II. Romantic Negativity

For all its aspiration and even undoubted achievement, the Romantic era has its downside. After the turbulent years of the French Revolution, and the even greater turmoil caused by the Napoleonic wars, Europe in the wake of Waterloo began to slide toward a conservatism equally extreme, one marked by horrible and violent excesses. In recent years, we’ve become increasingly familiar with the Peterloo massacre and other instances of working-class rebellion in England and elsewhere, all brutally suppressed. Less well known, however, is the failure of the contemporary intellectual quest. In fact, the search for a kind of absolute principle which we’ve already seen instances of would continue in the later years of the Romantic period— but with less success. Specifically, the failure of David Ricardo and his peers in the Radical reform group to frame a viable theory of absolute value would have significant consequences. Set against the background of working-class protest against intolerable work conditions, it becomes part of a larger failure of the reform effort. But my thesis is that it has other consequences as well. In particular, I would argue that the failure to frame a theory of absolute value within political economy helps to produce a kind of vacuum or void within the matrix of values or beliefs by which a period is defined. And that vacuum or void within the space of its values leads to a form of negativity, a kind of negative activity by which concepts of value, rather than being produced, are questioned and ultimately reduced to their purely physical or material base, at which point they become meaningless and hence are brushed away. If we see the start of the Romantic era as one that gave rise to idealism, it might be equally apt to see the close of the period as defined not by scepticism but by nihilism. But not because either scepticism or nihilism was set explicitly against idealism. Rather, my sense is that the failure of idealism (in the form of an inability to frame a theory of absolute value in political economy) spawned a kind of vacuum or void within the collective matrix of values. Consciousness or awareness of that vacuum or void—which doesn’t have to imply a specific awareness of failure within the realm of political economy—is what then leads to nihilism or negativity. And an example of that which we’ll look at in some detail is Byron.


We begin, however, with David Ricardo. Between Adam Smith and Marx, he ranks, indisputably, as the most important figure in the history of political economy in the West. By way of introduction, we can hardly do better, I think, than to take a quick look at his portrait, by Thomas Phillips of the Royal Academy: Self-possessed, thoughtful, perceptive, he stands out in a striking way from all the Romantic authors you see at the National Portrait Gallery in London—simply put, next to him all the rest look just faded or dull by comparison. His personal history was no less remarkable: of Portuguese-Jewish ancestry, born in Amsterdam, coming to London at an early age, he rose from a start with virtually no assets to become, after Waterloo, one of the wealthiest men of the British Empire. And then he walked away from it all, to devote himself completely to political economy and to efforts to improve the condition of the working class in England. To think of Ricardo in his time, then, is to think of London in the years after Waterloo.

A cityscape by Alexander Naysmith, entitled A prospect of London, seen from the Earl of Cassilis’ privy garden, with Waterloo Bridge beyond (1826), can help us visualize it:

Note the neoclassical style, as well as the symbolism of Waterloo Bridge, commemorative of the event that made possible the prosperity depicted here. Later, by 1865, we’ll see how drastically all this has changed. Shortly after Waterloo, Ricardo made his entry into the field of political economy. In On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) he brought a new theoretical elegance to the field. So instead of the lengthy, chatty commentary of Adam Smith on real-life affairs we get simplified examples (the Ricardian model, in effect), from which all inessential circumstances have been stripped away. But Ricardo didn’t just change the style of political economy. He also changed its perspective. From the rational framework of Adam Smith we move to a brave new world in which economic situations no longer play out in the way we might expect. A world that’s less about people making financial arrangements for gain than about the strange autonomy of money, whose behavior might better be described in terms of a kind of physics than what we think of as finance. To get a sense of what this brave new world is like, we might begin with the same paradox that lured Ricardo himself into thinking about political economy. But first, a preliminary remark from On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation about fixed and circulating capital:

 A brewer, whose buildings and machinery are valuable and durable, is said to employ a large portion of fixed capital: on the contrary, a shoemaker, whose capital is chiefly employed in the payment of wages, which are expended on food and clothing, commodities more perishable than building and machinery, is said to employ a large proportion of his capital as circulating capital. (I: 31)

Next, a description of how these different forms of capital work:

 But a rise in the wages of labour would not equally affect commodities produced with machinery quickly consumed, and commodities produced with machinery slowly consumed. In the production of the one, a great deal of labour would be continually transferred to the commodity produced—in the other very little would be so transferred. Every rise of wages, therefore, or, which is the same thing, every fall of profits, would lower the relative value of those commodities which were produced with a capital of a durable nature, and would proportionally elevate those which were produced with capital more perishable. A fall of wages would have precisely the contrary effect. (I: 39-40)

With these remarks we now move to the paradox itself:

It appears, then, that in proportion to the quantity and the durability of the fixed capital employed in any kind of production, the relative prices of those commodities on which such capital is employed, will vary inversely as wages: they will fall as wages rise. It appears too that no commodities whatever are raised in absolute price, merely because wages rise; that they never rise unless additional labour be bestowed on them; but that all commodities in the production of which fixed capital enters, not only do not rise with a rise of wages, but absolutely fall. (I: 62-63)


As a way to unpack what’s going on here, consider 2 diagrams that try to represent the process visually: The 1st diagram gives our normal, pre-Ricardo perspective: any given product + increase in wages (symbolized by red cart) = increase in price (bigger red cart). The 2nd diagram tries to represent Ricardo’s perspective: increase in wages (again, symbolized by red cart) will lead to increase in price (bigger red cart) only if the product is of a kind that needs a lot of circulating capital (wages → labor) to be applied to it. If not (black cart), the product will actually lose, relatively speaking, in value. It will lose in value because the cost of those products to which circulating capital is applied has to go up, hence compared to these products it will cost proportionately less than it did before. To make the point more clearly, I show in PPT 2.4 the fraction of the red cart product that would correspond to the black cart (fixed capital). Once upon a time, we might suppose, the red cart (product to which circulating capital is applied) and black cart (fixed capital) were the same. But then, the red cart cost went up with more circulating capital/labor applied to it, while the black cart cost remained the same. Note, however, that—as Ricardo points out—no products rise in absolute price or value just because wages rise. Wages might rise just to keep up with prices, or because an employer’s decided to be generous to his/her workers. In other words, a wage increase doesn’t necessarily mean the equivalent of that increase (i.e., in labor) is being applied to any given product. What is absolute, though, is the fall in the value of a fixed capital product when wages rise. And that’s because once wages rise it will always cost proportionately less of that wage to buy a fixed capital product than before. We can sum up all this by saying that what Ricardo wants to assert is the relativity of economic value. From the standpoint of political economy, things have value only in relation to other things, never by themselves. It’s like relativity physics: we can talk about the movement of any given object only in terms of its relation to some reference point. Without that reference point, we’d have no way of knowing whether the object was really moving or not. Likewise with Ricardian political economy: you can measure the value of a product only by observing how it interacts pricewise with other products. For Ricardo, however, this isn’t an entirely desirable state of affairs. Because, as he himself puts it:

…if the reward of the labourer were always in proportion to what he produced, the quantity of labour bestowed on a commodity, and the quantity of labour which that commodity would purchase, would be equal, and either might accurately measure the variations of other things: but they are not equal; the first is under many circumstances an invariable standard, indicating correctly the variations of other things; the latter is subject to as many variations as the commodities compared with it. (I: 14)

In other words, a labourer might do a given amount of work, but, because of particular economic circumstances, that work could be worth more or less (in terms of what it can buy) than under other circumstances. Especially disturbing, of course, are those circumstances where it turns out to be worth less. The solution, as Ricardo saw it, was to try to make labor the real standard of value. Thus in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation:

The value of a commodity, or the quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or less compensation which is paid for that labour. (I: 12)

From the standpoint of political economy, however, making labor the standard of value is easier said than done—not least because of the kind of economic relativity pointed out by Ricardo himself. The problem is that any standard has to be objectively measurable. But once you try to measure something economically, you inevitably get into the kinds of gyrations or fluctuations Ricardo himself described in the paradox discussed above. In other words, given the kind of relativity physics Ricardo established as the framework of political economy, it gets to be very hard to verify anything like absolute movement, or absolute value. Any measurable standard of value has to be ascertained in relation to other objects of value. And given how these are bound to fluctuate in value, it becomes difficult to show that any measurable quantity doesn’t fluctuate as well. It was precisely this relativistic aspect of Ricardian political economy that would make Ricardo’s quest for a measure of absolute value vulnerable to attack. In fact, only a couple years after the publication of On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Thomas Malthus found the weak spot in Ricardo’s definition of labor as absolute value. In a letter to Ricardo, he opens with an innocent-looking example:

If we suppose half an ounce of silver on an average to be picked up by a days search on the sea shore, money would then always retain most completely the same value. It would always on an average both cost, and command the same quantity of labour. The money price of labour could never permanently either rise or fall; and the accumulation of capital in all cases where capital was used and the same quantity of labour employed, would shew itself in a fall of prices owing to the diminished rate of profits. Corn alone would rise in money price on account of the increased quantity of labour required; but the rise would be inconsiderable, and strictly limited by the diminution of corn wages which the labourer could bear.

Then the knife-thrust:

Under these circumstances I should like to know from you how the profits of stock would be regulated. They could not evidently be regulated by the rise in money wages of labour, because labor would not alter in money value. (10 Sept. 1819, VIII: 64-65)

Here the problem is that that capacity to collect the same amount of silver every day fixes or freezes the price of labor. Since silver is money there can’t be any wiggle room about its price or value, and hence not about the value of the labor that gathers it. But that in turn means there can’t be any increase in wages, because labor will always be worth the same amount—as measured by the amount of silver a person can collect at the seashore on any given day. Malthus goes on to suppose capital will accumulate in the hands of the employer (because he/she never has to give workers a raise), and that will show itself in a fall of prices since workers (who can never exceed a fixed salary level) don’t have enough money to buy up all the items being produced, which will in turn force producers to lower prices in the hope of selling more and so restoring their falling rate of profit. At the same time, he points out that only corn (meaning grain) is likely to go up in price—because as population goes up (remember Malthus = author of the Essay on the Principle of Population), it’ll get harder to produce enough corn to feed everyone. But even here, the price can’t go up too much, because workers (who often get paid in corn directly) can’t get by on much less corn or they’ll starve. Taken together, these conditions point to a virtually static economy, which is fine for Malthus the conservative Tory parson, but not for Ricardo whose whole aim was to see the lot of the workers improve. Unable to come up with an answer to Malthus, Ricardo then found himself in free fall. He tried to buy time by claiming that even if a worker gathered the same amount of gold or silver every day, the amount of time necessary to bring it to market would vary. But he knew it was no use: even if he managed to show that the price of gold or silver might vary, that didn’t really help his case—the real problem was that he couldn’t show labor as the determining force behind value. If the market conditions on gold or silver varied, that merely meant the workers’ pay might vary as well. And that certainly didn’t prove the quantity of labor to be the source of value—in fact, quite the contrary. Having run up against a brick wall in his effort to come up with an example that would prove the quantity of labor to be the determinant of value, Ricardo then tried, in a later paper on “Absolute Value and Exchangeable Value” (unfinished, significantly, when he died), to define an absolute standard of value abstractly:

The only qualities necessary to make a measure of value a perfect one are, that it should itself have value, and that that value should be itself invariable, in the same manner as in a perfect measure of length the measure itself should have length and that length should be neither liable to be increased or diminished…. (IV: 361)

In other words, a measure of value like the metric bar: like the metric bar, it should exist in the real world, and at the same time it should offer an absolute standard of value. Such a measure, however, was not to be found. Finally—and even within the very same paper—Ricardo had to concede defeat:

It must then be confessed that there is no such thing in nature as a perfect measure of value… (IV: 404)

His concession meant that, for the later Romantic period, where there ought to have been a concept of value, there was, instead, something of a vacuum or void. And that void would in turn have consequences. If we see Ricardo’s quest for an absolute measure of value in political economy as an attempt to concretize what had been an abstract absolute in his predecessors, his failure has the double effect of blocking any possible return to an abstract principle, while at the same time committing his own period to an all-or-nothing quest within the real world: of people struggling to earn enough to survive, of social protest and its brutal repression, of massive discrepancy between those who have and those who don’t—in other words, the world of post-Waterloo England. But if Ricardo unwittingly helped to create a vacuum or void within the realm of values in post-Waterloo England, it would fall to a young British poet to feel and convey a sense of what that vacuum or void felt like. Typically, we associate Byron with efforts at political and social protest. In some of his deepest verse, however, composed in his last years, he would return to the world he knew best, the life of the English aristocracy, in an attempt to probe the existential consequences of an absence of value. It was in the last 3rd of his unfinished epic Don Juan that he specifically attempted to recall in detail the social practices of that aristocratic world he had forever left behind:

His morns he passed in business—which dissected, Was like all business, a laborious nothing, That leads to lassitude, the most infected And Centaur-Nessus garb of mortal clothing, And on our sophas makes us lie dejected, And talk in tender horrors of our loathing All kinds of toil, save for our country’s good— Which grows no better, though ‘tis time it should.

His afternoons he passed in visits, luncheons, Lounging, and boxing; and the twilight hour In riding round those vegetable puncheons Called ‘Parks,’ where there is neither fruit nor flower Enough to gratify a bee’s slight munchings; But after all it is the only ‘bower,’ (In Moore’s phrase) where the fashionable fair

Can form a slight acquaintance with fresh air.

Then dress, then dinner, then awakes the world! Then glare the lamps, then whirl the wheels, then roar Through street and square fast flashing chariots, hurled Like harnessed meteors; then along the floor Chalk mimics painting; then festoons are twirled; Then roll the brazen thunders of the door, Which opens to the thousand happy few An earthly Paradise of ‘Or Molu.’

There stands the noble Hostess, nor shall sink With the three-thousandth curtsey; there the Waltz, The only dance which teaches girls to think, Makes one in love even with its very faults. Saloon, room, hall o’erflow beyond their brink, And long the latest of arrivals halts, ‘Midst royal dukes and dames condemned to climb, And gain an inch of staircase at a time. (canto XI, sec. 65-68)

For a sense of what that world was like, even a brief glimpse of some of the few surviving “private palaces” (Christopher Sykes) in London can be useful. Specifically, take a look at Home House and Wynn House, two of Robert Adam’s finest achievements, which would have entertained many of the privileged few of Regency England:

Next, a few remarks on the aristocratic routine described by Byron. The favorite place for the “fashionable fair” to “form a slight acquaintance with fresh air” was Hyde Park. Typically, they would enter by Apsley Gate and ride up Rotten Row, the main horse-and-carriage avenue. But it wasn’t about the exercise. Instead, the main aim of the beautiful people here was to see and be seen. Hence their merely “slight” acquaintance with fresh air. It was at night, though, that the fashionable world really came to life. And the place where the privileged few went to dance was Almack’s. Here and at aristocratic residences you might see ballroom floors decorated by chalk imitations of famous paintings. Of course it’s all terribly wasteful—once people begin to dance, the chalk drawings would obviously get rubbed out and disappear. There’s a sense that much of the ballroom décor, like the chalk drawings, is rather ephemeral—witness “ormolu,” a cheap metal designed to look like bronze. Although Byron (with his clubfoot) usually didn’t dance, he took a particular interest in the waltz. Unlike other dances, its moves allowed for more flexibility, hence alertness, good timing, and quick thinking by dance partners. The implication is that other dances, because much more routinized, are by comparison dull. Finally, the most famous party of the decade was the Burlington House masquerade Ball on July 1, 1814, designed to celebrate the fall of Napoleon. According to reports by some of those who went, it took nearly 4 hours to get there due to the huge press of carriages. And of course once you got there, with all the crowd, it presumably took a long time to get up to the main floor, given that you could only ascend “one inch of staircase at a time.” Taken together, what we get from all these details is the picture of a pretty frivolous lifestyle, lots of tinsel, and underneath a yawning emptiness. For that reason, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Byron and so many others of his set took to gambling. The real problem was boredom or ennui—the sense that nothing mattered, that no activity was inherently meaningful. In a later canto of Don Juan Byron asks:

But ‘why then publish?’—There are no rewards
Of fame or profit, when the world grows weary.
I ask in turn,–why do you play at cards?
Why drink? Why read? –To make some hour less dreary.
(XIV. 11)

By contrast, gambling seemed attractive because what happened at the gaming table could force you to sit up and take notice. So Byron says:

I think that were I certain of success,
I hardly could compose another line:
So long I’ve battled either more or less,
That no defeat can drive me from the Nine.
This feeling ‘tis not easy to express,
And yet ‘tis not affected, I opine.
In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing—
The one is winning, and the other losing.
(XIV. 12)

In other words, Byron will continue to pursue the Nine (i.e., the Muses = poetry) just because it gives him something to do, helps to make “some hour less dreary.” But what really gives him incentive is uncertainty about whether his stuff will be successful, which makes writing like gambling. In Byron’s time, people lost huge fortunes in gambling: dandies like Scrope Davies and Beau Brummell went bankrupt and had to flee England to avoid creditors, while the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire saw their income go from £60,000 to £8,000 a year because of debts from gambling losses. Nonetheless, gambling made you feel alive—precisely because you didn’t know what might happen to you. As Byron observes, “In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing—The one is winning, and the other losing.” At the end of Don Juan matters take a significantly different turn, largely because Juan meets someone quite unlike anyone he’s ever met before— a young woman named Aurora Raby. There’s been a lot of discussion in Byron scholarship about whom she’s modeled after. My own guess is that Byron based her on his wife, Annabella Milbank or Lady Byron. We know that in his last years, while living in Italy and Greece, Byron thought a lot about the failure of his marriage, about how it had gone wrong, & the why and where. I think he came to feel its failure was something fated to be, that it was part of the human condition he shared with everyone else. Hence the peculiar turn he gives to his description of Aurora Raby:

Early in years, and yet more infantine
In figure, she had something of sublime
In eyes which sadly shone, as seraphs’ shine.
All youth—but with an aspect beyond time;
Radiant and grave—as pitying man’s decline;
Mournful—but mournful of another’s crime,
She look’d as if she sat by Eden’s door,
And grieved for those who could return no more. 
(XV. 45)

This sense of something no longer possible, I would argue, is what helps to bring about, by way of response, the glimpse of an ideal:

And certainly Aurora had renewed
In him some feelings he had lately lost
Or hardened; feelings which, perhaps ideal,
Are so divine, that I must deem them real:–

The love of higher things and better days;
The unbounded hope, and heavenly ignorance
Of what is called the world, and the world’s ways;
The moments when we gather from a glance
More joy than from all future pride or praise,
Which kindle mankind, but can ne’er entrance
The heart in an existence of its own,
Of which another’s bosom is the zone.
(XIV, sec. 107-108)

Significantly, Byron can no longer find the ideal within himself. And that, I would suggest, is part of the legacy of the failure by Ricardo and others to find a verifiable source of value either in political economy or elsewhere. Instead, Byron can only locate the ideal in an external other (“Of which another’s bosom is the zone”), but one from whom he’s now permanently separated. It attests, I think, to his awareness of an absence or lack of value within the world in which he moves that Aurora Raby is, in effect, only a symbolic presence. But unlike the symbolism of the earlier Romantic era, this symbolism is no longer founded on concrete existences, but rather on something close to the exact opposite—a yearning for something or someone who embodies precisely what can’t be found anytime or anywhere, because he or she is only a subjective expression of the yearning for what can only be imagined, but never possessed.