Robert Mitchell, Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity
Since when has public debate—about the state’s responsibility for the indigent, about foreign wars and homeland security, about the regulation of international commerce—been so thoroughly informed by issues of financial speculation and public debt? Since the eighteenth century, argues Robert Mitchell, when the parasitic greed of speculators and the dangerous expansion of national debt were the subject of plays and poems, pamphlets and speeches. Mitchell describes his ambitious, fascinating, and timely book Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era as an example of a “new economic literary criticism” (206). Literary critics, he maintains, have as much to teach us as economists do about finance capitalism, a phenomenon (as we have recently learned) that reflects the exigencies of social psychology and imaginative speculation no less than the materialities of production and consumption. Mitchell links the development of a theoretical language of sympathetic identification with the crises in state finance that periodically rocked Britain in the century and a half after the establishment of the Bank of England. Elaborating on Thomas Haskell’s seminal work, “Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility,” Mitchell shows that financial speculation, social sympathy, and humanitarian reform politics share a cognitive style defined by its “open sense of the future” (vii).
Ever since Benedict Anderson identified the eighteenth-century rise of the nation with “homogeneous empty time,” the steady forward movement and social simultaneity of newspaper reading, scholars have been drawing our attention to the period’s other forms of time consciousness. In Mitchell’s account, the eighteenth-century present was bound by promises made and debts accrued in the past just as it was oriented by speculations about what was to come. Finance capitalism relied on “investment instruments that located value in the future” (14), but there was also a parallel sense that communities mediated by imaginative sympathy are themselves lived in the future tense. This open relation to futurity was enabled by a novel conception of “society” as a contingent and variegated “system” of relationships. Britons perceived an increasingly intricate and extensive collective life, in which the economy, the government, and “collective psychology” were growing more inseparable as they grew more complex. Mitchell argues that social systems, and particularly a financial system in which shared opinions establish value, became acutely visible during economic crises. Financial calamity and constraint turned people’s attention to the mediating forms that undergird collective belief, as they sought means of reflecting on and intervening in economic systems (5). Moreover, the writers studied by Mitchell—David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, the antislavery poets of the 1780s, William Wordsworth, and P.B. Shelley—drew on the speculative temporality and systemic contingency of finance capitalism in order to reconceive the social order.
Renaissance thinkers, Mitchell reminds us in Chapter One, would have been perplexed by the modern idea of imagination as a form of cognitive projection that produces virtual community by enabling a self to enter another’s situation. Before the eighteenth century, imagination was “a quasi-corporeal faculty that mediated between animal spirits and intellect,” only producing social factions of a dangerously enthusiastic or otherwise aberrant nature (29). It is, Mitchell argues, only with the financial crises of the early eighteenth century, and particularly the South Sea Company stock panic of 1720-1, that imagination came to explain “affective relationships between individuals” (29). This etymological shift is paralleled by a new interest in the relation between the circulation of images through mass media and the collective sentiments that determine stock prices and the availability of public credit. While political economists soon turned away from the problem of imagination, moral philosophers did not, because imaginative speculation offered a way of conceptualizing the formation and maintenance of social systems. In the second half of the chapter, Mitchell argues that David Hume identified the specific imaginative mechanisms of sympathy as a way of explaining how “social stability” is possible without “epistemological certainty” (48). For Hume, sympathy—the self’s capacity to speculate about another’s speculations about itself—produces the intersubjective domain, a kind of affective gift economy in which we come to know ourselves. Mitchell distinguishes Hume from conservatives like Bolingbroke, who attributed social cohesion to the sedimenting influence of past experience. Hume defines two temporalities of social formation, one linked to the closed futurity of “the promise,” which is dependent on the continuity of convention, and one linked to the open futurity of speculative acts that inaugurate “new forms of sociability” and new systems (55).