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E P Thompson, the moral economy & the Gilets Jaunes

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2018 by kmflett

E P Thompson, the moral economy & the Gilets Jaunes

E P Thompson wrote about the moral economy in the Making of the English Working Class and followed it up with two articles going into more depth about its meaning and context in Eighteenth Century England (1971,1991).

In brief summary Thompson saw the actions of the English crowd in the 1700s as motivated by reference to a traditional balance in society between rich and poor. The gap between the two was not abolished but the rich understood that certain essentials such as bread needed to be available at a reasonable price. If that didn’t happen protests and occasionally riots followed.

The point being that the moral economy was not about changing society but about making sure that the market was controlled to allow the less well-off to get by.

Some of this can be seen in the protests of the Gilets Jaunes. Namely that the poor and pensioners have a reasonable expectation of having enough money to live their daily lives without want in an advanced society.

The question posed in terms of transitional politics is however whether Macron’s concessions from his gold-plated desk can address this sense of a moral order of society. If not maybe things will go further.

That didn’t happen in the eighteenth century because the means to do so in terms of any collective structure- union, party, protest campaign, was rudimentary. That is not true now.

It also begs the question as the Tories role out Universal Credit why we are not seeing similar protests in Britain.

Below is part of a recent blog by a French social movement theorist that links the Gilets Jaunes and the moral economy.

The moral economy of Yellow Vests Samuel Hayat

Partly translated (badly) from the French below. A link to the original article here:

https://samuelhayat.wordpress.com/2018/12/05/les-gilets-jaunes-leconomie-morale-et-le-pouvoir/

 

The concept of moral economy is well known to social scientists [9] . It was developed by the historian EP Thompson to designate a fundamental phenomenon in popular mobilizations in the eighteenth century: they called for widely shared conceptions of what should be a functioning, in the moral sense, the economy [10]. Everything went as if it were self-evident that certain rules had to be respected: the price of goods should not be excessive in relation to their cost of production, standards of reciprocity rather than the game of the market had to regulate exchanges, etc. . And when these unwritten standards were flouted or threatened by the extension of the rules of the market, the people felt quite right in revolting, often on the initiative of women, by the way. Their motive was very economical, but not in the usual sense: they were not driven by material interests in the strict sense, but by moral claims about the functioning of the economy. There are similar revolts in France at the same time, and even later: the miners of the Company of Anzin, for example,[11] .

 

The resonance with the movement of the yellow vests is striking. Their list of social demands is the formulation of essentially moral economic principles: it is imperative that the most fragile (homeless, disabled …) are protected, that workers are properly remunerated, that solidarity works, that public services are ensured, that the tax cheats are punished, and that everyone contributes according to his means, which perfectly summarizes this formula “WHAT the big pay big and the small pay small”. This appeal to what may seem to be popular good sense is not self-evident: it is a question of saying that against the utilitarian glorification of the politics of supply and the theory of runoff dear to the ruling elites (give more to those who have more, “the first of rope”, to attract capital), the real economy must be based on moral principles. This is surely what gives strength to the movement, and its massive support in the population: it articulates, in the form of social demands, principles of moral economy that the current power has repeatedly attacked explicitly or even boasting about it. From then on, the coherence of the movement is better understood, just like the fact that it was able to do without centralized organizations: as James Scott has shown, recourse to the moral economy gives rise to a capacity to act collectively , a principles of moral economy that the current power has constantly attacked explicitly, or even proud of it. From then on, the coherence of the movement is better understood, just like the fact that it was able to do without centralized organizations: as James Scott has shown, recourse to the moral economy gives rise to a capacity to act collectively , a principles of moral economy that the current power has constantly attacked explicitly, or even proud of it. From then on, the coherence of the movement is better understood, just like the fact that it was able to do without centralized organizations: as James Scott has shown, recourse to the moral economy gives rise to a capacity to act collectively , aagency , including among social actors deprived of capital usually required for mobilization [12] .

 

Indeed, the moral economy is not only a set of standards passively shared by the popular classes. It is also the result of an implicit pact with the dominant ones and thus always inserts itself into power relations. Already, in the eighteenth-century popular classes studied by EP Thompson, this moral economy had deeply paternalistic traits: the holders of power were expected to guarantee it, in exchange for which the social order they enjoyed was generally accepted. But that the dominant break this pact, and then the masses could, by the riot, to call them to order. This is what we see in the riot of the four sous, Anzin, in 1833: the miners protest against the decline in wages, but they put themselves under the protection of former bosses, ousted by the capitalists now masters of the company, singing “Down with the Parisians, live the Mathieu d’Anzin! “. It is hardly saying that the current authorities have broken this implicit pact, as much by their anti-social measures as by their repeated disdain and displayed for the popular classes. The riot does not come out of nowhere, just a discontent, or aagencyan indeterminate popular who would have spontaneously set in motion: it is the result of an aggression of power, all the more symbolically violent since it does not seem to be recognized as an aggression. And the President of the Republic, supposed to represent the French people, became the incarnation of this betrayal, with his little phrases about “people who are nothing”, advice to pay for a shirt or to find a job while crossing the street. Instead of being the protector of the moral economy, Emmanuel Macron has constantly harassed it, with a disarming naturalness, to become the representative par excellence of the forces that oppose this moral economy. that is, capitalism. As he said during the campaign, about ISF, “it’s not unfair because it’s more effective”: We can not better illustrate the lack of knowledge, even contempt, for any other standard than those of finance. It is he who broke the pact, it is to him that the national charivari is addressed at this moment, and of which we can think that it will end only by a bloody repression, or by his resignation .

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