Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Political Economy and the Historians: E.P. Thompson and the Moral Depletion Hypothesis

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Political Economy and the Historians: E.P. Thompson and the Moral Depletion Hypothesis

Article excerpt

Abstract: Thompson presents the movement from moral to political economy as a stripping away of moral bonds and the emergence of impersonal political economy. In his alternative Thompson looks to the movement of a self-active subject but in doing so, we argue, he gets closer to the reality of political economy than he realised. Political economy was an important element of the radicalism, for example of Thomas Paine, in which Thompson sees the emergence of a working class voice. Political economy responded to subjectivity in the context of opposition to 'Old Corruption', and then necessarily looked to rely on the capacities and needs of the people.

1 Introduction

E.P. Thompson had more in common with the political economy he criticised than he realised. Just as he placed his own radicalism in opposition to a thoroughly statised and oppressive form of socialism so also political economy set itself against the oppression of the old aristocratic order. In looking for an alternative to the objective Marxism that went along with statised socialism, Thompson uncovered the history of an active subject, a class that made itself. Similarly, political economy had looked to an order founded on self-direction as the viable alternative to the hand of the aristocrats. In both cases, then, the basis for an alternative to a form of centralised political control was sought in a subject capable of self-determination. Despite this, Thompson's history sets out political economy as if it stood as far removed from the self-activity of the working classes as the aristocracy itself.

Thompson also shared with political economy its view of itself as an exercise in social intervention. For Thompson political economy is not just social theory but also social fact, replacing that earlier state of affairs (and state of mind) known by Thompson as 'moral economy'. Again, though, his (mis)understanding of political economy sabotages a richer story that he otherwise might have told. As Coats pointed out at the time The Making came out, Thompson's view of political economy conceded too much to the ruling 'self-image' of the 'spokesmen for "positive" economics' (Coats 1972, p. 133). It is this insight that we wish to develop below. In fact, neither the political economists themselves nor their 'radical' contemporaries saw in political economy an attempt to reconfigure economic behaviour in amoral terms. On the contrary both saw in political economy the possibility of an effective re-moralisation of society; for, on this understanding, the principles of political economy do not deny the role of moral sentiment and judgement in economic behaviour, but rather show how, freed from the dead weight of 'Old Corruption', it is precisely the revitalised moral capacities of the self-directed individual that can be relied upon to provide a stable and prosperous order.

In essence our argument runs as follows. We begin (in section 2) by briefly rehearsing Thompson's critique of what he calls the 'spasmodic' self: a view of the human act that reduces behaviour to little more than a simple material/economic stimulus and response affair. Such a view, he contends, pervades much of contemporary economic theorising and fails to see that human behaviour can only be adequately understood in more complex socio-cultural terms, in which a sense of legitimacy (and grievance) is given its explanatory due. It should be noted that we have no problem with Thompson's critique of the spasmodic self, as far as it goes. Rather, the problem begins, according to our lights, as and when Thompson and others tar political economy with the same reductive brush. This is what we call Thompson's 'moral depletion hypothesis': the claim that political economy attempts to reconfigure human behaviour in amoral terms. Thompson's views on this matter are laid out in section 3 below and in the following section 4 we show the consequences: that political economy cannot help but be presented as in natural opposition to plebeian radicalism. …

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