The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing

How Writers from Shakespeare to David Mitchell Handled the Rise of the Modern Market

by Frederick Turner

The quotation in my title is, of course, from Oscar Wilde.  As an aesthete who believed in art for art’s sake, he drew a sharp line between the values of artists and the values of those who must sell, buy, work for hire or profit from business.

Certainly, the money view of things by itself cannot replace our aesthetic, moral or rational conscience, at least not as presently understood.  But to attempt to cut off art, ethical values, and the pursuit of truth altogether from the market may be as harmful as to judge everything by its market price.  We shall be living with more or less free markets for the foreseeable future.  What we need is a human economics, a kind of understanding of the market that includes the moral, spiritual, veridical and aesthetic relationships among persons and things.  It is clear that we should revise the mechanistic notion of economics that we have inherited from the last few generations of our troubled recent history.  Must we find a new language for it?

The answer, surprisingly, is no.  And this is where I begin, with Shakespeare, and what I regard as the sanest and most helpful view of money and its relation to literature, the arts, ethics and human flourishing in general.  In plays like The Merchant of Venice Henry IV 1 2, Lear and The Winter’s Tale and in the Sonnets, Shakespeare shows us that buried within our existing language of finance and business are the living meanings that we seek.  Such words as bond, trust, goods, save, equity, value, mean, redeem, redemption, forgive, dear, obligation, interest, debt, honor, company, balance, credit, worth, due, duty, thrift, use, will, partner, deed, fair, owe, ought, treasure, sacrifice, risk, fortune, venture, and grace preserve within them the patterns of action, qualities, abstract entities and social emotions that are found in the reciprocal gift exchange system of our personal relationships.  Indeed, these words, whose meanings are inseparable from their economic content, make up a large fraction of our most fundamental vocabulary of values.

The core questions of economics are: what is value, and how it is created?  These are mysterious questions, not accessible to the mathematical methods of the academic discipline of economics, which deals admirably with how “utility”—the technical term for value—is exchanged, stored, communicated, regulated and gauged, but which remains prudently silent on the nature and origin of “utility” itself.

Perhaps poets, storytellers and artists can tell us more than economists can about what value is in itself.  Poets must be always exploring the subtle chemistry of the meaning of words, and the old and new ways in which human beings come to desire and cherish that meaning.  Poets spend their lives making value out of combinations of words that have no economic worth in themselves, being common property, infinitely reproducible and devoid of rarity value.  Musicians and composers do the same with economically valueless bits of sound; painters do it with bits of ground-up earth mixed with water or oil or plastic and stuck to rough cloth; sculptors do it with big chunks of rock. William Shakespeare, for instance, became one of the richest commoners in England—a media tycoon of his day—essentially by combining words in such a way as to persuade people to pay good money for them.  Where poets and artists blaze the trail, economists and business people follow, usually without knowing who made the path in the first place.

Shakespeare made us conceive an economy as like a theater company, a troupe of actors, whose interactions generate the plot of the play. He taught us practically how life with others is not necessarily a zero-sum game but an arena where all may profit and competition increases the payoffs for everyone.  No playwright saw better than Shakespeare the inner economy of a play, the way that value is created collectively and the deep analogy to the economics of a human community.  All the world’s a stage.

Shakespeare’s core insight is that human-created value is not essentially different from natural value.  The market is a garden.  The value that is added by manufacture, and the reflection of that value in profit and interest, are but a continuation of nature’s own process of growth and development. The creative processes that produce a wild flower, a domesticated animal like a dog or horse, a yeasty loaf of bread, a violin, a house, a clock and a poem are not in Shakespeare’s opinion fundamentally different.  They are all nature naturing, giving birth to new and more valuable forms of existence by recombining old ones.  And if it is natural for value to increase, then it is also natural for the symbolic store of that value, money, to increase by compound interest.  In this, Shakespeare was defying the traditional doctrines of all three of the major religions of his world, that making money breed was wrong.  Shakespeare proposes a kind of gardening economics, a technique of growing value rather than extracting and exploiting existing stores of it embodied in raw materials such as topsoil, ores and fossil fuels, or in the youthful strength of the laborer.

For Shakespeare, economic exchange is the embodiment of human moral relations.  He does not make a strict distinction between personal rights and property rights.  For him, personal love cannot be divided from the bonds of property and service that embody it.  “I love you according to my bond,” says Cordelia to her father, King Lear. His rage at her for this plain truth is the beginning of a tragedy and a totalitarian political revolution.  In As You Like It, Shakespeare defines marriage as a “blessed bond of board and bed,” in which three “b” words, “blessed” (the emotional and spiritual element), “board” (the material and economic element) and “bed” (the sexual and reproductive element ) are likewise combined in a fourth, the “bond” of the nuptial contract (V.iv.122).  The intangible elements of the contract—love, spiritual communion, friendship—can be cashed, or in Shakespeare’s suggestive word, “redeemed,” in material terms.  For Shakespeare, value must be embodied to exist, just as the inscription denoting the denomination of a coin is embodied in the intrinsic value of the metal of which it is made.

But what happened to this view of things, in which market price is an indispensable part of our value system, without replacing higher values?  Writers in the Renaissance began to be accorded cultural prestige as celebrities.  They wanted to be seen as aristocrats, whose system is not commerce but the ancient technique of giving to the poor, making them dependents and recruiting them as serfs, retainers or liegemen (rather than employees).  They started to take on the affectation of contempt for money.  Take Jonson’s The Alchemist, where funny money is contrasted with honest gentlemanliness: the market is imaged as fakery or prostitution.  Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson published his plays, as if they were Latin Classics, like the ones in his patrons’ libraries.  Writers were beginning to try to become respectable, and thus encountering a disjunction between the means of their livelihood—profitable publication—and the aristocratic company they wanted to keep.  Jonson is an honest artist, though, and knows at bottom that, as an illusionist, he is not so different from Face and Subtle, the fake alchemist and the conman.  Visual artists like Holbein and Hilliard also began to identify with the noble families with whom they worked; so, too, did composers like Byrd, Campion, Dowland and Gibbons.  In what follows, I shall use writers as examples of how artists in general struggled with the demands of artistic integrity and market discipline; but I believe that painters, sculptors, composers, architects and performing artists faced the same kind of challenges.

The great poet John Milton (1608–1674), no special respecter of aristocrats, was in some ways a sturdy supporter of the free market, and his great attack on censorship,  Areopagitica, is in many ways a defense of the free market of things as well as of ideas.  His republicanism included a denunciation of monarchy itself. Charles I, whom Milton later hounded to the executioner’s block, had aroused the ire of the Parliamentarians partly by the use of market-destroying economic monopolies to raise money to pay off the debts of the government.  But in Paradise Lost, Milton paints the hellish kingdom of Satan as a place of extravagant wealth and wasteful display.

In contrast to artists in other genres, writers were relatively privileged.  The Law Courts and the Civil Service could give employment to writers—Chaucer had been the equivalent of the government trade minister, and Milton would serve as a Member of Parliament—and this meant that they were relatively free from the discipline of the market.

Writers could also find employment in the Church, which brought with it its own set of problems.  Both Chaucer and Milton (who chose not to become an Anglican minister) are searingly critical of what seemed to them religion for sale.  One factor in the ambivalence of the writing classes about markets and money was the writer’s search for a “living” in the Church. Given the virtual absence of copyright law, a writer could not defend himself from piracy and make a living from his writings.  Not wanting, as Shakespeare laments to his aristocratic friend, to go to and fro and “make himself a motley to the view,” perhaps he could, like a university professor today, use his writings to attain tenure in an institution of learning—in those days, basically the Church.  John Donne (1572–1631) was an impoverished scribe until he found favor with the church authorities and became a Dean.  Later the search for a nice fat church benefice or “living” became the subject of countless novels by Jane Austen, Antony Trollope and others.

There is an obvious and deep ambivalence in the work of the ordained writer.  Some priests, like Robert Herrick, used their economic freedom to gather rosebuds while they might.  A saintly priest like George Herbert (1593–1633) or Thomas Traherne (1636–1674) accepted the humble conditions of obligation in religious life.  The root “lig” (meaning “bond”) in both words signals the constraints of his calling.  He realizes that he is, in a sense, an employee or contractor of his church.  In this poem, Herbert uses the language of property and commercial law to describe the astonishing gift of salvation:



Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,

Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,

And make a suit unto him to afford

A new small-rented lease and cancel th'old.

In Heaven at his manor I him sought.

They told me there that he was lately gone

About some land which he had dearly bought

Long since on earth, to take possession,

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,

Sought him accordingly in great resorts,

In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts.

At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murd’rers; there I him espied,

Who straight "Your suit is granted," said, and died.


But the rift between literature and the market widened.  John Dryden (1631–1700) and Alexander Pope (1688–1744) are vitriolic about the commercial publishing industry of their day.  In Dryden’s “Macflecknoe” and Pope’s Dunciad, they excoriate the literary scene, as in this passage from “Macflecknoe”:


No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,

But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay:

From dusty shops neglected authors come,

Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.

Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,

But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way.


It is with the Romantics that the true literary assault on market capitalism begins.  Here I must question many of my dearest literary friends, especially William Blake (1757–1827) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850).  Here is Blake on industrial London:


I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear


How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls


But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse


Certainly, Blake is attacking the institutions of the state and the legalization of human relations as much as he is bemoaning the marketing of sex and the extremes of wealth and poverty in the great city.  But even Marx recognized that country life for the poor in England’s “green and pleasant land” was a state of “rural idiocy,” and the industrial wage slave was better off than the rural vagrant.  Wordsworth, too, famously despises the filth and corruption of commercial London, and in his early years was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution.  Getting and spending, he confesses, has laid waste his own powers.

As the novel emerges as an artform, and copyright begins to be observed, the tension between literary high-mindedness and profitable book sales increases. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is a whore, but a successful one.  She has managed to transform the sex-for-sale transaction into a memoirs-for-sale one: on the level of the fiction, what is bought is moral redemption, and, on the level of Defoe’s authorial reality, it is the sale of Moll’s fictional sins in exchange for Defoe’s literary profit.  In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Crusoe uses all the accumulated technology and psychological discipline of European market progress to make himself comfortable and make a slave of Friday, the native tribesman.  Defoe (1660–1731) here anticipates Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776, a date we may recall), where Smith points out that European technology, created by the market, can multiply the value of work a hundredfold.

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, underneath its refined veneer of virtuous sentiment, is basically about the sale of virginity versus the sale of the written word.  It is Pamela’s literary production—her letters—that eventually free her from the threat of sexual bondage and ruin, and gain her the riches of Mr. B’s estate; and Richardson  (1689–1761) sells the book.

Here we must acknowledge the importance of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kantian morality opposes both Aristotelian gentlemanly virtue and mercantile honesty, and casts doubt on the Shakespearean synthesis.  He despises England as a nation of shopkeepers.  For him, it is maxim and duty that define the good, not the modest mutual benefit to be found in contracts and exchanges. Why? because the latter involve personal interest and cannot pass Kant’s test for ethical impartiality and liberation from the deterministic chains of natural motivation.  To be a human being is to be free; nature (as shown by Newton and Laplace) is a deterministic machine. To act freely and enter the realm of moral value, one must have separated oneself from one’s material nature, in other words, from whatever pleasure or pain one might obtain from action.  This is a new kind of philosophical high-mindedness: morality is explicitly defined as not what happens in a market, because market exchanges always serve the participants’ interests, rather than any abstract maxim of conduct.

On the other hand, Jane Austen (1775–1817) is the soul of good sense, like Shakespeare.  In Pride and Prejudice, Austen defends commerce as a respectable calling by means of the example of the Gardiners (a significant name), who are despised by the aristocrats and clergy in the novel for being in “trade.” They actually turn out to be the benevolent instruments by which Elizabeth and Darcy find true love with each other.  In a memorable passage, despite Elizabeth’s determination not to sell herself for money, she reflects that “to be mistress of Pemberley [Darcy’s magnificent estate] might be something.”  There is a prospect of a world in which markets, morality and literature can coexist.

In France, the ambivalence continues, and erupts into the French Revolution, with a huge increase in the power of the state and the delusory prospect that maybe the state can replace, or at least dominate, the market.  Honoré de Balzac (1789–1850) was both a royalist and an embryonic socialist.  He was later quoted by Marx and Engels, the great enemies of the capitalist marketplace. Victor Hugo (1802–1885) called himself a socialist, but believed in free enterprise and the market, and distrusted government employment.  Many have seen the play or film of his Les Misérables, with its revolutionary ending, which rather distorts his message.  After all, Valjean is himself a successful capitalist, who has provided employment for hundreds.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) is a great hero of the anti-capitalist left.  But the left misinterprets him: Dickens is actually a good friend to productive business, but believes strongly—as we see in A Christmas Carol—in spending and keeping up the velocity of money.  He is not against trade and the money economy, but he is very much in favor of generosity, charity and the gift economy.  Bleak House can be read as an indictment of British industrial capitalism, but it can also be read as an attack upon the Chancery court system, with all its government-sanctioned corruption, distortion of market fairness and rent-seeking.  He is certainly not the socialist, or even the Fabian, that some have made of him.  His sympathy for the working class, epitomized by the character of Jo Gargery in Great Expectations, is balanced by his sympathy for the wretched convict Magwich, who makes his fortune by business enterprise.

Anthony Trollope (1815–1882) is generally not unfavorable to the marketplace, though as an arena for meaningful human action, he clearly regards it as inferior to the world of inherited landed wealth.  But in The Way We Live Now, he delivers a searing denunciation of London business dealings, sadly casting a Jewish banker as the villain of the piece.

George Eliot (1819–1880), nom de plume of Mary Ann Evans), in Middlemarch, celebrates Dorothea’s liberation from inherited property and the constraints upon women that such non-market forms of ownership imply.  But unlike Eliot herself, who became independent by selling her books, Dorothea becomes the helpmate of a proto-Fabian socialist politician, Ladislaw, who is trying to use government to liberate people from want.  Still, Eliot is not a foe of the market as such.  Mrs. Gaskell (1810–1865) and Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), who also became financially independent by selling their writings, are similarly down-to-earth.  Elizabeth Gaskell does not attack entrepreneurial business itself, but its abuse.  It is interesting that the women writers, who had experienced their escape from conventional sexual roles in the liberation of selling their writings into the market, are much less inclined than the men to despise it and bloviate about the evils of capitalism.

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) bemoans the destruction of traditional rural mores by the new industrial wealth—though he clearly sees the flaws in the old morality.  For Hardy, there are no easy answers: his is a tragic vision. Here is D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930), in one of his letters, making a similar complaint:

In my father’s generation, with the old wild England behind them, and the lack of education, the man was not beaten down. But in my generation, the boys I went to school with, colliers now, have all been beaten down, what with the din-din-dinning of Board Schools, books, cinemas, clergymen, the whole national and human consciousness hammering on the fact of material prosperity above all things… the industrial problem arises from the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.

With the advent of modernism, we get a perfect storm of literary hostility to the market.  To the old motives of quasi-aristocratic scorn for trade, Romantic nostalgia for bucolic simplicity and Kantian high-mindedness, are now added Marxism, with its ideological critique of capital, and existentialism, which, in Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and sometimes in Albert Camus (1913–1960), demonized the abstraction, inauthenticity, and bondage of market morality.  In America, novelists like Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), John Dos Passos (1896–1970), Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), Richard Wright (1908–1960), Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) and John Steinbeck (1902–1968) embodied various versions of this tempest.

The poets either ignored or ridiculed the market, with the exception of Ezra Pound (1885–1972).  Ezra had true greatness and insight on this issue. At least, he realized the profound importance of what, in Marx’s distorted insight, is a central fact of the human condition: the irreducible connection and tension between price and value, the blessed bond of board and bed.  He got it terribly wrong, of course. His gold-standard economics, his enthusiasm for the ideas of Lenin and his statist Confucian morality led him directly into the embrace of Mussolini and even an unwitting complicity in the murder of the Jews.  Here is part of his great rant against usury (Latin “usura”), the practice of taking interest by banks and professional lenders:



wool comes not to market

sheep bringeth no gain with usura

Usura is a murrain, usura

blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand

and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo

came not by usura

Duccio came not by usura

nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura

nor was ‘La Calunnia’ painted.

Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,

Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.

Not by usura St. Trophime

Not by usura Saint Hilaire,

Usura rusteth the chisel

It rusteth the craft and the craftsman

It gnaweth the thread in the loom

None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;

Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered

Emerald findeth no Memling

Usura slayeth the child in the womb

It stayeth the young man’s courting

It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth

between the young bride and her bridegroom


They have brought whores for Eleusis

Corpses are set to banquet

at behest of usura.


Perhaps Pound did not realize that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) had already refuted his arguments in the second part of the Faust.  Goethe’s brilliant argument for paper money is, finally, an argument for both economic progress and human flourishing.  But few actually read, and fewer understood, the point Goethe was making, and writers went on trying to enforce a transcendence of the market that can only come, as Blake reminds us, through the palace of excess.  Human beings must become bored with wealth before they can afford the luxury of rising above the marketplace. Writers, accustomed to having sentences come out as they wish, hate the economic strings attached to art.  They continue to try to push strings, when the way to use strings is to pull with them.

American Vietnam era poets continued the theme: Allen Ginsburg (1926–1997), Gary Snyder (1930–), Robert Bly (1926–), among many others.  In their view, the evil American military-industrial complex was trying to turn a beautiful Asian country into another blighted market economy.  Of course, the irony is that victorious Vietnam was “liberated” from a regime that supported traditional family and agrarian virtues, and is now a bustling capitalist country.

Eco-feminists like Doris Lessing (1919–) and Joanna Russ (1937–2011) continued the tirade against the market.  David Mitchell’s brilliantly written Cloud Atlas is another massive assault on the system that has doubled world life expectancy, provided education to half the planet, liberated women and minorities, and created democracies now outnumbering the traditional tyrannies across the globe.  But Mitchell (1969–) seems to have recently changed his mind: his new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet concerns Dutch traders in Japan, and is not unfriendly to business enterprise.

But there were always counter-currents:  Buckminster Fuller, with his do-it-yourself technological economics, inspired many writers, such as Robert Pirsig (1928–).  Libertarian free-market anti-state control science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein (1907–88), Eric Frank Russell (1905–78), Poul Anderson (1926–2001), and many others continued the optimistic free-market dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.  I need not mention Ayn Rand (1905–82).  I can remember the seeds of Boomer laidback technological capitalism in the Whole Earth Catalog, and watched that ethos give birth eventually to Apple and Google.

Black writers were ambivalent.  Traditionally, freed slaves like Phyllis Wheatley (1753–84), Frederick Douglass (1818–95) and Harriet Jacobs (1813–97) just wanted a fair shot at the marketplace.  Capitalism was the great liberator; the capitalist North defeated the agrarian South.  But the civil rights movement became entwined with Socialist ideology: ultimately, very strange bedfellows.  It was Hitler’s State Socialism (not capitalism, as Schindler’s List reminds us) that committed the racist Holocaust; and Stalin’s international socialism committed the racist atrocities of Babi Yar.  “Nazi” is short for national socialism.

Shakespeare and Austen are not alone in having fully transformed the problem of value and price into a creative dynamo.  There were always saner voices, like Thomas Mann (1875–1955), with his sober acceptance of middle-class industriousness and inventiveness, and his vision of spiritual adventures that can still await his bourgeois Hans Castorp.  Or Walt Whitman (1819–92) and Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), with their exuberant celebration of American industrial progress and social transformation.  Or Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1967), with his rapturous and only half-ironic paean to American bourgeois pop culture.  Today, there are poets who welcome a marketplace that liberates us and renders us less the peons of the state.

I believe that there is a new basis for a unified—if tensed—theory of value-genesis or value-creation.  The word value can rightly carry over from numerical value to market value to political value to truth value to moral value to aesthetic value, as long as we can distinguish the increase of reflexivity, feedback and reflection as we ascend the scale. We see emergent orders with specific sets of rules but unlimited powers of generation in many kinds of systems: evolutionary ecologies with their emerging ecological niches and new species, markets with their infinitely subtle interplay of price, value, need and desire, the scientific community’s self-criticizing system of truth-discovery, common law with juries, adversarial procedure and judicial review, and the United States constitutional system of checks and balances.  Each of these is what chaos and complexity theorists call a “damped, driven dynamical system” that explores new informational spaces and generates novel, spontaneous forms of self-organization.  In these autonomous systems with their characteristic “chaorder” and nonlinear causality, direct deterministic cause is no longer a coherent concept, and freedom—which Kant rightly saw as essential to both morality and art—finds a natural home.  And the market need no longer be seen as the evil Other for the serious writer.  Values are generated by the new emergent games of feedback and reciprocity, just as the value of the $500 bill in the game of Monopoly is generated by the game itself, and as the meaning of a poem is generated by the arrangement and choice of words and the creative constraints of meter and rhyme.

Using this emerging understanding of complex feedback systems, literature may now begin once more to tackle the huge issues of human value that occupied Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe.  Any work of true art is such a system. Let us writers recognize—as did Thoreau, in his essay on Economy--the kinship of our own practice with that of traders and merchants: to know both the value and the price.