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Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture

Literary Theory: An Anthology (ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan) is one of the foremost anthologies of literary theory. Among its sections is one titled “Political Criticism: From Marxism to Cultural Materialism.” With the exception of Hegel, all the authors are Marxists. This is the entirety of economic analysis in literature: Marxism. At least, it was.

Now there is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which introduces Austrian economics to literary criticism. This anthology’s stated purpose—to “explore the possibility that forms of economic thinking sympathetic to capitalism may be able to illuminate our understanding of literature in new ways”—is not entirely without precedent, but Cantor and Cox’s book is distinct in its focus on one tradition of economic thought: Austrian economics.

In a pursuit as individualistic as writing, it may seem surprising that this is the first attempt to apply Austrian economics, with its methodological individualism, to literary production, while such anti-individualistic worldviews as Marxism have dominated. But if we understand that socialism is a top-down approach to economic organization, perhaps this is not so surprising. Authors engage in top-down organization whenever they write—so the application of this process to social processes seems, to many of them, logical. Even many experts in sociology or economics do not make the proper distinctions between top-down organizations and bottom-up orders, so why expect writers to do so?

The anthology authors’ use of methodological individualism does not mean they view the artist as an isolated genius. Their approach rather places writers in their historical-cultural contexts. Writers are influenced by the world they live in. There is feedback, which informs the writer and influences future works. The Austrian approach to economics views the individual as a social being, and so too the artist. It emphasizes the subjectivity of value, which Cantor observes should make it more attractive than the objective theory of Marxism, since literature is particularly focused on subjective experiences. Spontaneous-order theory helps us develop a better idea of how literary artists create works of art. From it we can develop a sociology of artistic production superior to what is possible through Marxist-informed theories.

Cantor devotes his introductory essay to “showing how . . . 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.” According to Cantor, New Criticism, one of the earliest literary theories developed in the twentieth century, argues that everything the author puts in his work is intentional and that the finished work is therefore “perfect.” In opposition to New Criticism, Cantor tells us, Deconstruction insists on the incoherence of literature and points out where authors have failed, left gaps, and conformed to their culture in various ways. That idea led to the corollary of the “death of the author,” that there was no such thing as an author who created exactly what he intended. With spontaneous-order theory, we can reject the idea of the author as being in perfect control of his work while also rejecting the death of the author and the lack of authorial intention to coordinate a large organization to achieve the goals he has set for it, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

While this book brings to light the way literature is produced by viewing literary production as a spontaneous order, it also provides a different approach to understanding the ways economics and economies are portrayed in literature. It investigates the economic views of authors such as Shelley, Wells, and Dickens. Marxist approaches have emphasized how authors have criticized the market economy; celebrations of it are ignored. In one chapter Cantor analyzes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay A Philosophical View of Reform, in which he discusses the problems with national debt—which Cantor uses to support the argument that Shelley was, contrary to previous literary scholarship, not a socialist.

In Cantor’s chapter on Thomas Mann’s short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” he discusses the problems of Weimar German hyperinflation and how it resulted in a degradation of all values. The Austrian understanding of the effects of monetary policy and the emphasis on subjective-value theory allow us to better understand this story.

Classical liberalism is not just a belief in a certain kind of political economy; it has implications for all of society, including culture, literature, and the fine arts. Literary analysis has been dominated by leftist scholars, but this insightful book gives libertarian scholars, particularly those influenced by Austrian economics, a foot in the door.

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