- Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel by Daniel M. Stout
In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it has become common to regard liberalism as in crisis, or even terminal decline. While critics have been warning about this crisis for over a century, the concern has intensified in recent years, not least because of the rise of social media as a vehicle for the transmission of anti-liberal ideas. Social media can be an agent of liberalism as well as an incubator of rancor, prejudice, and conspiracy theory. Overall, however, Facebook and Twitter have possibly eroded the ground that fertilizes liberal ideas by fostering a mix of rampant individualism and systematic depersonalization. From this perspective, the crisis of liberalism may have entered an alarming, new phase. Specifically, the consensus around many liberal convictions has perhaps been weakened by a cultural form that promotes an individualistic attitude often in tension with social justice, while depersonalizing users, whose identities are transformed into units of big data.
The consolidation of liberalism during the Romantic period has long been associated with an earlier cultural form, the novel. In the famous formulation of Ian Watt, the realist novel, which finds its culmination in the fiction of Jane Austen, constitutes an instantiation of liberal subjectivity, attending to the private thoughts and personal feelings of characters, who are imagined as autonomous agents, always shaped but never determined by social encounters. Like its eighteenth-century predecessor, Romantic fiction is thus assumed to be preoccupied with autonomy. Its development is viewed as part of a broader transition to modernity, by which (as argued by Charles Taylor, among others) individuals are extricated from traditional, integrated forms of collective life.
The scholarly orthodoxy linking liberalism, individualism, and fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century can no longer be maintained in any simple way thanks to the important new book by Daniel M. Stout, Corporate Romanticism: Liberalism, Justice, and the Novel. In this perceptive, clever, and astonishingly original book, Stout argues that the Romantic period witnessed the emergence of new forms of collectivity, from the business corporation to the industrial city, which caused considerable doubt about, on the one hand, whether autonomous individuals actually existed and, on the other, whether discrete actions could be adequately identified in a world so depersonalized and networked that it became difficult to make confident determinations of justice. Put simply, at the very moment when liberalism was crystallizing into a coherent cluster of ideas, it was wracked by anxieties about how to define a person and how to link effects to causes so as to attribute agency and responsibility.
One key reason for this confusion included the rise of the business corporation, especially the strengthening of the legal fiction of corporate personhood. Another contributing factor was the growth of large-scale industrial production and the related [End Page 598] increase in population density, which, together, not only subjected individuals to the collateral damage of institutions in the forms, say, of pollution or congestion, but dissociated actions from their effects by exposing them as links in a virtually endless chain. A great strength of Stout’s book is to tease out this other side of modernity in a way that resonates with contemporary experiences of global capitalism, while always remaining sensitive to the historical contexts of the ideas under examination. The result is a compelling, highly relevant demonstration that liberalism was never a monolithic phenomenon, being marked by contradictions from the beginning. Even more than political or economic commentary, early nineteenth-century fiction provides a unique vantage point to see these contradictions between individualism and corporatization, liberal subjectivity and collective personhood, as characters exhibit an agency that is ultimately revealed to be futile. Far from dramatizing autonomy, Stout shows that the Romantic novel contributed to a strain of “liberalism without individualism” (18). In doing so, he makes a significant revision to our understanding of the culture of liberalism, while helping us to read the literature of the period in an entirely new way.
The book examines...