Hilary Menos reviews The Poets’ Guide to Economics by John Ramsden (Pallas Athene, 2022)
Do poets and economists have anything in common? Picture an economist. Did you come up with a pin-striped person with an ipad? Or perhaps a bespectacled academic with chalk dust on her fingers and a Nobel prize on her desk? Visualise a poet and you probably see a scrawny young man scratching out a living from the discomfort of his own garret, eschewing financial gain in order to focus on love, death, and the human condition. Economists are interested in the material welfare of folks, while poets, we like to believe, address their spiritual well-being. The economist can tell you about your bank balance, but the poet has a window into your soul.
The Poets’ Guide to Economics shows that while this might be true now, it certainly hasn’t always been so. A number of poets have embraced economics and written about it, and not just in verse but in published pamphlets and books on economic theory. From Coleridge’s Vulgar Errors Respecting Taxes and Taxation to Ezra Pound’s ABC of Economics, they have found plenty to say about the material welfare of man.
John Ramsden has chosen eleven poets – all men – beginning with Daniel Defoe in the 1690s and ending with Ezra Pound in 1944, and here he examines their contribution to economic thought. Some of it I knew – that George Bernard Shaw studied economics in the reading room of the British Museum and co-founded the London School of Economics; that Ezra Pound believed that a rotten financial system had caused the First World War. But there’s lots more of interest here – how Defoe’s bankruptcy marked him for life; how Jonathan Swift campaigned to save Ireland from punitive trade restrictions and advocated a boycott of cloth not woven in Ireland; how indulgent Shaw was towards Soviet Communism, even after the show trials of the Stalin era and the mass starvation of Ukrainians.
The economist can tell you about your bank balance, but the poet has a window into your soul
Did the poets agree on economic theory? Yes and no. Unsurprisingly, most thought that welfare was too important to be left to economists, and that speculation was a Bad Thing. Defoe, writing a year before the South Sea Bubble burst, warned against “stock jobbers”, saying that they were worse than highwaymen – highwaymen at least spared widows and children and ran the risk of being hanged, “whereas [stock jobbers] rob only at the hazard of their Reputation which is generally lost before they begin” (from Anatomy of Exchange Alley, 1719).
Swift lambasted bankers who speculated through currency exchange, saying, “… I have often wished, that a law were enacted to hangup half a dozen bankers every year, and thereby interpose, at least some short delay to the farther ruin of Ireland.” (from A Short View of the State of Ireland, 1728).
And Walter Scott had trenchant views on speculators and ‘financial engineers’ of every sort, complaining that among the otherwise “generally speaking, good men” in Scottish banking there were also others who were “fishers in troubled waters, capitalists who sought gain not by the encouragement of fair trade and honest industry, but by affording temporary fuel to rashness or avarice … Such reptiles have been confined in Scotland to batten upon their proper prey of Folly and waste, like worms on the corruption in which they are bred.” (from The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, 1826).
Ramsden is readable, entertaining, and very good at demonstrating how the poets’ beliefs anticipated current preoccupations in the world of finance. He writes, “Shelley thought finance squeezed out the poor; he campaigned to abolish the national debt and the paper currency. Scott fought for a banking system as accessible to a highland villager as a city merchant. Belloc expected a cataclysmic showdown between finance and the rest of society. They all warned, again and again, that finance unbridled was a menace. The financial crash of 2007-2008 would not have surprised them as it did the experts.”
Ramsden shows that one or other of the poets anticipated vegetarian diets, stakeholder capitalism, problems with data collection and green economics
Further than this, he writes that one or other of the poets anticipated vegetarian diets, stakeholder capitalism, problems with data collection, and green economics. Shelley, for example, was an early proponent of vegetarianism. In Queen Mab (1813) he writes, “The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcase of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance … if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth. The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for animals, at a delay and waste of aliment absolutely incapable of calculation. It is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for dead flesh”.
Re stakeholder capitalism, John Ruskin said that the proper function of a merchant was to provide for the nation. Profit was merely the adjunct to doing a good job – producing the very best goods at the fairest possible price, while taking the fullest care for the workforce. Ramsden counts this as good advice, “which might have spared us such recent horrors as Grenfell Tower, Dieselgate or the sight of brand-new jets, full of passengers, falling from the sky. With wealth comes responsibility.” Ruskin was also early into green economics and one of the first to warn against the dangers of atmospheric pollution.
And Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State warns of a toxic alliance between State and business, a warning Ramsden claims is even more relevant now. He writes, “Modern-day China or Russia are the most glaring but not the only examples. Even in mature democracies, the tools of ‘State capture’ have grown too strong for comfort. Business lobbyists are stronger, better prepared and far better funded than the politicians they seek to influence. All too often the agenda is set by a handful of media tycoons. Today’s Big Data would horrify Belloc who warned as long ago as the 1930s about corporate control of information.”
Then there’s William Morris, who counselled us to consume wisely, prefer the organic, the lasting, the handmade, reject what is ugly, wasteful or polluting. Ramsden says, “He would tell us to recycle and repair, not chuck and replace … He would urge us to make space, beyond the reach if the market, for a more sustainable, homespun way of life.”
Shelley was anti-war; Coleridge was pro. Shelley and Swift were radical defenders of the poor; Thomas de Quincy was a pro-authority apologist for the rich. Some carried an entire conflict within them – Ezra Pound was a crusader against the evils of finance but threw in his lot with Italy’s fascists
The poets were not wholly united, however. Shelley was anti-war; Coleridge was pro. Shelley and Swift were radical defenders of the poor; Thomas de Quincy was a pro-authority apologist for the rich. Some carried an entire conflict within them – Ezra Pound was a crusader against the evils of finance but threw in his lot with Italy’s fascists. On the whole, though, Ramsden says, the poets knew that economic theory was flawed. Economics, he says, “claims to be about the efficient allocation of scarce resources. The poets looked around and saw perhaps the most wasteful society there had ever been. Economists said resources were best allocated by the play of demand and supply in freely competitive markets. The poets saw a gross misallocation of resources, due to extremes of inequality which markets mirrored and usually made worse.” Plus ça change.
Are there any poets engaging with economics on a theoretical and not just a poetic level now? I asked John Ramsden. He picks out controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, who has been variously described as “France’s biggest literary export” and the “undisputed star, and enfant terrible, of modern French literature”. Ramsden said, “Michel Houellebecq, a poet as much as novelist, has spent his life attacking the values of modern consumer society. His novels show how atomised individuals pursuing their own ‘utility’ or ‘pleasure’ – the basic building block of economic ’science’ – end up in an emotional and spiritual desert. His characters discuss poets who have raised similar questions in the past, such as Hilaire Belloc and William Morris.”
This is an engaging and interesting book, full of fascinating snippets and funny asides. On De Quincey’s addiction to opium Ramsden writes “(He) first took it to relieve a migraine but stayed with it for pleasure.” Of George Bernard Shaw, “Shaw was not a modest man; he once spent two hours explaining socialism to Stalin”. Some grasp of economic theory helps with the more technical side, but even without this there’s a great deal to enjoy.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010 with Berg (Seren, 2009). Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), won The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019. Her newest pamphlet is Fear of Forks (HappenStance, 2022)