The concept was set out by E. P. Thompson in an article, ‘The moral economy of the English Crowd (Past and Present,1971), and reprinted in Customs in Common (1991). He argued that, far from being merely responses to hunger or outbreaks of disorder, eighteenth-century food riots were a complex, rational form of direct action, the actions of the crowd being informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights and customs. Riots arose out of the popular mentalité. In an increasingly capitalist society, the rioters were looking back to an older paternalism which existed in a body of statute law, common law, and customary usage (set out, for example, in Charles I's Book of Orders of 1630). The paternalist model insisted
Foodstuffs should be marketed at or near their place of origin.This community consensus can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. Its guarantors were the ‘crowd’; the moral economy was not the value system of the few but of an entire plebeian society. Thompson argued that the crowd’s actions were orderly and restrained. He considered it significant that women frequently initiated riots, as they were most exposed to price fluctuations.
Marketing should be, as far as possible, direct from the farmer to the consumer.
Markets should be controlled. Dealers were hedged round with many restrictions. They must not buy standing crops, nor might they purchase to sell again (within three months) in the same market at a profit.
The needs of the poor should always take precedence over those of dealers and middleman. Millers and bakers were servants of the community, working not for a profit but for a fair allowance.
The market economy did not begin in the eighteenth century. Farmers, farm labourers, craftsmen, and artisans had always operated in a ‘market’, but it was a market subject to internal regulation. Significant changes took place in later eighteenth-century England, the result of rapid population growth, improved communications, industrialization, and war. The transport revolution opened up new regions to a trade in foodstuffs, above all grains. The development of ever-increasing volumes of grain shipments depended on a growing body of dealers and merchants (middleman) who had always been targets of popular hostility.
In addition, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) set out an increasingly influential free market ideology: prices should not be fixed by local regulations but should find their own level in the open market. Corn must be left to flow freely from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity; hence, the middleman played a necessary, productive and laudable role, and prejudices against forestallers were on a par with witchcraft beliefs.
1. Thompson was a sophisticated Marxist, but he was still a Marxist committed to a model of class struggle. Yet his ‘gentry/plebeian’ model ignored the ‘middling sort’. Recent research suggests that many of the middling sort shared the rioters’ hostility to ‘jobbers’ and ‘forestallers’.
2. There were too few riots in the eighteenth century to have sustained a tradition of food rioting. Why were some communities more willing to protest than others? ? Were there specific local factors rather than a generalized ideology of ‘moral economy’?
3. The transition from an economy primarily based upon local, partly regulated, exchange to a national, consumer-driven, unregulated market was neither fast nor uniform.
4. Is the concept, as subsequently interpreted, too wide and too vague? Does it apply to both agrarian and industrial workers? Can it be extended to other countries and regions such as India? (Thompson was doubtful.)
The debate continues