- A Tale of Two Capitalisms: Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Supritha Rajan
The human sciences have been lifelong companions of Victorian Studies. Victorianists initially extended the insights of psychoanalysis to the Victorian novel in order to gain a new appreciation of interiority. As they began focusing on social relationships among fictional characters, they turned to the disciplinary origins of anthropology and economics during the long nineteenth century. On anthropology, the field is indebted to Christopher Herbert’s pioneering text, Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth-Century (1991). More recently, Regenia Gagnier and Mary Poovey spear-headed the cottage industry of “New Economic Criticism,” tracing the Victorian divergence of economic and literary discourses. In A Tale of Two Capitalisms: Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, the latest intervention in this swelling subfield, Sapritha Rajan brings these latter two disciplinary foci into a single argument. She argues that, because Victorian novelists favored an anthropological approach in assessing the rise of modern capitalism, they not only sealed a divorce between the literary and the economic, but also made it harder for later generations to discern any potential within capitalism for notions of reciprocity or community. It is the presence of these notions, ranging from Adam Smith through the fin de siècle, that comprise the “sacred economics” in the book’s subtitle, though Rajan is sometimes guilty of asserting rather than providing hard evidence for an identity between ethical compass and sacralization.
Following a densely packed introduction, Rajan moves through eight chapters that place nineteenth-century anthropology in dialogue with political economy and/or literature. The first half of the book focuses on sacrifice and ritual as themes that were prominent from the outset in anthropologists’ treatments of so-called primitive cultures; these themes, Rajan claims, can also be unearthed in the writings of such economists as Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Stanley Jevons. The central figure is John Ruskin, who stressed the Christian focus on sacrifice and ritual in his early aesthetic writings and carried this focus into Unto This Last (1860). Rajan uses Ruskin’s famous critique of capitalism to discern parallel, though often subdermal, commitments in classical economics; an example is Smith’s claim that workers needed to sacrifice their labor to produce economic growth, which in turn would reward their labor. She then extends this reasoning to neoclassical economics, which identified perfect equilibrium (achieved, she claims, through a variant of “gift exchange” among economic agents) with “social justice” (150).
When Rajan moves to the novel, her focus shifts from economic theory to thing theory. Building on the work of literary critics and historians, she posits an “imaginary anthropology” in Dombey and Son (1846–48), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and The Way We [End Page 153] Live Now (1875), wherein female characters endow commodities with “historical richness” in an effort to remove them from the profane realm of the market (156). This part of the book reveals an asymmetry in scope: whereas Rajan follows economics back to Smith, she misses an opportunity to track the tensions discussed in this section back to the sentimental fiction of the eighteenth century, which betrayed similar ambivalences about commodification to those Rajan identifies in the marriage plots of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope, if in a different key.
The book’s final two chapters move into the late nineteenth century, with Rudyard Kipling standing in for that period’s literary counterpoise to neoclassical economics. Though it focuses on sacralization rather than aesthetic production, most of the book up to this moment echoes Gagnier’s general point that capitalism and its critics shared overlapping premises prior to the rise of neoclassical economics. Here, in contrast, Rajan claims that an ambivalent double narrative persisted in the writings of Francis Ysidro Edgeworth and Alfred Marshall, both of whom acknowledged the impossibility of perfect competition as a social reality. As a result, Marshall turned to evolutionary biology to add nuance to his theory of markets, and...