Genealogy of Capitalism and Sacred Economics in Victorian Britain

“Labour is Life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-­given Force, the sacred celestial Life-­essence breathed into him by Almighty God…”
                                                                 —­Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, 1843, p. 197

A Tale of Two Capitalisms: Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Supritha Rajan (University of Rochester) is an exceptional book. It is distinguished by its transdisciplinary approach and scholarly perceptiveness towards capitalism and economics,  and their multidimensional relations in 19th-century British society, increasingly dominated by a deepening public-­private split.
Tale of Two CapitalismsRajan’s ambitious book traces the neglected interplay between political economy, anthropology and literature in order to demonstrate how these discourses buttress a dominant narrative of self-interested capitalism that obscures a submerged narrative within political economy. This submerged narrative discloses political economy’s role in burgeoning theories of religion, as well as its underlying ethos of reciprocity, communality and just distribution, that are typically associated with non-­ capitalist, “gift” economies.
Drawing on an impressive range of anthropological, literary and economic influential writings from the 18th through the 21st century (of Adam Smith, John Ruskin,  Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot, Alfred Marshall, Anthony Trollope, Edward Burnett Tylor and more), the book offers an inventive genealogy of key  economic and anthropological concepts, demonstrating how notions of sacrifice, the sacred, ritual, totemism, and magic remained conceptually intertwined with capitalist theories of value and exchange in both sociological and literary discourses. Rajan argues that “while notions of sacrifice, the sacred, or virtue coexisted with other models of value within political economy, they gradually became disembedded from political economy and were re-­embedded in either anthropology’s alternate narrative of human history or in the narratives furnished by humanist and aesthetic disciplines, where these values often designate the orientations of pre-­modern, pre-­capitalist societies.” (p. 155). Throughout the book, Rajan adeptly delves into the internal logic of these terms so that one can see how they are refigured according to the complex and competing needs each concept serves, including the moral and ideological agendas of the theorist, developments within the disciplines, and specific historical events.
This richly erudite research brings indeed new insight into the history of capitalist evolution and economic thought; it also supplies an original framework for discussing the ethical norms, morals and ideals that continue to inform contemporary global capitalism and turbulent neoliberal reality.

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