Opinion Articles


‘Responsible capitalism’: a return to ‘moral economy’ in England?


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Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband opened 2012 by calling for 'responsible capitalism'. In a speech on 'moral capitalism' delivered at New Zealand House, London on 19 January this year, Cameron envisaged a market 'fair as well as free', one in which 'the power of the market and the obligations of responsibility come together'.

This theme was discussed on BBC's Newsnight recently, where Eric Hobsbawm and Tristram Hunt explained the primacy of 'irresponsible' capitalism today. While Hobsbawm and Hunt railed against capitalism's current sins, the subtext of the debate emerged. It concerned the English left's broader position on the 'fairer' consumer capitalism favoured by the current Labour leadership, one informed by a co-operative ethic dating back to nineteenth century reformers like Robert Owen (and beyond).

I purposely refer to the 'English left' because, firstly, the theme of fair market practices has a distinctly English lineage which is often overlooked and, secondly, because recent events - notably the question of Scottish independence and the English riots of last summer - have served to underscore the distinction between England and the other parts of the Union.

It is worth exploring the relationship between the rhetoric of 'responsible capitalism' and 'moral economy'. E.P. Thompson popularised the latter term in his seminal 1971 article 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century'. Thompson, a Marxist with a Methodist background, prefaced his piece with the biblical proverb 'He that hideth up corn shall be cursed amongst the people'. He outlined how the late eighteenth century political economy of Adam Smith disinfested economics of its moral imperatives, comparing prejudice against the middleman as a superstition akin to witchcraft.

This thinking, which has become dominant today, clashed with popular conceptions of fairness in the marketplace. Thompson's key argument was that 'mob' actions of the day were often inspired by righteous anti-profiteering sentiment rather than loutish violence. The 'legitimising notion' of English crowd action, based on the defence of traditional rights and customs, often served to directly overturn market abuses in the interests of the community.

Since then, the term moral economy has been used in divergent contexts and periods. Like responsible capitalism, moral economy has become shorthand for the idea of customs antagonistic to profit. It has described modern rural societies in South-East Asia and Canada's welfare-based economy compared to the United States.

Understandably, some view these later manifestations of moral economy as anachronistic. Demonstrations in defence of moral economy differ from the clashes at factory and mine in the industrial era; and from modern political ideologies and markets today. As Thompson admitted, the moral economy was 'not "political" in any advanced sense.'

Yet neither was agitation for moral economy 'unpolitical', he said. Based on a 'highly sensitive consumer consciousness', Thompson claimed that embryonic English capitalism was regulated by an 'irascible market which might at any time dissolve into marauding bands who scoured the countryside with bludgeons or rose in the market place to set the price at the popular level'. Far from mere 'rebellions of the belly', England's food riots were based on popular consensus against illegitimate and unscrupulous economic practices.

With recent reports suggesting the 2011 English summer rioters were more politically motivated than previously thought, should we guard against dismissing the pilfering of widescreen televisions and the like as merely materialist 'rebellions of the telly'?

Eric Hobsbawm warned against attributing too much political motivation to these demonstrations. But his choice of words revealed the discursive shift within the English left. He shied away from explaining the riots in conventional Marxist terms as the product of 'alienation': a reaction against the inability to determine the character of one's actions under capitalism.

Instead, Hobsbawm argued the 2011 rioters were 'demoralised' by the current economic malaise, language that echoed the current moral approach of capitalism's discontents in England. Assailers of capitalism in the Occupy Movement and UK Uncut insist they are not 'political', and yet neither are they 'apolitical'. Often Church leaders are the most outspoken against capitalist injustices while the English political left complain about pricing, yet accept market capitalism implicitly.

Does this signal a return to an England where 'marauding bands' and the prospect of a 'thundering good riot' are condemned by both the paternalist political order and the non-violent dissenting left, yet rioters periodically deliver one in the eye for large profiteers by looting and violence?

The answer is no, as David Cameron knows well, because responsible capitalism, like moral economy, is the stuff of pantomime in an age in which England's place in global capitalism rests on the continued primacy of the City of London, bonuses and all.

Ed Miliband should note that moral economy is an inherently conservative language of protest. And no one does Merrie Old England quite like the Conservatives, past or present. Engels derided the mid-nineteenth century Tory Young Englandersfor clinging to an obsolete feudal vision. But sentimentality for 'the way things were' before greed intervened persisted on the English right even during the Thatcher years, when the Institute of Economic Affairs spoke of morality around markets.

Labour can trace its responsible capitalist roots back to Owenite utopianism and beyond, but Ed Miliband will never trump David Cameron on the harvest-home-and-roast-beef of Christian pastoral. That is what underpins, to varying degrees, both the terms under consideration. In articulating Labour's case, Miliband should therefore discard the all-too-malleable 'responsible capitalism'. A la Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night , the Prime Minister likes to strike the role of the defender of 'cakes and ale' against state puritanism. But according to Miliband the 'basic difference' between Labour and the Tories is exactly this dichotomy between the party which 'wants the government to step out of the way', and the one which 'wants the government to step in and defend the public'. It is a distinction which demands a more fitting and challenging term.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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