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  • National Objects: Keynesian Economics and Modernist Culture in England
  • Joshua D. Esty* (bio)

Having freshly crossed the millennial threshold, it is possible for us to recognize some broad symmetries between the two most resilient periodizing terms in the study of twentieth-century western culture, “modernism” and “postmodernism.” Our own fin de siècle reckonings with globalized free trade resonate unmistakably with models of the early century that figure it as a period when cultural materials and cosmopolitan migrants traveled to and through the western capitals with unprecedented mobility and inspiring aesthetic results. Freshly attuned to the economic and diasporic echoes between global postmodernism and metropolitan modernism, perhaps we can also begin to develop a new understanding of the missing middle third of the century as a time when national economies sought (and gained) some foothold against international markets. The decades in question, from the 1930s to the 1960s, cover not only the peak of fascist and communist power in Europe but also the rise of postwar welfare states and of new, postcolonial nation-states. Taken together, these broad developments point to a relative interruption in the reign of international, laissez-faire capitalism. They might also form the basis for a new description of the cultural interregnum between modernism and postmodernism. To test the usefulness of this kind of periodization for Anglo-American literature and culture, we can begin by taking a cue from economic history and reconsidering the middle third of the century as the Keynesian era. 1

In this essay, I take the work of J. M. Keynes as a useful guide for understanding the relation of economics and culture [End Page 1] in England during the transitional period between metropolitan modernism and global postmodernism. We are used to hearing about Keynes as the theoretical architect of international monetary agreements and of a general “deficit economics” that was transplanted and adopted by many governments after World War II. But Keynes was also a Bloomsbury intellectual of the 1930s whose writings register a particular historical event: the decentering of English capital and the decentering of England as a cultural capital. As an economic statesman, Keynes brokered the agreements under which a fading Pax Britannica gave way to the (short) American Century. His role in what Hugo Radice calls the “economic introversion of the 1930s and 1940s” can only be fully understood in the context of distinctly English social predicaments and cultural resources. 2 Naturally enough, most economic historians and biographers have emphasized Keynes’s contributions to postwar monetary policy and theory. By rereading Keynes alongside his English literary contemporaries, it might also be possible to generate new insights not only about the consequential afterlife of Keynesian thought but also about the historical conditions of its emergence. To that end, I will propose a shared context for, and related textual impulses in, Keynesian economics and late modernist writing by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. In my view, Keynes’s The General Theory takes its place among a number of self-conscious attempts by modernist writers in the 1930s to come to terms with the obsolescence of their most successful intellectual habits of the 1920s and to recover a usable core of English national culture from the derelict body of British imperialism.


In September 1938, as the Sudetenland crisis broke in central Europe, J. M. Keynes addressed a private gathering of the Memoir Club with an autobiographical paper entitled “My Early Beliefs.” His memoir provides a useful glimpse of a Bloomsbury intellectual’s commitments as they were tempered by events of the late 1930s. For the circle of friends in attendance, the memoir told the story of their own intellectual formation, of their familiar debt to G. E. Moore, the philosopher-don of Edwardian Cambridge. Keynes recalls the intellectual milieu of Moore’s Cambridge:

Nothing mattered except states of mind, our own and other people’s of course, but chiefly our own. These states of mind were not associated with action or achievement or with consequences. They consisted in timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion, largely unattached to “before” and “after.” 3

The “youthful religion” that Keynes and his fellows imbibed at Cambridge was, however, only...

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