Category Archives: crowds

moral economy

“Riot was a calamity.  The ‘order’ which might follow a riot could be an even greater calamity.”–E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” 50.

Rereading Thompson in the wake of this week’s riots, I was interested to see him distancing the behavior of rioters from a too narrowly reductive and rationalist language of deliberate political gestures. Instead of assuming that plebeian riots are a form of disruption of “the way things work,” he neatly reverses the analysis by showing rioters as trying to restore traditional understandings of collective rights and reciprocities, traditions that elites disrupted or ignored at their peril.

In other words, eighteenth-century riots occurred at moments when political and economic institutions were felt (for whatever reason) to be losing  legitimacy, and when the men and women populating those crowds felt that they needed to defend “traditional rights or customs” in particular ways.

As such, Thompson concedes,

“while this moral economy cannot be described as ‘political’ in any advanced sense, nevertheless it cannot be described as unpolitical either, since it supposed definite, and passionately held, notions of the common weal–notions which, indeed, found some some support in the paternalist tradition of the authorities; notions which the people re-echoed so loudly in their turn that the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people.” (78-9)

For those who would try to understand such moments of collective behavior in the present, Thompson’s equivocal description of the riot as not-quite-political/not-quite-unpolitical seems more persuasive than what I’m currently seeing and hearing from pundits like Zygmunt Bauman, who seem to be finding it hard to analyze what happened.  But what notions of the “common weal” might have been held by this week’s rioters?

DM