Current Issue Article Abstracts

Volume 11, Number 2, Summer 2020 

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Live-Tweeting and Distant Suffering: Nicholas Kristof as Global Savior
Leslie Barnes

This essay interrogates Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on sex trafficking in Cambodia, examining the New York Times columnist’s narrative self-fashioning in the context of the neoimperialist rescue fantasies his writing perpetuates. It explores the intersections between Kristof’s writing and the various media he employs, and considers the effects of both on the audience he wishes to interpellate in the name of action. In his reporting, Kristof disseminates a set of truth claims about sex, work, and mobility; he presents himself as a global savior figure and encourages the “ironic” participation of his reader, who is moved less to take part in a cosmopolitan morality centered on justice for the Other than to identify with the savior and contemplate their own narcissistic performance of solidarity.

Beyond Humanitarian Logics: Volunteer-Refugee Encounters in Chios and Paris
Ludĕk Stavinoha, Kavita Ramakrishnan

Since 2015, grassroots volunteers have emerged as key actors in the humanitarian response to Europe’s “refugee crisis.” Based on ethnographic research on the Greek island of Chios and in Paris, this essay explores how volunteers navigate the ethical and political dilemmas inherent to humanitarian action in their everyday encounters with refugees. We argue that while volunteers sometimes mimic disciplinary humanitarian practices, the exchange of “biographical life” in and beyond camps allows volunteers to reimagine a more dignified provision of care and for creative solidarities to emerge. The presence of volunteers, we conclude, thus plays an important role in re-humanizing and re-politicizing refugee spaces, thereby challenging—even if momentarily—dominant humanitarian logics.

Dossier on the Moral Economy

Introduction: The Moral Economy, The Careers of a Concept
Jeremy Adelman

This essay explores the history of the idea of the moral economy—and the moral economy as an idea. It shows the ways in which debates about the market since the eighteenth century have been shadowed by debates and concerns about the ethical foundations of economic life. The history of capitalism has contained within it an internal tension between a romance with the market and nostalgia for worlds it dissolved. Moral economy has been a concept with many, global origins and different temporalities, depending on when the “transition to capitalism” ignited social movements and social ideas. In India and Mexico, as well as France and England, a plenitude of ideas about moral economics emerged to flow into a single, varied language of opposition and anxiety about market life.

The Moral Economies of Early Modern Europe
Francesca Trivellato

Scholars as diverse as E. P. Thompson and Thomas Piketty posit a clear break between pre-industrial, status-based economies and modern, contract-based capitalism. This essay revisits this standard account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism by focusing on a central and yet rarely discussed tenet of economic justice in early modern Europe: the need to balance individuals’ contractual freedom with the privileges assigned to different groups in any hierarchical society of status. In so doing, it reconstructs the pre-history of contemporary debates about the tension between consent and identity-bound inequality in liberal economies.

R. H. Tawney
Tim Rogan

R. H. Tawney is readily mistaken for an uncompromising moralist for whom the return of a Christian ethics of medieval intensity was the only way forward. Tawney never used the term “moral economy,” but he initiated the critical tradition that later gave that term currency. The term today bears the marks of these origins and is frequently seen as doctrinaire and retrograde. What put Tawney ahead of his own time, however, was his perception that the economists’ spiritual blindness was spreading. His concern was not to fill the ensuing vacuum with some prescribed content, but rather to make the deepening void notorious.

The Imperfect Promise of The Gift
Marion Fourcade

This essay analyzes the moral economy of the gift in the seminal and eponymous work by Marcel Mauss. I present Mauss’s argument and discuss the gift as a moral, or psychosocial, achievement. I conclude on the promises and pitfalls of the gift as an anchor to social solidarity.

Are the Two Approaches to Moral Economy Irreconcilable?
Didier Fassin

The concept of moral economy stems from two theoretical traditions: that of E. P. Thompson, which corresponds to the norms and obligations involved in traditional economies, and has nourished the works of social historians and political anthropologists; and that of Lorraine Daston, which characterizes the values and affects regulating the activity of a given group in a given time, and has inspired historians and anthropologists of science. This essay offers a third reading attempting to reconnect these irreconcilable approaches by considering a moral economy as the production, circulation, appropriation, and confrontation of values and affects with regard to a significant social object, such as immigration or punishment, rather than to a social group. This new approach allows us to address some of the issues raised by R. H. Tawney’s analysis of religion and by Marcel Mauss’s interpretation of the gift. Particular examples are drawn from the capitalist devaluation of human lives and the humanitarian asymmetrical relation of obligation.

On the Mexican Ejido
Emilio Kourí

Mexico’s indigenous villages (pueblos) have long been held as examples of functioning moral economies, spaces governed by principles of relative equity, reciprocity, communal landholding and collective responsibility. Guided by this enduring representation, the massive agrarian reform that followed the Revolution of 1910 created thousands of collective land grant communities (ejidos). This essay argues that the conception of pueblos and ejidos as natural, culturally-bound moral economies is founded on a longstanding historical mischaracterization of village social relations, and it outlines the complex intellectual and historiographic roots of that persistent and romantic image.

The Moral Economy of the Capitalist Crowd: Utopianism, the Reality of Society, and the Market as a Morally Instituted Process in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation
Margaret R. Somers

In an age of egregious inequality and rising authoritarian, many call for a new “moral economy” and turn to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for inspiration. Yet Polanyi’s great insight is that those who cannot reckon with the moral economy of “market justice”—the claim that market outcomes, however unequal, are morally just—fail to understand the power of capitalism. Justified by its original claim to rest on natural science, market justice laid the predicate for democracy as mortal threat. Polanyi reveals market justice as based not on natural law but on predistributive political power, and builds his democratic socialist vision on the “reality of society.”

T. H. Marshall, the Moral Economy, and Social Rights
Samuel Moyn

At a crucial juncture in his famous lectures on “Citizenship and Social Class,” English sociologist T. H. Marshall explained that the new social rights he associated with the invention of the twentieth-century welfare state were in fact a blast from the past—a bequest from the moral economy to a later age grappling with political economy run amok. Marshall’s celebrated theory of social rights that followed provides one aperture from which to intervene in a dispute brewing between starkly alternative views of the relevance today of the moral economy tradition he invoked.

“I Am No Longer Answerable for Its Actions”: E. P. Thompson After Moral Economy
Timothy Shenk

E. P. Thompson’s classic 1971 article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” turned a forgotten locution into a cottage industry. But Thompson was surprisingly ambivalent about this academic success story. As discussion of “moral economy” burgeoned within the humanities, he watched grimly as talk of the “market economy” flourished in the wider world. His language had survived, but he took little consolation in the popularity of a concept that, stripped of its context, threatened to become a catchphrase.

Moral Economy in Its Place: The Contribution of James C. Scott
Joel Isaac

Despite appearances, James Scott doesn’t have much to tell us about the concept of moral economy. When he invoked the idea in his famous book The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott used it as a label of convenience, and he found it easy to drop in later work. Scott wanted a theory of peasant behavior that tracked actual peasant beliefs about fairness, reciprocity, and legitimacy. Only a genuine attempt to interpret peasant beliefs about their situation could hope to explain peasants' acceptance or (in extremis) rejection of the power of elites. Judgments of fairness concerning subsistence goods provided a kind of focal case, a threshold at which judgments of legitimacy could be expected to vary sharply. Scott derived this idea from sociological theories of exchange and reciprocity, not from Thompson, whose famous idea he grafted on to his already-completed book.