Albion Magazine Online, Winter 2009

Classics of Englishness


Market Economy vs. Moral Economy: E. P. Thompson and the Craft of the Social Historian

What is the fate of all the thousands of scholarly articles written each year by researchers of every type and academic persuasion? Many of them are read by a very limited audience of specialists and quickly forgotten. Others enjoy a longer 'shelf life' to become, in a modest way, part of the literature on a subject, dutifully footnoted in books that perhaps reach a somewhat larger readership. 

Meanwhile, every so often an academic article appears that breaks free of these constraints. The product of an original thinker, it might introduce a new concept, open up a vigorous scholarly debate, or report striking new findings. It transcends the boundaries of academic disciplines, re-fashioning our thinking around a scholarly issue and reaching out to far more readers than is typical, even to those outside the academic world.

Such an article appeared in the prestigious English journal of historical studies Past and Present in 1971. Written by the late E.P. Thompson (1924-1993), it quickly established itself as a model of scholarly excellence in the then relatively new and emergent field of social history. Entitled "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," it was an attempt to reconstruct one particular aspect of the mental universe of that remote era's common people.   

Like all great scholars Thompson built on the foundations laid by others, notably George Rudé. Whereas Rudé had explored the pattern of food riots and market disturbances in terms of their geographical distribution, frequency, level of violence and so on, Thompson took the investigation a step further to reveal the thinking behind them.

His conclusions about the behaviour of food-rioting crowds in eighteenth century England are now familiar to students of social history.  Far from acting primitively or instinctively out of hunger, participants justified their actions using sophisticated ideas. While committing hardly any violence against others, the market crowd responded with threats to high prices for flour, bread and meal. A typical ritual, influenced by the popular notion of the 'just price,' involved forcing vendors to sell produce at its former, lower price. This was something very much short of stealing, with entirely different motivation, as shown by the fact that the crowd often required a local official—sometimes even a magistrate— to oversee such sales.  Thompson notes that it was common for crowds to extract a signed agreement from the reluctant vendor to these price-setting episodes (though it is curious that in his original article he mentions only one such episode, from West Cornwall).  These attempts by crowds to sanction their interventions with a written (even if not legally binding) contract suggest complex beliefs on their part, strengthening Thompson's argument that mere economic reductionism cannot explain popular behaviour.  

In a less common action, crowds actually destroyed food stocks during times of shortage and high prices. To contemporary middling-rank observers, destruction of food under such circumstances seemed irrational and perhaps unpardonable. Yet as Thompson shows, it was justified by a belief that food was being hoarded: some sellers were believed to be withholding the necessities of life from the market on the speculation that greater profits could be made when prices went still higher, so the destruction of some food was intended as a punishment for hoarders who, it was thought, would then be persuaded to sell the rest of their supplies. 

Through analysis of historical primary sources—diaries, letters, posters, pamphlets, newspaper accounts and so on—Thompson empirically reconstructs the mental universe that informed these thousands of market disturbances. The set of ideas and values that validated such interventions he christened 'the moral economy,' a collection of notions that stood apart from the growing acceptance of market economics by the educated elite, the merchant class and the upper ranks of eighteenth century society. Instead, the crowd held fast to such ideas as not profiting from the misfortunes of one's fellows, taking care of the less fortunate in society, and governmental intervention to protect the consumer by regulating markets in at least a limited way.  

There was an historical background to these ideas.  Seventeenth century statutes codified in the Book of Orders of 1630, as well as some earlier regulations, had authorised magistrates to control or moderate the price of bread in times of dearth, so that they could force farmers to bring grain to market when it was scarce and see to it that the needs of the poor were being met. These laws were recalled by participants in the eighteenth century crowds to legitimise their extraordinary actions: if the magistrate failed to carry out his paternalistic duty to regulate the market in the public interest, then presumably they were entitled to act in his stead. This attitude was particularly obvious in their occasional revivals of the older, fading market practice of allowing the poor to buy small quantities of grain at 'off-market' prices before the general sales began. 

As might be expected, Thompson's article touched off a storm of controversy in some scholarly quarters. He replied to comments and criticisms in an essay entitled "The Moral Economy Reviewed" in his 1991 book Customs in Common. One of his aims was to respond to critics who thought that he had unfairly attacked the concept of free markets developed in the eighteenth century by, for example, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776).  Prominent amongst those who received a sharp Thompsonian counterblast were Istvan Hont, and Michael Ignatieff (then of Cambridge University, and now perhaps about to become the next Canadian Prime Minister).   In the essay Thompson commented that "In any case if I did father the term 'moral economy' upon current academic discourse, the term has long forgotten its paternity. I will not disown it, but it has come of age and I am no longer answerable for its actions."

In one respect at least I believe that Thompson was far too modest in this assessment: we continued to associate the concept of the 'moral economy' with his pioneering article decades after its first appearance in print. Nowhere were the concept's lasting impact and durable association with Thompson more evident than at the University of Birmingham in April 1992, where about thirty-five scholars met at a conference entitled "The Moral Economy Twenty One Years On." Largely organised by Drs. Andrew Charlesworth of Liverpool University and Adrian Randall of Birmingham University, it was held at the historic Cadbury family "Manor House" conference site. Thompson himself attended and was honoured by his colleagues for his many contributions to historical studies at a fine dinner complete with engagingly humorous remarks by his first graduate student, Dr. John Rule. In retrospect, for many of us in attendance the conference turned out to be a farewell to a friend and colleague, and a mentor of the first order of magnitude. E. P. Thompson died about a year and a half later, in August 1993. 

The historians attending the Birmingham conference examined the concept of the moral economy in their various contributions. Most were very positive and wanted to push this useful notion forward for use in other historical or national contexts, while some were quite critical: Was the moral economy a universal feature of human cultures, and did it predate the eighteenth century? Had Thompson given due attention to the role of female food rioters?  In his own contribution Thompson recalled his recent, fruitless search through all his old notes and papers for the origin of the term: it appeared that it was not in fact a contemporary eighteenth century expression, but one that he had coined himself as the opposite of 'market economy.' In the summer of 2000 many of these conference papers were published in an anthology edited by Randall and Charlesworth entitled Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority, a collection which reflects the breadth of the Thompsonian conceptual influence. 

Indeed, the concept of the moral economy so resonated with scholars in the historical and other social sciences that it became very widely used. Perhaps one of the first to deploy it in a non-English context was James Scott, Professor of Agrarian Studies at Yale University, who early on applied it to the peasant societies of Southeast Asia. For his part Thompson tended to resist such transpositions of the term, preferring instead to confine it to eighteenth century English (possibly European) market disturbances, and to some industrial disputes of the pre-trade union era.  However, he was swimming against the tide in this respect; the term seems to have universal application. To give one example from my own experience, I once asked my university class in Canada why the local electrical power company has a policy of not shutting off the electricity to customers who have not paid their bills during the winter months. The students suggested that this is an example of the moral economy at work: the potentially fatal consequences of a power cut-off outweigh market considerations in the coldest season of the year.

In the current global economic crisis the idea of the moral economy has taken on a deeper meaning for me. Here we are in 2009, facing economic meltdown on a world-wide scale: the credit crunch, collapsing stock market values, unemployment, a failure of consumer confidence, very large government bailouts of private corporations, and serious negative impacts on everything from pension plans to government indebtedness. After two decades or so of low interest rates, lower taxes, financial deregulation and government deficit aversion, we have a crisis. The notion of the unfettered free market has failed us, and governments across the globe have rediscovered Keynesianism, named after the English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) who famously outlined the governmental economic stimulus policies needed to counteract the high unemployment of the 1930s.  Now we witness various politicians taking us into a new era of interest rate cuts, government borrowing to fund stimulus projects, and stricter regulation of, in particular, the financial sectors of our economies. Robert Skidelsky, emeritus professor of Political Economy at Warwick University (where, incidentally, Thompson was founding Director of the School of Social History in the 1960s) and Keynes' biographer, has set out the case for this Keynesian renaissance in a series of widely published op-ed articles.  

Yet I can't help thinking of Thompson's idea in the context of the current troubles. Doesn't it contain elements more basic and generic than Keynesian analyses and attendant proscriptive policies? The concept of the moral economy seems to have three fundamental principles. First, there are times when ethical considerations outweigh the free operation of the markets. Second, the state through its agencies is responsible for timely interventions in the markets when they do not function in the public interest. Third, the markets are not autonomous forces acting on us and beyond our control—they are simply the sum of our collective activities, which include government regulations, direct actions like price setting, charitable relief endeavours and special provisions for the poor, and taxes. 

Our eighteenth century price-fixing predecessors refused to accept that they must go hungry because of market malfunctions following a bad grain harvest. While their attempts to solve their problems via disturbances and forced release of food supplies into the market are not specifically helpful to us in our current economic distress, they provide us with an example of reasoned refusal to accept the flawed economic rationalisations of political and intellectual elites.  

Here, I think, is E. P. Thompson's great contribution to the study of human relationships: he helped us to understand the belief structures that lay behind direct economic actions of the eighteenth century, rescuing the common folk who took part in them from what, elsewhere, he described as the "condescension of posterity." He articulated and explored the concept of the moral economy in a model of historical enquiry still appreciated today, especially by those in the field of social history. In addition, Thompson's article showed us an alternative to the conventional free market belief system that has, at times, contended with it for authority in the public sphere. 

During the stock market collapse of Autumn 2008, the American government temporarily banned the short-selling of financial institution shares, an interference in market operations perhaps in the spirit of the eighteenth century price-fixing crowd. There is an overly simplistic and over-used expression that has circulated for years in various business communities around the world: "Think outside the box." If we do want to think outside the conventional parameters of market philosophy, it might be time to re-examine Thompson's fine exposition of the moral economy of the crowd in eighteenth century England.—Fred Donnelly 

Copyright © Fred Donnelly 2009.

Selected Readings

David Eastwood, "History, Politics and Reputation: E. P. Thompson Reconsidered," History, vol. 85, (2000), pp. 634-654.

Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth-Century English Society (Oxford and New York: Opus, 1997).

Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984).

Harvey J. Kaye and Keith McClelland (eds.), E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

Bryan D. Palmer, E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (London and New York: Verso, 1994).

Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth (eds.), Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000).

Adrian Randall, Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest and Authority in Hanoverian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

George Rudé, The Crowd in History (New York: Wiley, 1964).

James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).

Robert Skildelsky, "We Forgot Everything Keynes Taught Us," Washington Post, 19 Oct. 2008; "An Impossible Crash Brought Keynes Back to Life," The Times, 23 Oct. 2008; "What Would Keynes Have Done?" The Independent, 22 Nov. 2008; "Teetering Between Keynes and Friedman," Globe and Mail (Toronto), 16 Sept. 2008..

E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (London: Merlin Press, 1991).

E. P. Thompson, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present, no. 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.


Review: Raymond Williams' Culture and Society

Culture and Society, by English cultural studies' founding father Raymond Williams, is a critical history of the concept of culture, a humane, rigorous and panoramic account with a timeframe ranging from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the 1780s to the mass media age of the 1950s. In this, the book that made Williams' reputation, he radically redefines 'culture' in terms that he continued to develop and explore in his later works, depicting it as a continually-evolving social process, a "whole way of life" as counterpoised to the "narrow sense" of high culture. His account, shaped by the adult education field in which he worked as a tutor, rejects conventional distinctions between 'high' and 'low' culture; art and literature are not to be privileged, but are instead part of the "general process that creates conventions and institutions, through which the meanings that are valued by the community are shared and made active."  

Williams challenges the elitist, nostalgic reading of literary culture developed by F. R. Leavis, making a case for the democratisation of a "great and human tradition" as a common inheritance.  Unlike fellow 'founding father' Richard Hoggart, who (like Leavis) condemned the rise of Americanised mass culture and lamented the passing of an older order in his book The Uses of Literacy (1958), Williams begins to take seriously that apparent scourge of post-war English society, mass culture. Although he dislikes the word "mass" for its derogatory associations, he distinguishes between good and bad popular art, dating the growth of popular culture not from fifties Americanisation but from the emergence of a middle-class reading public in the mid-eighteenth century, and noting that much of what is termed 'mass culture' is produced from above, for commercial or political gain. 

His analysis is broadly based around the etymology of five key terms which entered English discourse at the time of the Industrial Revolution: industry, democracy, class, art and culture, the latter shaped by its relationships with the other terms. Williams' approach is experiential, using individual studies of major protagonists, from Edmund Burke to F.R. Leavis, and William Cobbett to T.S. Eliot, to examine the "reactions, in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our common life," finding historical insight into contemporary social pressures in the "detail of experience." He uses these figures' corpora to recreate the zeitgeist of the historical moment, evoking lived history through the prism of experience, a method that he defends thus: "The effort which men had to make, to comprehend and to affirm, was indeed enormous; and it is the effort, the learning in experience which is important for us to know." 

The tensions between articulated experience and general conclusions lend a vertiginous quality to Williams' text, and indeed his perspicacious resistance to prejudice, orthodoxy, abstraction, and formulaic interpretation means that Culture and Society is no steady thesis. The issues are knotty and the tone is, necessarily, one of difficult common sense, but the vitality of this founding text of English cultural studies lies in its rigour, the dizzying sweep of its scholarship and, most of all, its clear-eyed, muscular optimism.—Jennifer Hodgson

Copyright © Jennifer Hodgson 2009.

Jennifer's article "Frothy Coffee: Continental Influence in Mid-Century England" appears elsewhere in this edition.--Ed.


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