A fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens
What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.
Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalismR. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.
Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.
|Publisher:||Princeton University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Tim Rogan is a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he teaches history.
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R. H. Tawney
R. H. Tawney commands great prestige among the British left. Would-be legatees of "the best traditions of British Socialism" invariably "try to trace their lineage back to Tawney." Claims to Tawney's posthumous patronage were once fiercely contested. But they have become less contentious. Indeed, "a certain weariness is inclined to come over some readers" now at the mention of Tawney's name. Many question whether there is actually a legacy worth claiming. A steady stream of biographical and thematic treatments of Tawney's ideas attests to continuing interest his work. But no one is quite sure what to make of it — what Tawney stood for, why it mattered, whether it still does. As Stefan Collini has observed, this uncertainty in relation to Tawney instantiates a more pervasive discomfort with questions concerning the relationship between economics and ethics. When reading Tawney we feel a certain "unease with the very idea of the unembarrassed appeal to non-economic human values in public debate." But we also feel that this unease is unbecoming — that it is a sensation we should not feel, a hesitation we had better overcome.
This awkwardness and ambivalence has affected the historiographical literature on Tawney's life and work in three respects. First, it is generally presumed that Tawney's appeals to morality were empty gestures — rhetorical postures struck without any articulate basis or sophisticated conviction. In this view the moment of direct appeal to moral or ethical values in economic argument was ephemeral, a transitional stage between two more durable phases in the development of progressive social and political thought — an expiring earlier "liberal individualism" on the one hand, an emergent "welfarism" on the other. Tawney, in other words, was a transitional figure superseded by subsequent developments. A second notion about Tawney — which has served to reinforce the conclusion that he extolled an empty moralism — is that he was a nostalgist. In this view his reconstruction of the declension of social thought through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represents a yearning for earlier simplicities. Third, in consequence of the first two notions, Tawney has come to be remembered mainly as the author of The Acquisitive Society (1921) and Equality (1931), his two more practical and programmatic works. The 1926 book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which made his name and made his ideas central to social and political thought between the wars, has been relatively neglected. Attention to these minor works — works more readily assimilated into prevailing technocratic currents in progressive social and political thought — has obscured the singularity of Tawney's thinking.
This chapter unseats each of these notions in turn. Taking Religion and the Rise of Capitalism as Tawney's pivotal contribution, it validates the instinct that informed the legion latter-day socialists who have sought to trace a lineage to Tawney, clarifying that his was indeed the pioneering contribution to a particular mode of social criticism — a moral critique of capitalism predominant in Britain by the middle of the twentieth century. Tawney's formulation of the social problem set him squarely at variance with the "liberal individualism" of the nineteenth century: he was hostile to collectivism, yes, but he saw the future not in a renascent individualism but rather in the emergence of new forms of social solidarity neither individualist nor collectivist in nature. A specific conception of "human personality" was integral to the critique of capitalism that Tawney pioneered: his constructions of the "moral" referred invariably to a definition of the human, a definition derived in Tawney from a specific theological moment. Tawney was neither an individualist nor a baseless moralist, then: attention to his concept of human personality overturns both of those suppositions.
Still less credible in my view is the characterization of Tawney as a nostalgist. Tawney's account of the declension of social thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emerges here not as a return to earlier simplicities but rather as the issue of his reflections on and responses to the emergent solidarities he encountered among his students and neighbors in northwest England in real time. "History," Tawney explained in his inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics in 1933, "is concerned with the study, not of a series of past events, but of the life of society, and with the records of the past as a means to that end." He was looking in his sources for means of describing and articulating those solidarities — means unavailable in the terminology of contemporary social and political thought. Reconstructing the dissolution of earlier forms of cohesion was a way of imagining a social order constructed out of these emergent solidarities. Far from wishing capitalism away, Tawney was affirming that even while it destroyed older customs and norms, capitalism created new kinds of cohesion. Setting views of Tawney straight is not simply a matter of resolving anomalies in the scholarship. It begins to vindicate a widely felt instinct to revert to Tawney as a creative and constructive figure with profound relevance for contemporary politics, affirming that the critical tradition he pioneered merits sustained attention. But it also gives that attention sharper focus. This new clarity serves in part to expose false claimants to Tawney's legacy: with the foundations of Tawney's construction of the moral unearthed, some claims to his intellectual ancestry become less plausible. It also helps us — this refocusing of attention on the specific concept of the human with which Tawney worked — to see why and how the "weariness" toward Tawney that affects many contemporary readers set in when it did: despite some recent suggestions to the contrary, Tawney was inspired by religion, and the intensification of the discourse of secularization has made his arguments less compelling. Finally, this new focus helps us recognize where to look for Tawney's successors, and to follow the development of the moral critique of capitalism that he pioneered through successive iterations. That is the work of subsequent chapters.
To be clear, my aim here is not to redeem Tawney's arguments against capitalism unmodified. My purpose is rather to clarify the nature and bearing of the critical tradition he inaugurated, demonstrating that its success in its own time merits closer and more sustained attention than it has yet been afforded, singling out its distinguishing features the better to follow its development through subsequent innovations. Not that picking up those threads and following those innovations leads us eventually toward a set of arguments ready-made for deployment to commensurate effect today. We are uneasy about "unembarrassed appeal to non-economic human values in public debate" for good reason. But nor are we willing — and rightly, in my view — to forego any such appeal for good. Many people still return to Tawney in search of a critical standpoint. This chapter validates that instinct, but it also makes clear that Tawney is the beginning and not the end of that search.
R. H. Tawney entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1899, to read classics — "mods" and "greats," as the course was colloquially known. He left four years later with a second-class degree. His father — who had been an Apostle at Cambridge, and an associate of the moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick — deemed the result a "disgrace." His friends William Beveridge and William Temple — future architect of the "welfare state" and Archbishop of Canterbury respectively — both won firsts and college fellowships. Tawney had to content himself with an exhibition and residence at Toynbee Hall, foremost of the settlement houses established in East London in the 1880s, where members of the middle classes exercised by the plight of the poor could live and work at humanitarian relief. At Toynbee Hall Tawney soon realized that "he had no aptitude for the distribution of soup and blankets."
Tawney decided that he wanted "to teach economics in an industrial town." Beveridge told him that his work in Whitechapel would not "lead naturally" to that sort of post. Tawney joined the fledgling Workers' Educational Association (founded in 1903) and was immediately appointed to its executive committee. From 1905 he spent two years lecturing in economics at the University of Glasgow — covering for William Smart, Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy, while Smart wrote the majority report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Tawney joined a push for reform of the University of Oxford aimed at opening the university up to students from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds. Not being a senior member of the University, Tawney could speak and write more freely than the other agitators. The Liberal editor J. A. Spender gave the issue a good run in the Westminster Gazette. When the push resulted in the creation of a tutorial post under the joint auspices of the University of Oxford and the WEA, Tawney was appointed to it. He moved to Manchester, teaching in towns like Rochdale, Chesterfield, Wrexham, and Longton.
Life in Lancashire and North Staffordshire was a revelation. Here amidst "Nonconformist chapels and strong trade unionism," Tawney encountered "the normal working class life which he had missed in London." The people he worked with in Whitechapel were feckless and demoralized. In the north a stronger social spirit prevailed, binding people into communities even where work was scarce and living conditions straitened. The contrast between the two scenarios transformed Tawney's attitude toward social reform. "[R]elieving distress," "patching up failures," "reclaiming the broken down," were "all good and necessary." Such measures, however, treated symptoms, but did not address causes. "The social problem" needed a systemic solution. "One whole wing of social reformers" had "gone astray" in imagining that institutions like Toynbee Hall could make a real difference. It was "no use devising relief schemes for a community where the normal relationships are felt to be unjust."
A more systematic approach was under development in the work of the Fabians, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. As a younger man Tawney had been sympathetic with their ideas. At Oxford, Tawney had broached social questions with a meticulous empiricism. With William Beveridge, he had sought "to add to the unnumbered crowd of societies" an association for "the writing of papers on social questions from a matter of fact and as far as possible practical point of view." At the first and only meeting of this abortive society, Tawney read a paper on the "Taxation of Site Values." Beveridge's path to power would essentially continue in this vein. He became an expert on unemployment insurance, went to work for the Board of Trade under Winston Churchill, became permanent secretary of the Ministry of Food during the war, and then served as director of the London School of Economics. In 1906, between teaching commitments in Glasgow, Tawney got to know the Webbs in London. They became friends.
But differences between Tawney's own developing outlook and the Webbs' Fabianism soon emerged. Tawney had become active in the National Anti-Sweating League, campaigning (from headquarters on Mecklenburgh Square, where the Tawneys would live once they returned to London) for improvement of the wages and conditions in sweated trades like tailoring and box-making. The Webbs argued for the national legislation of a minimum wage. Tawney objected to this specific proposal in sharp terms. "It means that people are not paid what they are worth, but what is necessary to keep them working. That is how a horse or a slave is paid." Reflecting upon the differences between his own outlook and the Webbs' a few years later, Tawney recognized them as utilitarians, descended directly from Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Victorian liberalism, and he realized that from a utilitarian point of view there was nothing specific to be said against sweated labor. For Tawney, that complaisance was unconscionable.
In 1905 it was economics that Tawney had wanted to teach. That soon changed. "There is no such thing as a science of economics," he wrote in his commonplace book in 1913, "nor ever will be."
It is just cant, and Marshall's talk as to the need for social problems to be studied by "the same order of mind which tests the stability of a battleship in bad weather" is twaddle.
"Too much time is spent today upon outworks, by writers who pile up statistics and facts, but never get to the heart of the problem," Tawney wrote at around the same time. In seeking broader orientations, he looked to history. By 1908 it was "some parts of economics and history" that he wanted to "master." But academic mastery was again in itself not enough. He wanted to mix "scientific study" and "practical business," "the one helping the other": "books without things make Oxford dons, and things without books make borough councillors, between whom the world goes to the devil." Politics held some appeal. Tawney would run for parliament without success three times between 1918 and 1922. But politics was clamorous, dry, and remote, bereft of "appeal to noble and important emotions and beliefs." Reformers were preoccupied by band-aid solutions, politicians "with the manipulation of forces and interests," economists with "outworks." What was "the heart of the problem"? It was "not economic," Tawney wrote, it was "a question of moral relationships." "Modern society" was "sick through the absence of a moral ideal."
By May 6, 1910, when Edward VII died suddenly, the country was perched precariously on the verge of constitutional crisis. The campaign for women's suffrage was entering its militant phase, with prominent proponents — led by Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst — soon to resort to window-breaking and arson. The prospect of Home Rule for Ireland prompted Ulster unionists encouraged by Conservative parliamentarians to form a paramilitary pledged to resist majority Catholic rule. Industrial disputes became increasingly numerous and tense, as a concerted decade-long attempt to forestall militancy by extending the government's conciliatory role and facilitating parliamentary representation for workers proved unsuccessful. The authority of parliament, and with it confidence in the capacity of liberal constitutionalism to contain pressures for social change and maintain social order in Britain, was cast in doubt in dramatic fashion.
This late-Edwardian crisis deepened understandings of the nature of the "social problem" in Britain. As first raised in the studies of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, the social problem had been primarily a humanitarian issue, generating a concern among sections of the metropolitan middle class to ameliorate the urban poverty that decades of prosperity had failed to shift. Toynbee Hall, where Tawney spent his early twenties, was a response to the social problem so conceived. At the turn of the century humanitarian considerations had been overlaid with concerns about national prestige and imperial power. Problems raising an army to defend imperial possessions in the Boer War made the physical debility of sections of the urban working class a political issue. Relieving poverty and improving welfare became a matter of "national efficiency" — a paradigm that favored the utilitarianism of the Fabians. The constitutional crisis of the late Edwardian period gave the social problem a new complexion. "Much of the attention" long "spent on relief," Tawney observed in 1913, was now being "divert[ed] to questions of social organisation." The impoverishment of parts of the proletariat now figured as incidents of a more pervasive deficit of social solidarity. The minimal cohesives that had seemed adequate in the age of Gladstone could not contain the political energies the new century was arousing.
It was in this moment of crisis that Tawney's sense of purpose quickened. British society was disintegrating in a clash of groups and interests. The reduction of interpersonal relationships to the terms of economic exchange encouraged by Victorian political economy — the elevation of what we would now call "methodological individualism" into a social philosophy — came to seem a dangerous fallacy. It made opposing viewpoints incommensurable, aggravating disagreements. New conceptions of "unity" were needed. "Unity," Tawney wrote in 1913, "is to be desired in all those matters which involve the everyday life of mankind, not in the sense that all must believe the same things or act in the same way, but in the sense that one man must not suppose that what another believes is dictated solely by selfish interests."
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Table of Contents
1 R. H. Tawney 16
The North 18
Guild Socialism 29
Christian Socialism 40
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism 43
The History of the Present 48
2 Karl Polanyi 51
Red Vienna 61
“Beyond Jesus” 70
The Great Transformation 78
The History of Political Economy 83
3 Capitalism in Transition? 92
The Politics of Democratic Socialism 98
Welfare Economics 103
The Future of Socialism? 106
Planning for Freedom 112
The Education Act of 1944 117
Definitions of Culture 127
4 E. P. Thompson 133
Romantics and Revolutionaries 135
The Scrutiny Movement 143
Socialist Humanism 147
The Making of the English Working Class 157
New Lefts 167
After Marx 174
Small Is Beautiful? 187
Individual Values and Social Choice 189
Amartya Sen 194
Histories of the Future 198