A Tale of Two Capitalisms

Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Supritha Rajan
An interdisciplinary examination of nineteenth-century British capitalism, its architects, and its critics


No questions are more pressing today than the ethical dimensions of global capitalism in relation to an unevenly secularized modernity. A Tale of Two Capitalisms offers a timely response to these questions by reexamining the intellectual history of capitalist economics during the nineteenth century. Rajan’s ambitious book traces the neglected relationships between nineteenth-century 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.

Drawing on an impressive range of literary, anthropological, and economic writings from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century, Rajan offers an inventive, interdisciplinary account of why this second narrative of capitalism has so long escaped our notice. The book presents an unprecedented genealogy of key anthropological and economic 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 supplies an original framework for discussing the ethical ideals that continue to inform contemporary global capitalism and its fraught relationship to the secular. Its revisionary argument brings new insight into the history of capitalist thought and modernity that will engage scholars across a variety of disciplines.

Cover illustration: Disconalia gastroblasta, by Ernst Haeckel, from Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

“Working at the intersection of political economy, anthropology and literature, this richly erudite book deftly shows how nineteenth-century writers across disciplines made the sacred and the economic into opposites and unrecognized doubles of each other. The result is a truly original argument about capitalism in nineteenth-century Britain and a fresh account of the emergence of Victorian anthropology as a discipline, one that considers not only its relationship to political economy, but also to the novel.”
—Kathy Psomiades, Duke University

“Supritha Rajan establishes a new way of understanding the complex interrelations among nineteenth-century literature, anthropology, and political economy. With a commanding sweep of scholarship, past and present, and a fruitfully integrative grasp of theory, A Tale of Two Capitalisms will have a transformative impact on current debates in the field.”
—Mary Jean Corbett, Miami University

A Tale of Two Capitalisms is a major contribution to the intellectual history of modernity and of how we understand capitalism and its ideological sidekick, economics. While literature is one of its concerns, it traces the complex, often neglected interplay between nineteenth-century anthropology and economics. The author’s knowledge of the history of these two social sciences is very impressive.”
—Patrick Brantlinger, Indiana University

“Rajan skillfully unearths and recreates the discursive and intellectual archeology of the concepts she examines. This enables her to explain with great precision the different ways that nineteenth-century theorists constructed and used these concepts. Rajan takes her readers into the internal logic of these terms so that we can see how they are reshaped and refigured according to the complex and competing needs each concept serves, including the moral and ideological agendas of the theorist, developments within the disciplines of anthropology and economics, and specific historical changes and pressures.”
—Claudia Klaver, Syracuse University

Supritha Rajan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Rochester.

Praise / Awards

  • "Rajan’s willingness to juxtapose so many sources that usually are not read together, along with her provocative readings of these sources, forces us to think in new ways about the Victorian connections among economics, anthropology, and literature, as well as their present-day legacies." 
    --Victorian Studies
  • "Rajan’s monumental book offers an overarching theoretical model for the way the two spheres, the male world of the competitive marketplace and the female realm of the sacred home, depended on one another..."
    --SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
  • Winner: 23rd Annual Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 362 pages.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12094-9

  • PDF: Adobe Digital Editions e-book (DRM Protected)

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  • economics, capitalism, anthropology, literature, globalization, secular, nineteenth-century Britain, Victorian, religion, modernity