Keep gets wrong what “New Atheism” is (hint: they worship a different god), but this is still a pretty good essay, especially his points about moral economy.
James C. Scott is associated with a tradition called “moral economy” (so is Polanyi), which might be the single worst name for it. A “moral economy” sounds like something Burning Man extra-drug-edition might suggest, Bill and Ted’s take on fiat currency, “What about, like, a system that was fair and excellent to the people, man?” This is not what it means.
Moral economy is, more or less, two observations:
a) Pre-modern societies have informal institutions that govern the economy, and these institutions rely on what sounds to us like “moral” language. That’s Polanyi’s “submerged economy“, primitive redistribution, etc. Why this is the case is a different debate. Maybe people are naturally munificent to their neighbors, maybe it’s because subsistence communities risk ruin if even a few members go under. Hence, in situations of economic and political distress, the peasant class falls into moral language, but it’s not “moralism” as we think of it. In a weird way, it’s closer to institutional language, a kind of rural legalese. The most famous is the demand for “just prices” of bread, etc.
b) The vast majority of our own economic experiences don’t really feel economic. I mean to say: Theoretically we don’t need to go to work. We could just live under a bridge and survive on charity or something. The reasons we go are a lot closer to morality: you need to keep your kids clothed and fed, or you need to make your parents proud, or [other]. Apply to most transactions, especially with members of your circle, and you have it. Whythis pans out into good economic behavior is a different question, the point is that it does, but does not “feel” like it operates on that logic.
Putting this together, using our language: pre-modern communities have to punish defectors without recourse to a state’s judicial apparatus. They do so with moral language, social censure, status, reputation, etc., probably for a few reasons: a) minimizes friction in the community; b) is super-effective; c) allows for a careful tinkering case-by-case; d) is an instantaneous form of punishment, and thus well-suited to communities with narrow temporal wiggle-room to survive the winter. I like to phrase moral economy like this: “Everything you interpreted as moral or religious or ideological was actually material, you just failed to recognize that.”
Though I’m surprised he doesn’t mention “Debt: The First 5000 Years.”
Oooh, this is really interesting! The thesis I got from it:
– There’s a strain of leftist thinking that goes roughly like this: religion and conservatism is a tool the elite use to control the masses. If the masses realized the true stark reality of class interests they’d rebel, but the elites keep them pacified by hiring priests and other propagandists to tell them their exploitation is good. This essay is talking about this in terms of class, but it shows up in other areas of left-liberal thought too, e.g. this is how radfems think femininity works. This is backwards. The masses in traditional societies use the moral language they share with the elite as a source of leverage over the elite. A shared moral language allows the poor to guilt and shame the rich for exploitative practices, and it creates Schelling points that the poor can easily coordinate around (e.g. people shouldn’t have to work on Sunday because it’s the Lord’s day).
– Liberalism and other “modernizing” reforms are threats to this soft power. Weaken Islam and you weaken the moral force of Zakat. Weaken Christianity and you weaken the moral force of “Sunday is the day of the Lord.” This probably explains a lot about why poor people tend to be social conservatives: it is rational, as a matter of class interest, for them to be so.
– The most effective form of resistance often isn’t open rebellion but “everyday resistance” that is subtle and often invisible and avoids open confrontation with power (foot-dragging, desertion, petty theft, putting in the absolute minimum effort, etc.).
– The weak often manipulate the strong by flattering their egos. Keep this in mind when you look at societies where everybody seems to accept propositions like “the plebs are all lazy and you just can’t expect them to work hard” or “women are naturally dependent and need a big strong man to protect them and provide for them.”
– I think the “elites meme the plebs into accepting their subjugation” narrative and the “plebs craftily use religion and traditions to manipulate the rich” narrative are probably grabbing different parts of the same elephant. Societies are almost always the designed-by-committee products of a constant fifty-way culture war; they are shaped by many wills.
– This seems like very much the flip-side of @balioc‘s comments on god-emperors and barons. Moral-social pressure tactics are a lot more likely to work on a baron. For one thing, a baron is just more vulnerable to small-scale action. Your little village is the village headman’s whole world too, so if you can turn a few dozen villagers against him that’s a big deal to him. By contrast, your village is a tiny speck in the God-Emperor’s vast dominions, he has no reason to particularly care what people there think of him, and he can crush any village-scale uprising like a bug. But also, a god-emperor is much more likely to have a different culture from yours, which would make it much harder to morally-socially pressure him if you aren’t familiar with his exotic foreign culture.
– I think there may be a connection between the thing this essay is talking about and this. Mouse deer power rests on precisely the forms of power that socially awkward people are bad at and vulnerable to. A world where everything is nice and legible is a world where mouse deer has nowhere to hide, and I suspect for a lot of authoritarian formalizers that’s precisely the appeal of such a world. Formalization is often “punching down,” as ambiguous informal power is often the power of people who aren’t “supposed” to have power, such as women and people who lack certain forms of class privilege (seems like there’s some parallel here with the criticism of antitheism in the essay). On the flip-side, whuffie is a terrible currency and informal power often synergizes with other hierarchies instead of subverting them; informal power often looks like popular and privileged people “punching down” on people with little power.
– The essay talks about this in terms of class, but as I’ve hinted a couple of times now, I wonder if the same analysis could be applied to gender. I often see debates where people will point to things that could be considered female privilege, and feminists will reply that those things are really consequences of the infantilization and disempowerment of women. I think “the weak often manipulate the strong by flattering their egos” may apply here. Ideas about female dependency and vulnerability create a moral language that women can use to demand entitlements and concessions from men in a way that’s compatible with a flattering male self-image.
– I wonder if a lot of “everyday resistance” isn’t consciously resistance at all, just spontaneous expressions of the resentment that naturally exists in someone who feels exploited.
I didn’t see this last time it came around so I’m really happy you reblogged it