The Poets’ Guide to Economics: a review

An engaging look at what poets from Daniel Defoe to Ezra Pound have had to say about ‘the dismal science’

‘Justice’: a detail from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Ruskin: ‘a violent Tory of the old school’

One of Ramsden’s most formidable subjects, John Ruskin, is a good case in point, much better known for his essays than his poetry, but far too interesting to leave out. A child of evangelical parents, Ruskin’s moral fervour and fierce eloquence established him as the foremost social prophet of the Victorian era. Describing himself as both ‘a violent Tory of the old school’ and ‘a Communist, reddest of the red’, Ruskin cannot be classified according to today’s political categories. He was radical in the true sense, going back to the roots, finding his model for the ideal society in the Middle Ages. He had no doubts about the importance of what he wanted to say. The introduction to one collection of essays Munera Pulveris declaimed that the ‘following pages contain, I believe, the first accurate analysis of the laws of Political Economy which has been published in England.’ There, in Unto this Last, and in many other articles and lectures, he denounced orthodox political economy as a ‘mass-delusion’ based on profoundly flawed assumptions about what it is to be human.

Morris: the primacy of the aesthetic

As does the thought — and life — of William Morris, Ruskin’s contemporary, with whom he is often bracketed. Like Ruskin Morris believed the economic system must be built around the dignity of labour, motivated by aesthetic rather than material considerations. For Morris ‘All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work — mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.’ And like Ruskin he idealised the guild system of the Middle Ages, which by organising labour cooperatively would set workers free to concentrate on quality rather than utility: ‘The mediaeval craftsman was free in his work, therefore he made it as amusing to himself as he could; and it was his pleasure and not his pain that made all things beautiful that were made, and lavished treasures of human hope and thought on everything that man made, from a cathedral to a porridge-pot.’

Belloc: a plot of land for all

Hilaire Belloc, the early 20th century Catholic poet and essayist, was an interesting successor to Ruskin and Morris. Indeed his particular efforts to propose mechanisms through which the market might serve the common good have been perhaps more influential upon contemporary political thought. He too idealised the Middle Ages, but under the influence of Catholic social teaching, particularly the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII sought to recognise widespread dissatisfaction with unbridled capitalism without endorsing rising revolutionary sentiment. Against the socialists the encyclical argued that it was a natural human desire to own property, and to pass it on to children. Against market fundamentalists it held that property ownership should not be left to the drift of supply and demand, but should be widely shared.

Pound: prophet of Modern Monetary Theory

Ezra Pound also proposed a form of Distributive economics, but was much less hesitant about advocating a strong role for the State than Belloc. Pound’s ambitious book The ABC of Economics elaborated a ‘Social Credit’ system first outlined by C.H. Douglas. Following Douglas Pound argued that contrary to what classical economics claimed, capitalist economies had a chronic tendency to disequilibrium. The money that owners paid out as wages, salaries and dividends always worked out at less than the total price of factory output. There was a consistent demand deficit, the community’s income insufficient to buy what it collectively produced. Consumers could only afford to buy the goods they had worked to produce by taking loans from banks. The logic of the system was geared towards financiers.

Coleridge: Keynes foreshadowed

The inequities of the banking system were also highlighted by another of Ramsden’s poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who noted the great power it afforded to those with the wealth and connections necessary to obtain and extend credit. Capitalists seemingly able to summon money out of the air were able to dictate terms to those whose livelihoods depended solely on their labour. Shelley, the radical, wanted to steer production away from the marketplace altogether. But his fellow Romantic poet, Coleridge, took a more moderate view. Indeed Coleridge offers perhaps the most impressive insights of all those profiled, anticipating several economic ideas that have since passed into the mainstream.

The end of the story?

Ramsden’s engaging survey concludes with Pound: ‘In 1944, when Pound was led away to his cage, Maynard Keynes was in the USA planning the post-war economic order: the IMF, the World Bank and the policies that would deliver thirty years of growth. Economics had finally come up with some answers. The days were over when a poet could rewrite the text books. Pound had tested the genre to destruction. For better or worse, poetry and economics now went their separate ways.’

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