- A Tale of Two Capitalisms: Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Supritha Rajan
In A Tale of Two Capitalisms, Supritha Rajan traces the connections between the dominant, familiar “narrative” of capitalism—continued economic growth and progress secured by laissez-faire competition and self interest—and a second, buried narrative that she terms “modes of sacralization”—ideals of community and reciprocity associated with religious modes such as sacrifice and ritual that are constantly under threat by the individualism of the first. In doing so, she draws on three distinct yet overlapping discourses: nineteenth-century political economy, anthropology, and the novel. In Rajan’s account, the first two of these discourses function as doubles of each other: “the ‘followable’ narrative that anthropology supplies of human history (replete with its incoherences and recursiveness) must be read both with and against the grain of the ‘followable’ narrative supplied by political economy in order to reconstruct the double narrative of capitalism” (7). The literary, in this schema, mediates the relationship between the two, synthesizing the two narratives and “making visible how residual aspects of Britain’s purported pre-modernity remain intertwined with capitalist values” (7).
In order to make her case, Rajan draws upon a wide range of materials from all three discourses, liberally sampling texts of political economy from Smith to Jevons and Walras; anthropology from Tylor and Frazer through Durkheim; and literary works by Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, and Kipling. Each section of the study is organized around a key term from anthropology that Rajan argues is originally drawn from political economy and whose history has been forgotten or repressed (9): sacrifice, ritual, kinship, and magic. In each section the methodology is roughly the same: Rajan apposes discussions of the key term in anthropology, political economy, and literature (in the first two sections the literary texts are supplied by Ruskin), building her case— that the “labors of separation” (8) that segregated the religious and the economic occluded the double narrative of capitalism, which is made visible again in the literary mode—through juxtaposition and analogy. The final section of the book, on magic, [End Page 253] expands the discussion to the reaches of empire; here Rajan leaves the domestic and the metropole behind to consider how her key concept, this time traced through the work of Kipling, functions to legitimate British economic and political power. A coda considers how modes of sacralization (and their continued splitting off from the economic) operate under current conditions of globalization, and suggests a “first step” (280) out of the current impasse faced by Marxian critics of capitalism.
The extent to which a reader will find Rajan’s argument convincing depends on the extent to which one is persuaded by a metonymic methodology that depends on rhetorical juxtaposition. For example, in the first part of the book, which takes “sacrifice” as its key term, Rajan begins by tracing the evolution of the concept in anthropology from Tylor and Frazer through Robertson Smith and finally Durkheim, Hubert, and Mauss. The first two authors, Victorian “armchair anthropologists,” emphasized the function of sacrifice as reparation or exchange, while Robertson Smith argued that its originary function was communion with the god(s) and that the expiationary function was a later corruption that emerged alongside private property. Durkheimian anthropology (by way of Hubert and Mauss) provides a synthesis of these two positions: the “model of sacrifice as an act of reciprocal, self-interested exchange is no longer contrary to communal values, but the means by which worshippers consolidate them” (56). The payoff here is that Durkheimian synthesis “elucidates sacrifice’s dual function within the double narrative of capitalism: sacrifice’s circular structure is the means by which the capitalist agent engages in self-interested exchange and experiences communion with others in acts that sacralize and stabilize those relations” (57). This claim is then buttressed by condensed readings of political economy (Ruskin, Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Jevons) in which structurally similar dynamics occur; for example, in Smith and...