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History of Political Economy 35.2 (2003) 344-346

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How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics. By David M. Levy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. 320 pp. $52.50.

This collection of essays in three parts, half of them previously published as the author indicates in his preface (x–xii), is far more disjointed than the reader would suspect from the title or, for that matter, by analyzing the picture on the dust jacket. This portrays Ruskin on a Pegasus-like black charger, giving the death thrust with an (appropriate) medieval jousting lance to a capitalist clutching a bag of L.s.d. (that is, pounds, shillings, and pence—the wealth of nations) and having evidently dropped a little red book labeled “the dismal science.” Here is a study of the two romantic nineteenth-century critics of political economy, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, whose views were respectfully acknowledged by subsequent Victorian economists such as Alfred Marshall and Joseph Nicholson, developed by socialist critics such [End Page 344] as William Morris, and acclaimed by later (literary) critics of capitalism such as Raymond Williams. Less than a third of the book is in fact devoted to telling that story; the remaining chapters cover a wide variety of topics, literary, philosophical, historical, and economic, although this, by any stretch of the imagination, is as far as a resemblance between Levy's text and Hume's magnificent essays can be driven.

The twelve essays of the book are divided into three parts with rather grandiose titles. Part 1, “Two Sciences in Collision: The Dismal and the Gay,” tells the Carlyle/Ruskin story (its essentials in chapter 1); chapter 2 (“Ecce Homo: Symbols Make the Man”) analyzes the symbolism of the cartoon on the cover and frontispiece but does not mention Sir John Seeley's “scandalous” 1865 portrayal of Jesus as moralist and humanist with the same title; chapter 3 confronts church and market; chapter 4 invents a “rational choice approach to scholarship” and its “waste not, want not” approach to reading texts. It incidentally starts with a peculiar reading of Adam Smith as the “Adam” of economics from whom everything descends, but who, like that other Old Testament character, Melchizedek, is given no fathers, let alone forefathers, in economics by Levy. It also contains one of the book's many gems in mystical referencing: Joseph Schumpeter's “nasty joke” for the erudite (p. 61 and n. 5) is not very visible in his paragraph on Carlyle in his History of Economic Analysis, although it does display a great deal of nastiness. Part 2 on market order and hierarchy in turn discusses “racial quackery,” “economic texts as apocrypha,” and Dickens's Hard Times in which the reader is indeed fed on a diet of quackery posing here as literary criticism. Part 3 is on the “katallactic moment” (no, the k is not a misprint but Levy's intentional thrust at poor nineteenth-century practice in classical Greek), which, among other things, provides a new reading of Smith together with an epilogue inspired by Bishop Berkeley. The tantalizingly short conclusion is addressed to historians of economic thought whose “reluctance to admit the possibility that they know less than their subjects” is noted, a casual remark on which a treatise could be written, and a task for the guidance of which Levy leaves his readers with the last three sentences of his book. Although brevity is the soul of wit, this one-paragraph conclusion to the book seems totally inadequate given the enormous diversity of its contents.

The dust jacket summary presents a concise overview of the book's objectives. This presents it as a vindication of classical political economy as a system of liberty and a rebuttal of the criticisms levied against this by Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens as outmoded spokesmen for slavery and the tyranny of medieval feudalism. The last writers, according to Levy, cannot be described in any way as liberal critics...


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