Historian of the Left

The Moral Economy of the English Crowd, Redux

Yesterday British PM David Cameron characterized the riots that swept across England this past week as a “deep moral failure” and promised to restore a “stronger sense of morality and responsibility — in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He denied that the riots were the result of impoverishment in the face of the current economic recession: “This is not about poverty, this is about culture. . . . [The rioting was] not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Let’s assume for a moment that the conservative PM is correct: this week’s riots, the worst popular violence that England has seen in decades, were not about poverty, politics, or protest, but about “culture.” It is clear from his remarks that the problem lies in some deficiency or immorality of culture, especially among England’s youth. He implies that a moral English culture does not abide street violence — that, in fact, the marauding, black-hoodied youths lack culture, are uncivilized, and should be punished to the full extent of the law. Therefore the police will remain in force on English city streets until further notice.

In 1971 the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson published an article in Past & Present called “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in which he argued that the current understanding of the term “riot” as a spasmodic outbreak of irrational sentiments among the masses was a gross misunderstanding of what actually goes on during a riot. Taking the pre-industrial food riots of the 17th and 18th centuries as his example, Thompson showed that the motivations and conduct of the rioters could be reduced neither to economic despair (i.e. starvation) nor to spontaneous irrationality. Rioters actually demonstrated a high degree of organization, discipline, and restraint. They may not have planned in advance their protests against millers and farmers whom they suspected of withholding grain, but they did act according to certain rules of conduct and to a particular “moral economy” that dated back centuries. The popular consensus was that bread prices should be kept at a reasonable level with respect to the subsistence of the population and that if they got too high, then the people have a right to set them back to normal, by violent means if necessary. Involved in the food riots of early modern England was therefore a moral understanding about prices and consumption that had not yet been replaced by the free market ethos of Smithian political economy. Even in the 19th century, when industrialization changed forever the social composition of England, the old moral economy of the poor survived in various guises, not least of which was the organized labor movement. The point is that riots are complex events that draw on both new and traditional fears, hopes, and demands for justice that sometimes run contrary to the moral assumptions of the state and ruling classes.

There can be no equivocation about the fact that the burning, looting, and physical violence that has terrorized neighborhoods in London, Manchester, and elsewhere is unacceptable from the point of view of public safety. But Cameron’s unwillingness or inability to understand the deeper cultural significance of the riots means that we can expect to see more of this sort of street violence. Turning England into a police state, like what happened in the early 19th century amidst fears of a Jacobin revolt, cannot solve larger socioeconomic problems. Nor can the PM’s narrow concept of culture and his specious appeals to morality and responsibility.