2002 MMLA
Global Exchanges

Vincent B. Leitch
University of Oklahoma

Do not cite without permission of author.

The Rise of the Lilliputians: The New Economic Criticisms

During recent decades market-oriented economics has emerged as the dominant discourse of everyday life in the U.S., displacing religion, politics, and entertainment. This discourse is, of course, overwhelmingly the laissez-faire economics developed by the neoclassical tradition stemming from Adam Smith, not the regulatory, welfare state economics of John Maynard Keynes and later neo-Keynesians, nor the radical economics of Karl Marx and other socialists, nor that of non-Marxist progressives. In the U.S., this mainstream economics seems increasingly a truncated ideology whose doctrines are ever more broadly disseminated through all the channels of social life, especially academia and the media. A neoliberal market-oriented perspective conditions not only our thoughts and decisions, but our imaginations and futures. Nothing appears to exist outside its scope. Alternatives and countercurrents hardly register in the public domain, and when they do so, it is typically in the form of unmotivated eruptions and partisan battles like impromptu boycotts and protests and unforeseen strikes, minor disruptions.

It is in this context that certain countercurrents and alternatives take on significance. Among these are the "critical economics" movement composed mainly of progressive, Marxist, and feminist economists in the university; the new economics movement amongst literary critics, many of whom are liberal neo-Keynesians; and the recent critics of globalization who tend to be reformers and cultural critics working toward new post-communist liberal-to-socialist political economies. A longer version of my paper considers each of these three phenomena in more detail, demonstrating that critical economists, neo-Keynesians, and progressives, both inside and outside the university, fault mainstream neoclassical economics for a recurring set of shortcomings. To be specific and to preview the argument, the homo economicus posited by orthodox theory stands accused of being self-interested, competitive, utilitarian, and calculating to the degree that little space exists for cooperation, altruism, family, or community. Economic man's macho obsession with consumption and maximization renders him a one-dimensional figure, occupying a single unhealthy subject position. In addition, mainstream economics slights an array of major concerns, especially environmental care, the rights of future generations, social justice, shared decision making, social safety nets, fair labor practices, and reciprocity between centers and peripheries. Not surprisingly, those critical of mainstream business-oriented academic economics often stage returns- sometimes unconsciously-to "political economy," retrieving the moral and political dimensions of this old discipline, joining up with recent traditions of cultural studies that refuse to leave economics to professional economists and market doctrine. I side with this cultural studies orientation. Many of today's diverse countercurrents and alternatives encouragingly coalesce around a Lilliputian strategy, a disaggregated postmodern front of new social movements, non-governmental organizations, unions, and poor people seeking similar reforms, restitutions, and transformations of the political economic order. This new front has been most visible, of course, during recent protests against the World Trade Organization.

Critical Economics

Perhaps the most dramatic element of "critical economics" is its critique of homo economicus (HE), rational economic man, the self-interested, fully conscious, calculating maximum utilitizer of orthodox economics and its metanarratives. This attack is part of the wider postmodern critique of Enlightenment humanism, particularly its promotion of the Cartesian subject, a masculine figure whose instrumental reason controls desire, privileging mind over matter, order over chaos, self over society, work over play, and competition over cooperation. According to feminist economists, for instance, HE is a fictional figure, a straw man, who construes altruism and community as irrational and feminine, valorizing his own atomized and isolated, possessive individualism. Consider one example.

In her "Robinson Crusoe: The Quintessential Economic Man?," economist Ulla Grapard criticizes Daniel Defoe's fictional version of homo economicus celebrated by economists from Adam Smith and David Ricardo onwards.1 Shipwrecked and isolated on his primitive but charming Caribbean island for 30 years, Crusoe (a former slave trader and colonialist), a self-sufficient producer and consumer of goods and services, is unrealistically not bothered with family, sexuality, society, politics, or history. (Before his adventure on the island, he is an exile from stifling middle-class life.) HE improbably represents man in a state of nature, optimizing work, consumption, and leisure, keeping ledgers all the while. On this fantasy island, Crusoe owns and controls everything, especially nature. There are no women to worry about. Friday, a person of color and his slave, is a passive, child-like inferior, a feminized housekeeper. In Grapard's argument Crusoe is the universal subject of Western science and philosophy, a socially constructed masculine figure, acting in exploitative, sexist, and racist ways characteristic of neoclassical economics yesterday and today.

New Economic Literary Criticism

In their historical introduction to The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, a recent landmark collection of twenty-two papers growing out of a mid-1990s conference, editors Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen offer a wide-ranging and incisive overview of this interdisciplinary field (complete with bibliography). They briefly review the last three decades and then single out for preliminary discussion six main aspects of the movement: work on the economics of authorship; research on the relationship of money and language; the emergence of critical economics; theory of gift exchange; the main economic approaches to literature; and future directions. Despite its range and sophistication, there are some limitations with this introduction and collection, as my full commentary on the new economic literary criticism details. Woodmansee and Osteen single out two stages in the historical development of the new economic criticism amongst literary critics. After the groundbreaking books by Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (1978), and Kurt Heinzelman, The Economics of the Imagination (1980), they cite a flurry of New Historicist and some cultural studies texts from the late 1980s to the present, featuring as a prime example Walter Benn Michael's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century (1987). But they overlook work in many key areas, notably research on subaltern literatures; critiques of the canon and its economics; studies of ethnopoetics in relation to ghettoes, reservations, and other impoverished enclaves; British cultural studies of popular culture and its commodification; Marxist studies of global capitalist culture; and the class system in academe, especially concerning part-timers, the star system, and TA and teacher unionization.

Gift theory, as Woodmansee and Osteen make clear, plays a revealing role in recent alternative economic theory. Research on gifts and primitive exchange, especially in the French line from Marcel Mauss to Georges Bataille to Jean-Francois Lyotard to Jacques Derrida,2 has provocatively explored issues of altruism, obligation, reciprocity, and expenditure. Key questions for economic literary criticism and economics arise in this area. Is a perfect gift-one with no strings attached-possible? (Interestingly, men and women tend to answer that question differently.) Is there a gender dynamic to gifts? Do gift exchanges occur outside of economic accounting? How do the subject positions of gift givers compare to homo economicus? Do gifts disrupt prized neoclassical notions such as economic equilibrium? Don't gifts--insofar as they are unforeseen and excessive like panics--inject irrationality into the economy, and thereby strategically raise special doubts about the mainstream doctrines of maximum utility and rational decision making? Gift theory poses a number of significant challenges to mainstream economic doctrines, but characteristically from outside the field of economics. It is a topic mainly for anthropology. Most importantly, it introduces alternative utopian dimensions into economics, trying to imagine non-monetized and non-commodified exchanges free of the baggage of homo economicus, GNP, and the rest of orthodox dogma. Is there anything before or outside (market) economics?--that is, in some senses, the most challenging question of all today.

Significantly, the new economic literary criticism appears programmatically miffed about the left anti-capitalist orientation of many New Historicists. New economic literary critics are not Marxists, generally appearing to be liberal pluralists with neo- Keynesian sentiments. (Yet consider Marc Shell who is studiously neutral.) In making common cause with "critical economics," these literary intellectuals loosely affiliate themselves with some Marxist economists, although they do not personally identify with the working class or socialism or the wider Lilliputian front. A main shortcoming of the new economic literary criticism, as configured in Woodmansee and Osteen's bulky collection, is the absence of discussion about the politics of economics. By ferreting out the politics at work in these many new economic literary studies, one can extrapolate a spectrum that runs from moderate to liberal political values, with more extreme ends absent. Why? The omission of much discussion about standpoint theory in the volume raises questions about the larger movement (not school) as broadly configured by Woodmansee and Osteen. It is hard to know why they omitted the exciting work on postmodern culture, globalization, and late capitalism usually associated with, to name just three well-known texts, Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), and New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s (1990), edited by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques. Is this a political exclusion? The odd effect is that the pressing issues surrounding economic globalization go undiscussed. The new economic literary criticism appears, as a result, to be a middle-of-the-road branch of literary history and criticism largely focused on earlier times, unselfconsciously rooted in present-day political economy about which it has little to say. It is separate from, and evidently out of sympathy with, much of cultural studies, especially the influential British lines stemming from Raymond Williams, the New Left Review, and the University of Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the latter of which continues to shape much U.S. cultural studies.

Globalization Studies

The field of globalization studies has been forming for a long time, though its contemporary origins date from the symbolic tearing down in 1989 of the Berlin Wall and the proclamation of the triumphant capitalist New World Order. This turn of events very much concerns the definition and the work of current cultural studies of all varieties. There are two well-recognized schools of thought about capitalist globalization, as Anthony Giddens, among many others, has argued.3 The hyper-globalizers, associated with neoclassical economics and transnational business, celebrate the erosion of the nation-state and the formation of spectacularly profitable regional economic zones spurred on by market imperatives. The skeptics of globalization, affiliated with left-wing politics and economics, lament the collapse of the regulated welfare state and the spreading disorders of consumer-oriented society. A few skeptics regard globalization as a myth and dangerous master narrative. Overlooked by Giddens is an obvious third school, the reformers, usually liberals, who promote globalization stripped of its excesses.

What do the reformers of economic globalization have to say? Liberal billionaire financier George Soros, to take one famous example, in his celebrated 1998 Atlantic Monthly article on global society anxiously enumerated five main deficiencies of the global capitalist system: uneven distribution, financial instability, threat of monopolies and oligopolies, erosion of welfare state, and absence of shared values to insure social cohesion.4 Along the way Soros, a neo-Keynesian, singles out other telling deficiencies of global capitalism such as its erroneous laissez-faire beliefs in the self-correcting power of the market and in rational expectations and equilibrium; its asymmetries between centers and peripheries; and its inadequate protection of human rights, the environment, fair labor practices, social justice, and individual freedom.

Given Soros's damning indictment, one can understand the sardonic yet completely serious slogan uttered by the left-wing economist and skeptic of globalization Robin Hahnel: "Bring back the Keynesians. Any Keynesian!"5 Hahnel's illuminating little book, Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know about the Global Economy, which originated as a series of articles in Z magazine on "Capitalist Globalism in Crisis," was recently published by South End Press as a manual for progressive non-economist readers. Though a professional economist, Hahnel is surprisingly straightforward throughout his book, as, for instance, in his admonition "stop corporate-sponsored globalization by any means necessary" (106), although he believes economic globalization can be rendered useful. Given the current triumph of hyper-globalization, the return of reformist Keynesians of any stripe would represent, in Hahnel's view, measured progress at this point, yet not the ideal end state.

As Hahnel configures matters, there are two schools of thought in mainstream U.S. economics, the "A Team" of free-market, neoliberals in charge since the early 1970s and the "B Team" of Keynesian liberals in charge during earlier decades. Both teams support capitalism and corporate-sponsored globalization. What is needed now is a "C Team," a people's movement populated by progressives of all sorts, unions, farmers, members of new social movements, non-governmental organizations, and the disenfranchised around the globe. (Here I would add critical economists.) This is the "Lilliputian front" once again, which promises to expand in the days ahead.6


For humanity's sake, economics should not be left to professional marketoriented economists-that is an argument of many critical economists, neo-Keynesians, and C Teamers, though not of mainstream economists. Not surprisingly, political economy is making a public return under the pressure of economic globalization and the New World Order (in a second phase since September 11).7 "Lilliputians" are growing in numbers as problems with global capitalism spread and countercurrents mount.8 It is not surprising in this context that feminist critics, minority critics, ecocritics, postcolonial theorists, Marxists, and cultural studies scholars increasingly deal with economic problems, extending the potential ranks of Lilliputians as well as the scope of their separate projects. In his Preface to The Cultures of Globalization (1998), a collection deriving from a mid-1990s conference, Fredric Jameson prophesies--and I shall close with this magisterial quotation: "What seems clear is that the state of things the word globalization attempts to designate will be with us for a long time to come; that the intervention of a political relationship to it will be at one with the invention of a new culture and a new politics alike; and that its theorization necessarily uniting the social and the cultural sciences, as well as theory and practice, the local and the global, the West and its Others, but also postmodernity and its predecessors and alternatives, will constitute the horizon of all theory in the years ahead."9


1. Ulla Grapard, "Robinson Crusoe: The Quintessential Economic Man?," Feminist Economics 1 (1995): 33-52. A much-discussed strand of "critical economics," not treated in this paper, is the discourse analysis launched by Donald (Deirdre) McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison: U of Wisconsin P,1985) and continued in several subsequent books and many articles, all critical of mainstream economic modeling and discourse from a reformist anti-foundationalist perspective. Pioneering selections of feminist critical economics appear in Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics, eds. Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson (Chicago: U of Chicago P,1993), and Out of the Margin: Feminist Perspectives in Economics, ed. Edith Kuiper and Jolande Sap (New York: Routledge,1995). To sample critical economics from a Marxist vantage point, see Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society, edited by Jack Amariglio, David Ruccio, and Stephen Cullenberg, economists who have themselves published representative articles, chapters, and books.

2. Major texts of French gift theory include Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (New York: Norton, 1967); Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone, 1988); Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana UP,1993); and Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992), and The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: U of Chicago P,1995).

3. Anthony Giddens, "On Globalization," UNRSID News 15 (Autumn 1996/Winter 1997), 4. For Giddens, pro and contra positions on economic globalization are represented, respectively (and accurately, I might add), by Kenichi Ohmae, The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy (New York: Harper Business, 1990) and his The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies (New York: Free Press, 1995) and by Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson, Globalization in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (Cambridge: Polity P,1996).

4. George Soros, "Toward a Global Open Society," The Atlantic Monthly, 281 (January 1998): 21-22, 24, 32.

5. Robin Hahnel, Panic Rules! Everything You Need to Know about the Global Economy (Cambridge: South End P,1999), p. 92.

6. Immanuel Wallerstein earlier and more broadly defined the project of these "antisystematic" movements in, for example, his Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-System (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), esp. pp. 229-30. See also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000), pp. 272- 76, who reflect on the creativity and the cooption of Lilliputian groups; and Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello, Global Village or Global Pillage: Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up (Boston: South End P,1994).

7. One dramatic example is Jacques Derrida's opening up deconstruction to the critique of globalization and the rise of the Lilliputian strategy in his Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge,1994) pp. 77-86. Derrida's critique of the New World Order centers on Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free P,1992). But for a ground-breaking post-Marxist feminist deconstruction of Marxian political economy, see J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996), esp. chap. 6 on globalization theory in which the two authors set out "to reject globalization as the inevitable inscription of capitalism..." (139).

8. The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle during the week of 28 November 1999--an event protested by a broad array of some thousands of "Lilliputians"-canceled its opening and closing ceremonies as well as its gala evening address from President Bill Clinton due to street protests marked by excesses from police and the National Guard. The meeting adjourned in chaos and acrimony with no agenda set for the subsequent round. This was arguably the most successful public protest and multinational popular resistance against the negative consequences of economic globalization during the 1990s. Others have followed in its wake. For a firsthand account, see Jeffrey St. Clair, "Seattle Diary: It's a Gas, Gas, Gas," New Left Review 238 (November /December 1999), 81-96.

9. Fredric Jameson, Preface, The Cultures of Globalization, eds. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durham: Duke UP,1998), p. xvi. For two examples of this growing preoccupation, see "Globalization?," special issue of Social Text 17.3 (1999), and "Globalizing Literary Studies," special issue of PMLA 116 (January 2001).