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Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

Some critics—including such notables as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton—have struggled to overcome the limitations of Marxist determinism, but they have been strangely unwilling to drop Marxist paradigms altogether. To these critics, Cantor offers the following clarification:

The relationship 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. 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 providesthe 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.

I quote at length because this message is best stated in Cantor’s own words. Literary thinkers as diverse as E. M. Forster and Lionel Trilling (liberals), Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk (conservatives), and Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard (postmodernists) would probably delight in Cantor and Cox’s celebration of human complexity, although none of these critics, of course, would have considered themselves Austrian economists. Nevertheless, each of these men believed in the individual’s uniqueness and autonomy. Each distrusted the ever-aspiring motives of those who in the service of grand political narratives denied human agency. Each, therefore, would have listened attentively to Cantor and Cox’s discussions of the Austrian school, which must, then, appeal to a variety of literary traditions.

In ten chapters, this book investigates the works of, among others, Miguel de Cervantes, Ben Johnson, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, H. G. Wells, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Mann. These writers are like entrepreneurs “constantly anticipating an uncertain future, trying to predict changes in demand and to figure out new economies of production for satisfying it.” No two chapters of this book are alike, although the idea of “spontaneous order” is central to all of them. Relying heavily on Mises and Hayek, the authors do not seek to enlist readers in economic programs but instead to show how presumptuous central planners and anticapitalists assume perfectibility—of economies, people, and groups. No economic system, however, achieves total equilibrium or perfection. To the extent that Austrian economics recognizes this truth, it is an indispensable resource and an ideal, if modest, starting point for any cultural criticism.

Without reading a single page of this book—save, perhaps, for the introductory lines—the usual naysayers in academia will probably dismiss the authors’ astute analyses out of hand. “This is conservative talk,” these simpletons will say, even though the authors specifically refute the positions of the New Critics and other supposedly “conservative” schools. (Cantor and Cox do praise the New Critics for, among other things, their commitment to close reading. In fact, the volume editors’ arguments consistently reflect close readings of texts, in contrast to the anything-goesspeculations of Fredric Jameson, who too often seems to theorize first and only later to force a text to conform to his ideas.) Social conservatives, moreover, will wince at the way Cantor analogizes spontaneous order to Darwinian biology, but the analogy is in fact spot on.

All of the authors spend a great deal of time explaining various ideas and theories of Austrian economics—from the business cycle to inflation to praxeology. Although Austrian economists may grow slightly impatient reading about the history and fundamentals of a movement to which they have devoted their entire careers, they should bear in mind that the book’s audience will include many literary scholars who have little to no training in economic thought.

Having recently completed graduate studies in both law and literature, I am quite aware that what passes as legitimate economic scholarship in English departments would not be given the time of day in law schools (or presumably in economics departments either). I understand and sympathize with Cantor’s frustrations regarding the “oft-noted paradox” that “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.” The future of the humanities, as I see it, may be in our professional schools. For example, nearly every law school in the United States offers a course called “Law and Literature,” and law professors who teach these courses—and who very often hold Ph.D. degrees in literature or other like fields—have a wide perspective on society and the world at large and know better than to succumb to trendy Marxist assumptions. At any rate, if Marxist literary critics deserve credit for at least demonstrating the relevance of economics to literature, then Cantor and Cox deserve a medal for reversing the course of economic literary theory. Indeed, the literary intelligentsia should be infinitely grateful to Cantor and Cox, whose book is a life raft for a drowning profession.

I devoured this book—a valuable corrective to the Marxism (or quasi-Marxism) that has attained monopoly powers in literary circles—as if it were the last I would ever read, and I regret that I did not write it myself. The academy in general and the literati in particular should be ashamed and embarrassed that Cantor and Cox’s ideas are so novel. Yet it is not too late for English professors to save face—redeem themselves, if you will—by seeking out economic theories that are in keeping with, not contrary to, humane learning. Economists, even those in putatively Communist countries such as China, have discredited Marxism of all stripes. But literary specialists continue to employ and celebrate Marxism, and they wonder why the humanities are dying out, why the number of literature majors is dwindling, why graduate programs in the humanities have had to slash jobs and cut budgets. The literati are writing themselves into extinction—committing “suicide,” as Harold Bloom would say. Is this process spontaneous order at work?



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