Thompson EP - Customs in Common

EP Thompson – Customs in Common

Thompson EP (1993) Customs in Common. London: Penguin Books


A brief summary of the text

We chose to focus on three of the essays in this volume, listed below with original publication dates:

Chapter I: Introduction: Custom and Culture [1991]

Chapter IV: The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century [1971]

Chapter VI: Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism [1967]

The book was published in the 1990s, decades after the original publication of some the essays contained within. These older essays are combined with some more recent work, e.g. Chapter V, which revisits the concept of the moral economy and responds to its critics and others who have used it in their own work. The introduction summarises his aims in bringing these essays together: to outline the contours of customs that formed part of an eighteenth century English culture (and I note that Thompson is appropriately careful with this word) and fed into a “customary consciousness” (p1) for plebeians. This consciousness set them apart from the supposedly ahistorical ‘economic man’ of contemporary thought that Thompson saw becoming so prevalent in scholarly work. The point here was not to exoticise plebs as non-rational or pre-rational, but instead to undermine the kind of rationality espoused by the abstract homo economicus model.

Within this customary culture, social and moral regulation works by communities imposing inherited expectations upon transgressors. But these are not simply the rules of the state or the church, and the sanctions are not just those of the law, although Thompson does not deny the importance of church or state. What he is talking about are conservative forms of custom working by “non-rational” (p9) sanctions: force, shame, ridicule, intimidation. (I am only mentioning transgressions and sanctions but Thompson also discusses other customs and traditions, e.g. in recreation. Of course, sometimes there is overlap.) And what is particularly interesting about this is that although the form of these customs may be conservative, the content cannot be described as such, since labour is gradually moving away from manorial, paternal, parochial controls. “Hence one characteristic paradox of the century: we have a rebellious traditional culture. The conservative culture of the plebs as often as not resists, in the name of custom, those economic rationalizations and innovations… which rulers, dealers, or employers seek to impose” (p9).

Chapter IV explores this in far greater depth, outlining his famed concept of the moral economy, defined thus: “a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action” (p188). The chapter attempts to offer a more complete understanding of how and why food riots occurred in times of shortage than had hitherto been given by those studying 18th century England. Previous histories had labelled riots simply as “spasmodic” or ‘compulsive” (p185), i.e. following a simple formula of: food shortage > riot. Thompson instead explores the complexities obscured by such reductivism. He describes how a new moral order was being created. Although it may have appeared at times that the market was creating this new moral order, Thompson clarifies that it was the patrician classes who had created a new ideology which they associated with the market, and that they were attempting to impose it upon the plebs, who were resisting, as a class. What interests Thompson particularly is that their resistance referred back to an older moral order, a “paternalist model” (p193) from which the crowd “derived its sense of legitimation” (p208).

Chapter VI describes how perceptions of time changed over the same time period, so that time became loaded not just with exchange value but also moral value, and what effects that had. Capitalism and wage labour clearly played a large role in this, but so did Protestantism and Thompson shows how these streams feed into each other.

Group Discussion

The group met on 24.10.16 and 07.11.16.

Participants: Karen Sykes, Phaedra Douzina Bakalaki, Jong Min Jeong, Jenna Murray de Lopez, Ben Eyre, Jeremy Gunson, PIyush Pushkar, Amy Penfield, Chika Watanabe, Pnina Werbner.


This was another lively discussion that followed a number of different strands. I have had some difficulty in pulling them all together into a single narrative piece.

We had been drawn to Thompson by Fassin’s use of the moral economy concept. To recall how he used it, Fassin defined a moral economy as “the production, dissemination, circulation and use of emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space: they characterize a particular historical moment and in some cases a specific group (p266 of Humanitarian Reason).

Our discussion began with an exploration of Thompson’s perspective. He was writing as an English academic, working in a post-war environment and living in the Calder Valley, one of the hotbeds of the Industrial Revolution. But looking out over the Calder Valley from his house now, as one group member noted, the biggest building one can see is actually not a mill, but a hospital. As one of her American friends noted, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that “capitalism is bad for your health”.

However, his perspective was also that of a Marxist historian. Therefore, the economy, economic roles, division of labour and, crucially, class have an importance for him that they clearly didn’t for Fassin. Fassin’s use of the ‘moral economy’ did not create adequate space for the recognition of the importance of asymmetrical exchanges within relationships, whereas these are central in Thompson’s usage. His investigation shows how the crowd responds to a kind of contract being broken when the price of bread rises to unjust levels. However, this is not because they seek to maintain or restore a ‘just price’ calculated in the abstract (á la Aristotle), but instead they protest on the basis of a fair relationship. And, of course, for legitimation of this argument, they refer back to the old relationship between land-owner and pleb.

We appreciated Thompson’s respect for the subjects of his research. What one group member called his “ethnographic sensibility” had facilitated a demonstration of how the plebs were not just a subjugated mob, but actually were thinking individuals expressing counter-cultural ideas. This appreciation of Thompson’s approach led us to comparisons across time and space. For example, the Luddite valorisation of the lustre and beauty of a product as evidence of the moral worth of artisanal work was compared to hipster Britain, in which artisanal coffee and bread is revered, while Big Macs are sneered at. But then in post-socialist environments where consumption and the ability to consume are seen as moral goods, Big Macs are seen differently again. The importance and interest of these comparisons lies in the asymmetries they reveal. And therein lies the power of Thompson’s use of the moral economy. The concept, as he used it, was able to recognise economic inequality and its practical consequences, while also fully exploring what they meant to individuals in the contexts of their relationships with people on the other side of those inequalities.

That he did so with class in mind was important, and also lent itself to cross-cultural comparison. We noted a similarity with Weber in how Thompson describes the interplay between Christianity, morality, work and the development of capitalism. He demonstrates how work is transformed so that its meaning goes beyond the work itself and is invested with greater moral resonance as its place is recognised in a cosmology of redemption. However, one of our group members had also witnessed something similar in her own fieldwork with workers in Southern Africa, which had contributed to further intermingling between Christianity and the workers’ struggle. Indeed, in her fieldsite, trade unionists frequently addressed congregations in churches. As well, the movement had actually learnt much from reading Thompson themselves, in particular that classes did not merely exist as thing-like categories but were always in-the-making, with class consciousness built through relationships, work, sociality and struggle.

These comparisons inevitably led us to our own current conjuncture, post Brexit (and now, at the time of writing this blog, although not at the time of the discussions, post American election). Are we seeing a time in which our own moral order is breaking down, leaving so many people struggling to get by? And, importantly, how do we throw up a critique that is not just reactionary? Thompson showed that the 18th century English crowd’s resistance was rooted in references to the past, to a paternalist order which also subjugated them. “They found ways to cope, incompletely, with suffering,” as one group member put it. However, as industrial capitalism found its footholds, the actions of the crowd did improve their lot, they did improve their conditions. Thompson demonstrates how – up to a point – rioting worked to achieve the aims of the rioters, i.e. to be able to feed themselves in the short term, and to influence prices in the long term. An intolerable situation was made palatable. As such, their actions were not just reactionary, they were progressive.

Thompson does not use this word – progressive – but his analysis is intrinsically linked to an idea of historical progress that flows from his Marxist perspective. Following from this, we wondered if he was guilty of thinking the concept of the moral economy capacious enough to encompass or even replace political economy. One group member reminded us that Susana Naroztky has been very careful to keep moral and political economy separate from one another analytically. In so doing, she has been able to show how the workings of political economy actually undermine people’s moral assumptions about one another and therefore disrupt actual relationships, i.e. separating the two concepts allows one to show how the one interacts with the other.

Thompson accepts that he doesn’t really separate the two concepts. However, he does speak of the way in which the classical economists claimed to have disinvested political economic analysis of morality. He is careful to note that he is not claiming that Smith and his followers were or are immoral or amoral, but he wants to underline the claim made in their analysis. This is so that he can demonstrate what work this de-moralising does: allowing rulers to deny their duties to the poor without delegitimising their rule” (p270).

We discussed another criticism thrown at Thompson: that he is a ‘little Englander’, romanticising the English working class. Following his dispute with Althusser, this was how the structural Marxists saw him, opening up a divide within postwar Marxism. Althusser, for whom the base/superstructure model still held, continued to see modes of production as the primary motor of history. As such, the classroom was the place of social reproduction of the capitalist economy. And Thompson took issue with this, arguing that the production of the self was about more than the mode of production. Other factors had their roles too: the nation, the community, sociality. Theory that did not take these factors into account was impoverished. The group member speaking of this thus linked these factors to an over-riding question: what is the moral construct that we can recognise collectively? This question is required in order to ask less abstract ones about fair prices, etc., in a way that is intelligible to all of the relevant stakeholders.

This question can be framed slightly differently: how can we make coherent moral arguments in a way that remains adequately intelligible to others: i.e. across classes and other social divisions? Reframing it in this way demonstrates how close we came in the group discussion to Alasdair MacIntyre’s problematic: that we have lost our coherent conceptual scheme, so we have no ongoing basis for rational debate. Therefore, according to MacIntyre, our moral arguments are so much emotional hot air, humans shouting past each other with no shared understanding of the moral terms and concepts we use. Laidlaw, in his devastating critique of MacIntyre in The Subject of Virtue, finally concludes that this view is ultimately conservative, following in a long line of authoritarian, anti-liberal thinkers: Rousseau, Schmitt, Heidegger, Strauss. This reference to conservatism and anti-liberalism again put me in mind of one of the group’s earlier questions: “how do we throw up a critique that is not just reactionary?”

These questions haunt us now. They have haunted us since at least 1989 (although I must admit that at the age of 6 it wasn’t at the top of my mind). As we discussed, they haunted Thompson since 1956. But we must consider them in our own worldliness, at our current conjuncture. Brexit and Trump have not made these questions more urgent. They have simply pushed to the surface an urgency that we had hitherto been too complacent to recognise. And they are, of course, global questions. Thompson showed how we can speak to the global from a local and particular perspective, with an ethnographic sensibility. Ironically, since he wasn’t an anthropologist, he demonstrated how relevant anthropology can be today.

Piyush Pushkar