Book Review: Paul Cantor & Stephen Cox (eds.), “Literature and the Economics of Liberty”

It has often been remarked that if Marxism is still dominant somewhere, it must surely be in cultural studies and in literary criticism, especially in academia. For whatever historical contingencies have made it so, it is undeniable that, at least within the Anglosphere, these disciplines have proven particularly pervasively and stubbornly Marxist in their approach since that body of thought was introduced within them. While the methods have been very divergent, between cultural materialism and the New Criticism, and by no means all of the scholars in these fields have been Marxists, it seems that Marxism left a bigger and more lasting stamp on them than on any other. One may wonder what Marx would have made of this – while he was fond of literature and he and his family often discussed novels, poetry, and theatre, surely he would have found the scientific conquest of history and what is now called economics more important. However that may be, one interesting product of this influence of Marxism has been the school of literary criticism interested in ‘economics and literature’ – in a broad sense, both the application of economic ideas to the study of literature or its production as well as the reflection of such ideas in the content of the literary works themselves. This, too, has often been Marxist in its approach, or at least socialist in its sympathies.

For this reason, it is interesting to see something quite rare: a work of literary criticism, explicitly with an economic mode of interpretation, written from the political-economic right. It is rare enough to have economists who read anything, as is easily revealed by the profound lack of humane imagination that prevails in the charmed circles of neoclassical economics disputes (as for example Philip Mirowski has observed). It may be for this reason that such a book has been written by a series of economically informed literary critics: all but one of the contributors to Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty, are professors of English lit. It also seems suitable that they are not, in fact, writing from a neoclassical point of view, but explicitly with the purpose of promoting the Austrian School of economics in and through their analysis of literature. This school distinguishes itself in several respects from neoclassical economics, and is properly considered heterodox: mainly because, while it is even much more strongly free trade in orientation, its epistemology and methods are vastly different. It rejects modelling, econometrics, and quantification as the guiding principles of economic theory, and rejects equilibrium ideas, preferring instead to understand markets as inherent results of human activity, naturally created heuristics for the discovery of information under conditions of uncertainty. It sustains such an approach through some strong axiomatic notions of human nature, and much of the Austrian School literature is a working out of the philosophical consequences of this view of human nature: the Smithian person – with the natural tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ – writ large. All the accoutrements of modern capitalism are merely the result of letting this natural habitus of humanity do its thing, and therefore the more free the markets, the more free the people.

It should not come as a surprise to the reader that my views are quite diametrically opposite to these, and if any doubt remained, this review should help dispel them. That said, this book is an intriguing approach to the discussion of economic theory. There is no question about it that that is its purpose: literary criticism is important, but it is clearly presented as a means to an end. The main target of the criticism, as often with Austrian School thinkers, is Marxism, which in some respects is that school’s mirror image and its perpetual object of hostility. The introduction by Paul Cantor, who holds the chair in English Literature at the University of Virginia, is from the get go addressed at the perceived dominance – far past its prime, of course – of Marxism in academe. The suggestion is that while the economics and literature approach rightly puts economic ideas central, it, and by implication cultural studies generally, could be much improved if everyone jettisoned the old baggage of Marxism and adopted the favored principles of Austrian economics instead. As Cantor and Cox write: “His materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic view of reality stamps him as very much a man of the mid-nineteenth century. A great deal has been discovered in the sciences since Marx’s day, including the science of economics…”(1) This science, we are to understand, is that of the Austrian School, not that of any of its rivals. We should choose the latter over the others because of its emphasis on spontaneous order by the interaction of chaotic micro-elements, something fitting the modern age of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. “Austrian economics, with its emphasis on chance, uncertainty, and unpredictability in human life, is far more in tune than Marxism with these trends in modern science.”(2)

In fact, something can be said for this. It is true that what has often been lacking in the apparatus of Marxist economic thought is a substantive understanding of systems theory, in particular organizational theory and the generation of various ordered systems through the random or arbitrary interaction of different elements, allowing for various possible equilibria. Neoclassical economics has much made use of this, through (evolutionary) game theory and developments in microeconomics, and it has formed a major theoretical bulwark for the development during the Cold War of what became known as the ‘military-industrial complex’ underpinning the postwar liberal order, as Adam Curtis has argued in his documentary reconstruction.(3) However, it remains to be seen whether these ideas, or concepts of evolutionary economics, will prove incompatible with Marxist ideas altogether, and to the degree that the latter must be abandoned. The epistemological notion of spontaneous order may not play the role Austrian economists think it does. It is all the more a shame therefore that in their engagement with Marxism on this basis, the Austrian-inspired thinkers make such a hash of their representation of Marxist ideas and approaches themselves. Instead of informing themselves about their opponent, they consistently prefer to knock down straw men, and their criticisms are therefore often quite beside the mark. That the discourse is laden with references to ‘freedom’, the ‘individual’, and the supposedly humane nature of Austrian thought serves no more than a decorative purpose, a way to keep up the morale of the fans. In this way, an opportunity for fruitful engagement on the relatively neutral terrain of literature was missed.

Austrian economics seems to rest mainly on strong assumptions. Not just about human nature, and what this may imply – in which it indeed differs strongly from Marxism – but also about its opponents’ views. In his introduction, Cantor and Cox outline what they perceive the prevailing Marxist approach to literary criticism to be: “Marxist critics often practice what is known as the hermeneutics of suspicion—that is, they question the motives of authors and seek to explain why some would ever choose to support capitalism.” Against this, this collection is supposed to offer the opposite viewpoint, that is to analyze whether particular authors were socialists and if so, why that may be. But I venture that few Marxist literary critics would recognize themselves in this description in the first place, making the contrary enterprise appear spiteful. Another major target of the Austrians is to depict Marxism as ‘reductive’ and ‘collectivist’, making economic analysis about the operation of macro-level forces on the interests of individuals. In contrast to this, Austrian economics supposedly offers a more contingent and humane vision of individual freedom. No doubt this has a strong romantic appeal. But if this boils down to the statement that “our analyses are based on detailed, careful readings of individual texts treated in their integrity—in sharp contrast to the Marxist tendency to disregard authorial intention and, in the style of Fredric Jameson, to seek to ferret out the “political unconscious” in literary works”, Jameson as well as other literary critics of a Marxist bent (such as, say, Raymond Williams or Aijaz Ahmad) may rightly protest that this depiction of their views will make the present collection stand out a little bit too easily couleur de rose. The authors would have done better to actually read some Marxist literary criticism, beginning with Marx himself, in order to understand what it is they want to argue against, and to do so with the same care and as “worthy of being taken seriously and treated with respect” as they claim is appropriate for the literary authors themselves.(4)

Paul Cantor’s first chapter continues in this vein. Here, the general notion of Marxism seems to be derived from the most skeptical works in the early Frankfurt School, as in Adorno and Horkheimer’s wariness of ‘the mass’ in the wake of fascism. Counter to this, he suggests taking the wishes and demands of consumers seriously, and opposes the Frankfurter picture of a mass culture artificially imposed as a vehicle for false consciousness, preferring to see cultural production as responding to legitimate market demands. Hayek already remarked that one cannot meaningfully distinguish ‘real’ from artificial tastes, and the implication is that attempting to do so in the name of Marxist theory risks being condescending and misunderstanding the popular culture itself. This criticism, again, has some genuine merit, and I share its wariness of the elitism that is the consequence of especially Adorno’s distancing from mass activity and interests (Marcuse, for all his faults, at least did not report the 1968 student movement to the police.)

But again, the sneering tone and the triumphal assaults on straw opponents Cantor indulges in weaken my ability to take this seriously as an Austrian critique. Marxism is accused of “crudeness”, of having “lost prestige” everywhere, of having “done damage to our understanding of literature.” Yet what is this based on? A number of total misreadings of Marxist economic theory, just as the rest of the collection tends to misread Marxist cultural criticism. This is surely a serious flaw in a work of literary scholarship. Cantor, for example, offers the following argument: “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.”(5) One does not have to know very much about Marxist economic ideas to see the spuriousness of this line of reasoning. The use of ‘value’ in the sense of value theory in classical economics is by no means wholly the same as its colloquial meaning (or else no notion of labor value could possibly be entertained); conflating the two to argue that Austrian economics, supposedly having a ‘subjective theory of value’, is more amenable to (postmodern) literary criticism because postmodernism prefers subjectivity is surely a triple equivocation of terms! Similarly, we are invited to prefer Austrian approaches because Michel Foucault, at the end of his life, recommended his students at the Collège de France to read Hayek and Von Mises as examples of the ‘will not to be governed’. This is surely an odd kind of argument. One cannot escape the impression that many of the attacks on Marxism, and the elevated language of ‘freedom’ and ‘individualism’ used throughout the book, are designed to emotionally appeal to academics to gain their approval the Austrian thinkers desperately crave more than it is to seriously argue against Marxist conceptions.

The first chapter also contains the only serious attempt at explaining the prevalence of Marxist approaches in cultural studies, surely important if it is so evidently wrong. “[The] materialist approach to culture is the distinctive Marxist contribution to the understanding of human history”, Cantor tells us. “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.”(6) In practice, this means that “In classic Marxist literary criticism, authors operating in a market system are routinely portrayed as captives of capitalist ideology.”(7) One may doubt whether there is much truth to this last statement – it certainly does once again little justice to the nuanced, detailed, and closely read interpretations of literature and its authors offered by figures such as Terry Eagleton, who himself defines the Marxist approach as “to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history”.(8) This, of course, must be rejected. Marxism, we are told by our editor, “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.” Moreover, “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…”(9)

If this seems a strangely philosophical, perhaps even ethical critique, this is less odd than it may seem – this is precisely the mode of criticism most favored by Austrian thinkers. “As a form of historical determinism, Marxism undercuts the idea that the artist is free as a creator… [it] works to efface the distinction between the great author and the ordinary run of humanity.” And this, of course, the Austrian school cannot countenance. The cardinal assumptions of this school rest in its view of human nature and its unflinching commitment to methodological individualism, to the point of absurdity. Indeed, it emphasizes the axiom of ‘consumer sovereignty’, by which is meant taking the individual with her preferences, values, views, and actions as something of an uncaused cause: any attempt to inquire as to what forces determine or shape human values and preferences is explicitly forbidden. Only on this basis can the ethical-philosophical critique of Marxism as ‘collectivist’ (because concerned with macro-level phenomena) and ‘reductive’ be sustained. Reduction to classes is bad; reduction to individuals good. Promoting the historical is bad; promoting individual genius, independent or contingent with respect to time, is good.

The unstated assumption throughout all Austrian critiques of Marxism, including in this book, is then that Marxism is really just a stalking horse for the denial of the ethical significance of the individual versus the state, and of the value of freedom. Literature seems a clear terrain to illustrate the significance of both these phenomena, so Cantor et al. cannot be blamed for exploring it (indeed, it is testament to the narrow economic theory emphasis of most Austrian thinkers that it has not much been done before). But neither assumption is true, and therefore such critiques fall flat. Marxism is, in fact, not dedicated to the proposition that the state is more ethically important or superior to the individual, nor is Marxist economics a study in the achievement of total state control – as the final contributor, LSE political theorist Chandran Kukathas, better recognizes. Marxism is also before everything else a philosophy of freedom, seeking the direct social control over the total productive forces of society in a cooperative manner as the fulfilment of freedom: in other words, freedom as self-determination. This is not so far from the Austrian idea of the individual as the basis of freedom, except it is not oriented towards the private, but the fully social determination of freedom. This is the basis of its critique of private property in means of production, not the notion of “equality of wealth” as the ultimate socialist principle, as Cantor suggests in his essay on Shelley.(10)

These misconceptions pervade the discussion of the literature itself as well, which I will consider somewhat more briefly. A typical case is Dario Fernández-Morera’s discussion of Cervantes, whom he argues, supposedly against the grain, was a defender of free trade and ‘free markets’ against feudal and mercantilist impositions. This is possible, he reminds us: the Salamanca School of Spanish economic thinkers – considerably predating even the Physiocrats, let alone the classical economists like Smith – already established canonical arguments for free trade in commodities, abolition of high imposts and restrictive licenses, and so forth. Moreover, Cervantes’ own active involvement in state activities (as a tax collector, for example) and his military adventures that saw him enslaved by North Africans for several years may have given him a strong sense of liberty, which for the Austrians naturally tends towards the market.

This is explicitly presented as a literary reading contrasting with the Marxist: Fernández-Morera “[wants] to examine Cervantes not so much as a capitalist avant la lettre but as a writer whose works present situations, statements, and ideas that illuminate sympathetically important aspects of the market economy, while providing material for a critique of collectivism, statism, and redistributionism.” Not a word is breathed of the fact that Marx himself considered Cervantes one of his favorite writers; that he read him in the original Spanish; and that in Marx’s own literary interpretation, he explicitly considered Don Quixote to be a satire on feudalism and mercantilism on the part of the newly rising bourgeoisie, showing the foolishness and outdatedness of the old feudal holdovers and mentality.(11) Indeed, this fact was used profitably by Graham Greene in his contrasting of Catholic and Communist ideas and values in Monsignor Quixote, proving Greene a more astute reader of Catholic literature than Fernández-Morera.

Paul Cantor’s essay on Shelley is more interesting. Here, Cantor makes a plausible and intriguing reading of Shelley, whose radicalism of political and economic views was notorious in his own day and whose reputation as a left-wing figure has persisted since. Cantor suggests that rather than being a forerunner of socialism, as is often suggested, Shelley’s overriding concern was actually with combating the mercantilist economic structure of absolutism. In particular, his works after the early Queen Mab (which Cantor admits as more socialistic) are aimed at the aggrandizement of the public debt caused by the warmongering of the ruling class, and its consequences in the middle class support for aristocratic rule – in exchange for interest – and the heavy taxation of the ‘productive’ population. Cantor ascribes this to the influence of William Cobbett; in particular his obsession with the gold standard as a friend of working people rather than its later perception as an imposition by a ruling class, as with W.J. Bryan’s ‘cross of gold’. The Austrian viewpoint is also in favor of metallic currencies, generally, as this prevents government power over banking, which they see as an illegitimate monopoly. For this reason, Cantor’s case would make Shelley appear more favorable to the Austrian viewpoint rather than the socialist.

But here again, a misreading of the Marxist idea of socialism mars the analysis. Far from being a question of opposing pure equality to capitalism, as Cantor seems to suggest, Marxists would readily recognize in figures such as Shelley the type of the ‘bourgeois radical’, aimed at the furthest extension of liberal principles against the ancien régime, wherever it may be – not dissimilar to the Jacobins in the French Revolution. The latter, too, preached revolution and yet emphasized free trade. It is that tradition that Shelley works in via Cobbett, and it is no strike against Marxism. Marx was a fan of Cobbett and recommended his Rural Rides to his correspondents. It also does not establish that Shelley’s radical liberalism could not have extended in a socialist direction, given his associations and ideas of the ‘productive’. Indeed, Michael Scrivener has shown the mutual influence between Shelley and “radical artisan poetry”, the work of self-taught craftsmen whose political radicalism tended towards ideas of freedom as increase of leisure and an opposition to the coercion to labor the market generates.(12) By the end of the 19th century, this early radical liberalism – satirizing monarchism, religion, and poverty – would morph into the anarchism of Swiss watchmakers as well as the Marxist idea of the reduction of necessary labor time.

Another essay of Cantor’s considers H.G. Wells, in particular his successful novel The Invisible Man (1897). One can tell that Cantor’s abilities as a literary critic are greater than the others in this collection, in terms of style, engagement with alternative readings, and empathetic understanding of the potentialities of meaning within the book. Indeed, perhaps even more so than the Shelley article, this piece is worth reading quite aside from the question of the right economic interpretation of literature. The interpretation of Wells’ book is based on a very Marxist-like reading of the relationship between Wells’ own position and intentions and the final product of the work, examining the contradictions produced in the book as reflections of those in Wells’ own social and economic ideas. If this seems contrary to the spirit of romantic individualism promised early on, it makes the critique all the better for it, perhaps inadvertently proving the opposition right. Indeed, with reason Cantor in the introduction is said to “turn Marxist ideology critique back on itself”.(13) This essay is perhaps the most successful of the critiques, as it demonstrates serious problems with Wells’ conception of his socialism, as revealed in The Invisible Man. As Cantor describes it, the book operates at two levels: the titular invisible man is the force of capital itself, pervading everything and disturbing all social order without being accountable to anyone or even directly visible as a force, and in this form Wells depicts him as the enemy of society. But the invisible man is also the lone hero-scientist who is neglected and unrecognized, despite being smarter than all others, and whose role is to prove his superiority through some invention (invisibility) that will force the urban crowds of modern life to recognize his individuality and genius.

This Nietzschean streak, and Wells’ positive depictions of the powers of the state and police in pursuing the invisible man, give an elitist and authoritarian streak to his ‘socialism’, one that makes it at times sound more fascist than socialist. Cantor notes Wells opposed fascism, but sees in his interest in Stalin’s USSR a reflection of the same ideals. Whatever that historical judgement may be, there is something striking about Cantor’s depiction of Wells’ interest in socialism mainly as a mechanism for the elevation of the underappreciated intelligentsia over the power of money – the parallels with G.B. Shaw and similar figures are strong, as is supported by various quotes by Wells to that effect. As Cantor writes: “If, then, I seem to have given a contradictory account of The Invisible Man, the reason is that a fundamental contradiction lies at the core of Wells’s thinking. He upheld a socialist ideal of community, and yet at the same time he saw a form of heroic individualism as the only way to bring about socialism… Wells’s socialism is ultimately aesthetic and aristocratic in nature; it is rooted in his conviction that, as an artistic visionary, he is superior to the ordinary mass of humanity.”(14) As a critique of the common aesthetic defenses of socialism, often so eerily similar to the aesthetic appreciations of fascism (say, by Pound), this is good stuff, and something many socialists can in fact find agreement with. Indeed, Wells’ and Shaw’s socialism seem quite akin to the ‘feudal socialism’ or ‘true socialism’ Marx and Engels already decried as ineffective or outright reactionary in the Communist Manifesto.

The last essay I will consider is the final chapter of the book, a reading of Ben Okri’s classic The Famished Road by Chandran Kukathas. This in some sense illustrates the book. Kukathas is, of all the authors, by far the best informed about Marx’s own writings and ideas, and avoids some of the silly interpretations of Marxism that Cantor and others maintain (such as the role of freedom in Marx’s work). As a Professor of Political Theory at the LSE, one would expect this of him. Yet his reading of Okri seems weak proportional to the degree that he attempts to establish the correctness of Austrian economic thought through it. Indeed, for those who complain of Marxism as an overly reductive reading fitting literature into a socialist scheme, the readings in this book, especially of Okri, are themselves sometimes remarkably simplistic. What’s more, any notion of chaos, contingency, or individual diversity in literature is immediately enlisted in the service of the concept of ‘spontaneous order’, underpinning the free market. Markets play a major role in Okri’s book, as Kukathas rightly notes, and the general tendency of the work is to outline the chaos of the market and the chaos of the political world as related phenomena. Indeed, since the protagonist is a teenage boy, it is no surprise chaos should reign. Much of the stuff of maturity consists in coming to comprehend the structures, regularities, and expectations of life, patterns which seem radically contingent when one is a teenager.

But there is more to it than that. As the protagonist, Azaro, is a spirit child, he is granted the ability to perceive the elements of this chaos – this-worldly and otherworldly – transparently in a manner normal people cannot, and it is through this lens that the world of the market, the world of consumption, the world of labor, and the world of politics are described. For Kukathas, the defining point of the book is to illustrate that these are all separate realms, with no necessary connection, and characterized by conflict emerging from human nature – therefore no historical materialism can make sense, and no socialism can work. It is a shame therefore that this collection was published in 2009, as in 2011 David McNally in his Monsters of the Market – itself a major work of contemporary Marxist literary scholarship – provided a lengthy reading of the same work by Ben Okri. Contra Kukathas, for McNally the very ghostly essence of the market, the place where Azaro repeatedly is swept away into the otherworld by the powers of the normally Unseen, and the unfolding reality of the this-worldly through his growing awareness of his father’s exploitation by back-breaking labor both combine to form a radical reading of the power of capital as money to subvert the settled patterns of life and to operate behind the backs of individuals.

As with Wells, the otherworldly power of capital is precisely that it does not depend on individuals, but acts as a social relation between them, into which they are born and which determines their incentives, behavior, and indeed whether they live or die. As Kukathas does not seem to be aware of, such Gothic novel elements in capitalism are already identified by Marx, when he writes about the process of commodification that makes money seem to command objects: “[a] table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”(15) In Okri’s context, this power of what Marx called ‘exchange value’ and the related fetishism of commodities expresses itself supernaturally in the market: “The market is a night-space, a world of violence and danger. The daylight world of ordinary perception obscures the true nature of the forces that inhabit the market. But, for those able to see in the dark, the market emerges as what it truly is, a forest world dominated by malevolent spirits of the night.”(16)

I leave it to the reader to judge which of these rival interpretations of markets in literature best reflects the reality of these social institutions.

1) p. x.
2) p. xi.
3) Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011).
4) p. xvi.
5) p. 9.
6) p. 13, 15-16.
7) p. 17.
8) Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London 1976), p. 2.
9) p. 17.
10) p. 250.
11) See: Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, Ch. 1, n34.
12) Michael Scrivener, “Shelley and Radical Artisan Poetry”. Keats-Shelley Journal 42 (1993), p. 22-36.
13) p. xvii.
14) p. 321-322.
15) Marx, op. cit., Ch. 1, section 4.
16) David McNally, Monsters of the Market (Leiden 2011), p. 239.


“…his works after the early Queen Mab (which Cantor admits as more socialistic) are aimed at the aggrandizement of the public debt caused by the warmongering of the ruling class, and its consequences in the middle class support for aristocratic rule – in exchange for interest – and the heavy taxation of the ‘productive’ population. Cantor ascribes this to the influence of William Cobbett; in particular his obsession with the gold standard as a friend of working people rather than its later perception as an imposition by a ruling class, as with W.J. Bryan’s ‘cross of gold’.”

Put aside the reference to Bryan, which is thoroughly misleading if it suggests that Cobbett would have supported McKinley.

Cobbett saw the system, the Debt, the Bank, the Empire and the standing army as an imposition on the working people. He was not obsessed with the gold standard which term is something of an anachronism in this context.

His concern was with the financial system which made the interest on the Debt sacred while the living standards, wages and property of the working people were all sacrificed. Hence his “obsession” with breaking the hold that Finance had over the government.

In point of fact Cobbett’s concerns are extremely relevant today. And nowhere more than in Britain where the Tory government is pursuing policies of enforced austerity, lowering wages and privatising the commons very similar to those practised by the governments from Liverpool through to Melbourne.

Were he alive today Cobbett would argue that the poor have the first charge on the economy. And that government ought to abolish the standing army-and all the alliances it implies- and audit the Debt before- after writing that which is odious off- making an equitable adjustment, which would involve suspending interest payments and repaying the principal.
How this would conform with the ideas of Ludwig von Mises, I am unsure but I suspect that Messrs Shelley and Marx would approve. As would the anarchist artisans of the Alps.

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