The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism
by Tim Rogan
Is capitalism immoral? Bill Gates, the second-richest man in the world, doesn’t believe that it has to be. In a recent interview, Gates argued that anyone with money has an ethical responsibility to do something positive with it. “Once you’ve taken care of yourself and your children, the best use of extra wealth is to give it back to society.” Gates himself lives this approach, recently giving away $4.6 billion in Microsoft shares to his philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “We are impatient optimists,” its webpage declares, “working to reduce inequity.”
Back in 2014, after reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Gates said he agreed that economic inequality was the central problem of our time. “However,” wrote Gates, “Piketty’s book has some important flaws.” According to Gates, ethical consumption and philanthropy—not Piketty’s preferred method of global taxation—were the best means to address inequality. Gates thinks we can invest in charities the same way we invest in any other business: using financial tools to maximize the profitability of philanthropic ventures that reduce inequality. Those fond of neologisms have dubbed Gates’s approach “philanthrocapitalism.” But there’s a much older term to use: moral economy.
From the eighteenth-century birth of humanitarianism to the rise of nineteenth-century philanthropy, market-based capitalism has long inspired vociferous claims that its most successful players should defend a globally minded morality. The invisible hand of the market, historian Thomas Haskell (quite controversially) argued, was both an economic mechanism and a form of social discipline. Likewise, in the second half of the nineteenth century, industrial capitalists like the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie used their wealth to fund philanthropic ventures. “[T]he millionaire will be but a trustee of the poor,” Carnegie wrote in his 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth.”
But this gentle, internal critique of capitalism has not been the only vision for a moral economy, and sharper critiques have not always been subsumed to utilitarian metrics and paternalism. Tim Rogan’s The Moral Economists seeks to recover one such alternative. He wants us to consider a forgotten tradition of radical thought that looked beyond the material effects of capitalism and focused on the moral and spiritual aspects of our economic lives. “We are the poorer intellectually, culturally, and even politically,” says Rogan, “for the disappearance of that alternative.”
The book uses the writing of three academics and intellectuals—R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E.P. Thompson—to reconstruct the history of an approach that, as Rogan puts it, strived to encompass “everything economics left out.” Tawney, Polanyi, and Thompson were part of a broader Atlantic movement that sought, in the words of the historian Howard Brick, to “transcend capitalism.” Writing from academic perches in the age of totalitarianism, Rogan’s trio were wary of collectivist answers to the social problems of capitalism. They were also critical of liberal solutions that emphasized individualism. Looking for a different language, they turned to history for examples of communities where social and individual ethics had not been subordinated to the logic of the market. In their telling, inequality and poverty were not just economic problems. They were the result of a deeper transformation in the relationship between ethics and the economy, one that shaped what it meant to be human under capitalism.
For Tawney, a Christian, Guild socialist, and an economic historian at the London School of Economics, the culprit was the Protestant Reformation. In his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), he argued that the Reformation transformed religion (and with it, morality) into a private matter and left capitalism “the regulating doctrine of public life.” Medieval and pre-capitalist religious societies were, for Tawney, a model of the possibilities for human fellowship that reached beyond the marketplace.
By the time the Viennese native Karl Polanyi began working on the critique of moral economy that would power his classic The Great Transformation (1944), he could instead define the problem of capitalism in relationship to the collapse of the world economy in 1929 and the subsequent rise of fascism. For Polanyi, it was the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century that had subjected three core areas of human life—land, labor and capital—to a utilitarian logic. The liberal market economy that emerged, Polanyi argued, placed economic rationality above the claims of morality and freedom.
When E.P. Thompson revised Polanyi’s account in the 1960s, the social historian offered a more persuasive historical analysis of the same transformation. By exploring solidarities that persisted under capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) revisited a subject familiar to earlier moral economists. Thompson, the great historian of agency, told the story of the relationship between ethics and economy during the Industrial Revolution turn to the communities of the field laborers, artisans, and weavers in
Rogan ends his narrative in the 1970s, when, he claims “the moral economists’ critique of capitalism ran out of steam.” From widespread industrial strikes to the
Rogan leaves the moral economy’s later travels out of his analysis. Paradoxically, it was only in the 1970s that the term “moral economy” was popularized, thanks to Thompson’s pioneering 1971 article on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” For Thompson, the moral economy wasn’t just an ethical conceit. It could also encompass politics.
Thompson, the son of a Methodist missionary in
Thompson’s interpretation of moral economy found a receptive audience among postcolonial scholars—members of the “subaltern school” and others—who transported it to the study of societies under European imperialism. In 1976, the anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott used the concept of moral economy to argue that Burmese and Vietnamese peasants’ “subsistence ethic” underwrote their resistance to colonial attempts to squeeze them into market economy. Thanks to Scott, the term “moral economy” had come to encompass much more than what Tawney and even Polanyi had allowed.
How to make capitalism moral became central to visions for a new world order after empire by intellectuals, policymakers, and postcolonial critics. The expanded understanding of moral economy travelled beyond the academy in a decade when the global economy itself seemed up for grabs. Oil and grain crises injected new urgency into questions about capitalism’s shortcomings, while a postcolonial lobby pressed the United Nations to pass a resolution calling for a New International Economic Order that would restructure the global economy. Anti-globalization movements and NGOs pressured multinational corporations to adopt more ethical forms of capitalism through boycotts and shareholder activism. Other suggested a model for “humanistic capitalism” that would use the global reach of transnational businesses to protect human rights and promote democratic values. Liberal intellectuals attempted to take the moral economy global, shifting their focus from the nation-state to the world as a whole. By the late 1970s the moral economy had moved outside the domain of politics altogether.
The understanding of the moral economy that survived the 1970s came from above, expressing itself in new idioms of corporate social responsibility and ethical consumption—a vision that Bill Gates, then a recent Harvard dropout tinkering on an Altair 8800 microcomputer, would soon inherit. This interpretation of moral economy became currency in a global discourse formulated by businessmen rather than government officials. In doing so, it severed the link to its radical origins, becoming part of a humanitarian project that took on utilitarian logic and fused ethics with a concern for the market.
In this sense, it is worth recalling one of Polanyi’s most important conclusions, written out of Rogan’s narrative: moral economies never emerge out of spontaneous human fellowship. Rather, moral economies are shaped by the state. It took immigration laws, regulations, and taxation to determine the relationships between ethics and the economy in the late 1970s, as they do today.
Despite its radical origins, in other words, the moral critique of the economy never transcended the realm of ethics. Every political economy has an ethics, but to truly reshape the ethics of the market we will need to reform it through state institutions. That requires us to leave the realm of the spiritual and go back to material question of redistribution.
Tehila Sasson is assistant professor of history at Emory College. She is currently completing a book manuscript, provisionally entitled We Are the World: Humanitarian Ethics, Global Markets and Everyday Life, about how and why ordinary people came to care about global suffering.