Moral Economy

Contributors: JK.


The concept of a ‘moral economy’ originated with E.P. Thompson, one of the most consistently original British social historians of the twentieth century. He was prompted to do so by his disagreement with the long-standing disposition to present all manifestations of crowd activity as the work of a ‘mob’ and to portray them as an impulsive and essentially irrational resort to disorder stimulated by difficult economic conditions on the grounds that it failed to acknowledge that most protesting crowds had a definable set of limited objectives. Thompson maintained that it was ‘possible to detect in almost every eighteenth-century crowd action some form of legitimizing notion’ borne out of a desire to defend ‘traditional rights or customs’. It was the case, of course, that the riots and disturbances attributable to this cause sometimes resulted in the destruction of property and, on occasions, in personal injuries, but the grievances that prompted such actions were founded, Thompson maintained, ‘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.’

Though it has exerted profound influence on the way in which crowd behaviour in the eighteenth century has been interpreted, concern has also been expressed that the concept of the ‘moral economy’ has served to give greater legitimacy to economically motivated protest such as food riots, which were Thompson’s particular interest, over other forms of crowd behaviour. It is certainly the case that not all economically motivated protest fits his model. The self-interested activities of gangs of smugglers or of rural crowds violently resisting the efforts of the revenue authorities to enforce the law against illicit distillation are cases in point. The clashes of urban and rural factions that fought periodically at fairs or on the streets of Dublin simply to determine which was the strongest are another. And the extensive range of public demonstrations on festive and public occasions that were supportive of the existing political status quo, which numerically eclipsed all forms of protest, must also be exempted.

Despite this, the concept of the moral economy when employed as an analytical tool to comprehend the essentially conservative inclination of discommoded social interests that embarked on collective action in order to sustain traditional entitlements, to maintain extant economic arrangements, or to permit access to foodstuffs at moments of acute price inflation has considerable value. It is particularly useful in the Irish context, since, contrary to what Thompson perceived, Ireland sustained a tradition of food rioting tradition during the eighteenth century. Moreover, it was not the case that it diminished as the century progressed because there was insufficient political space in which those of a lower social class could bring pressure to bear on their rulers. The sectarian chasm between the largely Protestant landowning elite and the largely Catholic tenantry may have given Irish society its particular character but this did not preclude the existence of a concept of a moral economy that bears sustainable comparison with that elsewhere.

It is appropriate, because crowd behaviour took different forms in different locations, to examine the evidence of a moral economy separately in its rural and urban settings. Significantly, the food riot, which was the diagnostic feature of the moral economy, was largely confined to the urban environment. The full extent of this phenomenon is unclear, but it is apparent that it took place at times of food shortage and high price inflation. The first significant occurrence took place in the 1720s when, following a sequence of poor harvests that hit Dublin and Ulster hardest, crowds gathered in a number of Munster towns – Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Clonmel – to prevent the movement of grain out of the region and to ensure that it was made available to those who required it at a price less than the current inflated market price. The intervention of the authorities to curb such activity resulted in a number of fatalities in Cork city in 1729, but it had no obvious deterring effect. In 1741, when the southern part of the country was gripped by a severe famine, food rioters at Drogheda, Dublin, Clonmel, Galway, Sligo and Belfast sought to prevent the export of grain and to regulate the price of bread to ease the plight of local inhabitants, and further comparable episodes are identifiable elsewhere in 1756-7, 1784 and 1799.

Such actions were different and distinct from other manifestations of economically motivated urban crowd behaviour that shared an equally conservative moral impulse. This was true for example of the tactic, periodically manifest throughout the eighteenth century for gangs of unemployed weavers to target the wearers of imported fabrics for assault. The importers of foreign fabrics were also signalled out for attention on occasion; during the late 1770s and early 1780s, for example, a number of importers were seized upon by angry crowds and subject to the indignity of tarring and fathering as a warning to others. These tactics sometimes produced results, but their obviously political character raises a serious question as to whether they fit within the concept of the moral economy.

This point is true also of agrarian protest, which was the main source of collective action in the countryside. On the face of it, the efforts of agrarian organisations like the Houghers, active in Connacht in 1711-2, to prevent the spread of grassland at the expense of tillage, or of the Whiteboys, active in Munster and South Leinster in the 1760s, to prevent the closure of commons fit comfortably within the concept of a moral economy. The case is less easily made with respect of the Rightboys, whose primary target was the tithe paid the Church of Ireland clergy, and the Oakboys who opposed changes in the levying of local taxation. Each of these bodies was perceived by the hypersensitive Irish authorities as potentially if not actually seditious, which hardly qualifies them for inclusion within the moral economy as conceived by Thompson.

The unavoidable implication is that the concept may require some redefinition if it is to be applied to best advantage in the Irish context. This is all the more necessary since the claim, advanced by Thomas Bartlett, that the surge in violent rioting against the introduction of a militia in 1793, put an end to the moral economy in Ireland is incompatible with the continuing pattern of food rioting that persisted into the nineteenth century. What seems to have happened in the 1790s is that a developing pattern of rural protest became more politicised and more violent, but that this did not impinge greatly on the continuing tradition of food rioting. The survival of the latter until the Great Famine suggests that the moral economy was more enduring in Ireland than is generally acknowledged, and that it endured side by side with a more obviously political economy.

Bibliography. Edward Palmer Thompson, The poverty of theory and other essays (London 1978); C. H. E. Philpin (ed.), Nationalism and popular protest in Ireland (Cambridge 1987); Edward Palmer Thompson, The making of the English working class (London 1994); Edward Palmer Thompson, Witness against the beast: William Blake and the moral law (Cambridge 1994); Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the culture of politeness: moral discourse and cultural politics in early eighteenth-century England (Cambridge & New York 1994); Stephen Darwall, The British moralists and the internal “ought”, 1640-1740 (Cambridge 1995); J. B. Schneewind, The invention of autonomy: a history of modern moral philosophy (New York & Cambridge 1998); John Rawls, Lectures on the history of moral philosophy (Cambridge, Mass. 2000).

Dr James Kelly