Categories: Literary

Economics as Literature

The contemplation of the nineteenth century in the history of economic thought is
primarily focused upon the canons of political economy, i.e. for the period under
examination here, works by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and John
Stuart Mill. Whilst there may be debate about the precise nature and significance of
the canons, writing on the canons dominates the field and efforts to re-work the
major writers in terms of later economic and mathematical insight abound. The
method of analysis used has been described as ‘canonization’ (Brown, 1993: 67).
When a canonical interpretation is made of what are seen as key texts, the tendency
is to frame the texts in terms of the origins of modern-day economic ideas. Past texts
are read in terms of current developments and an intellectual parentage established
for recent trends. Such a framework, according to Brown, tends to restrict, over
time, the meanings found in the text as the discipline, through academic discussion
and negotiation, reduces the range of acceptable interpretations. Many possible
voices in the text are, by the process, reduced to one voice. This process is the very
opposite of that taken by scholars of literature to the fictive writing of the same era.
Literary analysis accepts the ‘many voiced’ nature of a text, the possibility of
ambiguity and the changes of meaning consequent upon the changing point of
view of the reader and of protagonists in the narrative (Brown, 1994b: 4). The aim is
to open-up rather than to restrict meanings.
A literary approach is potentially available for the study of political economy
texts, and such an approach, backed by scholars such as McCloskey and Brown,
challenges the ‘single voice’ results of canonical investigation. A concrete example
will serve as a means of illustrating the problem. De Quincey is usually interpreted
as a follower of Ricardo, and there is much in his writing that suggests pure heroworship.
In objecting to the social dangers of rent consuming all the available
surplus De Quincey points out Ricardo’s omission of technical change, and refers
to
that great antagonist force for ever at work in Great Britain – through skill,
capital, and the energy of freemen; only by an antagonist law for ever operative
in throwing back the descents – in raising the soil in case E, in the year 1700, to
the level B as it was in 1500 – the soil of O, in the year 1800, to the level of E as
it stood in 1600: thus and only thus, do we escape, have escaped, and shall
escape, the action of rent; which action, by the just exposures of Ricardo,
tends always to engulf us; which action, by the unjust concealments of Ricardo,
ought long ago to have frozen us into dead lock – anything to the contrary
notwithstanding which has ever been insisted on by that great master of
economy.
(De Quincey, 1897e: 248–249)
This could be seen as simply a matter of exploring the consequences of technical
change, De Quincey merely adding to the scientific model by shifting the production
possibility curve, thus demonstrating his technical ability in political economy.
Look again at the language, see how the economic agents are depicted in terms
suggestive of free agents and conservative and sustained social values, rather
than as mechanistic and value-free. Economic agents work consistently over-time,
secure within the timelessness of English society, to counter the effects of
mechanistic law. Such an understanding makes De Quincey’s text critical, valueladen
in senses different from those of Ricardo, ironic and potentially antagonistic
towards some Ricardian ideas (McDonagh, 1994: 49). The passage illustrates a
more general ambiguity towards Ricardo in Logic.
In canonical terms, the essays as written here are ‘outside the field’ both with
respect to subject matter and with respect to style of analysis. Whilst there is
inevitably summarisation and translation, the method of analysis attempts to integrate
the economics and the linguistic expression, i.e. the concern is both with economic
argument and the ways in which the argument is presented in literary form. The
focus is sometimes upon the economics or on the economics education and
sometimes on the ways in which ideas are expressed and developed. If framed by
the literary approach to economics writing promoted by McCloskey’s work The
Rhetoric of Economics,1 and pursued in the cross-over between literature and
economics in Marc Shell’s The Economy of Literature (1978) and Kurt Heinzelman’s
excellent The Economics of the Imagination, then these essays are attempting to
bring to economists and economics educators some of the benefits of that alternative
tradition. They are part of results of the process of paying more attention to the
encoding and decoding of economics meanings. A careful consideration not only
of what is written but how it is written changes the meaning and implications of text.
In this context, the relationship between, say, Ricardo and De Quincey becomes
problematic.

Canonical approaches have deepened knowledge of the origins and development
of sets of economic ideas and forms a legitimate basis for making judgements on
past and present economic argument. This knowledge has been purchased at a
price. Economic texts have been cut off from their contemporary audiences; the
impact of economics writing, for most of the century accessible to educated people
in general, on contemporary values and ideas and the interaction between economics
and education, economics and literature and literature and economics has not tended
to be seen as part of the official histories. The canonical approach reconfirms the
professionalisation of the discipline and justifies the compartmentalisation of
knowledge. The works of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and John
Stuart Mill (for the period that the essays in this collection concentrate upon) are,
and remain, key works – but they were not alone in the field. They, and the economic
circumstances that they were engaged in analysing, gave rise to further works,
including novels with socio-economic themes, which have their origins in the
writings of Maria Edgeworth and Harriet Martineau, and to the imaginatively rather
than scientifically constructed economic ideas of the Romantic poets. The earliest
writings took the form of educational works in political economy. Later works, by
the Romantic poets, inaugurated a criticism of economic ideas, culminating in the
economic writings of John Ruskin. Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, nephew of Maria
Edgeworth, blended the literary tradition with the scientific tradition and passed on
to his contemporaries, including John Maynard Keynes, some of the cultural
traditions of literary economics. The meaning to be attached to literary economics
is explored below. What is emphasised here, for the time being, is the self-conscious
‘literariness’ of the texts (the term ‘literariness’ is borrowed from Brown, 1994: 368).
The set of essays published here represent an attempt, using the original sense of
the word essay, to apply insights that flow from a heightened awareness of literary
criticism, rhetoric and language-use in economics to economics texts that have
rarely been recognised as part of the literature of economics. These are not
‘authorised readings’ of authorised texts, but individual readings of writings which
incorporate different discursive practices, which promote economics understanding
within different, but related, genres and for different kinds of audiences.2 The writings
come from a period when intellectual culture was not yet split by academic
specialisation, when literary figures could challenge or support economic ideas
considered as part of the joint stock of knowledge of writers and thinkers. It would
not have been possible to write this work without having the benefit of working
within, and of reading works within, the growing literature on undertaking a literary
analysis of economics. Although an individual reading, that reading has taken
place within the growing discursive practices promoted by the ‘rhetorical’ turn in
economics.

The essays do not constitute, however, an integrated study of nineteenth- century
literary economics. That is a vast undertaking, demanding wide reading in a variety
of subjects and genres. Currently such works are being pursued by the academics
interested in the critical appraisal of English literature, McDonagh’s work being a
prime example. A close reading of individual texts remains a literary method even
when it illuminates problems in the history of economic thought. There may be a
need to integrate the study of major and minor economics texts as history with the
insights achieved by literary analysis. The studies presented here are concerned
primarily with individual texts, with re-establishing such texts as interesting and
significant in terms of the contemporary audiences for them and only then, and
retrospectively at that, for their interconnections.
The subject matter is different kinds of economic texts: economic stories for
children written by Maria Edgeworth; Jane Marcet’s economics textbook based
upon dialogue; economic stories, by Harriet Martineau, written for adults; dialogues
and an introductory text written by Thomas De Quincey; John Ruskin’s emotive
essays challenging popular economic values; and a blend of science and literature
in the case of F. Y. Edgeworth. Keynes is included because he represents a late
flowering of the tradition which the other writers represent. The General Theory
(1936) was available to an educated audience (an audience whom he intended to reeducate)
and not simply to economists. The level of reader awareness, the literary
quality of the more rhetorical passages and the subtle references to a wider literary
culture in Keynes’s work suggests a link with Edgeworth and through him to the
other authors examined here. Even although united by common interests in
economics and in education, the implication of the variety of styles and purposes is
that the type of literary analysis undertaken and personal responses to the readings
vary from chapter to chapter. The question as to how these and other texts can be
read is reflected upon in the section headed ‘A Literary Reading of Literary
Economics’.
The works examined, though from different time periods and written with differing
problems and audiences in mind, are strongly linked through the loosely defined
notion of literary economics. All authors had literary interests and all of the works
display a talent for narrative writing involving the development or application of
economic ideas. Most of the works examined here have been given scant attention
by historians of economic thought.3 It must not be forgotten, however, that canonical
writing was also literary in a sense however. Adam Smith’s texts were produced
under the influence of notions of rhetoric and belles-lettres, while culture (in its
modern and ideological sense) had a great significance in the work of John Stuart
Mill. Both Smith and Mill are acknowledged as fine writers and so, in this sense,
style is a concern of nineteenth-century economics. Ricardo is an exception, for his

work is regarded by his contemporaries and others, for stylistic and structural
reasons, as ‘difficult’. The origins of the ‘difficulty’ of Ricardo needs textual
exploration in a way which integrates the economics and its literary expression,
though De Quincey puts forward in his Logic of Political Economy (1897) a
convincing set of justifications for such a view. The examination of literary economics
as both economics and literature, could equally be applied to Smith and to Mill as it
is to the writers and texts examined here. Though the canonical works are rarely
touched upon in this volume, in the section headed ‘Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and
Mill as Literary Economists’, some thoughts on such key texts are set out.
Another strong link between the texts, which weakens only with the essay on the
early work of F. Y. Edgeworth, is the concern for education with which the economics
writing is infused. If the nineteenth century is a century of social and intellectual
innovation, one of its key shifts was with respect to education. A prime shift in
emphasis came with the concern, exhibited throughout the movement towards sociopolitical
reforms, with the notion of appropriate education. Whilst the issues are
complex, refined classical knowledge came to be increasingly contrasted with the
notion of useful knowledge. The notion of useful knowledge was worked out by
the middle classes for the working classes, the intelligentsia being taken-up with
establishing cultural standards for Coleridge’s ‘cleresy’, an intellectual class
dedicated to the maintenance of classical culture in the context of aristocratic decline
and the rise of the commercial middle classes. What constituted useful knowledge
was the subject of considerable debate, particularly in the years leading to the
Reform Act of 1832. Political economy, provided a method of communicating it to
the ‘lower orders’ could be established, was, with its notion of social truths, one of
the most significant subjects (though not, of course, the only subject). The primary
examples of how an economics curriculum for the wider society could and should
be developed are the works of three women, usually dismissed as popularisers and
propagandists, but treated here as serious minded educators, operating with either
explicit or implicit educational theories. Maria Edgeworth, working within the context
of the reform of manners as well as ‘practical education’, led the field with works for
children based as much upon Priestley’s and Bentham’s notions of utilitarianism as
on the works of Adam Smith. Jane Marcet followed with Conversations on Political
Economy, aimed at adolescents, particularly young women. She was in turn followed
by Harriet Martineau, who wrote economic tales for adults. That Martineau was
able to write for a living, for a period of more than two years, on economics education,
is truly remarkable. Marcet also made money out of her writing, though her
educational writing spread well beyond economics. Marshall, the leading figure in
the professionalisation of neoclassical economics by the end of the century, had
one eye on the economics profession and the other on the general public and
disliked the contributions made by Marcet and Martineau. He argued that they
peddled economics as truths without the framework of cautions and assumptions
necessary for economic ideas to have such a status. Even Marshall admitted,
however, that the belief in the truth of economics was widespread at the time and
shared by some of the writers in the classical tradition. The view from the end of the
nineteenth century ought not to be the final judgement on their texts. Re-reading in
order to recapture the richness of the texts requires a focus that is not simply that of
Marshall. The narrative element is strong in such examples of literary economics.
All of the essayists (save F. Y. Edgeworth) were also professional writers, engaged
to some extent in deliberate educational activity. Keynes was a pamphleteer and the
opening flourishes of The General Theory owe something to that genre. Most
made a distinctive contribution to ideas concerning the nature of economics
education as well as to the development of literary economics. Thomas De Quincey’s
Dialogues owe something to Marcet and share, as does his Logic, with Martineau
a willingness to reflect upon the nature of audience (both explicitly and implicitly).
Like Martineau, he wrote to earn a living. Extensive exemplifications in De Quincey’s
Logic are essentially vivid short stories uniting the art of description and narrative
with analytical intention and share something of Martineau’s purposes. De Quincey,
unlike Marcet and Martineau is also explicitly concerned with furthering, and hence
critically assessing, economic argument. However, it is important not to push the
point too far: Marcet, through the character of the young student Caroline, puts
forward numerous points, often of a moral nature, against conventional economics
which the political economist, Mrs B. goes to great lengths to refute. Dialogue
allows at least two points of view to be stated, although carefully constructed
monologue (but not a catechism) can achieve similar results. An independent reader
has the opportunity of agreeing with Caroline. If a comparison must be made,
Marcet’s two-way dialogue is simpler, clearer and more direct that De Quincey’s
three. Martineau also demonstrates an understanding, though not in the stories so
much as in her morals, of the important role of government in the context of laissezfaire.
John Ruskin is misunderstood if his educational motives are not appreciated as
being a significant part of his aims as an economics commentator. Ruskin wrote
many things, but his lecturing and writing were primarily inspired by a desire to
educate. Some, particularly those biased towards the genius of John Stuart Mill,
will balk at the idea of Martineau and Ruskin being treated seriously as writers of
economics. Ruskin’s reputation as a socio-economic critic and reformer, in particular,
is subject to bouts of attention and neglect, elaborate praise and acid criticism. The
emotional basis of his writing (dismissed as ‘hysterical’ and ‘feminine’ in the view
of many of his masculine contemporaries) makes many responses possible. Martineau
was also regarded as having been ‘un-sexed’ by her writing and hence said to
display ‘masculine’ characteristics. In writing as they did, each challenged accepted
notions of the proper, i.e. gendered, division of labour. The switching of roles and
of genres disturbs accepted notions of the textual division of labour, and hence of
categories of appropriate knowledge. Ruskin’s works, as products of emotion, were
not deemed capable of carrying any scientific meaning.
It is, of course, a mistake to read Ruskin only for his prose style to the detriment
of intended or possible meanings. It is as well to remember that the nineteenth
century gave rise to a whole set of new words and concepts, identified by Raymond
Williams (1960) as part of the set ‘industry, democracy, class, art and culture’,
many of which had their origins in the need to describe and construct a society
based not upon agrarianism but on manufacturing and the social inequalities and
change that it gave rise to (Williams, 1960: xv, xvii). Many of these terms and their
changing significance have their origins in the need to understand the socioeconomic
problems of the early nineteenth century and are directly or indirectly
related to the subject matter of literary economics. A concern for the meaning of
words, something that Ruskin learned from Carlyle, that other great literary critic of
economic modernism and laissez-faire, is, given the changes of meaning that were
essential to further discussion of changing society, not out of place or trivial. Smith,
Ricardo, De Quincey, Mill and Ruskin worked hard on the notions of ‘wealth’ and of
‘value’, providing elements of a discourse which helped shape their changing world.
Ruskin was in the thick of such words, his socio-economic criticisms have their
origins in the contemplation of the relationship between art and society and between
art and the industrial arts, between ‘labour’ and ‘work’, between ‘wealth’ and ‘value’.
Exploring his images and his use of words reveals a poetically constructed discourse
which is capable of yielding up critical and potentially scientific ideas.
Ruskin’s paternalism shares, in its desire to see an ethical and responsible
governing class worthy of the respect of working people, much with Martineau,
though she was essentially a democrat. Where they differ is in the relationship
between responsibility and political economy. For Martineau, political economy
suggested a pattern for social reform. For Ruskin, political economy was itself the
object of reform. By reforming ideas about the proper nature of a ‘true’ economy,
the economic world itself would be reconstructed. Ruskin deliberately uses the
powers of the imagination as an antidote to what he sees as a mistaken science.
F. Y. Edgeworth shared many of the literary interests of De Quincey and Ruskin
and shows in his early economics writing an appreciation of the cultural and literary
traditions, of literary economics, liberally larding his texts with subtle references to
literary culture, in much the same way as De Quincey and Ruskin. There is textual
(and other) evidence, in his early work that he had read both of these writers. F. Y.
Edgeworth’s writing, which seems in the history of economic thought, out of step
with the general development of scientific economic writing is, in the context of De
Quincey and Ruskin at least, part of the wider cultural and literary tradition of the
nineteenth century. Edgeworth’s text looks backwards towards that tradition; and
forwards, in its mathematical reasoning, towards the economics argumentation of
the middle decades of the twentieth century. As with Ruskin, a modern reader will
typically struggle with Edgeworth. Keynes’s major work illustrates, in its literary
qualities, his links with Edgeworth.
Another significant theme running through all of the texts, save, perhaps, F. Y.
Edgeworth, is the theme of economic agency. In neo-classical economics, modelbuilding
and the supporting language of model building has led, in introductory
texts at least, but also in some higher-level theory, to the deletion of economic
actors or agents, replacing them with equilibrating forces or rational expectations.
But in the writing considered here the class orders of classical economics and the
economic behaviour of members of the class tend to be individually identified as
economic agents. Maria Edgeworth depicts economic actions within a network of
social relations, either that of parent and child or of children amongst themselves.
Children and adults of all social classes are brought within the net of rational
economic motivation and discussion. Martineau sets agency in the context of
individual lives and changing social relationships, drawing imaginatively upon
domestic and village scenes to illustrate economic argument in a context that allows
links to be made between principles and social practice. Marcet sees women as
significant actors in the household economy and on the interface between the
household and the wider world, requiring her student to draw upon her own economic
understanding directly gathered from her experience as an economic agent. Women’s
agency is located in a gender role but need not be restricted to it. De Quincey is
more interested in the abstractions of the theory of value, but in a passage directly
concerned with economic story-telling he animates the consumer as a living person
(‘you’, engaged in reading). Rather than manipulating a simple cipher, he provides
a psychological depth generally absent from others operating within the Ricardian
tradition. His model of consumer psychology is based upon his own experience of
drug addiction.
Ruskin’s concern for the economic agent as a three-dimensional human being,
capable, like all human beings of answering back and animated as much by morality
as by concerns about ‘getting on’, fills his version of economics with social and
moral issues. In his public lecture, later published as ‘Of King’s Treasuries’, Ruskin,
in an amateurish attempt at descriptive ethics, directly asks, in the context of criticisms
of his concept of economic ‘virtue’, whether his specification of human motivation
is appropriate (Ruskin, n.d.: 14–15). Whereas Martineau exhibits themes illustrating
the useful power of the market, Ruskin’s notion of agency is intended to transcend
the mechanistic market mechanism and in so doing lead to the creation of ‘true’
wealth and ‘true’ economy. Although their agents are literary creations and as much
fictions as ‘economic man’, the imaginary worlds in which the fictions live and work
are more like the worlds inhabited by ordinary readers.
If the coldness of Maria Edgeworth’s ‘The Purple Jar’ is set aside, economic
agents in much of this writing are recognisable rounded human beings, though
standing in a series of differing relationships with the formal aspects of economic
thought. Maria Edgeworth’s characters are animated by educational, economic and
moral considerations and set in the social dimension of improvement. Marcet’s
notion of individual reflection, guided by economics understanding promoted by
discussion, provided a basis in women’s lives for the development of a sophisticated
economics, exposed to criticism from both the head and the heart. Martineau’s
agents are set within the social context of change and reform, lead by the (useful)
destructive principles of laissez-faire. Agency in De Quincey, when constructed as
story, helps shift the focus away from objective to subjective notions of value. The
agent in Ruskin is capable of moral action and more and more capable, through a
process of consumer education, of reading the socially harmful aspects of market
activity. Ruskin’s agent is not an economic monad or a mechanistic automaton but
a member of society enmeshed in moral responsibilities and duties.
A common theme in the treatment of agency is found in the way in which
exemplification is vividly constructed within an economic narrative that can often
be construed as parable. For such authors, economics was ‘a social process’, and
their writing unites formal and substantive economy sometimes along lines similar
in intent to those of the realist novel (McCloskey, 1994: 333). This notion is especially
true for the writing of Keynes who feels very intensely, and certainly as vividly as
Ruskin, the tension between received economic theory and the economic world
and behaviours to which such theory points. When read together with the canonical
texts, our authors can provide us with insight into how the notion of economic
agency grew and developed, in theoretical, practical and normative terms in the
course of the nineteenth century. Today’s economic agents, in much theoretical
literature, are assumed to possess a psychological life consistent with the notion of
equilibrium or rational expectations, a point of view mocked in a recent paper by
Rector (Rector, 1990: 195).
These texts can be profitably explored using a variety of techniques derived from
literary studies to reveal their persuasive structures and intents in the context of
their contemporary popularity. As with the other writers, what we bring to the texts
is likely to influence what we find. It would be misleading to suggest that the
chapters were achieved in the order that they are published here. The work evolved
and, indeed, started with F. Y. Edgeworth and Harriet Martineau. If I were to rewrite
the chapter on F. Y. Edgeworth there is little doubt that his work would be better
integrated into the literary economics tradition of uniting economics and the
imagination, a tradition which Edgeworth, I feel, helped pass on to Keynes. Keynes
is included as a kind of epilogue, for, although The General Theory is a major text,
it is self-consciously literary and persuasive and uses a variety of devices in common
with the literary economics of the nineteenth century. The papers are set out here in
chronological historical order rather than the order in which they were worked
upon.

 

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