Writing the Economic Subject in Modern Western Europe

Representation, Contestation, Critique

by Aileen Behrendt (Volume editor) Nicholas Courtman (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 222 Pages


This book explores how capitalism shapes the formation of the economic subject in modern European writing. How are subject positions determined by the subject’s relationship to money and work? How fair is a society that predicates social inclusion upon employment? And what happens when full employment is impossible? The volume traces how literary authors and social theorists have answered these questions in different social and historical contexts from the nineteenth century to the present day. The contributions confront the imperatives of productivity, notions of success and failure, the construction of work cultures and environments, the (in)visibility of certain labour groups, and the implications of the body as a productive site.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Aileen Behrendt and Nicholas Courtman)
  • Marxian Undercurrents in Bataille’s Analysis of Fascism (Elena Stingl)
  • The Economic Body and the Incompletion of Time: On Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion” (Anat Messing Marcus)
  • The Poet as Speculator: Reading Baudelaire’s Economic Subjects with Benjamin (Simon Godart)
  • Bartleby, or How Not to Be a Failure: The Malfunctioning Subject in 19th Century Work Environments (Nora Weinelt)
  • Against the Capitalist Narrative of Success and Failure – the Precarious Lives of Jean Rhys’s Interwar Women (Aileen Behrendt)
  • Violence as a Currency in the Neoliberal Order – Challenging the Literary Commodification of Lower-Class Masculinities in an Economy of Privilege (Katrin Frisch)
  • Right to Work: The Humanitarian Migrant as Economic Subject in Contemporary German Literature (Dorothea Trotter)
  • About the Authors
  • Series index

Aileen Behrendt and Nicholas Courtman


Over the last decade, literary and cultural scholars have increasingly turned their attention towards the ways in which authors, artists, and thinkers engage and have engaged with economic subjects in the widest possible sense of the term – that is to say, both with the subject of the economy and its various facets, as well as with the way in which economic processes, institutions, and dynamics form and shape individual subjectivity.1 This surge in critical interest is undoubtedly linked to the after-effects of the Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 and the ensuing years of austerity politics, which have seen the intensification of existing inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources, both within individual Western nations and on a global scale. Economic concerns have also begun to receive more mainstream attention in both public discourse, aided by the popular success of authors like Paul Mason and David Graeber,2 and in political discourse and policy settings, as evidenced by the growing number of politicians expressing support for Universal Basic Income. While the outcome of these ←9 | 10→policy debates is uncertain, such initiatives are only likely to gain in significance in the wake of the large-scale furlough and Kurzarbeit programmes that have been introduced in numerous countries following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recession that is projected for the coming years as a result of the economic shutdown that followed the global outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 will surely further exacerbate many of the central problems of modern societies. The developments and tensions surrounding work’s value not only as a factor in the calculation of economic gain, or in the formation of material to satisfy human needs, but also as a source of meaning, personal and social identity, and as a vector for social integration and exclusion, run through many of the contributions in the current volume.

Even though the surge in critical interest is partly a result of contemporary political and economic developments, the numerous scholarly publications on economic subjects as reflected and refracted through literary and philosophical texts from earlier centuries demonstrate that this interest is by no means restricted to the current moment. One could rather claim that the financial crisis, in (once again) revealing the fundamental instability of the contemporary global capitalist economic system, has reinvigorated interest in the origins of that system, and its historical trajectory towards global dominance.3

Prior to this renewal of scholarly interest, matters of the economy and work had, with the exception of several significant publications,4 spent ←10 | 11→several decades on the periphery of literary and cultural studies in the wake of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ and poststructuralism’s emergence as the dominant critical paradigm within the discipline from the 1980s onwards. The collapse of “really existing” socialism and the integration of the former Eastern bloc into the capitalist system, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the ‘End of History’,5 undoubtedly also contributed to this process, thoroughly detracting from the appeal of the Marxist and Marxian theoretical frameworks that had informed the study of the relationship between labour, economics, and cultural production since the late 1960s, and indeed for much of the twentieth century.

Although Marx never produced a systematic aesthetic theory, his writings contain a number of remarks and reflections on literature and other arts that proved to be extremely influential for later theorists and critics.6 The origins of the most significant trends in twentieth-century Marxist literary theory and scholarship can be traced to two diverging strands that emerged at the beginning of the 1930s. One of these was the state-ordained doctrine of socialist realism, developed first in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s,7 before later being prescribed, emulated, and reworked in the various states behind the Iron Curtain in the post-war period. The other strand finds its origin in the works of members of the Frankfurt School, such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and other associated figures, such as Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch.8 Despite their differences in approach, both of these strains of Marxist-inspired literary criticism were united by their understanding of literary and cultural criticism as a form of ideology critique, operating within the fundamental ←11 | 12→ideological tenets of a more-or-less traditional Marxism.9 By the late 1980s, at the same time that many of the central tenets of traditional Marxism seemed to have been disproved by the course of history, several scholars had begun to approach the study of the intersections of literature, the arts, and the economy in a manner that was less aligned with traditional rhetoric of class struggle, and instead, drawing upon the methodologies of New Historicism and Foucauldian discourse analysis, examined the relationship between the economic and cultural spheres as one of interpenetration, mutual influence, and reciprocal exchange, in which metaphors, concepts, figures, and narratives crossed over between them.

This ‘New Economic Criticism’, as it was named in the title of a significant 1999 collection of essays espousing such approaches,10 was of a less overtly political bent, seeking to identify, describe and analyse the relations between economic developments, economic thought, and the arts, without immediately setting such analysis in the service of an existing political agenda or within an overarching political (master)narrative, as had been the case in much Marxist literary criticism. Since the Financial Crisis, though the numerous works examining the historical semantics of the term ‘work’/‘labour’ and their antitheses (play, idleness, laziness, etc.) in modernity, for example, still draw heavily on the methodological toolkits of the New Economic Criticism,11 recent scholarship has often been far more overtly political and critical in its tone, both in its analysis of contemporary neoliberalism, and in its analysis of works of art from earlier historical periods. Our volume reflects these analytical trends and the more overtly political tone of recent scholarship, presenting essays that trace Marxist thought and its influence in theories of economic criticism ←12 | 13→alongside contributions that follow the methodology of Foucauldian discourse analysis.

The essays collected in this volume enter the ongoing scholarly discussion with analyses of the engagement with economic subjects and their formation in key texts from Western European intellectual and literary history, from the nineteenth century to the present. The following chapters explore how different literary narratives and critical theorists have imagined or analysed the economic subject to show how this subject is conditioned by, challenges, resists, or even undermines the economic order in which it is situated. By doing so, the contributors tease out and make visible different dynamics within various forms of capitalist economic orders, and explore, and at times question, their attendant market logics and commodification mechanisms. Despite the differences separating the texts discussed in the individual contributions, the authors share an interest in critical inquiry into the ideologies that underpin those economic orders, and in tracing how economic discourses and structures produce economic subjects through the co-formation of individual subjectivity. This focus on the construction of the economic subject within society not only reveals the significance of work and the subject’s relationship to capital in subject formation, but also how such structural positions in relation to capital intersect with other identity categories, such as gender, race, or, with increasing relevance in relation to transnational labour migration regimes, citizenship, play a crucial role in subjecting agents differently. The contributions in this volume throw a critical eye onto the interplay of such categories, exploring the different constricting and enabling factors for agency which follow from them, and the different modes of resistance to hegemonic economic discourses and structures which arise in response to them. Before we expand on the individual contributions, we want to provide a short overview of the relation between the economic order, work, and the economic subject in modern Western societies.

Exploring the Economic Order: Work and Society in Capitalist Modernity

In his 1820 Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, G.W.F. Hegel elaborates his political philosophy of modern society. Such a society, he ←13 | 14→argues, consists of three essential elements – the family, die bürgerliche Gesellschaft, and the state. Modern society and the modern state, Hegel argues, differentiate themselves from the ideal state of antiquity primarily through the inclusion of the bürgerliche Gesellschaft. While this term has traditionally been translated in English as ‘civil society’, what Hegel actually discusses in relation to that term is a modern, free-market based economy. One of the central tenets of Hegel’s argument is that such a free-market economy, if left to its own devices, would have deleterious consequences for society as a whole.12 Such negative consequences can only be prevented, in Hegel’s argument, by the regulatory intervention of the institutions of the state, which, due to its fundamental orientation towards the collective rather than individual good, functions as the guarantor of Sittlichkeit, or ethical life. Hegel does, however, identify one element of ethical life that operates within the bürgerliche Gesellschaft, namely:

[D]‌ie Rechtschaffenheit und die Standesehre, sich, […] durch seine Tätigkeit, Fleiß, und Geschicklichkeit […] zu erhalten und nur durch diese Vermittlung mit dem Allgemeinen für sich zu sorgen sowie dadurch in seiner Vorstellung und der Vorstellung anderer anerkannt zu sein.13

For individuals in modern societies, Hegel argues, work is not merely a means to secure the necessities for material sustenance, but instead becomes a central mechanism of social integration through which individuals not only develop a sense of their own identity – themselves being formed (gebildet) through the type of formative activities that comprise their labour – but also seek recognition from themselves and from others ←14 | 15→on that basis.14 Looking back from the present, we can see that what Hegel described was the emergence of a form of society in which we still find ourselves today, in which work functions as the central point of a network of social institutions and the mechanism through which the individual is integrated into those institutions.

The labour historian Jürgen Kocka identifies the early nineteenth century as the point at which Western European nations began the transformation into Arbeitsgesellschaften.15 This transformation was accompanied by a number of fundamental shifts both in the organisation of labour itself – such as the rise to dominance of the capitalist wage form over other labour relations, or the introduction of a spatial delineation between workplace and the home – and also in the fundamental understanding of which types of activities enjoyed the status of work at all. This renegotiation of what counted as work had particularly serious consequences for the societal recognition accorded to traditionally feminine work, with many types of work associated with women gradually losing that status.16 Moreover, those forms of activity that retained the status of work were subject to increasing specialisation and fragmentation in the course of the industrial organisation of labour and the growing rise of large-scale, machine-based production.17

Karl Marx describes and reconstructs this historical process in minute detail in the first volume of Capital, terming it the ‘real subsumption of labour under capital’.18 This ‘real subsumption’ brings with it the proliferation of unsafe, monotonous, exploitative, and physically gruelling forms ←15 | 16→of labour, in which the individual subject was often reduced, in Marx’s terms, to little more than a human appendage of a machine. The workers’ movements of the nineteenth century emerged partly in response to the proliferation of such horrific working conditions. Yet rather than rejecting work altogether, those movements frequently staked their claims to legitimacy on the basis of work’s supposedly innate honour and moral value,19 drawing upon the celebration of work that had been elaborated in the preceding decades within bourgeois circles, where it had also been used to delegitimise workers, accusing them of laziness while claiming the status of ‘real workers’ for the bourgeoisie.20


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
Work capitalism comparative literature contemporary literature critical theory
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Aileen Behrendt (Volume editor) Nicholas Courtman (Volume editor)

Aileen Behrendt holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Potsdam. Her research interests include modernist and interwar literature, gender studies, and British comedy. Nicholas Courtman holds a PhD in German studies from the University of Cambridge. His next project examines West German citizenship law since 1949.


Title: Writing the Economic Subject in Modern Western Europe