenial than Marxism to literary critics. The Austrian School views economics as the realm of freedom; indeed it regards economic behavior and above all the central act of choice as the defining manifestation of human freedom. Austrian economics is the very opposite of a deterministic doctrine.34 In addition to resting on the axiom of human freedom of choice, it stresses the role of chance and contingency in human affairs.35 Indeed, it champions the free market precisely as the best way of responding to the unpredictability of the world. Unlike most forms of mainstream economics, the Austrian School rejects the possibility of mathematical modeling of economic phenomena and refuses to make the kind of economic forecasts that are the stock in trade of many professionals in the field.

Instead of drawing graphs of so-called “perfect competition,” Austrian economists concentrate on the messiness of the real world in which human beings act, the fact that at any given moment supply and demand are out of balance, instead of meeting perfectly at an imaginary point on some professor's blackboard. The Austrian School focuses on entrepreneurial behavior, the unceasing efforts of businessmen to adjust to the neverending changes in the economic world. More than any other school, the Austrians insist on the importance of uncertainty and risk as economic factors.36 In their view, the entrepreneur is constantly anticipating an uncertain future, trying to predict changes in demand and to figure out new economies of production for satisfying it. Thus, for the Austrian School, the entrepreneur becomes a kind of artist. Indeed, the Austrians stress the creativity of the entrepreneur.37 Like an artist, he is a visionary, a risk-taker, and a pioneer, and if he is to be successful, he will generally be found running counter to the crowd, or at least ahead of it. Thus, with Austrian economics, one need not worry that linking artistic activity with economic will have a reductionist effect. Because the Austrian School views economic activity as creative in the first place, from its perspective, to show an artist implicated in the commercial world is perfectly compatible with asserting his freedom and individuality.


Beyond its focus on freedom and individual human action, Austrian economics offers a model of order that can help us understand literature—what Hayek referred to as “spontaneous order.”38 This concept serves to highlight the place of Austrian economics in broader intellectual history. The Austrians are in many respects the culmination and the most cogent exponents of a large-scale shift in thinking that can be described as the movement from top-down to bottom-up models of order. For much of history, the only way of conceiving an order was to imagine it organized by a single person, some kind of central power imposing its will throughout a domain.39 The model for this kind of centralized order was in political terms a king ruling his kingdom or in religious terms God creating and directing the whole universe. In this model, order has to be imposed from above or there is no order at all. One might debate when and where this conception began to be challenged, but one of the key moments came in the eighteenth century in the work of economists such as Adam Smith and, more broadly, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers with whom he is associated.40 Indeed, the great contribution of economics to thought in general has been a way of conceiving order that need not be imposed from above on phenomena but can grow up out of them, an order generated by the phenomena themselves. What Smith demonstrated with his famous notion of the “invisible hand” is that the government does not have to regulate or plan centrally the activities of businessmen in order to promote the public good.41 Left to themselves to pursue what appear to be their merely private interests, businessmen will in fact serve the public because the market provides an impersonal mechanism for coordinating their activities.42 In particular, the pricing mechanism works to bring supply in line with demand without anyone needing to oversee the process from a central position. From the perspective of traditional thinking, the market presents a paradox— an order without a single individual in control to order it.

Many of the advances in nineteenth-century thinking resulted from extending the concept of spontaneous order to new areas. Darwin's theory of evolution is a good example of the shift from top-down to bottom-up models of order. In the traditional view, the complex order of biological form could be explained only by the notion of divine creation—of a God who consciously designed the intimate interplay between form and function in bodily organs. Whatever one may think of Darwin's specific version of the theory of evolution, he did provide a way of reconceiving the problem of biological form.43 He showed the theoretical possibility of a process of natural selection accounting for the order we see in the biological world. For Darwin, the struggle for existence provides an impersonal mechanism that can explain the way, over time, organs become suited to their functions, without invoking the idea of some personal force to design and shape those organs at a single moment of creation. The fact that competition among members of the same species plays such an important role in Darwin's thinking is one indication that his version of spontaneous order thinking was deeply influenced by the work of the classical economists (Darwin himself acknowledged the importance of Thomas Malthus to his development of the concept of natural selection).44 Thus, it is no accident that classical economics and Darwinian evolutionary theory converge precisely on the issue of spontaneous order, and indeed they represent the two most significant examples of this new kind of thinking in the nineteenth century.45 But the idea of spontaneous order is even more widespread in the period. “Evolution,” broadly conceived, was in many ways the leading idea of the age, and appears in fields as diverse as linguistics and legal history.

But as fruitful as the idea of spontaneous order proved to be in the nineteenth century, at first sight it does not seem to be applicable to the study of literary phenomena. The concept of “bottom up” orders provides an alternative to the traditional concept of “top down” orders—not a replacement for it. The fact that spontaneous orders are possible in some realms does not mean that centrally planned orders do not exist at all. Bricks do not spontaneously order themselves into buildings. Despite anything that Smith, Mises, or Hayek proved, an architect is still necessary to plan a building and to direct its construction. At first glance, a poem would seem to fall into the same category as a building, that is, something that has to be created by a single guiding intellect. Indeed, a well-crafted poem seems to be a good example of a non-spontaneous, perfectly planned order. In the traditional understanding, a poem has a single author—the author plans it out carefully ahead of time; he is in control of every detail of his poem, down to the last word; his aim is to create a perfect whole in each poem, a work of art in which every part contributes to the unity of the whole. If there ever were a legitimate example of perfect planning, the art of poetry would appear to provide it. One reason many authors have been predisposed toward socialism is that they are used to planning in their own line of work and have a hard time conceiving how any form of order can be produced without it.46 As shown by the popularity of the genre of the utopia—which usually takes some kind of socialist form—authors enjoy planning out communities the same way they plan out their literary works. Indeed, in the utopia the two activities coalesce—the utopian community is as tightly plotted as the work of fiction that portrays it.47

Much of twentieth-century literary criticism was dominated by a movement that offered a model of order as perfectly planned and hence not spontaneous. The New Criticism upheld the ideal of the perfectly crafted poem. A New Critic typically concerned himself with showing how a literary work holds together, how each detail fits into the pattern of the whole.48 There can be no question that the New Criticism made a significant and lasting contribution to our understanding of literature. Guided by their ideal of aesthetic unity, the New Critics learned to scrutinize literature with a new-found care and attention to detail. Precisely because the New Critics believed that every detail in a work of literature has to have a function, whenever some facet seemed extraneous or purposeless, they searched and searched until they found a reason for it. A New Critical reading of a literary work often begins with some seemingly anomalous detail and goes on to explain how what at first appears to be out of place in the work really is part of its larger and deeper design. In the heyday of the New Critics, it was hard not to be impressed by their ingenuity in finding evidence of design where accident and contingency seemed at first to prevail.49

But the problem with the New Criticism is that its readings came to seem over-ingenious, as its followers vied with each other to find some purpose in every last detail of all literary works. Although useful as a heuristic device, the postulate of literary unity began to seem extreme in its relentless application. As often happens in the academy, the New Criticism eventually gave birth to its opposite.50 The movement known as Deconstruction is best understood as a reaction against the extremism of the New Criticism.51 Rejecting the obsession with perfection of literary form in the New Criticism, the deconstructive critics conjured up a contrary model of imperfection. Where the New Critics had labored to show how works of literature hang together, the deconstructionists spared no pains in showing how they fall apart. The typical deconstructive reading reverses the movement of the New Criticism. Starting with the common understanding of a literary work as unified, the deconstructive critic seeks to uncover some genuinely anomalous detail, a part that stubbornly refuses to fit into the pattern of the whole, something that cuts against the grain. The deconstructionists stress the recalcitrance of the means authors use to reach their ends, above all the recalcitrance of language itself. Deconstructive critics delight in uncovering secondary or tertiary meanings in words authors use—meanings that run counter to the primary meaning the author intended to express. Jacques Derrida, for example, wrote an essay on Plato's Phaedrus that takes off from the fact that the Greek word pharmakon means “helpful drug” but it can also mean “poison.”52 In a deconstructive reading, the literary work never measures up to the author's design. Indeed, it usually is presented as on some level saying the opposite of what the author seemed to intend. Where New Critical readings evoke the idea of perfect artistic design, deconstructive readings typically point in the direction of contingency and failure of design. For a deconstructionist, what may seem like a mere accident of the publishing process can offer a glimpse into the abyss of the indeterminacy of meaning.53

The battle between the New Criticism and Deconstruction emerged as one of the most significant critical debates of the second half of the twentieth century, and seemed to leave us with a difficult choice, between an idea of complete order and an idea of complete disorder in literature. On reflection, it is clear that one idea bred the other.54 The insistence on complete perfection of literary form in the New Criticism provoked the deconstructive critics into denying that any consistency of form or meaning can be found in literature. In effect, the deconstructionists argued that if literature is not perfectly ordered, it is not meaningfully ordered at all. Indeed, if we try to maintain the New Criticism's ideal of all literature as perfectly ordered, theorists like the deconstructionists will always be able to come up with a great deal of evidence to the contrary and advance the claim that all literature is ultimately disordered and indeterminate in meaning. In order to preserve a concept of the perfectly ordered work of literature, we need to limit it to a subset of the literary realm in general. Moreover, for the works that do not meet the strict New Criticism standard of perfection, we need to find a way of viewing their elements of imperfection as compatible with an underlying order and artistic integrity. Here is where the concept of spontaneous order can come to our aid, because it offers a middle term between divinely perfect order and complete chaos. Following the lead of Austrian economics and Darwinian biology, we have to find a way of admitting some element of contingency into our conception of literary form.


But to do so we have to examine more carefully what the idea of a spontaneous order entails. Discussions of spontaneous vs. non-spontaneous orders tend to get caught up in the issue of origins. Spontaneous orders are of course those that come into being spontaneously—without the intervention of an external force. Non-spontaneous orders are distinguished precisely by the presence of such an external force at their origin. The heated debate over Darwinism centers on precisely this question—whether some kind of intelligence was necessary to plan the complex biological order we see before us or whether it could have come into being without a divine creator. What tends to get lost in such controversies is the question of the nature of the order. Many people assume that spontaneous orders have essentially the same nature as non-spontaneous orders—they just come into being differently. The evolution controversy illustrates this potential confusion. Even people well versed in the subject sometimes think that Darwin was operating with basically the same conception of biological form as earlier thinkers, such as Aristotle. Darwin may at first appear to have, like Aristotle, a teleological conception of the organism. He talks about the remarkable ways in which the organs of animals are suited to their biological functions. According to this view, Darwin simply gave a different account of how these organs became suited to their functions. Instead of attributing their functionality to divine planning and creation, he explains it as the product of a wholly unconscious process—natural selection. The way Darwin himself and many Darwinists argue for the theory of evolution only serves to reenforce this understandable but false impression. Darwin's own writings and biology textbooks to this day are saturated with the traditional language of teleology.55 They speak of organs having purposes; indeed they speak of evolution as if it were a conscious process, with animals striving to adapt to their environment. Darwin often uses the language of perfection in the Origin of Species, offering as evidence for his theory the way organs are perfectly adapted to their functions, which he claims could have happened only through a process of natural selection over long periods of time.56

But as many commentators have pointed out, the real evidence for Darwin's distinctive account of evolution is to be found in the phenomenon of imperfection rather than perfection of biological form. If an organ is perfectly suited to its function, then it could just as well have been the product of conscious planning as of an impersonal process such as natural selection. But when one finds imperfection in an organism, one can legitimately question whether it was consciously designed and instead consider attributing its origins to some kind of history, and thus assume an element of contingency in the form it has taken.57 Hence, the issue of vestigial organs becomes central to Darwin's theory (more than he himself realized).58 When we see in an animal an organ that apparently has no function, it becomes difficult to ascribe its presence to the plans of an all-powerful, benevolent deity, who presumably would be able to achieve perfection in his creations and would not allow anything wasteful into his designs. Vestigial organs seem to be comprehensible only if species have histories. If homo sapiens has a tail bone, but no tail, the reason, Darwinists argue, is that human beings have evolved from monkey-like creatures that did have tails. The tail has since dropped out of the picture in the human species, but the tail bone remains as a reminder of its remote origins. Thus, Darwin, for all his own occasional confusion on this issue, does operate with a conception of biological form different from Aristotle's.59 For Darwin biological form is generally a combination of perfection and imperfection.60 The organism must be sufficiently well formed and suited to its environment to survive—to that extent one can still speak of perfection of biological form in Darwin. But for Darwin, no organism can be, as it were, perfectly perfect, for that might suggest a divine hand in its creation.

All this does not necessarily prove Darwin's particular theory of evolution; the issue of vestigial organs remains controversial, with some of Darwin's critics insisting that organs appear to be vestigial only because we have not searched hard enough to find their function. But the issue of vestigial organs does serve to illustrate the nature of a spontaneous order and to suggest how it differs from a non-spontaneous order. The key point is that a spontaneous order will not look just like an order that has been planned by a single consciousness. Because of the way they come into being, spontaneous orders always embody an element of temporality, or what might be called historical contingency. Centrally designed orders, because they come into being at a single moment and in one stroke, can at least aspire to eliminate contingency and achieve complete perfection of form. But spontaneous orders always betray the history of their coming into being and hence display a certain messiness by comparison with consciously designed orders.

No one understands this point about spontaneous orders better than Austrian economists; they stress the elements of temporality and contingency in economic affairs and thus reject the possibility of mathematical modeling and economic forecasting. That is one way in which the Austrian School marks an advance beyond earlier economic thinking, including classical economics. The idea of spontaneous order was so novel when thinkers began to explore it that people took a long time to realize how truly revolutionary it is. Smith's ideas were subject to the same kind of misunderstanding that later dogged Darwin's (and like Darwin, Smith did not fully comprehend what was distinctive in his own thinking). People thought that Smith, with his “invisible hand” idea, had merely ascribed a different origin to economic order, but was still describing essentially the same kind of order. Supply would come perfectly into line with demand as if it had been consciously ordered to do so, even if no one really was directing the economy as a whole. The classical economists themselves were prone to this kind of misinterpretation of their own insights, as witness the way both Smith and Ricardo mistakenly insisted on distinguishing between “market prices” and “natural prices.”61 The neoclassical economists, with their focus on equilibrium theory and the idea of perfect competition, perpe tuated this kind of error. Their fundamental mistake is that they tried to defend capitalism as a way of achieving economic perfection, always guided by the chimera of perfect equilibrium. With their equations and diagrams, they pictured the market economy as if it had been planned by a single, giant intellect—and as if all market phenomena could be surveyed and taken in from the perspective of a single planner. This approach tempted socialists to think that by tinkering with these equations and diagrams, they could devise a system of central planning to improve upon the market.62 By contrast, the Austrian economists realized that the market economy is a form of spontaneous order and hence characterized as much by its imperfection as its perfection. The Austrians never claim that the market economy can achieve perfection. What they argue is that of all economic systems, it is the only one able to work toward correcting its imperfections in a systematic and rational manner. In an imperfect and ever-changing world, the market will never achieve equilibrium, but it has a way of working out disequilibria over time. This is what distinguishes spontaneous orders in general—over time, they are self-correcting and hence self-regulating systems. They are always perfecting themselves but they never achieve perfection.63

With their complicated interplay between perfection and imperfection, and their inescapable elements of temporality and contingency, spontaneous orders involve a higher level of complexity than centrally designed orders. In the case of economics, a single mind or any group of central planners is simply incapable of processing and coordinating the massive amounts of data in a modern economy in the way the impersonal price mechanism can. This insight emerged in the course of the economic calculation debate concerning socialism inaugurated by Mises in the early 1920s and continued by Hayek in the 1930s.64 Mises demonstrated that in the absence of monetary prices and the financial accounting they make possible, no centrally planned command economy can solve the basic economic problem of allocating resources in a rational and efficient manner. Building upon Mises's insights, Hayek developed the economic calculation argument in an epistemological direction and turned it into a problem of knowledge.65 He showed that in a modern economy, the relevant and crucial knowledge—of consumer desires and the means for satisfying them—is always of necessity widely dispersed and only market prices can coordinate the information, giving entrepreneurs the signals they need to work toward bringing supply in line with demand.

Like Darwinian natural selection, the market involves a process of trial and error operating over time. Nobody can assemble from a single vantage point all the data necessary to run an economy properly, in part because much of this data is of necessity guesswork, an attempt to anticipate future conditions that cannot be extrapolated from the present with any certainty. The market economy works by allowing a multitude of entrepreneurs to operate freely and in competition with each other. Those who anticipate the future correctly will be rewarded and thus enabled to continue in the competition (though only as long as they keep guessing properly), while those who are wrong about the future have to move into other lines of endeavor.66 In short, the free market will always produce failures, but, unlike other economic systems, it has a built-in mechanism for correcting them. That is why the efforts of a multitude of uncoordinated market actors can produce a more rational result than any centrally planned economy can generate. Centrally planned economies inevitably produce system-wide failures, whereas the free market tends toward merely local failures, which generally cancel each other out.67

Critics of capitalism who point to isolated examples of so-called market failure or imperfect competition thus miss the point of the Austrian defense.68 They assume that economic perfection is somehow possible in human affairs, and if capitalism cannot produce it, we have to replace the free market with some form of central planning. The Austrian argument is that, in an imperfect world, where all economic factors, especially consumer desires, keep changing over time, the goal of a perfect economic order is a pure fantasy. Proponents of socialism condemn the actual and necessarily imperfect world of capitalism according to the impractical and indeed impossible standard of a theoretical model of perfect planning. But the point of economics is to look at the real world with all its constraints, and in actual practice the free market, although unable to produce perfection, performs significantly better than any alternative system in solving economic problems. Both the economic realm as the Austrians conceive it and the biological realm as Darwin conceives it are not some kind of Leibnizian best of all possible worlds, in which whatever is, is right. Austrian economics does not defend every individual result of the market as perfect but only the system as a whole for its self-correcting properties. Any attempt by an external force like government to intervene in the normal operation of the market will succeed only in interfering with its self-correcting processes and thereby produce a worse result. Austrian economics is no more “providential” in its thinking than Darwinian biology—it does not picture a whole of which every part can be shown to be both necessary and good. Like Darwin, Mises and Hayek deal with the only real world we have, one shot through with contingency and unintended and unanticipated consequences, and hence a profoundly imperfect world. As we will see, this is also the world in which literature is produced, and which it sometimes mirrors and portrays.


We have seen that what might look like imperfections in a centrally designed order may be part of the hustle-bustle of a spontaneous order, which as a constantly self-correcting mechanism can never achieve a static perfection. Counterintuitively, in a spontaneous order, imperfection is thus compatible with order and indeed a defining characteristic of this particular kind of order. This insight might help us mediate between the extreme positions of the New Criticism and Deconstruction, that literature is either wholly ordered or wholly disordered. To be sure, literature will always offer us examples of perfectly designed order. When a great poet sits down to write, he may create a masterpiece in which every element falls perfectly into place. A great lyric poem comes as close to perfection of order as the human mind can produce. But does the lyric poem provide a proper model for all literature? In a way, that was the central claim of the New Critics,69 but it is difficult to apply their conception of literary order to a five-hundred page novel. Every word in a twenty-line lyric poem may be meaningful and have a role to play in the whole, but is that true of every word in a five-hundred page novel? We know that some novelists have failed to notice when editors or publishers or even simple misprints have altered words in their texts.70 Such observations suggest that large-scale literary works such as the novel may allow for a different kind of order than the lyric poem—one that can admit more messiness, the kind of imperfections that characterize a spontaneous order.71

The simple fact is that under normal circumstances a five-hundred page novel will take much longer to write than a twenty-line lyric poem. In theory, this difference in time of composition need not have any effect on the form of the finished product. There is no reason in the abstract why a novelist cannot maintain a lyric poet's strict control over his materials, and some novels do approach the kind of perfection of form we associate with the best lyric poetry—that was certainly Flaubert's hope for his novels. But in practice, the fact that novels generally take years rather than days to write tends to introduce a certain looseness into their form. Working on page 750 of his manuscript, a novelist will sometimes forget what he wrote several months earlier on page 150, and allow minor inconsistencies to slip into his narrative. Even when he goes back to revise his manuscript, a novelist may fail to notice such errors and allow them to survive in the published version.

This tendency toward looseness of form was compounded by the way novels often were published in the heyday of the genre in the nineteenth century. Many were initially serialized in popular periodicals or published in independent parts, appearing in installments of a few chapters at a time on a weekly or monthly basis. Serial publication usually forced novelists to commit their ideas to print as they were composing and hence before their novels were finished. Evidence from novelists' notes, diaries, and communications to friends and publishers shows that they generally did plan out their works in advance.72 They usually had a good idea of what the overall shape of their novels was going to be, and they often had sketches for the chapters they were going to write later. But precisely from looking at such sketches, we know that novelists frequently altered their plans in the course of composition, introducing new characters and plot turns as they worked up their material. Later installments could revise the direction in which the novel was going, but they could not unwrite the installments already published (and in some cases widely read and fixed in the public's imagination). Thus, later chapters in serialized novels sometimes ended up inconsistent with chapters published earlier.

Of course, the serialized version of a novel was often not its final form. Serialized novels were frequently repackaged in book form, and at that stage novelists had a chance to revise their work. Some availed themselves of the opportunity to change the text, sometimes eliminating inconsistencies that had crept into their plots, sometimes tightening up the narratives, sometimes writing new scenes, even new endings.73 But given the way we romanticize the author's ceaseless quest for formal perfection, we may be surprised to learn that nineteenth-century novelists often did not take full advantage of the chance to revise their work carefully for book publication. Sometimes an author was too engrossed in new work to take pains with the old; sometimes the way the public had become attached to particular scenes during the process of serialization made an author reluctant to tamper with his own work. Whatever the reasons, many book versions of novels do not depart substantially from the original serial installments, or at least the serialized version heavily influenced the final form the novel took.

In such cases, the form a novel takes is not the result of a single moment of centrally planned creation, but must be explained in terms of the history of its composition and publication. Thus, the novel's form comes to incorporate an element of temporality or historical contingency. Serial publication—and the serial composition that went along with it—could therefore result in the presence in some novels of the equivalent of vestigial organs. A novelist might introduce a character in an early chapter, thinking at the time that he would later develop the character into a major figure in the story. He might start a subplot in motion that looked as if it were going to propel the character to prominence later in the action.74 But in the course of months of serial publication, the author might for one reason or another lose interest in the character and demote him to minor status or perhaps just drop him from the narrative entirely. In the course of hundreds of pages in the novel a character who originally seemed promising might end up more or less extraneous to the narrative and all-but-forgotten by the closing chapter (indeed readers might not even notice his absence at the end). But such a character might not be excised from the final book version of the novel, perhaps because the author had a lingering affection for him, or more likely just because cutting him out of the narrative would seem more trouble than it was worth. The character would remain as a monument to an earlier stage of the evolution of the novel, much as a vestigial organ points to an earlier stage of a species' evolution.

A scholar with a New Critical bent looking for perfection of literary form in the book version of such a novel (and perhaps not knowing the details of its serial publication) would be puzzled by the presence of a character in the early chapters who seems to have no role to play in the later chapters and hence in the book as a whole. Of course, the New Critics were nothing if not ingenious, and no matter how forgotten a character might be by the end of a novel, any New Critic worth his salt would be able to demonstrate that the novel would not be the same without him. But this seems to be a case where we would be better served by invoking the concept of history and turning to the novel's process of composition to explain its anomalies. Instead of trying to find the place of the character in a perfect plan for the novel that was carried out successfully, we should look to a plan that was in fact revised and perhaps abandoned in the course of composition. But the presence of this kind of extraneous element in a novel does not necessarily impugn its fundamental integrity as a work of art. It suggests that the novel is not entirely perfect according to a New Critical conception of literary form, but it also points to the fact that the author was working on perfecting his novel over time, revising an original conception, presumably to improve upon it. One might wish that the author had revised the character completely out of the book when assembling it from the installments,75 but some remnants of imperfection in the final version do not mean that the book completely lacks unity and order. In fact, only because such a novel is generally well-ordered are we able to note a few elements in it that are extraneous. If the book lacked all coherence, we would never notice that some elements are out of place.

For a concrete example of contingency of form in the novel, especially of how some elements of imperfection are compatible with overall order in the case of a long, serialized novel, we can turn to the case of Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell's last novel, Wives and Daughters, is widely considered to be one of her best works, if not her artistic masterpiece.76 As the editor of the Penguin edition explains, “Wives and Daughters was first published in eighteen monthly parts in the Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866.”77 The novel shows how skillfully a talented and experienced Victorian novelist could work within the serial format. It is well-planned overall; Gaskell artfully juggles a number of plot lines, as her characters fall in and out of love with each other. As in one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, Gaskell's young lovers are originally mismatched and must realign their affections for a happy ending to become possible. As evidence of Gaskell's careful advance planning, the opening scene from her heroine's childhood clearly foreshadows many of the central motifs of the novel. In general, Gaskell telegraphs her narrative punches. The alert reader can anticipate plot developments and in particular can tell ahead of time when a given love match is going to work out, and indeed foresee how the plot will eventually be resolved.

Nevertheless, for a book that is generally well-planned and well-executed, Wives and Daughters has some surprising and striking inconsistencies. In Chapter 9, Gaskell writes of one of her main characters, the troublesome stepmother of her heroine: “She could no longer blush; and at eighteen she had been very proud of her blushes.”78 Yet in the very next chapter, Gaskell writes of the same woman: “She felt herself blush.”79 Compounding the error, Gaskell later in the same chapter has Mrs. Kirkpatrick blush again,80 and in the following chapter she has her yet once more “get up a very becoming blush.”81 This is a trivial matter, but it seems strange that as accomplished a writer as Gaskell could make such a glaring error. As another “example of Gaskell's occasional forgetfulness as to detail,”82 the Penguin editor points out that she is inconsistent about the allowances the sons of the country squire in the novel get while in college; at one point they are said to receive £250 and £200 respectively;83 later the figures are set at £300 and £200.84 Right at the beginning of the novel, the chief aristocratic family in the story is presented as Tory in their allegiances.85 But later in the novel Gaskell makes a great deal of the Whig sympathies of this same family, which she pointedly contrasts with the Tory sympathies of the country squire and his family.

One might well wonder why Gaskell failed to eliminate such glaring inconsistencies in the serial version when the novel came out in book form (Smith and Elder published it in two volumes in 1866). It is here that an element of historical contingency enters the story. Gaskell died suddenly just before finishing the novel and thus never had a chance to revise her work for book publication. Indeed, she did not live to write the final chapters, and the editor of Cornhill Magazine, Frederick Greenwood, had the melancholy task of composing a concluding note, in which he undertakes to tie up the loose threads in the novel, based on internal evidence and remarks Gaskell had made about how she intended to bring the story to an end. Gaskell's untimely death explains why she left inconsistencies in her narrative, but it raises a more fundamental question. How can we regard Wives and Daughters as an artistic whole if Gaskell did not live to finish it? According to Aristotle, a well-made plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end (Poetics 1450b). But strictly speaking, Wives and Daughters has no end. Despite the Cornhill editor's efforts, we are left with some loose threads; for example, we never find out what happened to one important character in the novel, Mr. Preston, and since he is in many respects the villain of the piece (he creates serious problems for two young women), we are disappointed that we do not see him get his ultimate comeuppance. More importantly, as Gaskell's story breaks off, the hero and heroine are not yet married, thus denying the proper closure we would expect in a Victorian novel. The Cornhill editor was moved to write of Gaskell's death and what it did to the novel: “A few days longer, and it would have been a triumphal column, crowned with a capital of festal leaves and flowers; now it is another sort of col-umn—one of those sad white pillars which stand broken in the churchyard.”86 Instead of picturing Wives and Daughters as the crowning achievement of Gaskell's career, Greenwood implies that her death turned it into a ruin.

But is Wives and Daughters truly a ruin? This view seems to be the product of the kind of false dichotomy we have been discussing—a novel must either be perfectly complete or remain hopelessly fragmentary and imperfect. But this way of talking about the book does not seem true to the average reader's impression. A critic might insist on theoretical grounds that without its final chapters Wives and Daughters must be regarded as a mere fragment of a novel, but the fact is that readers tend to put the book down with a feeling of satisfaction at the end. Gaskell composed enough of the story for us to see clearly how it was going to come out. We have no doubt that the hero and heroine are going to be married. Dickens died in the middle of writing his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but it was literally in the mid-dle—he had composed only about half the book when he was felled by a fatal stroke. Thus, Edwin Drood does really feel like a fragment—indeed readers have debated ever since its first publication what the solution to Dickens's mystery was going to be. But no such mystery surrounds the ending of Wives and Daughters. If one had to formulate the situation mathematically, one might say that Gaskell's novel is about 90 percent complete, and that is very different from 50 percent complete. Indeed, one feels like saying that Gaskell's novel is “complete enough”—complete enough for us to appreciate it as an artistic whole.

Thus, Wives and Daughters is more like one of Darwin's animals than one of Aristotle's. The book's parts do not form a perfect whole—various inconsistencies remain in the plot and above all it lacks a proper ending. Still, its form suffices—the novel has enough narrative consistency and closure to function as a satisfying reading experience. Wives and Daughters is therefore an excellent example of how isolated elements of temporality and historical contingency in a work are compatible with its possessing literary form on a larger scale. The fact that the novel was composed over a long period of time led to the inconsistencies in the narrative, and the fact that Gaskell happened to die before completing the story left it without the full closure we would normally expect. In its final published form, Wives and Daughters thus combines imperfection with perfection. But one can still talk about the novel as a coherent literary experience in the face of its manifest imperfections. Ever since Aristotle, critics have been speaking of literary form as organic and have used biological analogies in talking about literature. But that means that if Darwin revised our notion of biological form, we need to consider revising our notion of literary form as well. Darwin's looser conception of biological form may prove more useful in comprehending the genre of the novel than the Aristotelian conception that provided the foundation for the New Criticism and its analysis of poetry.

Wives and Daughters is of course only one novel and in many ways it constitutes a special case.87 Fortunately, authors do not routinely die just before finishing their novels. Nevertheless, the imperfections of Gaskell's last novel are more typical of the genre than one might expect. For example, Gaskell did have a chance to revise the serialized version of her earlier novel North and South before book publication, but in the first edition she actually introduced some errors into the text, which she did not correct until the second edition.88 Contingencies other than the author's death have frequently led to anomalies in the texts of serialized novels, and thus introduced an element of temporality into their form. But this is exactly what the model of spontaneous order would lead us to expect. What we have learned from economics and biology is that in spontaneous orders, which develop or evolve over time, some imperfections are compatible with an overall coherence. This insight can in turn show us a way out of the aporia into which the conflict between the New Criticism and Deconstruction threatened to lead us. The New Critics took the lyric poem as their basic model of literary order, and wanted even long novels to manifest the same kind of tight coherence one can find in a fourteen-line sonnet. The deconstructionists thought that they had refuted the New Critics and overturned any notion of coherence in literature when they were able to show that some literary works do not fit the model of perfect poetic form. It is revealing that much of the early deconstructive criticism dealt with novels, where it is indeed easier to find loose threads and imperfection of form.89 But the deconstructive critics ended up over-generalizing just as the New Critics had done.90 The fact that a five-hundred page novel has some loose threads does not mean that a perfectly crafted fourteen-line sonnet does too. The New Critics erred by taking the brief lyric masterpiece as their model of all literature, and the deconstructive critics erred by taking the loose, baggy novel as their model of all literature. As Austrian economics suggests, we need to respect the heterogeneity of phenomena, and a “one size fits all” approach to every kind of literature is unlikely to work. While recognizing that some literary works may achieve perfection of form, we need to allow for the possibility that other works may incorporate some formal imperfection without losing all coherence.


By invoking the idea of spontaneous order, we have found a way of describing a long novel as ordered even if it does not have the tight unity of a brief lyric. But we have done so in a manner that makes the novel seem at first like an inferior form. Indeed, we sound as if we were making excuses for the novel—it is too long, it takes too much time to write, the serial mode of production introduces inconsistencies, and so on. With our expanded conception of literary form, we can speak of novels as ordered wholes, but we seem to have condemned them to the status of second-class citizens in the literary world. Such is the power and allure of the critical ideal of the perfectly unified work of literature. It is difficult to escape its spell and its claim to universality. It has bewitched critics ever since Aristotle's Poetics, and much of our greatest literature has been created by authors trying to live up to it and successfully interpreted by critics guided by it as a heuristic device. But the ideal of perfect unity is only one literary model, and we need to remember that it was developed largely with regard to poetry and may not be equally applicable to other genres. There is something profoundly misleading about treating novels as second-class poems; surely something has gone wrong when we find ourselves saying that The Brothers Karamazov is inferior to a Petrarch sonnet because it is by comparison loosely organized and seems to have superfluous words in a way that the lyric poem does not. Up to now we have been talking about how novels depart from the New Critics' model of literature, and of course viewed from this angle they will inevitably seem inferior to poems. But it is time to reverse perspectives, and consider in what way novels may be superior to poems. What look like defects in the novel from the perspective of the New Critics' ideal of the perfect poem may turn out to be virtues from another angle. After all, many people prefer novels to poems, and not just because novels are easier or more fun to read.

The novel is in fact in many respects a richer and more complex form than lyric poetry.91 Precisely because it is more loosely organized, the novel is a more inclusive form—it can embrace a wider range of voices, it can present a more varied cast of characters and develop them more fully over time, and it can explore more complicated plots. The wide-ranging and all embracing character of the novel at its best may be purchased at the price of a certain disunity and inconsistency by the standards of strict poetic form, but this is a price we are prepared to pay in return for the novel's greater ability to capture the texture of lived experience. The looseness of form of a novel as compared to a lyric poem may well be truer to the spontaneity of life itself. Poetry shapes its material into artificial patterns—this was clearest in traditional poetry, when, before the days of free verse, to write a poem was to translate experience into highly elaborate patterns of meter and rhyme. Prose is only one of the many devices that novelists use to give a more realistic feel to their works. Several of the characteristic novelistic techniques, from first-person confessional narration to the use of diary and letter form, help create the impression of spontaneity in the genre.

This positive understanding of the novel allows us to revisit the issue of serialization in a new light. We originally presented the nineteenth-century practice of serializing novels as a negative factor that simply introduced errors into the works, that made them deviate from the strict standards of poetic unity. But serialization may also have had a positive effect on novels; it may have been in part responsible for some of the distinctive virtues the form developed. In short, we have to take more seriously the applicability of the concept of spontaneous order to the novel. It is not just that a novel may end up having the “look” of a spontaneous order because of the complicated history of its composition. That history itself turns out to be a form of spontaneous order. Serialized novels were produced over time by a process that involved trial-and-error, including a form of feedback—a process that is, then, analogous to biological evolution and that even more closely resembles the economic form of spontaneous order—the market. The phenomenon of the nineteenth-century serialized novel gives us an opportunity to look at the economics of literature in a concrete form, that is, the economics of literary production. And we will see that in this case the way that novelists actively participated in the commercial publishing industry of the nineteenth century, far from debasing or corrupting their work (as Marxists critics often suggest), gave them a means of improving it and honing their craft.

The case of the serialized novel is indeed a problem for anyone who thinks that capitalism always has a deleterious effect on art. Serialized novels in England and the rest of Europe were among the artistic glories of the nineteenth century, and yet they were at the same time items of commerce. In the Victorian economy, serialized novels were one of the most advanced of all marketing phenomena.92 Magazines looked to increase their circulation by serializing the work of the most popular novelists of the day, and they developed sophisticated methods of boosting sales, including various promotional gimmicks like souvenir merchandise and tie-in products (what we would call Dickens action figures, for example).93 The novelists in turn stood to make large sums of money from serialization.94 Accordingly, they learned to write with this mode of publication specifically in mind and worked on exploiting the new medium for all it was worth. Serialized novels have much in common with a contemporary serial form of popular culture—the television soap opera.95 Like soap opera episodes, serial installments of novels often ended with “cliffhangers.” Novelists learned how to make the final chapter of an installment build up to a moment of great suspense—so that readers could hardly wait to buy the next issue of the magazine to find out how the story continued.96

This is a good reminder that novel writing in the nineteenth century was indeed a commercial art, and even the greatest of the novelists—Dickens and Dostoevsky, for example—were out to earn their living as authors and hence were by no means indifferent to the demands of the reading public. In fact, they learned to pay close attention to how their audience was reacting to their works, and the method of serial publication gave them a feedback mechanism that put them in touch with their readers. I initially described the matter of “vestigial” characters as if it were simply an issue between a novelist and his artistic conscience. But in fact, the situation was more complicated and often involved interaction between an author and his readers. Sometimes what led an author to demote a particular character was the fact that the figure did not appear to be going over well with the reading (and the buying) public.97 We are familiar with this phenomenon in television soap operas—when a character is suddenly and mysteriously killed off if ratings seem to drop when he or she is on screen. Nineteenth-century novelists similarly followed the weekly or monthly sales figures for their serializations, and they could sense, especially with the help of reviews and word-of-mouth, when a character was boosting or depressing sales. The fate of a character thus sometimes hung less on the author's original artistic plan and more on the public's reception of the figure.98 Given the Romantic notion of the autonomy of the artist in which many of us were brought up, we might be shocked to learn that nineteenth-century novelists allowed sales figures to influence the way they plotted their works. But that reaction is predicated on the assumption that the customer is always wrong, which may be no more sensible than the opposite claim.99 Perhaps we should learn to appreciate the serialization of novels as a way of keeping authors in touch with their readers and allowing them to learn something useful from responses to their work. Indeed, the serialization of novels as it developed in the nineteenth century offers a good example of spontaneous order—of a self-regulating or self-correcting mechanism. Novelists could experiment with different characters, situations, and plot developments, and see what worked with their audience, thus allowing for midcourse corrections in the composition of a novel.100

To be sure, the process of serialization imposed certain burdens on novelists, which led some of them to try to avoid this form of publication.101 If nothing else, serialization forced novelists to write on a strict schedule and to commit to a pre-arranged length for their novels—and this in itself involved a sacrifice of their artistic freedom.102 We have records of novelists objecting to the way their editors or publishers were asking them to adapt their work to the demands of the paying public. No one would argue that serialization provided ideal working conditions for novelists, especially when they were at the early stages of their careers and had little or no bargaining power with their publishers. But still, many novelists—above all, Dickens—were energized by the serialization process—it gave them a sense of being in touch with their audience and hence of not writing in an artistic vacuum. It is a common assumption today that artists will produce their best work only if they are shielded from all commercial pressures, but the history of the nineteenth-century novel suggests just the opposite—that an author writing with his audience in mind in a competitive commercial environment will be more inventive and even experimental in an effort to stay one step ahead of his rivals and stand out in the crowd.

Thus, although Marxist critics would argue that serialization allowed capitalist publishers to exploit novelists,103 in fact it was a medium that often worked to their advantage. Gary Saul Morson has shown how certain nineteenth-century authors, in particular Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, learned to use the serialization medium for new artistic purposes; he argues that they elevated it to a new height of aesthetic sophistication. For Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, according to Morson, even the novel as developed by authors like Dickens was too structured. The way the loose threads of the Victorian novel are typically tied up at the end of the story is too neat; it does not reflect the reality of chance and contingency in human life. As Morson writes:

When we complete an artistic narrative and see how all the pieces fit, we think that, yes, things had to work out in just this way. For Dostoevsky, such a feeling ran contrary to his belief in free will. Things did not have to work out as they did, because people might have made countless different choices. What they chose was not what they had to choose: and we are all capable of living more lives than one. But the structured wholeness of art suggests that freedom is an illusion, a product of mere ignorance of higher design. For Dickens, it was apparently a sign of Providence.104

Thus, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy set out to create a new form of serialized novel, a more open-ended one that would properly reflect the element of freedom in human life by allowing characters in the novel to make real choices and in effect determine the course of the narrative themselves, leaving not just readers but the author himself genuinely surprised by the turns of events.105 “To begin with, the author takes advantage of serial publication to forbid himself the luxury of revising earlier sections to look forward to later ones, and so allows the reader to experience the work's composition as on ongoing event.”106 Morson shows how this principle governs Tolstoy's procedure in War and Peace:

While War and Peace was being serialized, Tolstoy published a separate essay, “Some Words About the Book War and Peace” in which he insisted that, like life itself, his book would not unfold according to any overall design.... In his published essay and in his draft introductions to the book, Tolstoy explains that in printing each part of the work, he has no idea what will happen in the next parts, and that the work tends to no denouement. It will therefore lack closure, have no point “at which interest in the narration ceases.” Rather, the author would, in each serialized section, respond to the needs of the present moment, developing some potentials from early parts and forgetting others, so that the work would have numerous loose ends and events that lead nowhere. “I strove only so that each part of the work would have an independent interest which would consist not in the development of events but in development [itself].” Each section would lead on to the next, and there would never be, could never be, a conclusion. No overall design governs, and presentness is all: the work would embody, as well as describe, “development itself.”107

Morson does not use the term “spontaneous order,” but it perfectly describes the aspect of life he argues Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were trying to capture in their novels; note in particular his claim that in Tolstoy's novels “no overall design governs.”108

In Morson's fascinating analysis—perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to relate the idea of freedom to narrative form—we see how in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy what at first appears to be the defect of the serial mode—the inability to revise and impose a vision of a whole on the separate parts—becomes its distinctive virtue—a way of mirroring the reality of freedom and contingency in human life. Morson thus justifies the serial form of the novel in the highest possible aesthetic terms; in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it ceased to be just a commercial mode of publication and became the vehicle for expressing a complex vision of the human condition.

As Morson formulates the point in the case of Tolstoy:

It follows that serial publication was not simply the way in which War and Peace was published—as it was, say, for Barchester Towers—but was essential to its form.... War and Peace is like life and like history;... it teaches the wisdom of the provisional and presumes the openness of the future.... Tolstoy's war on foreshadowing, structure, and closure was ultimately an attempt to present a written artifact as an artifact still being written, and so closer to lived experience.... Above all, Tolstoy wanted to change our habit of viewing our lives as if they resembled conventional narratives. Our lives have not been authored in advance, but are lived as we go along. They are process, not product, and every moment could have been different, for contingency always reigns.109

In the way Morson talks of “process, not product” and the reign of contingency here, he could equally well be speaking about Austrian economics.110 Although he does not in fact make use of Austrian economics in his analysis, he does draw heavily upon Darwin's idea of contingency in biological form, and in that sense he can be said to be working within the broader spontaneous order tradition.111

Franco Moretti also has applied Darwin's ideas to understanding nineteenth-century fiction, analyzing the process of literary canon formation as a kind of natural selection in the world of commercial publishing. For Moretti, “the market selects the canon”112 via a thoroughly commercial process: “Readers read A and so keep it alive; better they buy A, inducing its publisher to keep it in print until another generation shows up.”113 Leaving the selection of great works of literature to the marketplace might seem like an arbitrary process and unlikely to yield aesthetically satisfying results, but Moretti's thesis “is that what makes readers ’like’ this or that book is—form.”114 In his view, authors compete with each other for commercial success by trying to introduce formal innovations, and the reading public picks out those that succeed artistically. Calling this the “Darwinian feature of literary history,” Moretti describes this process in just the terms that characterize a spontaneous order—it involves a “feedback loop” and “trial and error.”115 Moretti's ideas are controversial, but his study of the development of formal techniques in nineteenth-century detective stories and the way Arthur Conan Doyle beat out his competitors, makes an impressive case for his thesis.116 Thus, he lends support to the claim that the highly commercial system of serializing novels improved their quality through a process of literary evolution.

The serial novelists offered up a wide variety of literary possibilities to the reading public—variations from novel to novel and even varying options within individual novels as they were published serially. The reading public then acted as the environment does in Darwin's theory of natural selection, picking out the winners and losers in the competitive struggle among novelists for commercial success. It would be too much to speak of the survival of the “aesthetically fittest” in this process. No one would claim that the taste of the Victorian reading public, for example, was infallible. But it was not completely fallible either.117 The Victorians did after all make Dickens the most commercially successful of their novelists, and to this day critics also regard him as the most artistically gifted novelist of the era. By and large, with a few notable exceptions, the Victorian reading public did a reasonably good job of sorting out genuinely good from genuinely bad novelists.118 And we can certainly identify ways in which the intense competition among novelists for the public's favor spurred them on to do better work and led them to improve their writing in a process that resembles biological evolution. In particular, the serial mode of nineteenth-century publication encouraged precisely the kind of sustained character development and complication of narrative that we have identified as among the distinctive virtues of the novel. The serial form gave nineteenth-century novelists the broad canvas they needed to create the rich novelistic worlds for which they are justly famous, and the very process of serialization gave them the time they needed to develop their characters and their plots, with the help of feedback from their audience.


The parallel between biological evolution and the evolution of a novel in the process of serialization is of course rough. In Darwin's theory, a conscious mind does not get involved at any stage of the process. Both the producing of variations and the selecting out of the survivors are the work of purely unconscious forces. But conscious human minds are involved at every stage of the evolution of a novel as we have described it.119 Authors consciously write their novels installment by installment, readers consciously make decisions as to which parts of the novels they like, the authors in turn consciously decide how to respond to the feedback they get from their audience, and so on. But this process can still be regarded as a form of spontaneous order because no single mind plans and controls it from start to finish. In describing spontaneous orders in the human realm, Hayek makes use of a phrase from the Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Ferguson: “the result of human action but not of human design.”120 That is, in the human realm certain orders (not all) result from the uncoordinated activities of the participants; they are thus the result of human action (and hence conscious intentions are involved) but they are not the result of overall design—a single mind does not plan out the entire order in advance.

A wide range of human institutions, customs, and practices cannot be centrally planned or managed by a single intellect; instead they evolve through the interaction of many different minds over time, with no one in total control, and hence they develop in spontaneous and unpredictable ways. The growth of language itself is a good example of this kind of development, as is the growth of cities. Attempts by planners to design perfect cities always fail; we feel like saying that cities have a mind of their own, by which we mean that they grow to meet the needs and desires of the people who actually live in them and not the rigid schemes of urban planners.121 The economic form of spontaneous order—the market—is another case in which conscious minds are involved at every stage of the process, but no single mind plans and directs it all. Thus, an economic analogy rather than a biological is more appropriate to the way we have been describing the evolution of a novel.122 An entrepreneur creates a product with a potential market in mind; he introduces it and sees how customers react; he may then modify the product to please his customers better—the result is an improvement in the product that could not have been planned or predicted ahead of time. Some forms of literary evolution proceed in similar stages, as Moretti recognizes when he describes canon formation as a “market” activity. An appreciation of how markets generally function would thus lead us to expect that the commercial and indeed competitive nature of nineteenth-century publishing made a positive contribution to the quality of the literature it produced.

This issue allows us to differentiate more precisely between Austrian economics and Marxism as ways of analyzing literature. As economic approaches, both call into question the Romantic ideal of the autonomy of art and the isolated creative genius. Both Austrian economics and Marxism lead us to picture the novelist as involved in a social process, but they understand and evaluate this process very differently. From the Austrian perspective, if some form of collaborative activity is involved in the creation of literature, it is still always collaboration among individuals, whereas in the Marxist view collaboration is typically understood in collectivist terms. In analyzing a literary phenomenon like the serialization of novels, Austrian economics, because of its methodological individualism, would suggest focusing on how those engaged in the process acted as individuals. It would look at how individual novelists approached serialization and how individual members of their audience reacted to their work, and finally at how novelists in turn reacted individually to these reactions. An Austrian economist would not expect either all novelists or all members of the novel-reading public to act or react in the same way; he would instead expect individuality and even idiosyncrasy to come into play at all stages of the process. That is why an Austrian would predict only that a process like serialization would have unpredictable results. One could never know in advance which novels would succeed with the reading public or for what reasons. Leaving room for elements of contingency and uncertainty leaves room for elements of creativity in the artistic process, even if it is no longer conceived as the achievement of purely solitary creators. From an Austrian perspective, both novelists and their readers have an active—and hence creative—role to play in the process of serialization; they are not, as some Marxists picture them, the mere passive victims of a market process imposed upon them by an all-powerful capitalist system.

That is indeed the point of describing serialization as a form of spontaneous order. The emergence of an artistically successful novel out of the interaction of an author with his reading public is the result of human action, but not of human design. As effective—as “well-designed”—as the system of serializing novels in the nineteenth century now looks to us, in fact no one planned it out ahead of time. It just evolved—spontaneously—as individual publishers and authors seized upon opportunities that opened up to them. To be sure, by comparison with other forms of spontaneous order, the novelist seems to have an unusually central role in the serialization process, but it is still not an example of pure central planning. As we have seen, in many cases the works that resulted from serialization were quite different from what the authors originally intended or planned because of the way they adjusted their novels to the demands of their audience as they wrote them. And we must not underestimate the role that anticipation of what the public wanted played in the formulation of novelists' plans in the first place—this consideration gives novel readers an even more active part in the creative process as a whole. The case of serialized novels is a good illustration of one of the fundamental principles of Austrian economics—consumer sovereignty—which in turn dictates the importance of entrepreneurial activity.123 What distinguishes the Austrian School is its orientation to the future—for example, it views anticipated prices as determining current costs. This process is what forces entrepreneurs always to look ahead and be creative—to anticipate consumer demand and adapt productive processes accordingly. From an Austrian perspective, then, it is readily understandable that the commercial pressures nineteenth-century novelists experienced in the process of serialization in many cases drove them to be more creative in writing fiction. In striving to give the public what it wanted, these novelists actually raised the level of their art.

Marxism, by contrast, typically approaches economics from the perspective of the producer not the consumer. Indeed, it views the economy as production-driven, not (as in the Austrian view) consumption-driven. As Marx writes in the Grundrisse: “production is the real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment. Consumption as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity.”124 Marx allowed himself to be dazzled by the Industrial Revolution and all the marvelous new machinery it generated.125 He came to think of the economy as a kind of giant mechanism, beyond the control of individuals (precisely because he failed to understand the principle of the invisible hand). He thought that all these new productive powers had come into being under their own steam, so to speak, and not as a way of ultimately satisfying consumer demand.126 The Marxist fetishizing of production in theory proved to be the bane of the Soviet and other communist economies in practice. They set out to produce and produce and produce, with no particular connection to potential consumption. Thus, the Soviet Union could turn out large amounts of capital goods like steel; it just could not produce them efficiently and with a view to real consumer needs and demands.127 Severing the understanding of production from the understanding of consumption is one of the chief defects of Marxist thinking. It means that Marxists fail to understand how the market operates as a feedback mechanism, allowing consumers to send signals to producers that guide their business plans. Because of the Marxists’ failure to appreciate the anticipatory role of the entrepreneur, they typically view capitalists as producing unwanted goods and only then seeking ways to sell them to a gullible public. Marxists mistake the fact that inevitably some entrepreneurs incorrectly anticipate consumer demand for a general failure of the capitalist system.

This attitude is especially prevalent in Marxist discussions of cultural production, which posit a culture industry that manufactures meretricious forms of entertainment and then foists them on an unsuspecting and naive mass audience. In the best-known example of this Marxist approach to culture, the Frankfurt School, consumers are portrayed as the dupes of advertising and other forms of marketing, passively accepting whatever kinds of entertainment Hollywood and other media centers serve up to them.128 The myth of all-powerful media moguls and their captive audiences long dominated the field of Cultural Studies. In a way, Marxist cultural critics have simply bought into the fantasies and flattering self-images of executives in the entertainment business who dream of being smart enough to control their audiences. In fact, executives in the mass media are at the mercy of their unpredictable audiences, and live in constant fear of the fickleness of the public and its ever-changing taste. That is why the turnover rate among executives in the entertainment business is so high (try telling a fired head of a Hollywood studio about his hegemony over his audience).129 Since the 1980s, scholars in Cultural Studies have begun to break free from the Frankfurt School paradigm of the passive audience. Empirical studies of how audiences actually behave have shown that, far from passively accepting what is offered to them in the mass media, they take an active role in their reception of even the most commercial forms of popular culture.130 It turns out that many Marxist critics have been too eager to impose a collectivist model on cultural production and consumption. In lumping all members of the so-called mass audience together, they have missed the subtleties and nuances of many pop culture phenomena, especially the effects of audience segmentation. In contrast to Austrian economists, they have closed their eyes to the individuality of producers and consumers.131

The debate over whether the audiences for modern forms of mass entertainment are passive or active has obvious relevance to our understanding of the nineteenth-century novel, especially in its serialized form, which was one of the chief examples of mass entertainment in the earlier age. Marxist critics have tried to present the serialization of novels as just one more example of the process of industrialization and commodification that they see as endemic to capitalism. This kind of Marxist analysis typically presents both authors and readers as caught in a system of production that effectively governs their every move and response. Far from allowing any expression of their distinctive individualities, the publishing industry supposedly shapes them as individuals in the first place in line with its marketing needs and schemes. N.N. Feltes's Modes of Production of Victorian Novels may be extreme in its insistence on the iron grip of capitalist publishers on both authors and readers, but it is a well-known and well-received book and illustrates a basic tendency of Marxist understandings of culture. Feltes concludes his book with a study of E.M. Forster, insisting that, however anti-capitalist Forster may have been, he ended up serving the ideological and financial interests of his capitalist publishers:

For while Forster assuredly did not set himself in 1909—10 to write a best-seller in Howards End, he nevertheless equally surely wrote within a determinate structure of book production, developed over the preceding twenty years, which enabled publishers to use the new means of production to produce commodity-texts.... I have denied the “dictatorship” of the consumer, insisting instead on the control of the capitalist publisher.... (R)eaders were being reagglomerated as “consumers” of commodity-texts by the new, rampant, fully capitalist literary mode of production, with the publishers’ sway stretching past the bookseller to “capture the retailer's customers.” And because these powerful lines of control extended themselves through the production process the interpellated subject was also transformed. Whatever Forster's political or social “liberalism,”... the reader addressed by Howards End... was inevitably determined by these material realities of its production.132

Notice that Feltes explicitly rejects the Austrian principle of consumer sovereignty in favor of the Marxist idea of producer hegemony. For Feltes, neither the author nor the reader of novels is free; both are the prisoners of a capitalist mode of production; indeed he seems to claim that both are in fact produced by that mode of production, presumably by the marketing demands of the publishing industry (as if publishers were dictating to authors: “You will write what we want” and dictating to readers: “You will read what we publish”).133 This kind of Marxist argument is based on ex post facto reasoning. It assumes that because the publishing industry continually generates bestsellers, executives in the industry actually know what they are doing—that they know ahead of time exactly how to create the bestsellers. But if that were so, there would never be any failures in the publishing business, when in fact the failures typically outnumber the successes by a wide margin.134 As with any form of mass entertainment, the publishing industry is, from the perspective of its executives, a mercilessly hit-or-miss business. Unable to predict reliably the taste of the reading public, and equally unable to manipulate it, let alone create it, publishers must rely on a shotgun form of marketing, publishing a wide range of titles in the hope that one will be a hit with a mass of readers. That is why Moretti can apply a Darwinian model in his analysis of success in the literary marketplace.135 Like all markets, the book market can proceed only by a process of trial and error, in which nobody is in control and above all nobody can be certain of outcomes ahead of time.136 As we have repeatedly seen, that is the nature of a spontaneous order.

Feltes's analysis is collectivist, determinist, and materialist; he downplays the role of individuals in the process, and works to deny their freedom and creativity. Instead, he tries to present a production process that is bigger than any of the participating individuals, and that in fact manufactures their subjectivity even as it manufactures commodities. In the Austrian view, by contrast, commodities are produced in response to the subjective desires of consumers, and any market activity therefore inevitably involves elements of contingency, uncertainty, and unpredictability. That opens up a realm of freedom and creativity for entrepreneurial activity in any business, including the writing of novels insofar as it is a business. Thus, although like Marxism, the Austrian approach would deny that novelists are solitary creators, that recognition need not involve denying their creativity. Moreover, in terms of its implications for literary interpretation, Austrian economics supports the quest for understanding the intentions of authors because it concentrates on the intentions of all actors as individuals. Rather than substituting the critic's understanding for the author's, an Austrian approach would look to understand an author as he understood himself. Austrian economics always tries to look at actions from the perspective of the actors themselves, and thus relies on the concept of intentionality.

But Austrian economics does complicate our understanding of intentionality because it views the market as a means of mediating among the intentions of the vast number of individuals who participate in it, actors whose interaction often produces results larger and more complex than anything at which an isolated individual can aim. Thus, Austrian economics suggests a way in which one can avoid focusing too narrowly on the single intentions of a solitary creator (as in the Romantic tradition or its New Criticism descendants) and yet not allow the individual to dissolve into a Marxist collective. At the heart of Austrian economics is the idea that human life is filled with social processes, but that these processes still take place among individuals and are rooted in individual preferences and decisions—and hence in human intentionality. Where a literary work evolves over time and in a marketplace situation, to understand it fully one may have to take into account the intentions of several people, not just the author. Editors, publishers, and even readers may have a role to play in the final form a novel takes. But Austrian economics would still insist on viewing each of the participants in the publishing process as an individual and not deal in Marxist collective abstractions like “the capitalist system” or “the culture industry.” In short, Austrian economics shares with Marxism the possibility of understanding literature as the product of a social process, but because Austrian economics understands social processes in individualistic terms, it shares with traditional literary criticism an emphasis on the intentionality of authors as individuals. All that the understanding of the serialization of novels as a form of spontaneous order does is to spread the intentionality and the creativity around—to suggest that readers may have an active role in the shaping of a serialized novel—as well as editors and publishers to the extent that they, like any middlemen in the economy, help provide useful feedback to novelists.


The issue of middlemen provides a good way of distinguishing Austrian economics from Marxism as ways of analyzing literary activity. Critics of capitalism and Marxists in particular are relentless in their hostility to economic middlemen. If one believes that the only real economic problem is production, then one naturally has contempt for someone who merely is involved in the distribution of goods and who therefore seems to add nothing to their value. Anyone who subscribes to the labor theory of value will especially be convinced that middlemen have no legitimate role to play in the economy. If the value of a good lies entirely in its production, what does it add to a good simply to help get it from the point of production to the point of sale? Marxists think that middlemen are simply exploiting the real producers of goods, the laborers who manufacture them and are therefore entirely responsible for whatever value they have. By contrast, Austrian economists, with their subjective theory of value, know that in economic terms a good has no intrinsic value and is worth only what it means to an individual customer. Hence a good at point A may have a different value from the exact same good at point B, especially if the would-be consumer of the good is at B and cannot get to A. The job of the middleman in an economy is to get the good at point A to point B when the consumer wants it. That is the value the middleman adds to the good, and he earns his financial reward by making sure that goods are available to consumers when and where they want them.137 To armchair theorists, this may sound like a minimal accomplishment, but anyone involved in real economic activity knows that in many cases distribution can be the most difficult of all tasks in the providing of goods and services. Middlemen are the grease in the machinery of an economy—they make sure that the wheels run smoothly and the economy as a whole functions. It is precisely the middlemen who make the market work as a feedback mechanism.

In short, middlemen participate in the essential and complicated process of continually adjusting supply and demand to each other by carrying messages back and forth between producers and consumers. In their capacities as retailers, wholesalers, distributors, rackjobbers, marketers, and advertisers, middlemen are constantly informing consumers about what goods are available and how they might serve their needs and desires. At the same time the vast apparatus of distribution in a capitalist economy works to carry information back to producers about the ever-changing tastes of consumers. The system is by no means perfect and can be abused, but it is exactly the kind of feedback mechanism we have been discussing that over time makes it possible for a free market to provide the goods and services consumers really want. Because Marxists focus on production as the economic task, they tend to neglect the importance of distribution networks and thereby fail to understand the feedback element in markets.138 They bracket middlemen out of their picture of the economy, and then turn around and claim that the market has no way of putting producers in touch with consumers. Capitalism rewards middlemen precisely for paying attention to the complex problem of coordinating production and consumption through distribution channels. In contrast, the socialist systems of the communist world, by doing whatever they could to eliminate middlemen, sealed their doom. These socialist economies could in fact produce goods—where they failed was in not being able to produce the goods people wanted, when and where they wanted them. Socialist economies prided themselves on the way they eliminated or drastically reduced the kinds of middlemen who supposedly exploit workers under capitalism. In the process, they succeeded only in offering proof of what a vital economic role middlemen actually play—the communist world showed that a complex modern economy cannot function without a vast array of middlemen. There is, after all, a reason why they are called “middlemen”—they supply the key middle term between consumers and producers.

Whatever may be true of the economy in general, it is difficult for many people to accept the idea that cultural middlemen have a legitimate and positive role to play in the creation of literature. Ever since the Romantics, people like to think of authors and readers in an unmediated relationship, and tend to regard anyone who comes between them as a corrupting force. But this understanding of literary creativity, which harks back to the ancient image of the Homeric bard directly addressing a crowd of enraptured listeners, has become anachronistic in the modern world with its modern media. Media require middlemen. Books do not magically fall into the hands of readers. The nineteenth-century novel was a capitalist commodity, and it had to be produced industrially and distributed commercially. The Victorians witnessed the development of the complex world of publishing we still have with us today, and that involved the growth of all sorts of middlemen in the business: publishers, editors, printers, agents, booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and so on. These people were pursuing their own interests, and authors did not always welcome their role in the publishing process, and in fact often condemned them for interfering with their creativity. But the cultural middlemen did have something positive to contribute to literary creativity precisely in their role as mediators, helping to put authors in touch with their potential and actual audiences.

Insofar as authors embraced and were embraced by the world of capitalism in the nineteenth century, they extended their reach to an unprecedented degree. In its usual fashion, capitalism achieved the mass production of literature by paying attention to the mass distribution of literature. For good or ill, capitalism made a mass reading public possible for the first time in history. Whereas well-meaning, philanthropic efforts to spread literacy in Britain essentially failed, the self-interest of those involved in the publishing business succeeded in making reading a widespread habit and bringing literature to a public vaster than earlier authors had ever dreamed of.139 To be sure, literature was to some extent corrupted in the process of being turned into a mass commodity, and critics, Marxist and otherwise, have been dwelling obsessively on the negative results ever since. But we should not forget how much high quality literature grew out of the nineteenth-century British publishing industry, and, although the authors deserve most of the credit, we should not completely dismiss the contribution of all the cultural middlemen who made the system as a whole function.140

For an extended and illuminating study of the role of cultural middlemen in the literary marketplace, we may turn briefly to the work of the distinguished historian of France, Robert Darn-ton. Early in his career, Darnton discovered a treasure trove for a cultural historian, the archive of an eighteenth-century Swiss publishing firm, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel. This archive contains some 50,000 letters chronicling the interaction of the publisher with all sorts of participants in the book trade, chiefly authors and booksellers, but also some of their customers and some of the workers in their print shop. Darnton has spent much of his career analyzing the contents of this rich archive and demonstrating how the world of publishing in eighteenth-century France actually worked.141 He has shown in great detail and with meticulous documentation what an important role middlemen in the publishing business played in the development of French literary culture in the eighteenth century. For example, he discusses how the Swiss publisher continually sent sales agents throughout France, carrying news of its latest publications to booksellers and reporting back on what sorts of books the reading public was interested in. Darnton repeatedly talks about how these agents helped the publishers adjust supply to demand.142 He also looks at how the publishers communicated with authors and tried to get them to write the kinds of books the public wanted.

Darnton treats French publishing as a thoroughly capitalist enterprise, and even stresses the dubious business practices the Swiss publishing firm and others often engaged in.143 But, on the whole, Darnton reveals the positive aspects of what he discovered in the Neuchâtel archive. He shows how the Swiss publisher helped provide the public with the books it wanted, and many of them were of high literary quality, including the philosophic classics of Voltaire and Rousseau. At the same time, the Swiss firm provided employment for members of the newly emerging class of literary intellectuals in France and helped them find a public for their writing. Much of Darnton's work is devoted to recounting how publishers like the Swiss firm managed to get around the strict censorship of books in eighteenth-century France and thereby made the classics of the Enlightenment widely available. To be sure, the Swiss publisher was also interested in providing pornography to the public. But, as Darnton makes clear, in eighteenth-century France the distribution channels for philosophy and for pornography were literally one and the same. Darnton thus tells a tale of Adam Smith's invisible hand in action. Acting out of self-interest and with little or no public spiritedness in mind, publishers nevertheless succeeded in performing a great service to the public in eighteenth-century France. Darnton's major book is appropriately entitled The Business of Enlightenment, and it studies one of the greatest cultural achievements of eighteenth-century France, the production and dissemination of the famous French Encyclopédie to a wide reading public. Darnton documents how unscrupulous the participants in this publishing venture were; they used every business trick in the book and invented a few of their own in their unceasing efforts to beat out their rivals in what was indeed a cutthroat competition.144 But the result of their self-interested endeavor was to put the masterwork of the French Enlightenment into the hands of middle-class readers throughout France.145

Darnton's work is invaluable in the way it offers a detailed and comprehensive look at how capitalism actually operates in the literary marketplace. In his attempt to picture the process, Darnton offers a diagram of what he calls “the Communications Circuit,” tracing the complex interaction of all the participants in the book trade.146 The diagram is an excellent example of the kind of feedback loop we have been discussing and repays careful attention. Darnton's description of the circuit sums up much of what I have been trying to show about the literary marketplace as a form of spontaneous order:

It could be described as a communications circuit that runs from the author to the publisher (if the bookseller does not assume that role), the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader. The reader completes the circuit because he influences the author both before and after the act of composition. Authors are readers themselves. By reading and associating with other readers and writers, they form notions of genre and style and a general sense of the literary enterprise, which affects their texts, whether they are composing Shakespearean sonnets or directions for assembling radio kits. A writer may respond in his writing to criticisms of his previous work or anticipate reactions that his text will elicit. He addresses implicit readers and hears from explicit reviewers. So the circuit runs full cycle. It transmits messages, transforming them en route, as they pass from thought to writing to printed characters and back to thought again.147

Here Darnton describes the literary marketplace as a special case of how markets always operate under capitalism, as feedback mechanisms that allow producers and consumers to “speak” to each other and modify their behavior accordingly.148 Darnton's work on French publishing is a model of how to approach the interaction of capitalism and literature. Thanks to his archival discoveries, he deals not with theoretical abstractions, but with the actual individuals who participated in the French publishing business. While not neglecting the importance of the authors themselves, he demonstrates how much help they received (and needed) from cultural middlemen in order to get their works to the public. Instead of portraying the publishing industry as simply the enemy of authors, Darnton recognizes how it provides the preconditions for their work and facilitates their endeavors.149

By contrast, a Marxist critic like Feltes views the author as a mere pawn in the hands of an all-powerful and manipulative publishing industry. Consider, for example, his effort to deny that Dickens's genius was responsible for the unprecedented success of his first bestseller:

Much of what Dickens had done in Pickwick Papers was beyond his understanding because it was out of his hands, produced by a set of forces and production relations whose historical determinations I have tried to trace.... What these structures (and Dickens) produced was a commodity-text with a determinate form, itself producing ideology, and the commodity-text, form, and ideology creating the “wild and widespread enthusiasm” of a mass bourgeois audience.... For the future, the new literary mode of production determined by the developing structures of Victorian capitalism, lay just there, in the ever more self-conscious, ever more assured exploitation of the surplus value of commodity-texts, within the dominant ideology of the commodity-book and the dominant structure in which it was embedded.150

Is Feltes really trying to claim that Dickens's genius as a writer was not principally responsible for the market triumph of Pick-wick Papers? Is he claiming that Dickens's savvy publisher could have taken any novel by any other author and through clever marketing tactics have turned it into an equal bestseller? It is difficult to believe that even a hardcore Marxist critic like Feltes could advance such claims, and yet that seems to be the thrust of his argument. He claims that what matters in the case of Pickwick Papers was its historical moment and a certain stage of material production and not anything so ethereal as Dickens's “genius.” In a typically Marxist move, Feltes asserts that the publishing industry created the enthusiasm of the novel-reading public. In the Austrian view, an entrepreneur taps into an already existing demand, or rather shows his “genius” in the way he is able to anticipate what the public will respond favorably to.151

An Austrian economic approach to literature would never go along with an attempt to bracket out the role of an individual author in the market success of his work; poor Dickens gets consigned to a parenthesis in Feltes's account of the production of Pickwick. The Austrian view would acknowledge that, as in all market activity, there might well have been an element of luck in Dickens's success (being at the right place at the right time) and also that a number of non-aesthetic and even material factors might have contributed to the huge extent of his triumph in the marketplace (new economies in book production helped to make it possible, for example).152 But an Austrian approach would still grant Dickens the principal creative role in his own literary success, both artistic and commercial. Insofar as it attributed a creative role to other participants in the process of serialization, including Dickens's readers, it would do so only to the extent that their feedback helped him to find his way to improving Pickwick as a work of fiction. Like any entrepreneur in creating a successful product, Dickens looked to his potential and then actual consumers for guidance, to some extent anticipating what they wanted and then responding to their reactions to his work as he produced it.

Suggesting the importance of the links between the consumer and the producer might well be the chief contribution of Austrian economics to our understanding of the creation of literature. One of the central insights of Austrian economics is that markets are forms of cooperation, ways of pooling talent, aggregating information, and in general coordinating the activities of people with different interests for their mutual benefit. Thus, an Austrian economist looking at a literary marketplace would not assume the way a Marxist would that the various participants are necessarily at odds, looking to exploit each other. An Austrian approach would look instead at how a literary marketplace harmonizes a variety of interests, leading authors, editors, publishers, and readers to work together in productive ways. For most Marxists, the commercialization of literature debases it, whereas from the Austrian perspective, this process gives the works produced greater vitality by putting the artist in touch with his audience through the mediating efforts of various middlemen. On this issue, Marxism betrays its roots in German Romanticism.153 Despite its rejection of the Romantic idea of the solitary genius, Marxism constantly suggests in Romantic fashion that insofar as literature gets involved in the marketplace, it can only be corrupted, precisely because the writer is forced to cater to the middle class and its petty bourgeois values. Romanticism posits a perennial opposition between commerce and culture, but the history of the nineteenth-century novel shows that the demands of commercial publishing were not simply at odds with the demands of aesthetic quality.


We have seen some of the ways in which the idea of spontaneous order can be applied to literature. Its broader and looser conception of form helps to suggest how a novel can be regarded as an artistic whole even when it does not meet lyric poetry's strict standards of unity.154 In the case of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, we have seen how this more open-ended conception of literary form can be used to mirror and celebrate the freedom and spontaneity of human action. In the aesthetic of the solitary genius we have inherited from the Romantics, a work of art should be a perfect unity, unified in conception in a single consciousness and unified in execution by a single hand in an unbroken act of sustained inspiration. According to this view, any interference with the realization of the solitary genius’ original conception of his work can only compromise its artistic integrity, and hence art can only be tainted by contact with the world of commerce. Analyzing the world of commercial publishing in nineteenth-century Britain in light of the Austrian idea of spontaneous order has allowed us to develop an alternative model of artistic genesis (an alternative, not a replacement). A work of art may betray evidence of contingency and even lack of advance planning in its formation and yet still maintain an overall aesthetic integrity. And a genuine work of art may be the product of some form of artistic collaboration, provided that the collaboration is understood, not as the operation of some collective entity (“society”), but as the interaction of individuals in a market framework that allows for productive feedback among them.

We have thus seen that the manner in which serialized novels were produced in the nineteenth century can be characterized as a species of spontaneous order, and these novels actually benefitted from the way they grew out of the rough-and-tumble, give-and-take world of commercial publishing. Viewed from the Austrian perspective, commercial publishing in nineteenth-century Britain by and large worked to everybody's benefit as market activity usually does (it of course did not work perfectly but it worked well enough and better than any alternative system we can imagine). A vastly increased reading public came into being and generally got the kind of books it wanted to read (as shown by the basic fact that it rented and purchased them in such large numbers). The huge growth in the market for published material allowed more people than ever before to earn their living as authors, and in the process of satisfying the new demand for novels, they managed to produce—admittedly amongst a good deal of trash—some of the greatest artistic achievements in the genre, including the masterpieces of Dickens. In short, in nineteenth-century Britain more people wanted to read books and more people wanted to write books, and somehow the market when left to its own devices managed, as it always finds a way of doing, to bring potential consumers and potential producers together.

To be sure, publishers profited from the book market, but only to the extent that they anticipated the market correctly and succeeded in linking up supply and demand by helping authors to write the kinds of books the new reading public wanted. Marxists of course offer a completely different interpretation of this process, because they view the marketplace as the locus of exploitation, not of social cooperation. In the Marxist view, the nineteenth-century book industry took advantage of both consumers and producers. Publishers forced passive consumers to buy books they really did not want to read, and at the same time forced authors to produce books they really did not want to write. There is of course more than a grain of truth in this Marxist view. Like all markets, nineteenth-century publishing in Britain was an imperfect system. Customers were not always happy with the books they bought and many of the serialized novels were not of high artistic quality. Authors were not always happy with the conditions in which they wrote or with the literary products that resulted from serial publication or with the financial rewards they received. But like all (relatively) free markets, publishing in nineteenth-century Britain constantly adapted to changing conditions in both consumption and production, and both readers and authors had options even within an established book industry. In fact, the highly competitive and dynamic nature of that industry constantly broadened the range of those options. In the course of the nineteenth century, the reading public had more and more books to choose from and at lower and lower prices, while authors could play off one publisher against another to obtain better terms, and sometimes even went into business for themselves.

For Marxists, the market is a zero-sum game, and hence publishers could make their profits only at the expense of both readers and authors. With their top-down view of the economy, Marxists view publishers as sitting at the center of a spider's web, in which hapless authors and readers are simply trapped. To Austrian economists, this web would look instead like a feedback loop, or what Darnton calls a “communications circuit,” in which authors, readers, and publishers are complexly interlinked, and no one is completely in control. Austrian economics teaches us how to appreciate the contribution of publishers to nineteenth-century British culture in their role as entrepreneurs who had to deal with all the uncertainty and unpredictability of the book market. Publishers deserved whatever profits they made—and remember that they often incurred losses to the point of bankruptcy—because they provided authors with working capital, editorial services, the physical means of publishing and distributing their books, and finally a whole range of marketing services.155 Above all, in most cases the publishers bore the brunt of the financial risks endemic to any book project. For all the tensions between authors and publishers in nineteenth-century Britain, their partnership proved to be fruitful, in terms of both commercial and artistic success.

Thus, we see the advantages of viewing literature in the light of Austrian economics. Most literary critics would hesitate to argue that the commercialization of literature in the nineteenth century had any beneficial effects.156 But what escapes critics has not always been lost on authors. Some of them learned to appreciate the new commercial basis for literature that developed in the nineteenth century, particularly in England. It is fitting that of all authors, Dickens paid the most eloquent tribute to the new middle-class reading public, and celebrated precisely its bourgeois virtues. At a banquet in his honor in Birmingham in 1853, he proposed a toast to his bourgeois hosts in terms that would make a Romantic poet or a Marxist critic cringe:

To the great compact phalanx of the people, by whose industry, perseverance, and intelligence, and their result in money-wealth such places as Birmingham, and many others like it, have arisen—to that great centre of support, that comprehensive experience, and that beating heart—Literature has turned happily from individual patrons, sometimes munificent, often sordid, always few, and has found there at once its highest purpose, its natural range of action, and its best reward.157

Standing in the heart of the industrial Midlands—ground zero for middle-class values—Dickens expressed his deep faith in the bourgeois reading public: “Let a good book in these ’bad times’ be made accessible,—even upon an abstruse and difficult sub-ject—and my life upon it, it shall be extensively bought, read, and well considered.”158

Some might cynically observe that Dickens had every reason to speak well of a middle-class public that had made him rich and famous. But that is just the point—the Victorian audience had the good taste to single out Dickens as the greatest literary genius in its midst, thus effectively refuting the Romantic myth that a true artist is always misunderstood by his contemporaries and rejected by the commercial marketplace. Others might be surprised to hear Dickens speaking well of the middle class and its commercial interests because he is commonly thought to have been hostile to capitalism. But in fact, despite his doubts about industrialism, he shared many of the views of prominent pro-capitalist thinkers of his day, such as Richard Cobden and John Bright. For example, under Dickens's leadership, the journal he edited, Household Words, was a staunch advocate of free trade— the central cause of the defenders of capitalism in mid-Victorian England.159 And Dickens himself was an accomplished entrepreneur. When he grew dissatisfied with the conditions under which he was being “forced” to publish, nothing stopped him from setting up as a publisher himself, and he became very wealthy in the process. But his praise of the commercial spirit of Victorian England was not simply motivated by financial self-interest. He understood that the rapid development of the commercial publishing industry had a liberating effect on authors. It freed them from their centuries-old dependence on patrons by giving them a more direct access to a newly created mass audience. All Dickens wanted was a chance to prove himself as an author in the marketplace, and when he had the opportunity, he clearly made the most of it. Along with Shakespeare, Dickens stands as the most convincing proof that commercial and artistic success in literature are not incompatible.160

Critics could learn from Dickens's celebration of the virtues of his middle-class audience and the liberating effect of their broad-based support for literature as a commercial enterprise. But to do so they would have to overcome some very ingrained prejudices. Both the Romantic cult of the solitary genius and the Marxist antipathy to all aspects of capitalism have made generations of critics believe that the middle class and its supposedly crass commercial concerns are the enemy of true art. But one must reject this set of prejudices if one hopes to understand how the new commercial market for literature actually functioned in the nineteenth century. To be sure, the burgeoning literary marketplace put new pressures and constraints on authors, and often frustrated them as much as the old patronage system did. But that is only half the story, and, as Dickens's testimony indicates, many authors found something profoundly empowering in the new challenge of marketing their works to a vastly expanded reading public. This is especially true of novelists, and indeed, as we have seen, one cannot comprehend the phenomenon of the nineteenth-century novel without seeing how embedded it was in new developments in nineteenth-century commerce. For this purpose, one must have some sympathy for capitalism and be open to the possibility that the free market has its virtues. To anyone familiar with most forms of modern economics—not necessarily the Austrian School—it is obvious that competition can be a force for good, that it can bring out the best in people, including authors. An economist looking at the publishing industry in Victorian England would have no trouble identifying its salient characteristics—the many outlets for publication, the great advances in reducing costs, the large potential rewards for both publishers and authors, the relative ease of market entry—and hence in general the intensely competitive environment.161 Observing these conditions, an economist would predict that the era would produce a boom in literary achievement, particularly in the novel—the most commercialized and competitive of the literary forms. But a point that would be obvious to an economist is too easily lost on many literary critics, who in Marxist fashion look upon all market activity with distrust and contempt.

For many decades Marxist critics have been trying to document how authors have been implicated in the capitalist system. Given the anti-capitalist biases of these critics, this project has served to lower the authors in their esteem; it should instead have raised their opinion of capitalism. Marxist literary critics have in fact been staring for years at concrete evidence of how markets function successfully and failed to understand it. They are so anti-capitalist that they interpret any signs of authors participating in market activity as a strike against them. They should instead be learning from such phenomena as the nineteenth-century novel that market competition is a genuinely productive force (even if it has certain drawbacks). In short, Marxist critics have been casting doubt on artistic creativity by trying to portray it as a market phenomenon; in the process they have inadvertently uncovered fresh evidence of the creativity of markets. Critics in Cultural Studies in fact deserve a great deal of credit for the way they have broken with a long Marxist tradition and begun to uncover the active role of consumers in popular culture. But to do so, they have had to struggle out of rigid Marxist paradigms and introduce a new subtlety and sophistication into their understanding of how markets function. These Marxist critics have succeeded in spite of their Marxism, not because of it. Only to the extent that they have found ways of modifying and moderating the strict determinism of classic Marxist doctrine have they been able to contribute to our understanding of cultural phenomena. But their task would have been much easier if they had realized that alternatives to Marxist economics exist, and that the Austrian School in particular has elaborated a theory of freedom in the economic realm and especially of consumer sovereignty. In short, instead of constantly revising and refining Marxist para-digms—often beyond recognition—critics in literary and cultural studies need to free themselves from the spell of Marxism and realize that other forms of economics offer them what they are really seeking—a way of understanding how producers and consumers freely and complexly interact in any market activity and hence a way of understanding how the literary and cultural marketplace can actually work to foster artistic creativity.

That in sum is why it is useful to bring Austrian economics to bear on the study of literature. I have made a preliminary attempt to do so in this essay by showing how Hayek's idea of spontaneous order might be profitably applied to the understanding of literature. I have only scratched the surface of this important topic, and much remains to be done to work out the full relevance of this concept from Austrian economics to literary criticism.162 Several of the other essays in this volume carry on this project, and suggest how widely applicable the concept of spontaneous order is to understanding the content and the form of literature and even the way it is produced. I have also tried to show how this project links up with other developments in contemporary criticism, especially the work of Gary Saul Morson and Franco Moretti—ideas that have been developed quite independently of Austrian economics, but that point to similar conclusions. Because both Morson and Moretti draw upon Darwin's ideas, they can be viewed as working within the spontaneous order tradition, broadly conceived. Some of the most fruitful lines of research in literary criticism today are converging on the idea of spontaneous order. Since its elaboration in the realm of economics in the eighteenth century, the idea of spontaneous order has proved capable of illuminating a wide variety of fields of knowledge, including linguistics and evolutionary biology. In retrospect it looks as if the discovery of the phenomenon of spontaneous order constitutes one of the great paradigm shifts in intellectual history. The time has come to begin applying this concept in literary criticism.