Intuitively, the link between literature and the economy is not expressly apparent. Following an analysis of the two disciplines, my assertion is that these two fields are inextricably connected. Literature serves as a reflection of the economic situation of a nation, and that it drives economic progression.
Historically, and presently, the two disciplines of Economic Thought and Literary Discourse have been directly intertwined, and proportionate. Evidence for this can be found in the writings of the Vedic peoples of Indo-Europe (circa 1500 BC), the ancient texts of the Judaic Civilization, and the documents from Greek history – all of which serve as the foundation for what is now referred to as “Humanistic Economies” — a perspective that imbues elements of humanistic psychology, moral philosophy, political science, sociology and common sense into traditional economic thought.
It would not be an overstatement of the significance of literature to say that the basis of civilization, as we know it, is rooted in literature.
Speaking to the centrality of literature to the culture of a nation, one is reminded of the words of the American Author, Ray Bradbury, who famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Literature has played (and continues to play) a pivotal role in the evolution of society. Literary thought has served as the foundation for religions, philosophies, arts and culture itself. Throughout contemporary history, literature has also served as a tool of revolution – think: Mao’s “Little Red Book”, that helped transport China from its “Century of Humiliation”, all the way up to becoming the regional superpower that it is today.
The history of the Industrial Revolution of Britain is also rife with its fair share of highly influential pieces of literature – writings such as “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, and Maria Edgeworth’s “Ennui”, that helped to shape the public discourse during that time of great upheaval. The same applies to the French and the Russian Revolutions. The revolutionary literature of the subcontinent during the British occupation – which needs no introduction – also followed the same pattern, where the consciousness of the public was roused through literature, through knowledge, through narratives, through inspiration; and following decades of determined struggle, lasting change was brought-about. The rest, as they say, is history.
The literature indigenous to Pakistan, which has roots in the literary traditions of the subcontinent and South Asia, came into its own when Pakistan achieved nationhood. The new nation-state inherited a rich literary and cultural heritage, and within a few short years a considerable oeuvre of literary works began to take shape in all major Pakistani languages: Punjabi, Urdu, English, Pashto, Sindhi, Siraiki, Farsi, and Balochi. In the years immediately following the partition of the subcontinent, the literary output of Pakistan was centered heavily around the internalization of the prevailing socio-economic turmoil of the time. Gradually, narratives became more progressive, and Pakistani literature evolved to merge the various linguistic forms and literary styles indigenous to the region, shedding light on the complex class system, on social issues and concerns, and on the economic forces that continues to shape the lives of all Pakistanis.
The rise of the economic powerhouses of today, America, Japan, Germany, over the last 3 centuries, occurred in no small part due to technological, social, and cultural innovation – which has roots in academia, and literature. The dilemma, however, is that economists and authors have often explored the same topics and concerns, but in disparate ways, almost as if they each have their own language. A study of economic history, through a literary lens, shows how large, complex forces shape the lives of ordinary people, and thereby the economy at large.
Literature serves as a window into the economic lives of humans, it provides illustrations of “economic theories at work”. Literature enables audiences to connect emotionally to the experiences of the people, as they relate to commodities, markets, class divisions, and also their roles as consumers, workers, and producers.
The novel itself evolved as a means to democratize information, by challenging inequality in a way, enabling the formally unlettered masses access to knowledge and insight in a serialized, bite-size format, not entirely dissimilar to the role of the internet in our lives today.
My assertion today is that economic discourse is (and has always been) rooted in the thoughts of great literary authors; their far-reaching contributions still continue to shape current economic decision making.
Consider, for instance, The Base & Superstructure Theory of Marxism, “Base” refers to the production forces (materials and resources that generate the goods needed by a society), while “Superstructure” describes all other aspects of society, such as ideology, culture, philosophy, art, and of course, literature. Marx astutely observed that the base shapes the superstructure, and that the superstructure maintains the base – thereby establishing a strong link between the economy of a nation-state, and its literary output.
The influence of literature extends not just to the financial economy, but to the political economy as well. Thought-leaders such as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Max Weber gave rise to entire systems of political thought and discourse through their literary output.
Further elaboration on the link between literature and the economy would be remiss without mentioning the concept of “Narrative Economies”, by Yale Economist Robert Shiller. Narrative Economies is concerned with “the study of the spread and dynamics of popular narratives; the stories, particularly those of human interest and emotion, and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.”
Literature provides a fresh perspective to economist’s questions by highlighting the socio-cultural context within which the public, and the economy, operates. Well-rounded professionals with backgrounds in the disciplines of humanities (particularly literature and art) grant new perspectives to businesses and their modus operandi.
Rather than adopting a purely theoretical stance, policies should instead be aligned with the experiences of the people they intend to serve. This way, policy frameworks will be tempered by a nuanced understanding of human behavior. And to this end, nothing is more valuable than literature.
To understand (and thereby, change) existing economic realities, it is becoming increasingly apparent that technical expertise is not enough…Storytelling, and narrative, give the insight and power to change the world.
We, at The Bank of Punjab, remain committed in doing our part for anything and everything that is important in uplifting our future generations, and in ensuring the sustainability of welfare and prosperity of our society; in supporting all those activities that are important for the development of a community, and its socio-economic landscape – even those activities which are not conventionally perceived as having a bearing on the economy (and are, thus, not on the radar of commercial organizations).
Endeavors such as the esteemed Literary Festivals in Karachi and Lahore are critical for the development of a society as a whole, and by extension, the development of its economy; The Bank of Punjab is proud to have been the title sponsor for these auspicious festivals, and would like to expand its support to such activities across the country for an even, and across the board, progress and growth.
My thesis above is all about proving the fact that the promotion of literature, art and culture has a direct bearing on the economic well-being and sustainable growth of any nation, which ultimately benefits its commercial organisations; they just have to be patient and forward-looking about it. With this realization and recognition sinking-in, it is absolutely imperative that commercial organizations, like The Bank of Punjab, must step-up and support these literary activities wholeheartedly, for the character building and betterment of our future generations.
(The writer is President and CEO, Bank of Punjab)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022