E.P. Thompson’s essay “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” questions the usual portrayal of eighteenth century food riots as “spasmodic episodes” bereft of deeper, sustained political consciousness and activity. Riot, a “simple four-letter word” (185), paints a picture of popular history composed of occasional social disturbances spurred in lock-step with some sort of economic stimuli that caused “rebellions of the belly”: a bad harvest, unfavorable weather, trade disruptions (186). As opposed to such accounts, Thompson offers his own views based on the “moral economy of the poor”:
It is possible to detect in almost every eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimizing notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs and in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. On occasion this popular consensus was endorsed by some measure of licence afforded by the authorities. More commonly, the consensus was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference.
But these grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. This in its 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.
These moral economies and the direct actions embedded in its practices and conceptions impinged widely on economic relations and governmental thought in those days—both directly and indirectly. “The word ‘riot’ is too small to encompass all this” (189). Thompson traces the contours of the bread-nexus—like the cash-nexus of the Industrial Revolution—during a period in history in which “profit” was still seen as more often beyond the pale of standard communal relations. Millers and bakers were seen as servants of the community and middlemen were immediately suspect characters. Underwritten by ideas of customs and rights, the paternalist model tightly controlled economic practices and relations around food with emergency measures, but these mechanisms began to break down. One reason of the breakdown was the growing hegemony of the new political economy that came “disinfested of intrusive moral imperatives” (202).
People subject to dwindling access to food began mobilizing for “price-setting”—direct actions that literally (by force or threat of force) set the price of bread or wheat. Consumers blocked export convoys on the roadways. The novelty? “For in one respect the moral economy of the crowd broke decisively with that of the paternalists: for the popular ethic sanctioned direct action by the crowd, whereas the values of order underpinning the paternalist model emphatically did not” (212). “The power to set a price upon grain or flour rested, in emergency, half-way between enforcement and persuasion” (225).
As evidence of the political undercurrent of the crowds, Thompson notes that violent actions against millers rarely looted supplies: sometimes they reset the price of purchase, other times the actions were wholly punitive against profiteering, so there’s a disciplining effect at work that’s far more lasting than the fleeting action itself. Occupying positions that allowed them an near-birds-eye view of the economy—porters, dock workers, mill workers—the poor could easily monitor movements and production of grain. Thompson notes that women were often the instigators of the revolts.
The food riots did not require a whole lot of organization, but it did rely on a consensus of popular support if, at times, unspoken (238). In other words, social protest derived “from a consensus as to the moral economy of the commonweal in times of dearth” (246). The basis of this consensus and moral economy was simple: it was unnatural and immoral for profit to reign over the dire necessities of subsistence; instead, food provision should remain at a customary level even if there’s less to go around. Old habits die-hard: “The death of the old moral economy of provision was as long-drawn-out as the death of paternalist intervention in industry and trade” (253). In the end, Thompson finds, “Dearth always comes to such communities as a profound psychic shock. When it is accompanied by the knowledge of inequalities, and the suspicion of manipulated scarcity, shock passes into fury” (257).
In revisiting his essay, Thompson explains the goal of the original essay on the moral economy:
My object of analysis was the mentalite, or, as I would prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and, indeed, superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in actions in the market; and the relations – sometimes negotiations – between crowd and rulers which go under the unsatisfactory term of “riot”. (260)
Thompson clarifies that he wanted to explore how such dynamics play out in the particular “field-of-force” of eighteenth-century English relations (261). And beyond accounts that emphasize economically oriented explanations—note: beyond not against—Thompson aims to explore how peoples’ behavior was influenced and changed by “custom, culture and reason.” Imbued with such cultural and customary forces riots were “a dynamic constituent moment in the system of property and power,” though it takes different forms according to the particularities of geography and history (294).
Nonetheless, Thompson notes the striking similarity between English and Indian food riots in which people rallied to block exports, force down prices, and pressing government into action. What was called “looting” of food shops was not for consumption, but for destruction—punishing and humiliating the profiteers and hoarders. “Thus one function of riot was to moderate the appetite for profit unleashed by the developing ‘free market’” (294). Still, Thompson is careful to ward against taking his ideas of “moral economies” as an alternative and universal set of rememdies against the dearth of famine induced by “free market” economies. “It is exactly against such universalist dogma (the ‘free market’) that I have been arguing” (303).
Thompson spends dozens of pages fending off his critics with his famously acerbic missives. Besides critics beholden to the logical but counter-empirical theories of Adam Smith and showing the power of “market” as a mystifying metaphor of capitalist process (305), he spends a good deal of pages on backing his contested claim that women did indeed play a formative role in the English food riots. He concludes:
For two hundred and more years these food riots were the most visible and public expressions of working women’s lack of deference and their contestation with authority. As such these evidences contest, in their turn, the stereotypes of feminine submission, timidity, or confinement to the private world of the household. (335)
Finally, he returns to further clarifying his notion of moral economy amid its growing application in diverse academic fields.
My own usage [of “moral economy”] has in general been confined to confrontations in the marketplace over access (or entitlement) to “necessities” – essential food. It is not only that there is an identifiable bundle of beliefs, usages and forms associated with the marketing of food in time of dearth, which it is convenient to bind together in a common term, but the deep emotions stirred by dearth, the claims which the crowd made upon the authorities in such crises and the outrage provoked by profiteering in life-threatening emergencies, imparted a particular “moral” charge to protest. All of this, taken together, is what I understand by moral economy. (337-338)
Thompson reviews some of the more recent (at the time) applications of “moral economy” by peasant studies—particularly those of James Scott and Michael Watts. He celebrates the latter, especially, for examining the norms and practices of an imperative collective subsistence, but without sentimentality. And he notes that Scott is particularly adept at applying the concept to explore how class relations are variously and intricately negotiated.