Literature and Political Economy

For a general discussion of topics relating broadly to power and political economy (e.g., capital-as-power, Marxism, neo-classical economics, institutionalism).

Moderator: sanha926

Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby uma » Mon Jun 17, 2019 4:17 pm

Angelus Novus


I hope this is not just an invitation for posting ones own contributions to "literature and political economy" but also a forum to discuss them. I think it would be interesting if posters would reflect on other's posts.

There is a middle ground between literature, understood as works of fiction, and science, the development of more or less grand theory: essays. These are works of literature about concrete reality without pretending to be systematic science. One of the most profound essayists about capitalism was perhaps Walter Benjamin.

In some of their works, Bichler and Nitzan mention the Aymara people who "treat the known past as being 'in front of us' and the unknown future as lying 'behind us'." (Capital as Power: 187) Another picture of this kind, i.e. you are looking back onto the past, never to the future, perhaps more fitting to capitalism, is provided by Benjamin in his famous interpretation of Klee's Angelus Novus picture in the Theses on the Philosophy of History:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

See also, or actually listen to Laurie Andersons interpretation Dream Before.
Posts: 25
Joined: Thu Dec 11, 2008 6:59 am

Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby AnnElk » Fri Nov 01, 2019 11:25 pm

Artists and Writers: ‘Realists of a Larger Reality’

Thanks for an interesting discussion which has prompted me to try to squeeze in reading The Fear Index, as well as others mentioned here such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

I have been a life-long fan of speculative and science fiction, especially for its capacity to imagine and explore alternatives. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson as a good choice for his speculative engagement with political economy themes, particularly in the Mars trilogy (1992-96), certainly one of the best pieces of science fiction in the 1990s and in recent times.

KSR’s alt-history The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) is a particular favourite of mine, although it does not explicitly engage with political economy themes, and his sublime Galileo’s Dream (2009) is another alt-history that I personally think is more creative than his other science fiction. KSR also engages with some finance-related themes in his 2017 work New York 2140, which is mostly focused on the effects of the climate crisis just over a century from now.

Other speculative fiction favourites include Octavia Butler and the late Ursula Le Guin (ULG), particularly The Dispossessed (1974). On a related note, ULG made some notable comments during a 2014 address in which she was being awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters which speaks to the special role narratives can have as thought experiments: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

Video link:

Arthur C Clarke (ACC), one of my favourite sci-fi writers, was prescient in quite a few ways. The first Clarke novel I read was The City and the Stars at the age of 12. In it ACC seems to have anticipated digitalisation and Big Data.

Years later, I came upon Olaf Stapledon, who had influenced ACC. I recommend his Starmaker (1937) and Last and First Men (1930). Both are in the “far future” category of speculative fiction and are stupendous in scale and scope. Reading Starmaker in particular was at once like having a religious experience and an anti-religious experience. It has lucid, canny writing with topics ranging cosmology, capitalism, consciousness, social psychology, religion, science and philosophy.

In his novel Stapledon dares to imagine no less than what humanity’s near and far future might include. He is a sober thinker (in the sense that entropy governs his vision of the universe); in speculating about what the role and fate of our human race might be, he is not afraid to face the prospect of its decline and to imagine what might come afterwards. This seems particularly resonant with current Anthropocene themes.

I have selected a passage from his other masterwork, Last and First Men, published in 1930. Here he compares US and Chinese approaches, and I think it's interesting he is writing in the 1920s given the current state of affairs between the established and emerging hegemons:

Thus in China and India the passion for wealth was less potent than in America. Wealth was the power to set things and people in motion; and in America, therefore, wealth came to be frankly regarded as the breath of God, the divine spirit immanent in man. God was the supreme Boss, the universal Employer. His wisdom was conceived as a stupendous efficiency, his love as munificence towards his employees. The parable of the talents was made the corner-stone of education; and to be wealthy, therefore, was to be respected as one of God's chief agents. The typical American man of big business was one who, in the midst of a show of luxury, was at heart ascetic. He valued his splendour only because it advertised to all men that he was of the elect. The typical Chinese wealthy man was one who savoured his luxury with a delicate and lingering palate, and was seldom tempted to sacrifice it to the barren lust of power.

Yes, perhaps Stapledon would have benefited from reading CasP. His work is freely available on Project Gutenberg.
Posts: 1
Joined: Sat Sep 21, 2019 2:54 am


Return to Political Economy

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 0 guests