Moral Economies of Wellbeing

On April 22, 2012 by admin

Supriya Chaudhuri

For reasons still unclear to me, I was asked to speak at a research workshop at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, on ‘Moral Economies of Wellbeing’. Neither a historian nor an economist, I was ill-equipped for the exercise. I undertook it in the belief that every individual, however unpracticed in the disciplines of the social sciences, should be possessed of an opinion as to what constitutes a moral economy and what is implied by well-being. It is a part of morality to think about these issues, though it may not add to general profit or wellbeing for me to hold forth on them. My reflections are partial and open to revision.

The phrase ‘moral economy’, in the specific context of ‘the moral economy of the poor’, was put into circulation by E. P. Thompson in a famous essay published in Past and Present in 1971. As we know, it was immediately applied to a quite different, non-European setting by James C. Scott in his 1976 book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), and it became one of the principal terms in a still-inconclusive debate about the motives of action in market- and non-market economies, as illustrated in a much-cited article by William Booth, ‘On the Idea of the Moral Economy’ (American Political Science Review, 88 (1994) 653-667). It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that the confidence with which Thompson used the phrase was bred of a conviction both that we would understand what he meant by it in his special historical instance, and what it might mean as a term in ethics. Twenty-one years later, at a conference in the University of Birmingham (1992: see E. P. Thompson in Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth, Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority, 2000) Thompson was unable to locate the origin of the term from his notes, but felt convinced that he had coined it as the opposite of ‘market economy’. Yet it had appeared long before, in the title of a book by the American philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, The Moral Economy, published in 1909. Perry, who later came to be known for his support of the interest theory of value, offers in this early work a largely Aristotelian account of the moral organization of life, an ideal oikonomia based on ethical principles, and upon an idea of justice arising out of the reconciliation of the widest-possible range of interests. It may indeed be suggested that our theme today, the moral economy of wellbeing, is sited in the space between philosophy and economics, between Perry’s philosophical account of the good life, eudaimonia, and Thompson’s social-historical examination of the rationale for a form of economic action, the food riots of eighteenth-centuryEngland.

It may be recalled that the controversy around Thompson’s article largely centred on his presumed hostility to the free-market doctrines of Adam Smith, the most important economic theorist of eighteenth-century England, and in fact it is this opposition, between moral economies and market economies, that has largely sustained the debate till the present day. Booth’s article on ‘The Idea of the Moral Economy’, for example, criticizes the notion of ‘embeddedness’ attributed to pre-market economies by Karl Polanyi (in The Great Transformation, 1944), and argues that the principles of contractual exchange in market economies have an equally embedded and moral character. Polanyi’s notion of embeddedness made much of the presumed network of rights and obligations in an agricultural economy where food production and food entitlement, for example, were linked. Booth argued that market economies also have an inbuilt structure of contractual obligations. What is at stake in much of this debate is a certain notion of distributive justice, of justice as fairness: which is why other sections of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice than the one in your reading file (for example, the section on equality and liberty) might have been relevant to this problem. In this respect Sen’s idea of justice owes something to Rawls, whose pupil he was, but it is he who of all modern economic philosophers has attempted most consistently to reconcile justice with happiness. Justice requires, one might say, that a moral economy be directed towards, and be capable of achieving, wellbeing.

I will begin by briefly considering some points in the discussion of justice in Book V of  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1129b 3-5) that may have a bearing upon market economies. Aristotle is at this place talking about particular justice and injustice, that is, justice exercised as one virtue among others by individuals with respect to goods such as honour, money and safety. Aristotle makes it clear that in such cases, injustice (adikia) is rooted in greed, the desire to have more than others (pleonexia). If one knowingly contrives an unjust distribution out of a motive of gain, one is adikos and pleonektes, and a society ruled by greed and competitiveness is therefore likely to be an unjust society. Yet it as Bernard Williams notes (in Moral Luck, Cambridge UP 1981, 92-93), Aristotle does not sufficiently characterize pleonexia here: it is, we can see, not in itself a motive, but a product of desire for specific goods, such as honour or fame on the one hand, and money or property on the other. Williams finds Aristotle’s identification of injustice with pleonexia inadequate and wrong (‘a mistake, one which dogs Aristotle’s account’), but it is worth our asking whether this brief discussion does not point the way to a deeper understanding of justice as fairness, and of the distribution of goods as key to our perception of a just society.

The point is relevant to a contrast between moral economies and market economies, though there is, regrettably, no universally accepted definition of the moral economy. If it is a system in which moral predispositions, norms and habits guide economic choices and behaviours, it could be argued (as by Russell Keat and Andrew Sayer) that every economy has a set of moral predispositions governing it, and thus that ‘every economy is a moral economy’ (Keat; building on Booth). Moreover, while Polanyi’s thesis about the embeddedness of economic practices in pre-market societies and the threat posed to such embeddedness by the commodification of labour and the emergence of a market society obviously has important implications for the contrast of moral and market economies, it is equally clear that many practices common in pre-market societies, such as slavery and patriarchy, are immoral in a lay use of the term. One could, further, argue that while market economies are generally characterized as being non-moral in that their operations are ostensibly freed of moral compulsions, the secular sphere in which such economies operate may promote an increased social compulsion to achieve ‘universal’ wellbeing, which then comes to inflect the apparently unregulated pursuit of profit at the cost of others (i.e., pleonexia). Indeed, as many have pointed out, Adam Smith was working simultaneously on his Wealth of Nations (1776) and his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; 6th edn. revised 1789), regarding the latter as his more important work, and arguing in it that human beings in their everyday transactions with others develop fellow-feeling and sentiments like gratitude and pity, seeking to regulate their behaviour in relation to the human communities of which they are part. So, finally, should we revive the archaic sense of the term ‘moral economy’, using it simply to describe the just regulation of the moral sentiments, a sort of housekeeping of the self in relation to others, to achieve happiness, i.e. eudaimonia or wellbeing? Which of these meanings are we to choose?

It is no part of my intention here to analyse at length the issues raised in the debate between (say) Polanyi and Booth, or to comment on the correctness or otherwise of E. P. Thompson’s reading of crowd behaviour in the eighteenth century. I offer it as my opinion that one issue skirted by these historians and political theorists in their study of pre-market and market societies is the complicated investment of power in social relations. More attention to existing imbalances in power, both in the ‘embedded’, pre-market network of duties, obligations and needs, and the non-embedded play of market forces, might have produced a more accurate picture of the real conditions of labouring classes, women, disadvantaged groups, non-workers, and so on. This is a point made by critics of classical male political and economic theory such as – very differently – Martha Nussbaum and Mary Midgley.

I would like to concentrate on one idea that seems to be crucial both to a consideration of the moral economy and to the desire for wellbeing, and this is the idea of justice. It is an idea about which everyone, we may say, may be permitted to have an opinion. In his deeply considered response to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice, 2009) has argued that justice is grounded in fairness, but this cannot be a transcendental fairness agreed on in some mythical Original Situation, under a veil of ignorance (as Rawls conceives of it), but a fairness painfully, perhaps inadequately, won from experience and from circumstantial reality. Sen has a good example of the problem of justice in his fable of the three children disputing their entitlement to one flute (one has made it, another can play it, a third has greatest need of its solace). Justice in such a context can only be comparative, not absolute justice: but in an increasingly unjust world, it is the only kind that we can claim with any moral justification.

Our existence in this world teaches us that happiness or wellbeing is not just a matter of moral action or deserts, but a matter of luck, as the Greeks realized when they called the good life eudaimonia. The difficulty of separating the good life from good fortune is acutely discussed by Bernard Williams (Moral Luck, 1981) and Martha Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge UP, 1986). That I have the chance to be happy may depend most of all on my station in life, my freedom from disease, my possession of my senses, my safety from enemies. It may also depend on my possession of a moral sense. There is no agreement, however, on the meaning of the word ‘moral’ in moral philosophy (or economy). In After Virtue (2nd ed., Duckworth 1985) Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out that moral terms no longer mean what they did to the Greeks and their immediate successors. To him it appeared that as with other forms of knowledge in the wake of a nuclear disaster, in the case of moral philosophy what we possess are the fragments of a conceptual scheme almost wholly bereft of its past significance. MacIntyre’s philosophical endeavour, therefore, has been to revive a discussion of the ‘virtues’ of Aristotelian moral philosophy, attempting both to situate their meanings in history and to examine what they could signify in a contemporary context. However, the ‘goods’ of life that conduce to wellbeing are not all of them moral attributes. Moreover, one could enjoy a form of happiness (though not the eudaimonia of the Greeks, which is critically connected to moral luck) even when deprived of many of the ‘goods’ of life (thus we could instance the paradoxical case of the ‘happy slave’, or the relative happiness of the poor peasant over the rich merchant). Nevertheless, it is generally supposed that a degree of material comfort and mental sufficiency are necessary to wellbeing. In addition, one must possess the capability of being happy, that is, of recognizing one’s own wellbeing, which many suicidal possessors of the ‘goods’ of life clearly do not do. So the moral economy that produces wellbeing is not simply a matter of the fair distribution of goods, though justice in that respect must be seen as extremely important: it is a matter of the way in which we perceive what we have and how we use it. If wellbeing is to be widely distributed in society, it must depend on a larger social participation in moral norms: in the minimization of harm to others, even if one’s own happiness is limited thereby. It may even take the form of collective participation in social acts of kindness that conduce more to the wellbeing of the agent than of the patient.

In an extraordinary poem written between 1796 and 1800, ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, William Wordsworth seems to suggest that community and love are in a sense produced by the continuing abjection and vagrancy of the beggar, who becomes a site for the collective experience of charity, a moral economy based on a paradoxical combination of injustice and altruism. The same idea is suggested in a quite different moral context by William Blake in ‘The Human Abstract’, when he writes that ‘mercy could be no more/If we did not make somebody poor’. Blake’s indignation on this account, like Wordsworth’s interest in poverty and the relation of moral principles to economic facts, make their poetry a subject of deep fascination to social historians like E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. In fact any discussion of the virtues, like Aristotle’s account of the pursuit of particular goods, would need to take into account the social context in which they have to operate.

But in the classic contrast between the moral economy and the market economy, Thompson was arguing that the economic actions of the poor are guided by a strong, even if outwardly self-destructive moral sense. He founded this argument on his analysis of the food riots of the eighteenth century, when crowds of poor people not only took enormous risks in resorting to public action, but sometimes destroyed stocks of food in an attempt to draw attention to the practices of hoarders and blackmarketers. Thus his notion of the moral economy of the poor was strictly directed towards an explanation of economic actions which, as he saw it, were founded on a moral schema, a sense of what was just or right.

Amartya Sen’s major work as an economist was conducted with respect to poverty and famines, especially the Bengalfamine of 1943 which he witnessed as a child. It is not surprising, therefore, that his 2009 book The Idea of Justice contains a chapter on famine, significantly titled ‘The Practice of Democracy’ (Chapter 16, pp. 338-354). I think that it is here that he engages, though we may not immediately recognize this, with the relation of moral economy to wellbeing. It is an extreme example, but for that reason one that we might effectively use to state the problem at its starkest. The phenomenon of famine, Sen argues, stands in a critical relation to the organization of political power, to the possibility of asserting a moral claim. Indeed, he argues that large-scale famines are characteristic of non-democratic societies, and that democracy is the condition for poor people to resist state neglect, oppression and tyranny. This argument should be set against Thompson’s analysis of English food riots as expressive of popular morality. Since both theorists are in effect examining notions of justice in terms of a ‘moral economy’, I would like to look more closely at some of the difficulties presented by the latter case, that of the Bengal famine of 1943. Some of those present in this room will remember one of many short stories written by the Bengali novelist Manik Bandyopadhyay against this harsh backdrop, a story with a question in its title: ‘Why didn’t they take the food by force?’ (Chhiniye khayni keno?) The question Manik puts here stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of the English crowd in the eighteenth century, so effectively analysed as an instance of the moral economy of the poor by Thompson. It was rumoured at the time that Jawaharlal Nehru had asked the question: it is repeated throughout the story, as an insoluble problem standing as a block to our understanding of human morals, human self-interest, and the idea of justice.

In the story, Jogi, a bandit-turned-householder who holds forth to the narrator about the famine, comments on the entry of the English word food into common Bengali speech. For most people, he suggests, this lexical acquisition indicated the difference between food as a category, a collection of marketable commodities, and the rice and vegetables that people ate, since Bengalis normally referred to everything that collectively made up the daily meal by the name of its principal ingredient as cooked rice, ‘bhat’. But ‘all the rice and lentils and oil and salt that never reach poor people’s mouths, but simply change warehouses for money – that’s what food is’, Jogi says. For him, food belongs to the market: bhat belongs to an agricultural order where production and consumption are closely linked. All that people needed to survive on, he says, was rice: so why didn’t they take it by force? This is the question (chhiniye khayni keno?) that provides a title to this remarkable story, one of several that Manik placed against the background of perhaps the most decisive event to mould him as a writer – and I do not except the Tebhaga movement, which also cast its literary shadows, for example in Haraner Natjamai and the other stories in Chhoto Bado (1948). ‘Chhiniye khayni keno?’ was published in 1947, in a collection called Khatiyan, but Manik had already devoted many of the stories in the preceding year’s collection, Aj Kal Porshur Galpo, including the title narrative, to the famine of 1943.

The harsh, sometimes polemical realism of these stories can be seen to evidence a kind of representational anxiety, a response, I would suggest, to the pressure of a real event that exceeds fictional understanding or adequacy. ‘Chhiniye khayni keno?’ pushes this struggle for representational common sense, as we might describe it, to the edge of a question that is put to history: why do people starve if there is food before them? The 1943 famine is above all the event that has raised this question, asked at the time by western observers as well as somewhat distanced Indians, and repeated subsequently by sociologists, economists and historians trying to come to terms with the cruelty of the contradiction that history has so faithfully recorded: food in the warehouses, deaths on the streets.[1] The story offers the ex-bandit Jogi’s response, in the form of a rambling monologue framed by the almost silent narrator’s observation of his setting: the hut in which they sit, Jogi’s posture, his wife’s pregnancy, the brief indications of how she survived the famine, her serving the guest with food. The narrative flows, eddies and returns to the question and its answer – or what is presented as Jogi’s answer, for as the narrator tells him, ‘I know what the babus say, Jogi, but what do you say?’


The theory Jogi offers is rooted in the nature of hunger itself: the hungry are weak, their physical enfeeblement makes them passive and unresponsive, unable to seek their own recourse. Jogi considers, and dismisses with sarcastic humour, the various other explanations offered at the time: that Bengali peasants were accustomed to starvation (he asks, were they accustomed to death?); that the common people were fatalists, accepting death as their lot (he asks, did they not try to avert calamity if they could at other times?); that they were law-abiding (he says, if you knew you would be fed in prison, you’d try to go there). Only he knows the true reason why people did not resist, he says, and his explanation makes hunger a self-perpetuating phenomenon, draining the body of its will to life. The hungry body eats itself. The narrative presents him not only as a survivor, but as a curious experimenter with history, restlessly seeking an answer to the mystery that surrounds him, the enigma of a population unresisting of its own end. He even attempts to form a gang that will tour the countryside looting and redistributing grain, but his efforts are unsuccessful; he joins the band of the hungry at a relief kitchen, hoping to organize them so that they protest against the watering of their gruel and the diversion of provisions meant for them. When he manages to ensure that their supplies are not stolen and they are properly fed for a few days, they speak of resistance and struggle. But fatally for his purpose, he waits for a few days before leading a revolt, and soon the supplies dry up, the watery gruel reappears, and the inmates return to a condition of listless passivity.

What Jogi observes, what he reports from his experience of the relief camps with their starving men and their women who seek to offer their emaciated bodies in return for food, is like the record of a survivor of the Holocaust, also a strictly contemporary event. And what puzzles him is what might equally puzzle a latter-day student of this other history: the relative passivity, even connivance in their own destruction, of a large populace which submits when resistance could not materially worsen their chances of survival (though, we may note, it might not improve those chances either). Some commentators have likened the culpability of the British government of the time in the deaths of four million people in a man-made famine, to the culpability of Hitler and the Nazis in the murder of six million Jews: indeed there are some parallels, though there are also significant differences in the two events. But both, we may say, weigh human conscience with the same kind of weight: the insolubility of a moral problem that presents itself as a physical contradiction.

In fact there were some incidents of looting and rioting, though limited and unfruitful given the scale of the disaster; the shops were well-guarded, there were troops in abundance, and in the countryside, where the supply-system had almost completely collapsed, large stocks of grain had disappeared. Jogi does not take recourse to these larger forms of explanation. Despite his own willingness to engage in any desperate form of armed resistance or opportunistic self-help, his explanation, such as it is, is rooted in the material nature of hunger. Beyond that liminal point where the body crosses into the exhaustion and physical depletion of hunger, the body is its own food, hunger consumes it like an other, and in so doing it estranges and alienates the self, so that it appears to have no worldly recourse.

The 1943 Bengal famine, known in its own time as panchasher manvantar in reference to its Bengali year, 1350, has drawn an enormous body of historical study, literary representation and economic analysis. No writer who lived through that period failed to comment on the devastation of those years – between 1942 and 1945 – when around four million men, women and children died of starvation in Bengal, though the warehouses were stocked with grain, the government was busily procuring rice, there was a good harvest in 1942 and a moderate one in 1943. I shall not rehearse the variety of explanations for this calamity – or crime – familiar to us from the work of modern economists and historians including Amartya Sen and Paul Greenough: the effects of wartime hoarding and profiteering in rice; the government’s boat-denial and rice-denial policies, aimed at preventing the Japanese from securing their advance westwards from Singapore and effectively destroying the rice-supply network in Bengal; the rural-urban divide; the brown-spot disease; the cyclone; inequality in income and entitlement; the influx of refugees and troops; the government’s procurement system.[2]

 As contemporary observers and later historians pointed out, the event was never officially declared a famine, and the term was avoided in administrative correspondence.[3]

David Arnold and B. M. Bhatia have argued that a number of other, more long-term factors lay behind the extreme vulnerability of the rural population of Bengalto a disaster of this kind. These include an agricultural decline leading to the increasing pauperization of the peasantry and their growing burden of debt; so delicate was the balance between subsistence and starvation that the slightest imbalance could produce a famine.[4] Once Japan had cut off the supply of Burmese rice in mid-1942, and the British government had destroyed or removed boats to prevent enemy advances, thus hindering the movement of supplies, the fear of invasion led to panic-stricken hoarding and massive price rises in early 1943. The weaker sections of the population inevitably suffered most: as Greenough comments, ‘patterns of abandonment began to emerge, marked by the snapping of moral and economic bonds upon which rural society had hitherto been erected’.[5]

 But all these explanations and analyses apart, Manik sees fit to devote his attention to an insoluble mystery at the heart of catastrophe, the inability of human beings to resist their own destruction. The answer that he provides to this mystery is rooted, I would like to suggest, in the most absolute and irresistible of the forms of power to which the subaltern is subject: the physical constitution of the body. Instead of being able to illustrate the moral economy of the poor by demonstrating the instinct of justice through which the poor seek recourse by defying the law and asserting their claim to food, Manik is compelled to record the extremity of a situation where that moral economy fails: or, at least, is inexpressive and silent. In a lifelong effort to explain that moment of failure, Amartya Sen argues that the lack we note here is a political lack: a lack of entitlement, a lack of rights. The insufficiency of the moral economy to right a manifest wrong, its impotence and collapse, might then be traced on the one hand to the triumph of a market economy and on the other to systems of power so deeply entrenched that the body of the subaltern is unable to resist their operation.

Some twenty years after this catastrophic event, the poor did indeed riot in the streets ofCalcuttato protest food scarcities and high prices. The communist poet Birendra Chattopadhyay, born in 1920, a witness to that great famine of pre-independent India, recorded this post-Independence time of dearth in a poem of remarkable economy and power, published in 1965:

āscharjya bhāter gandha rātrir ākāshe

kārā jeno ājo bhāt rāndhe

bhāt bāde, bhāt khāy.


ār āmrā shārā rāt jege āchhi

āscharjya bhāter gandhe

prārthanāy, shārā rāt.


The strange aroma of rice in the night sky

It seems that some still cook rice,

Still serve it, eat it.

And we are awake, all night

With the strange aroma of rice,

In supplication, all night.[6]

Smell, the aroma of rice, constitutes, one might say, the contested site of wellbeing, experienced in a paradoxical fusion of presence and absence, of satiety and lack. This is not simply a metaphysical enigma experienced by the desiring subject. In the material world that we inhabit, those who eat and those who starve live in the same moment. In the poem, the simultaneity of presence and absence is not to be understood as a postmodernist trope, but as a material contradiction between rice and hunger. The space of this contradiction is filled, we may say, by the strange ‘ascharjya’ smell of rice, as it rises from the cooking-pot to the night sky, but not to fill the bellies of the starving. Smell, the fragrance of food, traditionally described as half the meal (ghrānena ardhabhojanam), is ironically evoked in all its richness and reach to become a figure, not only for dearth, but for an absolute separation between those who eat and those who do not. The admirable restraint and elegance with which this figure is deployed by the old communist poet offers a lesson, we may say, in representational technique: it retains the paradox while at the same time breaking it open.

Moral economies of wellbeing, then, must contend, as Thompson did in that seminal essay of 1971, with the problem of who eats and who starves, and how much energy or liberty we have to determine our own wellbeing and that of others. The moral economy is not simply an account of the moral principles of our actions, the ends that we judge to be necessary to our wellbeing, and the economic structures we endorse. It is finally, in my view, a critical account of power and its exercise, of capabilities and entitlement in the most basic terms. It has to be articulated in terms of those whose power we have taken away, those whose claims we have ignored. For all that the moral economy and the market economy are opposed to each other in scholarly discourse as though they inhabited different moments of historical time, I do not think that this was the point of Thompson’s use of the phrase in his account of the ‘moral economy of the poor’. In the end, I think, I would like to endorse the view of the moral economy as a normative condition, not a description of a past or present society, but something that is a necessary means of our pursuit of happiness.

[1] See, e.g. Subrata Kumar Mitra, Power, Protest and Participation: Local Elites and the Politics of Development in India (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 175-76.

[2] See Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivations (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980), chapter 6, and Paul Greenough, Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-44 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Sen argued forcefully that the problem was caused not by inadequate harvests but by deliberate withholding of rice from the market and putting it out of the reach of poorer consumers. An early account is to be found in Kali Charan Ghosh, Famines in Bengal, 1770-1943 (Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing Co., 1944).

[3] Sen, Poverty and Famines, p. 79, and W. R. Aykroyd, The Conquest of Famine (London: 1974), p. 78.

[4] See B. M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India 1860-1965 (Delhi: Asia Publishing House, 2nd ed. 1967) and David Arnold, Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) on the combination of factors behind the phenomenon of a modern famine.

[5] Greenough, Prosperity and Misery, p. 138. Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, in Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 48-50, analyse the gender bias in entitlement to food.

[6] Birendra Chattopadhyay, Birendra Samagra [Works], ed. Pulak Chanda and Sabyasachi Deb (Kolkata: Anustup, 1988) vol 1, p. 191. My translation.


Supriya Chaudhuri  is Professor of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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