Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

By Gordon Bigelow | Go to book overview

PART II
Producing the consumer

My argument in this book is that modern economic theory was formed not simply in the private studies of Victorian political economists, but in a broad matrix of philosophical and literary debate. Out of this debate, across the nineteenth century, emerged the figure of the consumer, as an abstract and universal outline of human experience. I began in Part I by suggesting that political economy was from the start riven by the tensions between a new financial order and the European tradition of knowledge and authority. The rapid movement of financial markets, since the earliest trading on Bank of England shares at the turn of the eighteenth century, was seen as a threat to the stable authority and secure self-knowledge of the property owner. I argued that this threat can best be understood if we see the new financial markets as a regime of non-phonetic writing. Hindu-arabic numerals are a non-phonetic code; where alphabetic writing records the sounds of spoken words, numbers represent abstract quantities. The financial revolution of the early eighteenth century held out the threat that social power would henceforth be negotiated in the language of numbers: price lists, discount rates, interest. Numbers represent the potential demolition of everything associated in the European tradition with phonetic writing. Writing here is always at the service of speech, and speech itself is seen as a more or less accurate representation of the secure and stable ideas produced within the mind. Numbers referred to quantitative truths which seemed to exist on their own, independent of any human agency. Financial numbers had the power not only to influence but to undermine or destroy the secure authority of the propertied citizen.

To resolve this tension, it would be necessary to rearrange the terms of debate, in order to bring the capitalist marketplace and its language of numbers under the big tent of European idealism. Defenders of financial capitalism had to show that the language of numbers could be controlled and tamed by individual market actors, that individuals could effectively

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