The Moral Economy of the Peasantry



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Levi Fox Page 5/14/2016

*NOTE: The class for which this paper was written did not require references (except for quotes) to the books which had been read for the class. All references in this paper are to two works:
James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasantry, New Haven Press (1976)
E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” Past and Present, No. 50 (1971)
The paper itself follows, and appears as originally written.

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From Morality to Politics:

A Transition in Social Relations


Eminent nineteenth century historian Sir Henry Sumner Maine, the founder of social anthropology, tells us that over the course of early modern European history a profound change took place in the nature of relations between people and between social classes. This change took the form of an evolution from relationships based upon the notion of status to ones based upon the idea of contract. This transformation manifested itself in the adoption, by the upper classes, of such modern doctrines as political economy, an event that would have severe ramifications for interclass relations since the peasantry would for a long time cling to traditional notions of morality and right. This change can be viewed through the lens of two societies separated by time and distance, but linked in the struggles which each faced as a result of such transitions. In both eighteenth century England and colonial Southeast Asia, societies structured upon traditional moral economies were shaken up as elite classes adopted new socio-economic views while the peasantry continued to hold firm to their subsistence ethic.

Social relations in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century were largely governed by a paternalistic model inextricably linked with ideas of status. In exchange for lower class labor and rents, the upper classes provided a sort of patronage and protection for their dependents. More than that, both classes viewed this patronage as a duty owed by the upper class to the peasantry. At the beginning of the century both classes shared a common view of the validity of what E.P. Thompson has called the moral economy. One major indication of this shared moral economic viewpoint was the actions of the upper classes in support of the peasantry in order to keep the price of bread affordable for all. The elite run government passed and largely enforced strict regulations preventing middle class “hucksters” from overcharging, short weighting, and diluting the quality of bread. Furthermore, in cases where individual middlemen did attempt to make money at the expense of the poor the upper classes would often work to rectify the situation. At times when the price of bread rose sharply, bread riots did occur, yet the nobility seemed to accept such action as an established part of their social system and dealt with it quite leniently. This may be largely because “the [rioting] crowd derived its sense of legitimation…from the paternalist model” (Thompson p 95). Such riots were thus not riots against the prevailing paternalistic model, against social control on the part of the elite, but were riots simply designed to insure that the upper classes carried out their accepted traditional responsibilities, specifically that of keeping the price of bread reasonable. These riots in favor of, rather than against, the prevailing social order would continue so long as traditional status governed models of the moral economy and paternalism continued to predominate among both the upper and lower classes.

This longstanding social order broke down over the course of the eighteenth century as the upper classes began to adhere to new ideas of contract governed relations and political economy. “Few intellectual victories have been more overwhelming than that which the proponents of the new political economy won [specifically] in the matter of the regulation of the internal corn trade” in England over the course of the century (Thompson p 89). The new ideas espoused by Adam Smith and adopted by the upper classes argued for laissez faire policies and directly against government interference in the corn trade. “The breakthrough of the new political economy of the free market was also the breakdown of the old moral economy of provision” (Thompson p. 136). Thus the upper classes largely ceased regulations which had previously benefited the peasantry while also reacting much more harshly to bread riots, which were now seen as undo interference with the free market on the part of the peasantry. Instead of working to mollify the crowd by addressing those conditions which had brought about riot, the upper classes now responded to such actions with “repression [that] was legitimized… by the triumph of the new ideology of political economy” (Thompson p 129). The persistence of traditional bread riots “into the 1840’s and even later” (Thompson p 129) demonstrates that the prevalence of the idea of “the moral economy [among] the crowd took longer to die” (Thompson p 136). The change in the upper classes views and actions with regard to bread prices and riots is representative of the larger transition from a status driven model built upon hierarchy and mutual responsibility to one centering around ideas of contract and individual responsibility. As Thompson says, “the paternalist model was, of course, breaking down at many other points” (p. 87) during this period. “A characteristic pamphlet (of 1768) [which neatly summarizes the prevailing ideas of the old moral economy] exclaimed indignantly against the supposed liberty of every farmer to do as he likes with his own” (Thompson p 86). The ultimately triumphant ideology of political economy, with its notions of free market individualism, would argue vehemently for just such a liberty.

A similar transformation took place in Southeast Asia during the period of European colonization, as traditional landholding beliefs (and often traditional landholders themselves) were supplanted by the Europeans. Traditional Southeast Asian society was predicated on the idea of reciprocity between social classes and the shared notion of peasant subsistence being paramount. The “precapitalist [read pre-colonial] normative order was based on the guarantee of minimal social rights” for the lower classes in exchange for the goods and services they gave up to the elite (Scott p. 184). James C. Scott writes that “it is the right of subsistence that defines the key reciprocal duty of elites, the minimal obligation that they owe those from whom they claim labor and grain” (p. 182). As Scott seems to indicate throughout his book, so long as the peasantry was able to subsist, they appear to have cared little for how much of their surplus was taken by whichever upper class patron they had ties to. It was only during times of bad harvests, when the lower classes could not be sure of having enough rice to live, that they grew defensive about their harvests. Attempts by the upper classes to extract rents and portions of the harvest during such periods would often times result in various forms of peasant refusals to pay or even full flung riots. However, in the pre-colonial era, such a turn of events would be unlikely as landlords, who shared the moral economic views of the peasantry, would often “reduce the share of the harvest which they claim and open their granaries to hungry tenants” during times of dearth (Scott p. 161). Despite bad harvests and subsequent food shortages, such upper class actions would reaffirm the societal order by displaying not a sympathy for lower class plight, but the execution of an expected reciprocal duty. This upper class flexibility of demand in the face of ecological and economic instability served as the fulfillment of their social obligations under the prevailing status based, paternalistic social order.

It was the arrival of European colonial powers, and the ideas of contractual relations and political economics which accompanied them, that brought about a change in the nature of social relations in Southeast Asia. With the arrival of colonial governance the relationship between landholder and tenant “lost much of its protective, paternalistic content and became more impersonal and contractual” (Scott p 65). The flexibility of the upper classes “grew more explicit and rigid” as their concerns shifted from “the minimal needs of the tenant” to “the fixed claim of the landholder” (Scott p. 65). In addition due to the presence of a strong colonial government prepared to support contractual obligations above moral ones it was no longer a practical necessity (as it had been before) “to conform to the moral expectations of the community at large” (Scott p 170). The upper class no longer needed to base their social position upon status, and instead became determined to extract stable, contractually determined rents from the peasantry year after year. However, while the socio-economic views of the landholders shifted, those of the peasantry did not. The lower classes continued to believe that “contracts that militated against [a person’s] right to subsistence… were [always] unjust and invalid” (quoted in Scott p. 177). “The peasant reaction to this transformation in Southeast Asia” (Scott p 67) resembles that of the English peasantry with lower class riot riots that “appeal in almost every case to traditional practices” and “are best seen as defensive reactions” to the perceived attack against the historic social order (Scott p. 10). The traditional moral economy of the society at large continued to exist only among the peasantry, as the upper classes quickly and firmly latched onto to the contractually oriented, political economic philosophy which the colonial powers, having only adopted it themselves a century before, now brought to their newly won territories.



In both eighteenth century England and colonial Southeast Asia modern socio-economic models supplanted traditional conceptions of social justice among the elite groups while the peasantry continued to hold fast and often riot in favor of a return to historic relations. In England, the status based, paternalistic social order which prevailed at the start of the eighteenth century was by the end of that century replaced in the hearts and minds of the nobility by the political economic thinking of Adam Smith and the contractually based, free market individualism which accompanied that thinking. A hundred years later, this philosophy was transported along with colonial governments to Southeast Asia, where a moral economy similar to England’s old social structure had existed previously. In both cases, the lower classes vigorously resisted such changes to their way of life, as their former patrons must have seemed to them suddenly indifferent toward the subsistence ethic which had previously governed relations. Indeed, traditional social relations based on paternalism, reciprocity, and status were replaced by a “new political economy… disinfested of intrusive moral imperatives” (Thompson p. 90) instead basing society on the principles of laissez faire economics, individual responsibility, and legally binding contractual relations.


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