E.P. Thompson, the moral economy & Sir Philip Green

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2016 by kmflett

EP Thompson, the moral economy & Sir Philip Green

moral economy

Tory MP Richard Fuller has called former owner of BHS Sir Philip Green the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ echoing part of a phrase used by Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath in 1973.

Sir Philip Green’s activities are reportedly the subject of an enquiry by the Pensions Regulator since when he took over BHS its pension fund was in surplus and when he sold it for £1 it most certainly was not.

It is quite possible that nothing officially untoward took place but even Sir Philip appears to recognise he has some obligation to current and former BHS employees by offering £80m towards pension costs. It may be that one way or another he has to put in a good bit more than that.

The matter, as with David Cameron and his affinity with offshore accounts, is primarily a moral one.

Morality and free market economies don’t sit that well together, but if, as the Government often claims ‘we are all in it together’ there has to be some relationship.

The late historian EP Thompson studied the matter in relation to eighteenth century British society in his 1971 essay ‘the moral economy of the English crowd’.

He noted that grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking etc. This in is turn was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action’.

Thompson went on to note that while this moral economy cannot be described as ‘political’ in any advanced sense, nevertheless it cannot be described as unpolitical either, since it supposed definite, and passionately held, notions of the common weal..’

The point here is that there are some expectations even within a market economy about how matters should go on. Profit may be made and wages may not be high, but if obligations around matters like pensions are broken and jobs lost because of mismanagement then it becomes clear that we are not all in it together.

Sir Philip Green is awaiting delivery of his third luxury yacht while BHS employees face unemployment and reduced pensions. The moral economy has been transgressed.


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