Mob rule with an eye for morals

Moral Economy and Popular Protest

August 4, 2000

In 1971, Edward P. Thompson's classic article on the moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th century added a new concept to historians' vocabulary. In his view, food riots were not the result of dire material pressure provoking disorganised mobs to threaten the stability of Hanoverian England. Rather, disciplined crowds acted in pursuit of clear objectives shared by the community, legitimised by custom and by legislation. They demanded a fair price for bread, set by a regulated market in order to protect the consumer from exploitation, following long-standing legal precepts and custom. In other words, the rioters were defending a "moral economy", sustaining a particular notion of social order, against the principles of "political economy" and the unfettered operation of the market. In the past, the moral economy had been accepted by rulers and ruled as part of a paternalistic order against the forces of commercial exploitation. By the end of the 18th century, the elite was no longer convinced and consensus was giving way to contestation in food riots. The crowd attempted to force local justices to apply the principles of moral economy, and the central government attempted to enforce the norms of political economy.

Thompson's interpretation has led to considerable debate among historians of 18th-century England. He argued that the term should not be used indiscriminately, by extending it to other features of the 18th century, or to different times and places, without taking account of specific historical circumstances. Others were less cautious and applied the term to other features of the period, such as labour protest in support of fair wages and entitlement to welfare provision. It has also been extended outside England, to notions of reciprocity and obligations in peasant societies.

This collection of essays arises from a conference in 1992 to mark the "coming of age" of the concept of the moral economy. Although it is dedicated to the memory of Thompson, it is by no means an uncritical celebration of his argument. When did food riots start, and where did the ideas of moral economy emerge? These are the central questions of the collection. Buchanan Sharp points to the food riots of 1347 and suggests that the regulatory system of moral economy emerged in the late Middle Ages. In contrast, John Bohstedt claims the riots of 1740 were inventing new traditions not appealing to old ones. Douglas Hay shows that judges were by no means united in their interpretation of Tudor laws, and legal ambiguity created the need for accommodation between crowds and magistrates. John Rule and Roger Wells are respectively sceptical and convinced that industrial artisans engaged in legal disputes, or villagers defending their customary rights, had a clear sense of a moral economy. The concept is transported across the Atlantic by Ed Countryman, where it influenced the politics of revolutionary America. In 19th-century India, food riots were as severe a threat to order as they were in 18th-century England. David Arnold shows how the governing elite's policy of non-interference in the market could not survive threats of riot and famine. The essays do not stick to a single view; they are open-minded and argumentative, both with each other and with Thompson.

Since the conference, debates over the emergence of a market economy have moved in two directions, which are only hinted at in the present collection. Much writing on the 18th century now rests on a careful analysis of how the strains of a commercialised society were negotiated, how the culture of the market was understood and how the problems of risk and failure were reduced. There was not a simple shift towards political economy by a new commercial bourgeoisie, destroying the community norms of the lower orders. Merchants and traders themselves were exposed to immense risks of business failure and legal action in much the same way as working people who became more dependent on a commercial food market. As the editors remark, Thompson paid very little attention to the culture of this "middling sort".

In the past decade, historians of 18th-century England have moved away from a concern for popular protest and food riots, which were undoubtedly serious threats to public order and security, and have developed an interest in understanding the ways businessmen created a reputation, how they reduced risk through insurance and how they developed a new political understanding of relations within a commercial society. This involved more than the emergence of a political economy of individual self-interest; it rested on sociability in clubs and societies. The triumph of political economy was more a complex process of negotiation and cultural compromise than a simple dominance of a crude form of economic individualism.

The past ten years has also seen the shining of the historical spotlight on the politics of consumption. The essay by Bohstedt alludes to some of the more recent approaches. He prefers the term "provision politics" to a simple binary opposition between moral and political economy. Others might prefer the term "material politics". The supply and consumption of all goods in all periods are permeated with cultural assumptions and forged through power relations. The editors' comment that the moral economy was not entirely regulated, any more than the market economy was entirely free: they were both a mixture, reflecting the power balance between those with commodities to sell and those wishing to buy, and the concerns of the state for public order. Historians are now starting to analyse these areas with much greater attention to precise historical circumstances - as Thompson recommended.

The shift away from the regulation of the market in grain to the repeal of the corn laws in 1846 was not a simple triumph of the political economy.The cheap loaf was a cultural icon of British superiority, a moral right of British workers to something superior to the black bread eaten by unfortunate Germans. The provision of cheap or affordable pure water, milk,gaslight and fares could not simply be left to the unfettered operation of the market. The result might be monopoly power and exploitation of the consumer. The market remained a cultural construct, predicated on the freedom of small firms and individual consumers to interact and to create an active civil society, which would be threatened by simple pursuit of economic advantage.

Nineteenth-century lawyers were concerned about the hold of shopkeepers over powerless customers, especially poor women attempting to feed their families. Consumers had more or less knowledge about the standard of commodities, whether they were adulterated or pure, harmful or healthy. Commodities were permeated with moral assumptions. Should newspapers be cheap and untaxed, or would the outcome be subversion? Should beer and tobacco be heavily taxed to keep workers from dependence, or should they be allowed their pleasures? These issues were important in the past, and have many equals now, such as debates over BSE and genetically modified foods. Thompson considered food riots a highly visible form of martial politics. For consumers might attempt to secure pure food through a cooperative movement; or turn to the state to regulate commodities such as water and milk. Support for free trade entailed more than acceptance of the laws of political economy; it involved the rights of the consumer to cheap food as the basis of the political order.

These new approaches extend and complicate Thompson's account of the rise of a market economy. Any conference on the concept of the moral economy organised in 2000 would now look rather different, with a greater interest in the cultural meanings of a commercial economy and the changing forms of material politics. When concepts, like children, come of age, they leave home and make their own way in the world, sometimes falling into undesirable company. Thompson's offspring will surely survive in the rough-and-tumble of the historical profession, and many of the issues he raised on the rights of consumers, remain important today.

Martin Daunton is professor of economic history, University of Cambridge.

Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority

Editor - Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth
ISBN - 0 333 67 184 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 280

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