State of the Discipline Thomas Piketty for Literary Comparatist of the Year?

Jerry Varsava


(Indeed,) the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers.
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century


I am thankful to Editor Abdolmaleki for the opportunity to offer some views on the current state of our discipline. It may appear as poor recompense for his generosity that I tender here not so much an overview of where I think the discipline is currently, but rather where it might better be in the near future. I will start out with what may seem a non sequitur but I hope my intent will emerge in due course, however gradually. So, on to one of the more irascible economic problems today—income inequality—and, ultimately, why it is important for literary comparatists, and also to the question of whether Thomas Piketty should add “literary comparatist of the year” to his growing list of distinctions.


Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the publishing sensation of 2014, heralded by many economists and commentators as one of the most important contributions to economic thought in recent times, with Owen Jones going so far as to call Piketty a “rock-star economist,” an unusual (or perhaps even unprecedented) designation for a student of the “dismal science.”1 Calling the book an “awesome work,” Paul Krugman thinks that Capital has revolutionized the way economists and others understand income inequality; in his view, Piketty’s study offers nothing less than a “unified field theory” of income distribution. So what is the big deal here?


The insights and proposals found in Capital derive from, in the main, large-scale quantitative analyses of personal income and national wealth figures in several countries—notably, Japan, France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States—over varying periods of time, depending upon the availability of trustworthy data, and Piketty and his collaborators have been justifiably lauded for aggregating these numbers.2 Historically, reliable data have been difficult to access, in those cases when it even existed. Piketty acknowledges that his type of long, big-data study has only become possible in the early twenty-first century, once economic conditions have recovered from the distortions wrought by the world wars of the preceding century and, collaterally, only with the advent of powerful computer technology that enables the large-scale storage and advanced processing of data. As Piketty’s research reveals, income inequality has fluctuated over the last few centuries; over the last century and a half, roughly stated, inequality increased in the latter decades of the 1800s in the United States—and we do indeed refer to the period as the “Gilded Age” for a reason—decreased in the late 1920s with national economies responding to, among other things, the demands and strains of the two world wars, and, finally, after levelling off from about  1950 to 1980, again growing in our contemporary period to levels not seen in a hundred years. Other rich countries have seen similar ebbs and flows of income inequality.


Analyzing vast data sets—and information from income tax filings is a key resource—Piketty’s main finding is that income inequality stems largely from a particular long-term trend: income derived from a return (“r”) on investments, e.g., profits, interest, dividends, rents, etc., has grown at a faster rate than the rate of growth (“g”) of the economy, or  r>g. Consequently, increasingly smaller fractions of the population own increasingly larger portions of wealth with inherited wealth coming to be a primary economic generator for the wealthy. And what are the future implications of a persistence of  r>g, Piketty pointedly asks: “Will the world in 2050 or 2100 be owned by traders, top managers, and the superrich, or will it belong to the oil-producing countries or the Bank of China? Or perhaps it will be owned by the tax havens in which many of these actors will have sought refuge” (15). As for Piketty’s solution to the problem of growing income inequality, he proposes a global tax on capital.


Obviously, as an economist, Thomas Piketty comes at the issue of wealth distribution from the standpoint of his own discipline. Stretching out over nearly seven hundred pages, rife with dozens of graphs and charts and statistical tables—not to mention some formulae rather more complex than r>g—Capital is a massive exercise in quantitative research.  Still, although a quantitative analyst, Piketty has a healthy suspicion of what he sees as his discipline’s “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with other social sciences” (32). Certainly, there is much in Capital that relies upon qualitative research—the examination of narratives, of one sort or another—to buttress arguments and to deepen understanding of global economic history.  Indeed, Piketty claims with justification that Capital might well be regarded as “history,” as much as economics (33). But might it also be considered as Comparative Literature? Might it have something to say about Comparative Literature in the twenty-first century? Actually yes, to a degree, intriguingly enough.


Piketty is something more than (just) a student of economics and economic history, and he points the way to how literary comparatists today might be something more than (just) students of literary and cultural phenomena. Traditional quantitative research relies in the first instance on phenomena that can be counted, before fashioning an analytical narrative that knits the numbers together into some sort of coherent rhetorical whole; it foregrounds the former in order to reach the latter; it is, effectively, and by design, a one-sided methodology.  For his part, and to his credit, Piketty finds value in linking his quantitative findings to qualitative discourse and, in particular, to certain high-canonical works of French and British fiction of the nineteenth century. In contextualizing his data within the lived experience of fictional characters of the period, numbers are given, in effect, a human face.


What Piketty is after in his readings of the modern novel are references to wealth concentration, especially through inheritances and the bestowal of dowries, i.e., wealth that is received but not earned, in the strict sense, by its beneficiaries. While mentioning a variety of works—Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838), Hugo’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845), Dumas’ Les Misérables (1862), James’s Washington Square (1881) and Zola’s Germinal (1885), among others—Piketty mostly concentrates on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) and the best known and perhaps best novel of Balzac’s magisterial Le Comédie humaine, Le Père Goriot (1835).  In the former, John Dashwood inherits the very large Norland estate which is worth £4,000 a year; Austen is careful to give specific values of other characters’ incomes, and demonstrates income inequality in British society of the day, as Dashwood refuses to share his great wealth with his half-sisters, to their distress and disadvantage. Le Père Goriot encapsulates a particular sort of ethical problem, “Rastignac’s dilemma,” in Piketty’s formulation, wherein the sinister Vautrin compares for Rastignac the modest monetary of rewards available to him if he pursues certain professions and the substantially greater income if he “marries money” (238-42, 407-14). “It is striking to see,” observes Piketty, “how similar the inegalitarian  structures, orders of magnitude, and amounts minutely specified by Balzac and Austen were on both sides of the English Channel, despite differences in currency, literary style, and plot” (411).


What we find in Piketty is, I think, a highly suggestive approach to the study of literary texts that melds the empirical, quantitative biases of social scientists and the hermeneutic, qualitative biases of literary comparatists. While the weighting of Capital is heavily in favor of economics, the introduction of analyses of novels effectively illustrates and supports the book’s thesis. And what might we call this illuminating intersection of economics and literary interpretation? The term I have come to use increasingly in recent years is economic humanities (Varsava 2013).3 The commingling of disciplines once thought wholly discrete and disparate is now a well-established practice as such vivacious and relevant interdisciplinary fields as the medical humanities, the digital humanities, and the environmental humanities show. While I strongly suspect that people working in such interdisciplinary fields will never reach any sort of point of perfect balance between the relevant disciplines, the effort to implicate different perspectives mutually can be highly rewarding. Oddly, though there is extant work on various aspects of literature and economics by people like Marc Shell (1978, 1982, 1994), Mary Poovey (2008), and Cantor and Cox (2010), to name some studies, our discipline has not embraced in any wholehearted way the study of literature with an emphasis on economics and economic themes: income inequality, financialization, regulatory regimes, corruption in the financial industry, market bubbles, financial crises, global trade, national economic histories, etc.4 This is curious given the critical condition of global capitalism since 2008 and the onset of the Great Recession, with protracted low growth, (often ruinously) high debt, declining living standards, economic and political uncertainties in various geographies, and, yes, the proliferation of one per-centers and income inequality. 


Interestingly, and it merits brief notation, a number of economists, in addition to Piketty, are turning to qualitative research, emphasizing the manner in which narrativity and human behavior confute traditional notions of the “rationality” and “efficiency” of markets. George Akerlof and Robert Shiller ask some very pertinent questions in their Animal Spirits: What if the stories people tell themselves and propagate socially “move markets”? “What if (the stories) themselves are a real part of how the economy functions?” (54). Novelists are certainly among our preeminent storytellers, portraying social narratives but, if Akerlof and Shiller are correct, also shaping economic perceptions and even circumstances.5


But let’s return to the central question here. Should Thomas Piketty be honored as literary comparatist of the year for laying out in highly articulate, highly compelling fashion the benefits of bringing together economics and literary interpretation, and for showing us what an exercise in the economic humanities might look like? The answer finally is, I fear, no. At one crucial point, he offers the dubious claim that “money—at least in the form of specific amounts—virtually disappeared [from literature] after the shocks of 1914-1945” (109).  He relies on all of two novelists to illustrate this claim of the gradual “loss of stable monetary reference in the twentieth century”: Naguib Mahfouz, whose exceptional mid-century Cairo novels are akin to those of Balzac and Austen in their delineation of financial values, and Orhan Pamuk, whose novels (and especially Snow [2002]) eschew all such interest (109).


Piketty weakens his literary comparatist credentials in his reading of fiction of the last half-century or more. First of all, a “trend” cannot be reliably asserted on the basis of a handful of authors. Further, (significant) reference to “specific amounts” of money is in no way the sine qua non of economic fiction; good fiction presents more or less representative figures from whom certain extrapolations about wealth can be made, and to whom can be applied econometrics of the sort that Piketty has marshaled in Capital, but which are also available from various governments and organizations, e.g., Europe (Eurostat), the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics), Canada (Statcan), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, etc. Advancing a critique similar to mine here, but based on a computer-generated word-frequency analysis of some 7,700 English-language works of fiction from 1750-1950, Underwood et al. find that, contrary to Piketty’s claim that references to money gradually disappeared in the first half of the twentieth century, such references have shifted from inheritances and dowries to wages and commodities. As a specialist in contemporary fiction, I have observed that recent novels—for example, those dealing with, variously, rogue traders, the Great Recession, and the (economic) rise of China/Asia—often cite money in relation to, respectively, market speculation and the managerial rentier class, middle-class financial precarity, and, yes, income and income inequality in China/Asia and elsewhere. So, tout court, Piketty makes a weak case for the disappearance of references to money because he relies overly on certain categories of wealth thematized by a small subset of European (and world) fiction: high-canonical, nineteenth-century western European realism.


So, again, weaknesses in Piketty’s historiography of the novel unfortunately rule him out for literary-comparatist-of-the-year honors, though one suspects that this will cause him little enough distress. In any event, he is certainly and importantly correct in observing that income inequality is one of the major issues facing the global community today, and that its study should not be left to social scientists. Capital should be taken as an invitation to literary comparatists to pursue the important, if difficult, work of the economic humanities, in all of its multiplicity; literary comparatists are inveterate border-crossers, and whatever borders that may exist between comparative literature and economics should be now resolutely traversed. And should Piketty’s position on wealth inequality need buttressing, we might note a recent finding of Credit Suisse. According to its Global Wealth Report, released in the fall of 2015, the top one percent of people globally now own fully 50.4% of all household wealth (19).


Works Cited


Akerlof, George A., and Robert Shiller. Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. 2009. Print.

Ariely, Daniel. Irrationally Yours. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

---. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

Bernheimer, Charles. “The Bernheimer Report, 1993: Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century.” In Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Bernheimer. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Cantor, Paul, and Stephen Cox. Literature and the Economics of Liberty. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010. Print.

D’haen, Theo, César Domínguez, and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, eds. World Literature: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Global Wealth Report. Credit Suisse. October 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Krugman, Paul. “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.” Rev. of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. The New York Review of Books. 8 May 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Lawson, Andrew. Downwardly Mobile: The Changing Fortunes of American Realism. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

-----. “Foreclosure Stories: Neoliberal Suffering in the Great Recession.” Journal of American Studies 47 (2103): 49-68. Print.

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005. Print.

-----. Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers  Should Buy Life Insurance. New York: William Morrow, 2009. Print.

“List of MLA Forums.” MLA Commons. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Marsh, Nicky. “Money Doubles: Reading, Fiction and Finance Capital.” Textual Practice 26 (2012): 115-133.

---. “’Paradise Falls: A Land Lost in Time’: Representing Credit, Debt and Work after the Crisis.” Textual Practice 28 (2014): 1181-1198. Print.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. 2013. Print.

---. Le Capital au XXIe siècle. Paris: Seuil, 2013. Print.

Poovey, Mary. Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.

Shell, Marc. Art and Money. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print.

---. The Economy of Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. Print.

---. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1982. Print.

Varsava, Jerry A. “Too big to ignore: The Ethical Case for Economic Humanities.” Annual Society of Interdisciplinary Business Research Conference. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 15 February 2013. Conference Presentation.

Underwood, Ted, Hoyt Long, and Richard Jean So. “Cents and Sensibility: Trust Thomas Piketty on economic inequality. Ignore what he says about literature.” Slate 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950. Vols. 1-8. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1955-1992. Print.

“What is the Economic Humanities?” U of Edinburgh Literature Seminar. 3 April 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.




Jerry Varsava is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He has published widely on twentieth- and twenty-first fiction. His current major project examines representations of capital in contemporary global fiction.


1. Piketty’s book first appeared in French in 2013 under the title of Le Capital au XXIe siècle.

2. Working with Anthony Atkinson and Emmanuel Saez, Piketty edited two large volumes of data from 2007 to 2010, covering some twenty countries and “constituting the most extensive database available in regard to the historical evolution of income inequality” (Capital vii).

3. An internet search for “economic humanities” yields little of relevance to what I have in mind here. I might mention, however, a literature seminar held at the U of Edinburgh in April 2015 entitled “What is the Economic Humanities?” that featured Nicky Marsh (Southhampton) and Andrew Lawson (Leeds Beckett) as speakers. I do acknowledge the interesting work that each is doing in the emergent field of economic humanities (Marsh 2012, 2014; Lawson 2012, 2013).

4. The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) has a myriad of “forum” categories, effectively clusters of special-interest groups. While there is no “interdisciplinary” category, there is one called “Transdisciplinary Connections,” featuring various “Literature and discipline X“ forums, e.g., “and Anthropology,” “and Geography,” “and History,” “and Law,” “and Philosophy,” “and Psychology,” etc., but no forum dedicated to “Literature and Economics.” It is obvious that the existing “Marxism, Literature, and Society” forum is insufficiently capacious to cover economics and its vast purview. Further, recent reports of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) have said little about literature and economics (Bernheimer 1995; Saussy 2006), outside of Marx and Marxism, and the same is true of the otherwise highly useful anthology, World Literature: A Reader, ed. by D’haen et al. Looking yet further back, Wellek’s impressive multi-volumed survey of modern criticism (1750-1950) demonstrates that the linking of literature and economics has been a minor scholarly preoccupation, at best, for a very long time (1955-1992).

5. Other people working in the increasing important field of behavioral economics are Daniel Ariely (2012, 2015) and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the bestselling Freakonomics (2005) and Superfreakonomics (2009).


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