Social justice and democratic stability


One thing I find interesting about the sustained demonstrations and protests in Madison, Wisconsin is the fact that people on the streets do not seem to be chiefly motivated by personal material interests. Rather, the passion and the sustainability of the protests against Governor Walker’s plans seem to derive from an outrage felt by many people in Wisconsin and throughout the country, that the Governor’s effort is really an attempt to reduce people’s rights — in this case, the right to come together as a group of workers to bargain together. This is a well established right in the private sector, protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and the rationale is substantially the same in the public sector.

So when the Governor attempts to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for public employees, he offends the sense of justice of many citizens in Wisconsin and elsewhere — whether or not they are directly affected, whether or not they themselves are members of unions. Restricting established social rights is a very serious thing — well beyond the specific calculation of interests that people might make. It’s morally offensive in the way that state efforts to roll back voting rights would be offensive.  And this moral offensiveness can be a powerful motivator of collective resistance.

So this seems to provide an intriguing clue about political mobilization more generally. To what extent is moral outrage, a perception of injustice, an important motivator of individual political engagement and activism?

When we look at the MENA rebellions, even from a great distance, it seems that concerns about social and political justice have as much prominence as more material motivations — demands for food subsidies, demands for state-sponsored jobs programs, etc. Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans interviewed on the BBC talk more frequently about the outrage of dictatorship and arbitrary state power than they do about material demands. And really, it’s hard to see an economic interest in forcing a certain kind of food subsidy program being strong enough to create enough of a political motivation to lead a person to stand up against fighter jets and attack helicopters.

This is an insight that James Scott expressed a generation ago in The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, and E. P. Thompson a generation before that in Customs in Common, in the theory of the moral economy. In its essence, the theory holds that the fact of sustained violation of a person’s moral expectations of the society around him or her is a decisive factor in collective mobilization in many historical circumstances.  Later theorists of political activism have downplayed the idea of moral outrage, preferring more material motivations based on self-interest.  But the current round of activism and protest around the globe seems to point back in the direction of these more normative motivations — combined, of course, with material interests.  So it is worth reexamining the idea that a society that badly offends the sense of justice of segments of its population is likely to stimulate resistance.

This basic and compelling idea has an important implication for sustainable social and political stability in a political regime. If citizens react collectively to sustained injustice, then a regime that wants to rule sustainably needs to respect the demands of justice.  It is important for a social order to arrive at a rough-and-ready shared understanding about the rights and obligations that citizens have, and it is important for the state to conduct itself in ways that honor those expectations.

This sounds like a social contract theory, and it certainly has something in common with that normative theory. But its relevance here is more sociological. It is the basis of a prediction about what social and political circumstances will elicit sustained protest and resistance, and which kinds of arrangements are likely to be accepted indefinitely by the population. And it leads to a policy recommendation for any regime that wants to create a stable, ongoing polity: work hard to make sure that social arrangements and institutions treat citizens fairly, and don’t gratuitously violate their deeply held convictions about their rights and about the general features of justice.

So what moral expectations do American citizens have about how society ought to work? Several things seem fairly clear. Americans care about equality of opportunity. We are deeply rankled by the idea that the good opportunities in society are somehow captured by an elite of any sort. Second is the idea of equal treatment of all citizens by the institutions of the state. Teenagers and persons of color rankle at being singled out for special attention by the police. Women rightly seethe at the persistence of institutions in the workplace that continue to treat them differently. Arab Americans rightly resent special scrutiny at airports.  We don’t accept status inequality easily — especially in our own cases.  And third, we are very sensitive about the inviolability of our rights — our right to vote, right to go where we want, right to speak our minds and associate with whomever we want to.

What Americans don’t yet seem to have is a specific moral sensitivity to extreme inequalities of income and wealth. The fact of the accelerating concentration of income at the top doesn’t seem to produce the moral outrage in the US that perhaps it would in France or Germany. And maybe this comes from another element of our moral economy — the idea that inequalities are all right as long as they are fairly earned. But more information about bonuses on Wall Street and the banking industry may begin to erode that tolerance.

It is intriguing to have widely separated examples of social mobilization going on right now.  Surely there are sociologists and political scientists working right now to interview leaders and followers in Egypt, Madison, or Benghazi trying to sort out the motivations and social networks through which these movements arose and solidified.  As a theoretically informed prediction, it seems likely that moral motivations like resentment of arbitrary power, violations of strongly held rights, and persistent status inequalities will be found to have played a role.



How important is cooperation in a market society?

First, what is cooperation? Suppose a number of individuals occupy a common social and geographical space. They have a variety of individual interests and things they value, and they have outcomes they’d like to bring about. Some of those outcomes are purely private goods, and some can be brought about through private activities by each individual.  These are the circumstances where private market-based activity can bring about socially optimal outcomes.

But some outcomes may look more like public or common goods — for example, greater safety in the neighborhood or more sustainable uses of resources.  These are outcomes that no single individual can bring about, and — once established — no one can be excluded from the enjoyment of these goods.  (Public choice theorists sometimes look at other kinds of non-private goods such as “club goods”; see Dennis Mueller, Perspectives on Public Choice: A Handbook.)

Further, some outcomes may in fact be private goods, but may be such that they require coordinated efforts by multiple individuals to achieve them efficiently. An example of this is traditional farming: it may be that the yield on one individual’s plot is greater if a group of neighbors provide concentrated labor on weeding this plot today and the neighbor’s plot tomorrow than if each of us do all the weeding on our individual plots. The technical conditions surrounding traditional agriculture impose a cycle of labor demand that makes cooperation an efficient strategy.

This is where cooperation comes in. If a number of the members of a group agree to contribute our efforts to a common project we may find that the total results are greater — for both common goods and private goods — than if we had each pursued these goods through individual efforts. Cooperation can lead to improvement in the overall production of a good for a given level of sacrifice of time and effort.  This description uses the word “agree”; but Robert Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation) and David Lewis (Convention: A Philosophical Study) observe that many examples of cooperation depend on “convention” and tacit agreement rather than an explicit understanding among participants.

So cooperation can lead to better outcomes for a group and each individual in the group than would be achievable through entirely private efforts.

Cooperation should be distinguished from altruistic behavior; cooperation makes sense for rationally self-interested individuals if appropriate conditions are satisfied.  A cooperative arrangement can make everyone better off.  So we don’t have to assume that individuals act altruistically in order to account for cooperation.

So why is cooperation not ubiquitous? It is in fact pretty widespread. But there are a couple of important obstacles to cooperation in ordinary social life: the rational incentive that exists to become a freerider or easy rider when the good in question is a public good; and the risk that cooperators run that the endeavor will fail because of non-contribution from other potential contributors. There is also often a timing problem: it is common for the contribution and the benefit to be separated in time, so contributors are even more concerned that they will be denied the benefits of cooperation. If Mr Wong is asked to weed today in consideration of assistance from Mr Li in harvesting the crop four months from now, he may be doubtful about the future benefit.

The basic logic of this situation has stimulated a mountain of great social science research and theory. Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” (Managing the Commons) and Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups set the negative case for thinking that cooperation is all but impossible to sustain.  Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work on common property resource regimes documents the ways in which communities have solved these cooperation dilemmas (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). Douglas North essentially argues that only private property and binding contracts can do the job (The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History). And Robert Axelrod has made the case for the rational basis of cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. He argues that there are specific conditions that enhance or undermine cooperation and reciprocity; essentially, participants need to be able to reidentify each other over time and they need to have a high likelihood of continuing to interact with each other over an extended time. (His analysis is based on a series of experiments involving repeated prisoners’ dilemmas.)

A market can “simulate” cooperation through enforceable contracts; so, for example, a peasant farming community could create a legally binding system of labor exchange among households.  And organizations can create quasi-binding agreements for cooperation through “memoranda of understanding” and “inter-governmental agreements” — written agreements that may not be enforceable through legal remedies but nonetheless create a strong incentive for each party to fulfill the obligations of cooperation.  However, quite a bit of the opportunities for cooperation seem to fall outside the sphere of these formal and semi-formal mechanisms for binding agreements.

Informal cooperation needs some kind of institutional or normative setting that encourages compliance with the cooperative arrangement.  So there has been an energetic debate in the past twenty years over the feasibility of non-coercive solutions to cooperation problems; this is an area where the new institutionalism has played a key role.  And in the real world, we do in fact find numerous sustainable examples of informal cooperation.  Individuals work in community gardens; foundations join together in supporting urban renewal projects; villagers create labor-sharing practices.  But it is an interesting question to consider: are there institutional reforms that we could invent that would allow us as a society to capture more of the benefits of cooperation than we currently realize?

Polanyi on the market

Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is a classic statement of a polar position in the issue of the universality of instrumental rationality and market institutions in explaining concrete historical circumstances in the recent and distant past. Polanyi maintains that the concept of economic rationality is a very specific historical construct that applies chiefly to the forms of market society that emerged in Western Europe in the early modern period. Market behavior came to replace other forms of motivation within European society in this period, and individuals came to act more and more on the basis of a calculation of self-interest. However, Polanyi holds that this form of behavior, like the economic institutions of the market within which it emerged, is highly specific to a particular time and place. To make use of this model of action as though it were a universal feature and determinant of human behavior is as unjustified as it would be to extend medieval chivalry to all times and places.

No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. . . . Gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. (Polanyi 1957:43)

While history and ethnography know of various kinds of economies, most of them comprising the institutions of markets, they know of no economy prior to our own, even approximately controlled and regulated by markets. . . . The role played by markets in the internal economy of the various countries . . . was insignificant up to recent times. (Polanyi 1957:44)

Against the idea that it is “natural” for men and women to be motivated primarily by self-interest, Polanyi writes:

For, if one conclusion stands out more clearly than another from the recent study of early societies it is the changelessness of man as a social being. His natural endowments reappear with a remarkable constancy in societies of all times and places; and the necessary preconditions of the survival of human society appear to be immutably the same. (Polanyi 1957:46)

The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. . . . The economic system will be run on non-economic motives. (Polanyi 1957:46)

Thus Polanyi maintains that it is socially motivated behavior — ªbehavior motivated toward the interests of one’s family, clan, or village” — rather than self-interested behavior that is “natural” for human beings; rational self-interest is rather a feature of a highly specific society: market society. Instead, Polanyi’s account urges that the analysis pay primary attention to patterns of reciprocity and redistribution, shared values, traditions, and the determining role of community and politics. And he argues that virtually every society – traditional as well as modern – depends upon these sorts of social motivations.

In place of economic rationality and the market mechanism providing the basis for organization of the premarket economy, Polanyi argues that communitarian patterns of organization are to be found in a range of traditional societies:

The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay. . . . The performance of all acts of exchange as free gifts that are expected to be reciprocated though not necessarily by the same individuals–a procedure minutely articulated and perfectly safeguarded by elaborate methods of publicity, by magic rites, and by the establishment of ‘dualities’ in which groups are linked in mutual obligations–should in itself explain the absence of the notion of gain or even of wealth other than that consisting of objects traditionally enhancing social prestige. . . . But how, then, is order in production and distribution ensured? . . . The answer is provided in the main by two principles of behavior not primarily associated with economics: reciprocity and redistribution. (Polanyi 1957:46-47)

Finally, Polanyi identifies the same element of materialist rationality in common among neoclassical political economists and Marx. Polanyi argues that Marxism analyzes the historical process in terms of individual self-interest, conceived largely in terms of material well-being.

There is the equally mistaken doctrine of the essentially economic nature of class interests. Though human society is naturally conditioned by economic factors, the motives of human individuals are only exceptionally determined by the needs of material want-satisfaction. That nineteenth century society was organized on the assumption that such a motivation could be made universal was a peculiarity of the age. It was therefore appropriate to allow a comparatively wide scope to the play of economic motives when analyzing that society. (Polanyi 1957:153)

All this should warn us against relying too much on the economic interests of given classes in the explanation of history. Such an approach would tacitly imply the givenness of those classes in a sense in which this is possible only in an indestructible society. (Polanyi 1957:155)

What kind of theory is this? And how should it be evaluated?

First, it is a hypothesis in historical sociology about institutions. Polanyi is asserting that history and ethnography provide a wealth of variety of fundamental economic and social institutions. Market institutions are historically specific — there are periods of time in human history in which market institutions were barely present, and other periods in which they were essentially ubiquitous. And, though Polanyi doesn’t do much with this, there is also the point that market institutions themselves show substantial variation across time and place. That said — trade, artisanship, commodities, and production for the market appear to be activities that have very ancient roots in human societies. These kinds of economic exchanges are well documented in ancient China, Europe, and the Americas, and we can understand very well how they would emerge again and again out of ordinary human activity and interaction. So markets are surely not the nearly unique historical creation that Polanyi maintains them to be. Moreover, we can distinguish among “market” institutions (as Marx and Weber both do) according to whether they are organized around use or around accumulation; consumption or profit. (A neo-Polanyian might put forward a more limited claim: a market system aimed at accumulation is a historically recent institution.)

Second is a hypothesis about “human nature”. Polanyi takes issue with a vulgar economism, according to which the most fundamental human motivation is rational self-interest. On the contrary, Polanyi maintains, this social psychology of “possessive individualism” (as C. B. Macpherson called it in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke) is itself a very specific historical product — not a permanent feature of human nature. In fact, Polanyi goes a step further and argues that the “social motivations” are more fundamental than rational self-interest. But here again, it seems likely that Polanyi puts his case much more absolutely than is justified. Being prudent and goal-directed — paying attention to “costs” and “benefits” of various human activities — is not simply a historical accident of the early modern period; it is a more or less permanent feature of the human species.

How should Polanyi’s theory be assessed? There is an obvious risk of romanticizing human society that is implicit in Polanyi’s reading of pre-modern societies — expressing a moral preference for social cooperation and community, harmony and sharing, over competition, conflict, and self-striving. But romanticizing the past is not the same as understanding it factually and objectively. And it is my impression that anthropologists and historians would now be more inclined to find a mix of social and self-regarding motives in the contexts they study — from contemporary Thai villages to the Greek polis to labor unions or environmental action groups. So Polanyi’s black-and-white distinction between the past — communitarian and social — and the present — egoistic and market-driven — is too stark.

But at the same time, Polanyi’s guiding intuition seems correct: human social behavior is influenced by more than simple self-interest, and human institutions are more varied than the vocabulary of the market would suggest. Human deliberativeness and purposiveness goes beyond maximizing rationality; it includes a broad range of “social” motivations and emotions. And a more adequate social psychology requires that we arrive at a better understanding of the motives that underlie cooperation and reciprocity. This is Amartya Sen’s central conclusion in “Rational Fools” (link), and it is surely correct: “The purely rational economic man is indeed close to being a social moron”.

(The connection between Polanyi’s theories and the terms of the moral economy debate are evident (discussed in prior postings).)

Subsistence ethic as a causal factor

In his pathbreaking 1976 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, James Scott offers an explanation of popular politics based on the idea of a broadly shared “subsistence ethic” among the underclass people of Vietnam and Malaysia. Earlier postings (hidden transcripts, moral economy) have discussed several aspects of Scott’s contributions. Here I want to focus on the causal argument that Scott offers, linking the subsistence ethic to the occurrence of rebellion.

Scott’s view is that the ensemble of values and meanings current in a society have causal consequences for aggregate facts about the forms of political behavior that arise in that society. Speaking of the peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia of the 1930s Scott writes,

We can learn a great deal from [peasant] rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide . . . the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (Scott 1976:3-4)

This passage represents a complex explanatory hypothesis about the sources of rebellion. Scott holds, first, that peasant rebels in Indochina in the 1930s shared the main outlines of a sense of justice and exploitation. This is a system of moral values concerning the distribution of material assets between participants (landlord, state, peasant, landless laborer) and the use of power and authority over the peasant. Second, this passage supposes that the values embodied in this sense of justice are motivationally effective: when the landlord or the state enacts policies which seriously offend this sense of justice, the peasant is angered and indignant, and motivated to take action against the offending party. Offense to his sense of justice affects the peasant’s actions. Third, Scott asserts that this individual motivational factor aggregates over the peasantry as a whole to a collective disposition toward resistance and rebellion; that is, sufficient numbers of peasants were motivated by this sense of indignation and anger to engage in overt resistance. On this account, then, the subsistence ethic–its right of a subsistence floor and the expectations of reciprocity which it engenders–is a causal antecedent of rebellion. It is a factor whose presence and characteristics may be empirically investigated and which enhances the likelihood of various social events through identifiable mechanisms.

The subsistence ethic may be described quite simply. Scott writes, “we can begin, I believe, with two moral principles that seem firmly embedded in both the social patterns and injunctions of peasant life: the norm of reciprocity and the right to subsistence” (167). Villagers have a moral obligation to participate in traditional practices of reciprocity–labor sharing, contributions to disadvantaged kinsmen or fellow villagers, etc. And village institutions and elites alike have an obligation to respect the right of subsistence of poor villagers.

Claims on peasant incomes . . . were never legitimate when they infringed on what was judged to be the minimal culturally defined subsistence level; and second, the product of the land should be distributed in such a way that all were defined a subsistence niche. (10)

Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

We can identify a fairly complex chain of causal reasoning in Scott’s account. First, the subsistence ethic is a standing condition in peasant society with causal consequences. It is embodied in current moral psychologies of members of the group and in the existing institutions of moral training through which new members are brought to share these values. Through the workings of social psychology this ethic leads individuals to possess certain dispositions to behave. The features and strength of this systems of values are relatively objective facts about a given society. In particular, it is possible to investigate the details of this ethic through a variety of empirical means: interviews with participants, observation of individual behavior, or analysis of the content of the institutions of moral training. Call this ensemble of institutions and current moral psychologies the “embodied social morality” (ESM).

In line with the idea that the subsistence ethic is a standing causal condition, Scott notes that the effectiveness of shared values varies substantially over different types of peasant communities. “The social strength of this ethic . . . varied from village to village and from region to region. It was strongest in areas where traditional village forms were well developed and not shattered by colonialism–Tonkin, Annam, Java, Upper Burma–and weakest in more recently settled pioneer areas like Lower Burma and Cochinchina” (Scott 1976:40). Moreover, these variations led to significant differences in the capacity of affected communities to achieve effective collective resistance. “Communitarian structures not only receive shocks more uniformly but they also have, due to their traditional solidarity, a greater capacity for collective action. . . . Thus, the argument runs, the more communal the village structure, the easier it is for a village to collectively defend its interests” (202).

We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

What this account does not highlight — and what is emphasized by several other theories we’ve discussed elsewhere (post, post, post, post) — are the organizational features that underlie successful mobilization. Instead, Scott’s account focuses on the motivational features that permit a group to be rallied to the risky business of rebellion.

Analyzing peasant consciousness

painting: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

painting: Edward H. Corbould, Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs. Poyser’s Dairy

James Scott is a scholar who has shed more light on the mentality and agency of rural people than almost any other since the reinvigoration of peasant studies in the 1970s. Scott’s book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) tried to understand peasant political behavior in southeast Asia through the lens of the norms of justice that were embodied in traditional village societies. His Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987) further advanced his theorizing about the subjective side of class relations—the experience of subordination and the cultural vocabulary in terms of which subordination is lived in particular social circumstances. Here I’d like to reflect on one of his books that is less empirical but no less insightful into the consciousness of the subordinates — Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1992). This is a book about the experience of domination and indignity that power relations impose upon the powerless. As such it is an important step forward in James Scott’s efforts to provide a language in terms of which to understand underclass politics. Scott takes a big step forward here in helping us find a vocabulary and a more of representation for understanding the mentality of peasants, serfs, and other subalterns. How do they understand their social world? Scott offers a strikingly different interpretation of the social knowledge of the subordinate.

Scott’s central innovation in this work is his distinction between public transcripts (“the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate;” p. 2) and hidden transcripts (“discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders;” p. 4). Scott observes that there is a sharp divide between the behavior, language, and customs that dominated groups assume in public, and the language, jokes, and criticisms that structure their lives within the back streets, slave quarters, or rice paddies of their within-group experience.

Both public transcripts and hidden transcripts have effects on the everyday politics of power. The public transcript is a conventional pattern of speech for the dominated, a stylized public performance through which they adopt the forms of deference and respect for the powerful that are needed to avoid conflict with the powerful. But Scott maintains that this performance is only skin-deep. The dominated are by no means taken in by their own affirmations of the justice and good manners of their masters, and behind the scenes we may expect to hear much raucous laughing, merciless lampooning, and bitter criticism.

Offstage, where subordinates may gather outside the intimidating gaze of power, a sharply dissonant political culture is possible. Slaves in the relative safety of their quarters can speak the words of anger, revenge, self‑ assertion that they must normally choke back when in the presence of the masters and mistresses. (p. 18)

Scott aims to shed light on this hidden transcript, with the idea that an understanding of this level of consciousness of the dominated is much closer to the reality of their lived experience and provides a better basis for understanding their political behavior.

In addition to a varied set of empirical and historical sources, Scott also makes genuinely innovative use of literary works to better understand the hidden transcript. Scott has identified dozens of texts—works by George Eliot, George Orwell, Euripedes, Brer Rabbit, Milan Kundera, Jean Genet, Emile Zola, and many others—in which the divide between the public and hidden transcripts is directly at issue in the novel. These sources have evidentiary value; for example, Scott writes of George Eliot, “Such were Eliot’s powers of observation and insight into her rural society that many of the key issues of domination and resistance can be teased from her story of Mrs. Poyser’s encounter with the squire” (p. 7). But more important is their interpretive value. They permit Scott to communicate to the reader a vivid understanding of the way the hidden transcript works.

Scott’s contention that the hidden transcript is an open-eyed appraisal of existing relations of domination inevitably comes into conflict with theories of ideology and hegemony. Classical Marxist or Gramscian ideas about ideology suggest that dominated groups come to share the values and perceptions of the dominant group. Scott argues that what is taken as hegemony of dominant-group ideas is in fact often only an uncritical observation of the performance of the public transcript. Rather, he suggests that the dominated are perfectly capable of formulat­ing their own criticisms of the social relations in which they find themselves. “A combination of adaptive strategic behavior and the dialogue implicit in most power relations ensures that public action will provide a constant stream of evidence that appears to support an interpretation of ideological hegemony” (p. 70). This interpretation gives a much greater degree of agency and knowledge to the dominated.

Scott is one of the relatively few social scientists of the past forty years who have consistently offered us new concepts and frameworks in terms of which to understand the social reality we confront. “Moral economy,” “weapons of the weak,” and “hidden transcripts” are all conceptual innovations that have significantly altered the ways we have for understanding and analyzing the social realities associated with domination and resistance. And this is a very important contribution to the intellectual challenge of describing and explaining these complex social realities.

(Scott’s most recent book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999), is also a tour-de-force; more on that in a subsequent posting.)

Norms and deliberative rationality

Why do people cooperate? That is, what motivates individuals to come together to share labor and resources in pursuit of a common good from which they cannot be excluded — fighting fires, hunting marauding tigers, cleaning up a public beach? Standard rational choice theory, and its application to problems of individual rationality in group settings, implies that cooperation should be unstable in the face of free-riding. This was Mancur Olson’s central conclusion in his classic book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Roughly, his conclusion was that cooperation would be possible only if there were excludable side benefits for participants, selective coercion to enforce cooperation, or privatization of the gains of collective action. Otherwise, it is prisoners’ dilemmas all the way down. However, we know from many social contexts that individuals do in fact succeed in establishing cooperative relationships without any of these supporting conditions. So what are we missing when we consider social action from the narrow perspective of rational choice theory?

A part of the answer to this puzzle involves the role of norms in action. Here the criticism is that the rational-choice approach, by attending solely to calculations of self-interest, is blind to the workings of normative frameworks; but in fact norms are powerful factors underlying behavior in most traditional contexts. This perspective finds expression in the moral economy literature within peasant studies — e.g. James Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. (This debate is sometimes referred to as one between formalists and substantivists. Karl Polanyi is another good example of the substantivist perspective (The Great Transformation), while Sam Popkin (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam) and Theodore Schultz (Transforming Traditional Agriculture) fall on the side of the formalists.)

According to the substantivist perspective, traditional societies are communities: tightly cohesive groups of persons sharing a distinctive set of values in stable, continuing relations to one another (Michael Taylor Community, Anarchy and Liberty). The central threats to security and welfare are well-known to such groups–excessive or deficient rainfall, attacks by bandits, predatory tax policies by the central government, etc. And village societies have evolved schemes of shared values and cooperative practices and institutions which are well-adapted to handling these problems of risk and welfare in ways which protect the subsistence needs of all villagers adequately in all but the most extreme circumstances. The substantivists thus maintain that traditions and norms are fundamental social factors, and that individual behavior is almost always modulated through powerful traditional motivational constraints. One consequence of this modulation is that many societies do not display a sharp distinction between group interest and individual interest that is predicted by collective action theory. (An important theoretical defense of this conclusion can be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom and her fellow researchers in their treatment of “common property resource regimes”; see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

There are, of course, well-known social and behavioral processes that may tend to undermine the working of a given set of norms. Normative systems are inherently ambiguous and subject to revision over time. Consequently we should expect that opportunistic agents will find ways of adapting given social norms more comfortably to the pursuit of self-interest. Consider the requirement that elites should provide for the subsistence needs of the poor in times of dearth. There are some grounds for supposing that such a requirement is in the longterm interest of elites–for example, by promoting social stability and establishing bonds of reciprocity with other members of an interdependent society. But it seems reasonable to expect that elites–already by their superior economic position able to exercise political and social power as well–will find ways of limiting the effect of such norms on their behavior. So it is insufficient to simply postulate a set of governing norms; we need to identify the mechanisms at the group and individual levels that make them behaviorally relevant and stable. But, significantly, some theorists have tried to show that rational self-interest may actually reinforce certain kinds of norms of fairness and reciprocity; thus Robert Axelrod’s analysis of the dynamics of reciprocity demonstrates that cooperation is rational in relation to a variety of circumstances of face-to-face cooperation in The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition.

These points notwithstanding, there remains a credible line of criticism of the rational-choice paradigm based on the role of norms in behavior. For it is clear that individuals pay some attention to normative constraints within the process of rational deliberation. The model of simple maximizing decision-making is overly abstract; instead, we need to have a conception of rational action that permits us to incorporate some consideration of normative requirements as well as purposes and goals. We need a broader conception of practical rationality that incorporates both means-end rationality and normative deliberation; we need a theory that embraces both Mill and Aristotle.

A number of social scientists have taken this point seriously. Particularly profound is the critique of pure rational choice theory offered by Amartya Sen in an essay called “Rational Fools” (jstor link; and here is the introduction to a recent symposium on the article in Economics and Philosophy). Sen criticizes the assumption of pure self-interest which is contained in the standard conception. Against the assumption of self-interested maximizing decision-making, Sen argues for a proposal for a more structured concept of practical reason: one which permits the decision-maker to take account of commitments. This concept covers a variety of non-welfare features of reasoning, but moral principle (fairness and reciprocity) and altruistic concern for the welfare of others are central among these. Sen believes that the role of commitment is centrally important in the analysis of individuals’ behavior with regard to public goods, and he draws connections between the role of commitment and work motivation. He argues, therefore, that in order to understand different areas of rational behavior it is necessary to consider both utility-maximizing decision-making and rational conduct influenced by commitment; and it is an empirical question whether one factor or the other is predominant in a particular range of behavior. Thus Sen holds that an adequate theory of rationality requires more structure than a simple utility-maximizing model would allow; in particular, it needs to take account of moral norms and commitments.

These arguments are telling; the model of narrow economic rationality makes overly restrictive assumptions about the role of norms in rational behavior. Human behavior is the resultant of several different forms of motive–self-interest, fairness, and altruism; and several different types of decision-making processes–maximizing and deliberation. A more adequate model of broadened practical rationality therefore needs to incorporate a decision rule that represents the workings of moral constraints and commitments as well as goal-directed calculation. This rule should reduce to the familiar utility maximizing rule in circumstances in which moral constraints are not prominent — e.g., in decision-making within a market. But in situations where important norms of behavior are in play, we need to try to reproduce the more complex deliberation processes that real human decision-makers undergo in order to combine their normative commitments and their goals and preferences.

This is not a small problem, however; for one of the chief merits of the paradigm of narrow economic rationality is its parsimony–the fact that it reduces rational choice to a single dimension of deliberation. Once we require that rational choice theory needs to take normative constraints and commitments into account as well as interests, it is much more difficult to provide formal models of rational choice. However, some progress has been made on this problem. For example, Howard Margolis (Selfishness, Altruism, and Rationality) attempts to formalize represent rational deliberation in the presence of public goods as the result of two utility functions, one representing the individual’s private interests and the other the individual’s appraisal of the public good; the two functions are then aggregated by a higher order decision rule. (John Harsanyi makes similar arguments.)

This broadening of the conception of individual rationality has important implications. For example, consider public goods problems. Once we consider a more complex theory of practical deliberation, formal arguments concerning freeriding problems in real social groups will be indeterminate. On a more complex, and more empirically adequate, account of practical reason, conditional altruism, cooperation, and reciprocity may be deliberatively rational choices; therefore we would expect a social group consisting of rational individuals to show signs of cooperation and conditional altruism. And the challenge for sociology is to identify the mechanisms of individual deliberation and social reinforcement that serve to stabilize the system of norms and the behaviors that conform to them. This is one of the tasks that the field of new institutionalism has taken on (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, eds., The New Institutionalism in Sociology).

"Moral economy" as a historical social concept

The concept of a “moral economy” has proved useful in attempting to describe and explain the contentious behavior of peasants in response to onerous social relations. Essentially, it is the idea that peasant communities share a set of normative attitudes concerning the social relations and social behaviors that surround the local economy: the availability of food, the prices of subsistence commodities, the proper administration of taxation, and the operation of charity, for example. This is sometimes referred to a “subsistence ethic”: the idea that local social arrangements should be structured in such a way as to respect the subsistence needs of the rural poor. The associated theory of political behavior holds something like this: peasant communities are aroused to protest and rebellion when the terms of the local subsistence ethic are breached by local elites, state authorities, or market forces.

Here I want to highlight this concept by asking a few foundational questions. Fundamentally, what kind of concept is it? How does it function in social interpretation, description, or explanation? And how does it function as a component of empirical investigation?

The concept of moral economy was extensively developed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and an important essay, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” originally published in Past and Present in 1971 and included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. The concept derives from Thompson’s treatment of bread riots in eighteenth century Britain. In MEWC Thompson writes:

In 18th-century Britain riotous actions assumed two different forms: that of more or less spontaneous popular direct action; and that of the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons “above” or apart from he crowd. The first form has not received the attention which it merits. It rested upon more articulate popular sanctions and was validated by more sophisticated traditions than the word “riot” suggests. The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840s. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people. (MTWEC, 62-63)

After describing a number of bread riots in some detail, Thompson writes, “Actions on such a scale … indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief …. These popular actions were legitimised by the old paternalist moral economy” (66). And he closes this interesting discussion with these words: “In considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found” (68). And Thompson often describes these values as “traditional” or “paternalist” — working in opposition to the values and ideas of an unfettered market; he contrasts “moral economy” with the modern “political economy” associated with liberalism and the ideology of the free market.

In “The Moral Economy of the Crowd” Thompson puts his theory this way:

It is possible to detect in almost ever eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimising notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and, in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. On occasion this popular consensus was endorsed by some measure of licence afforded by the authorities. More commonly, the consensus was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference. (“Moral Economy,” CIC 188)

It is plain from these passages that Thompson believes that the “moral economy” is a real historical factor, consisting of the complex set of attitudes and norms of justice that are in play within this historically presented social group. As he puts the point late in the essay, “We have been examining a pattern of social protest which derives from a consensus as to the moral economy of the commonweal in times of dearth” (247).

So the logic of Thompson’s ideas here seems fairly clear: there were instances of public disorder (“riots”) surrounding the availability and price of food, and there is a hypothesized “notion of right” or justice that influenced and motivated participants. This conception of justice is a socially embodied historical factor, and it partially explains the behavior of the rural people who mobilized themselves to participate in the disturbances. He recapitulates his goal in the essay, “Moral Economy Reviewed” (also included in Customs in Common) in these terms: “My object of analysis was the mentalité, or, as I would prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and indeed, superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in actions in the market” (260). These shared values and norms play a key role in Thompson’s reading of the political behavior of the individuals in these groups. So these hypotheses about the moral economy of the crowd serve both to help interpret the actions of a set of actors involved in food riots, and to explain the timing and nature of food riots. We might say, then, that the concept of “moral economy” contributes both to a hermeneutics of peasant behavior and a causal theory of peasant contention.

Now move forward two centuries. Another key use of the concept of moral economy occurs in treatments of modern peasant rebellions in Asia. Most influential is James Scott’s important book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Scholars of the Chinese Revolution borrowed from Scott in offering a range of interpretations of peasant behavior in the context of CCP mobilization; for example, James Polachek (“The Moral Economy of the Kiangsi Soviet” (1928-34). Journal of Asian Studies 1983 XLII (4):805-830). And most recently, Kevin O’Brien has made use of the idea of a moral economy in his treatment of “righteous protest” in contemporary China (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). So scholars interested in the politics of Asian rural societies have found the moral economy concept to be a useful one. Scott puts his central perspective in these terms:

We can learn a great deal from rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide, far more often than the proletariat, the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (MEP, 3-4)

Scott’s book represents his effort to understand the dynamic material circumstances of peasant life in colonial Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Burma); to postulate some central normative assumptions of the “subsistence ethic” that he believes characterizes these peasant societies; and then to explain the variations in political behavior of peasants in these societies based on the moments of inconsistency between material conditions and aspects of the subsistence ethic. And he postulates that the political choices for action these peasant rebels make are powerfully influenced by the content of the subsistence ethic. Essentially, we are invited to conceive of the “agency” of the peasant as being a complicated affair, including prudential reasoning, moral assessment based on shared standards of justice, and perhaps other factors as well. So, most fundamentally, Scott’s theory offers an account of the social psychology and agency of peasants.

There are several distinctive features of Scott’s programme. One is his critique of narrow agent-centered theories of political motivation, including particularly rational choice theory. (Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam is the prime example.) Against the idea that peasants are economically rational agents who decide about political participation based on a narrowly defined cost-benefit analysis, Scott argues for a more complex political psychology incorporating socially shared norms and values. But a second important feature is Scott’s goal of providing a somewhat general basis for explanation of peasant behavior. He wants to argue that the subsistence ethic is a widely shared set of moral values in traditional rural societies — with the consequence that it provides a basis for explanation that goes beyond the particulars of Vietnam or Burma. And he has a putative explanation of this commonality as well — the common existential circumstances of traditional family-based agriculture.

One could pull several of these features apart in Scott’s treatment. For example, we could accept the political psychology — “People are motivated by a locally embodied sense of justice” — but could reject the generalizability of the subsistence ethic — “Burmese peasants had the XYZ set of local values, while Vietnamese peasants possessed the UVW set of local values.”

This programme suggests several problems for theory and for empirical research. Are there social-science research methods that would permit us to “observe” or empirically discern the particular contents of a normative worldview in a range of different societies, in order to assess whether the subsistence ethic that Scott describes is widespread? Are peasants in Burma and Vietnam as similar as Scott’s theory postulates? How would we validate the implicit theory of political motivation that Scott advances (calculation within the context of normative judgment)? Are there other important motivational factors that are perhaps as salient to political behavior as the factors invoked by the subsistence ethic? Where does Scott’s “thicker” description of peasant consciousness sit with respect to fully ethnographic investigation?

So to answer my original question — what kind of concept is the “moral economy”? — we can say several things. It is a proto-theory of the theory of justice that certain groups possess (18th-century English farmers and townspeople, 20th-century Vietnamese peasants). It implicitly postulates a theory of political motivation and political agency. It asserts a degree of generality across peasant societies. It is offered as a basis for both interpreting and explaining events — answering the question “What is going on here?” and “Why did this event take place?” In these respects the concept is both an empirical construct and a framework for thinking about agency; so it can be considered both in terms of its specific empirical adequacy and, more broadly, the degree of insight it offers for thinking about collective action.

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