1 October 2008

Moral economy takes the sting out of things

Like many, I have been mesmerised by the drama unfolding in the world's financial institutions for the past couple of weeks. In fact I must confess that the word Schadenfreude has taken on a new depth of meaning. So it was pleasant to be reminded this morning by the Bishop of Liverpool about the economy that matters: the natural economy.

He quoted the poem Providence by George Herbert and discussed how Herbert's image of the bee is a suitable one for a sustainable economy:

'Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master's flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and hony run.'

This is a way of viewing resources and thinking about the economy that was commonplace before we left the land and were corrupted, mentally and physically, by capitalism.

As the new economic system spread throughout the country, and then the world, it replaced the older moral economy or the people, which had been supported by the church. According to the old ways it was a religious duty to work well and to be rewarded fairly. In the marketplace the church agreed a 'just price' and traders who exceeded this were excluded from the church and ostracised from society.

E. P. Thompson in his Making of the English Working Class describes the decades of riots that coincided with the enforcement of unjust markets in British society: 'the final years of the eighteenth century saw a last desperate efort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market.' (p. 73)

Working people took direct action, removing the grain and flour from stores and mills, taking it to the market, and selling it themselves for 'the popular price'. They then took the money earned (and even in one case the flour sacks) back to the rightful owners. They were challenging not the right to ownership but the sin of profiteering; they were enforcing what had long been recognised as a moral economy against the immoral market economy that was being imposed.

As the institutions of capitalism totter we need to challenge its supporting ideology. Our ancestors mocked the laws of supply and demand and punished those who charged people more just because they had bought up supplies in advance, or held them back to watch prices increase. We can only guess what they would had had to say about the commodity futures market.

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