Moral Economies now and then: the question is never quite actually settled
This is an edited version of a paper I gave at the EP Thompson, 50 years of the English Working Class round table at the Institute of Historical Research on November 30th
10 days ago I was at an event where I met a Director of McKinseys , the Head of their Global Organisation Practice. His specialisms are around the health of businesses or otherwise.
At the event he went through a significant list of Companies around the world who for a variety of reasons have lost both the trust of customers and often much of their business market as a result.
He argued that business needed a moral contract with the public and that this had too often been lacking. His point, in my view, was that while the market economy model certainly could work, too often it did not because of an obsession with shareholder value, the bottom line, rather than wider values of ethical behaviour.
No doubt issue could be taken with this perspective but the interesting point for my paper today was the focus on a moral contract.
There are some aspects of EP Thompson’S Making of the English Working Class [MEWC] that now seem outdated to a modern audience, particularly the detailed emphasis on religion. Of course that is accurate history but given the general lack of knowledge about religion and Biblical references today, if a new edition were to come out I suspect it would require some re-working.
On the other hand some concepts first introduced in MEWC have become more relevant in the five decades since. I have in mind particularly here the concept of the ‘moral economy’.
The moral economy has a number of references in the MEWC
Thompson’s frame of reference was Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures  which laid out a moral code for the factory system and in particular for those who worked in it. It was what today would be called a market economy or neo-liberal approach, but the time-work discipline that
Thompson looked at the value system of those who opposed the factory system and argued that they had a different view of what a moral economy might be. Some of this was rooted in custom but some was developed as capitalism itself advanced
Thompson notes of the eighteenth century riot the most common form of popular resistance at that point [mewc] that ‘it rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word ‘riot’ suggests’. Thompson goes on to suggest that the main motivation was a moral economy that ‘taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of people’.
This sounds remarkably like the modern discontents over large companies that make large profits but avoid taxes or energy companies that charge what are thought to be excessive and unjustified prices. As Thompson notes ‘any sharp rise in prices precipitated riot’.
Thompson referred to the theory and practice of the moral economy in the late eighteenth century as a ‘deeply rooted pattern of behaviour and belief’ [mewc] going on to argue that ‘behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimizing notion of right is to be found’.
Thompson is trying to make the point here that the concept or category of ‘moral economy’ that he refers to in the MEWC and Customs In Common and backs up with a mass of evidence built up over many years researches in archives is a time bound concept. It relates to a particular moment of capitalist development in the UK and a particular moment of attempts if not to resist it then to deal with it.
So Thompson is prepared to allow, and he makes that clear in the final pages of his Past and Present article on Time Work Discipline, that a moral economy very similar to or equivalent to that he is describing may well feature in developing countries around the world into the modern era.
He is much less sure that it is correct to take the concept of the moral economy that he develops and apply it to post-1945 Britain. Thompson has a model of social development that suggests that the moral economy is a defensive strategy designed to try and protect customary rights rather than an offensive strategy designed to promote and advance new rights, such as limits on working hours or safe conditions at work. These points he sees as related to the rise of an organised labour movement and a political left that moves beyond defending the past and tries to shape the future.
Broadly speaking I agree with that, except that depending on circumstances sometimes it remains important to defend the past. It might be argued that much use of the concept of the moral economy today is about trying to defend a fairly recent past when things were a little bit more equal and fair than they currently are.
That might also fit with Thompson’s idea that the Victorian labour movement rather than challenging capitalism out right- it had tried that in the Chartist period and narrowly failed- instead opted to warren it from end to end with defensive bulwarks such as trade unions and co-operative societies. These were often about negotiating the terms in which a market economy could and should operate and again were often underwritten by ideas of a moral economy. Talk of the labour movement as a moral crusade was common and while some of that was tied into religious thought, some of it was about establishing standards of fairness.
For Thompson the moral economy was a customary right, also to be found at the very least in common law, which was used not as a challenge to rising market values- it was not put forward as an alternative political economy- but as a corrective and restraint to it.
Yet the idea that there are certain basic human values- in particular that people have a right to essential foodstuffs at affordable prices- and certainly prices that do not allow farmers and middlemen to exploit shortages, can be seen to have an application today.
Does it matter that people today who complain about energy prices or large companies that don’t pay taxes can see some historical basis for their action? Perhaps not to all the participants. However the underlying concept of the ‘freeborn English ‘man’’ I think remains an important one.
This then it seems to me is an important legacy of the MEWC 50 years on. It is a framework we can understand historically from Thompson and then look to see how it can be applied to a British society more than two hundred years after its specific historical usage. It is in this way that the book remains an important work of history but also something that has a continuing political influence and impact, at least in part some way beyond where Thompson himself might well have taken it. His work on the business practices at Warwick University in the late 1960s, published as a Penguin Special, Warwick University Ltd, and his later activity with European Nuclear Disarmanent [END] and his focus on what he called ENDism underline that Thompson himself continued to have some workable ethical framework which could be related to the historical capacity of the moral economy
I started the paper by referring to a Director of McKinseys and conclude by referencing someone who is perhaps a little more at home at a gathering of socialist historians,the musician Billy Bragg. Catching him at the St David Hall’s in Cardiff last week I heard him talk about how the big issue in society is how to move beyond political democracy and make business and world of work accountable. He played Power in a Union, but what he was saying is also an argument about a moral economy.
A moral economy is not a socialist economy and whether it is an effective route towards one can be debated. It is however, when expressed, a clear symbol that for ordinary people free market economics does not work. That is part of what EP Thompson wrote about in the Making of the English Working Class and part of the reason the book is still relevant today.
So while Thompson refers in the Making to a ‘last desperate effort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market’ and has in mind the late eighteenth century as the appropriate time frame it may be that this effort, deflected in ways yet to be explored, is still in fact going on. The question is never quite actually settled.