Moral Economy and Luddism

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John G. Rule

Although the concept of a moral economy has older uses, in the twentieth century historians' use of the term "moral economy" largely followed an influential article written in 1971 by the English historian Edward Thompson. In "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," reprinted in Customs in Common (1991), Thompson sought to explain the actions of the English who rioted against high food prices. Focusing on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a time of rapid change, he presented food rioters as resisting the cold logic of the "market economy" by asserting an alternative "moral economy" based on a sense of justice and entitlement to procure food at affordable prices. The rioters appealed to a disappearing tradition of paternalist regulation of the food market by the state.


Backed by a powerful sense of legitimacy, the typical food-rioting crowd indulged in premeditated, controlled behavior against what it saw as unjust, self-interested attempts to profit from food scarcities. The protesters especially targeted middlemen, who were seen as enhancing food prices by imposing themselves between the food producers and the consumers. Crowds, which often included women, took direct action in marketplaces, at fairs, or at bakers' shops by seizing food from sellers, publicly selling it themselves at a "just" price, and returning money and sacks to the sellers. They usually took wheat or barley in the form of grain, flour, or bread but sometimes took meat and cheese. Merchants who transported grain from areas where it was in short supply, in order to sell it in markets offering higher profits, especially London, were also likely to have it seized in this way. Crowds visited farmers suspected of hoarding grain while prices climbed even higher and ordered them to bring their grain to the nearest local market.

Food riots occurred in more than a dozen years between 1714 and 1815, and they continued sporadically later in the nineteenth century. They were widespread in the so-called wartime famine years of 1795–1796 and 1800–1801 (see Wells, 1988). With more than four hundred outbreaks between 1790 and 1801 alone, examples are plentiful with which to illustrate the patterns Thompson included in the moral economy. Although some changes emerged, such as the north was affected later than the south, for the most part the main characteristics of these protests endured, and the compact contemporary account of more than fifty riots in the Annual Register of 1766 provides models. Not many of these took place in the north, which that year had a better harvest than the south.

In Gloucestershire and Wiltshire cloth workers destroyed flour mills, taking grain and distributing it among themselves. In Exeter, another center of woolen manufacture, protesters seized cheese and sold it at a reduced price. Cornish miners forced butchers to lower meat prices, as did metalworkers at Wolverhampton. In Derby a crowd took cheese off a riverboat before it could be shipped from the town. Similarly cheese intended for transport to London was seized from a wagon. In Devon protesters seized corn from the barns of farmers, sold it openly at a market for a fair price, and returned the money and sacks to the farmers. In Malmesbury, "They seized all the corn, sold it at 5s a bushel and gave the money to the right owners." In Nottingham a crowd seized all the cheese being sold by the factors (middlemen) but, significantly, left untouched that being sold directly by the farmers.

Such rioting recurred from one place to another over wide lapses of time, a response from the popular memory when pressure situations arose. In some places the proclivity for riot was stronger than in others. For example, riots intended to stop the outward movement of corn happened at transport networks, such as seaports and inland waterways. Manufacturing and mining communities exhibited an especially robust tradition of food rioting because crowds formed easily in their dense populations and because, unlike the farming population, miners bought most of their food in markets. Inhabitants of market towns felt invaded when, for instance, Cornish tin miners entered Penzance, Redruth, or Truro or when colliers from neighboring villages entered Bristol, Coventry, or Newcastle. Often anonymous letters served notice of the intention to lower food prices, like this one received by a magistrate at Norwich in 1766, "This is to latt you to know and the rest of you Justes of the Pace that if Bakers and Butchers and market peoppel if thay do not fall the Commorits at a reasnabel rate as thay do at other Markets thare will be such Raysen as never was known."

The letter's eccentric spelling hardly lessens its impact, and serious rioting did indeed follow. However, actual violence was rare, whatever threats were issued. Food rioters deliberately killed no one over the whole period, although a small number of rioters was shot by those defending their premises. John Bohstedt, in Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales, 1790–1810 (1983) argued that food riots worked best in smaller communities, where the magistrates had authority to offer negotiation and even reciprocation rather than outright suppression. In general harsh retributory sentences were not imposed, and once order was restored magistrates often went some way toward meeting the wishes of the crowd by encouraging lower prices and initiating or participating in relief measures. Eighteenth-century crowds rioted over food prices in part because they could expect some short-term remedy.

Thompson's article attracted significant critical response, to which he replied at length in "The Moral Economy Reviewed" (Customs in Common, 1991). Some objected that Thompson's moral economy implied that the defenders of the corn market, especially Adam Smith and his major discussion in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), were immoral or at least had no moral vision about access to food. Thompson's critics pointed out that Smith in fact believed that the free operation of the market was the best defense against food shortages because it evened supply and, through the rationing effect of high prices, restrained consumption until the next harvest.

Thompson welcomed the examination by John Walter and Keith Wrightson, in their 1976 article "Dearth and the Social Order in Early Modern England," of the implementation of regulation of prices and marketing activities. The government achieved this regulation through such means as the issuing, at times of dearth, of the Book of Orders, first done in 1597. The book reminded justices of the peace of their powers to take action over price and supply (such actions became the objectives of the eighteenth-century crowds). The government also resorted to the prosecution of offending traders, a course of action that had been part of the response of the authorities in the seventeenth century. This reinforced the authority of justices in times of dearth. Years of high prices were more frequent in the eighteenth century, but rioters drew a sense of a moral economy from a longer expectation of regulation, much of which was still part of the common law and statute law, although it was increasingly disregarded by government. In the popular memory a belief in regulation remained strong, and as Douglas Hay demonstrated in "The State and the Market in 1800: Lord Kenyon and Mr. Waddington" (1999), it persisted among some of the more traditional justices.

Thompson cautiously did not extend his concept of a moral economy beyond the English experience, but to a marked extent the same essential features appeared in food protests across Europe. Indeed the British historians Richard Rose and George Rudé, who pioneered the study of food rioting in England ahead of Thompson, both first studied riots in revolutionary France. In that country, too, the government abdicated from paternalist control of the food market and came to believe in laissez-faire. This switch was especially marked under the finance minister Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in 1775, when disturbances around Paris were the largest of the pre-1789 period. But in 1768, an earlier dearth year, France experienced a full medley of food-rioting actions, including people seizing grain to sell at just prices, known in France as taxation populaire, or popular price control.

The riots of March and April 1775 were widespread and serious enough to earn the title la guerre des farines or the "flour war." The change of regime brought about by the Revolution did not end food riots, which continued on a considerable scale in 1789, 1792–1793, and 1795. During these years the riots were widely scattered. In the provinces, the riots for the most part targeted grain or flour, as in 1775. In Paris the main targets were meat, butter, and eggs, but even sugar, coffee, and soap became the objects of riots. The crowds were as insistent on the tradition of taxation populaire as they had been under the ancien régime, but now protest over food prices also involved political slogans. These protests were at least partly successful in securing a short-term (fifteen months) return to the days of regulation as the Convention imposed price controls under the law of the General Maximum of 1793. After the 1790s food rioting was never again so widespread or so insistent, but the moral economy of taxation populaire persisted to some extent into the disturbances of 1848. Protests in the depression year of 1817 called for taxation populaire, as did the disturbances of 1845 through 1847, when the traditional bogeymen of corn hoarders, grain exporters, and bakers were again targeted and women led demonstrations to force sales in the markets at just prices.

In Spain the riots of 1766 followed the removal of controls over the grain trade in the previous year. Those protests expressed a sense of a just price with expectations that authorities would lower prices. But unlike in England and France, the Spanish riots were an unusual occurrence in a country where food riots remained rare. In Germany food riots against the resented commercial operations of grain dealers remained a feature of the widespread disturbances of the 1840s, when food riots in Berlin and elsewhere produced government intervention and the sale of bread and grain at reduced prices. Prussian Germany experienced two hundred food riots in 1847.

More than twenty years after his original article, Thompson remarked that, even if he did father the term "moral economy," it had come of age in historical discourse and he was no longer responsible for its actions. He had misgivings about its application away from the special moral and entitlement context of the food supply. He was uneasy, for example, about extending it generally to expectations from traditional systems of poor relief, such as the pre-1834 Old Poor Law in England. He conceded that in carefully considered contexts some actions of industrial protest could have a moral economy dimension.

In this regard Thompson approved the work of Adrian Randall, who analyzed both the food riots of 1766 and the industrial dispute of 1756 within the same woolen-working communities of Gloucestershire in "The Industrial Moral Economy of the Gloucestershire Weavers in the Eighteenth Century" (1988). Both protests were informed by the same values and displayed the same community solidarities and sanctions. Industrial protestors, like food rioters, appealed both to custom and to the regulative legislation of the labor market in Tudor and Stuart statute law. They appealed also to the authority of magistrates, seeking their intervention as conciliators and arbitrators. No firmly bedded reactionary opposition to the market economy as a whole, these disturbances reflected resistance at points where the market operations broke down or threatened to break down customary standards and expectations.

Other historians, equally influenced by Thompson's insight, have presented eighteenth-century industrial disputes as legitimized within assumptions of rights and entitlements. William Reddy in The Rise of Market Culture (1984), his important study of French textile workers in dispute, even suggested that "something like a moral economy is bound to surface anywhere that industrial capitalism spreads" (Reddy, p. 334), developing as much from lived experience as from traditional culture. Yet viewing any version of the moral economy as capable of generally embracing early forms of industrial protest presents problems. It implies resistance to a particular set of capitalist market operations affecting wages or employment, but not all and possibly not even most industrial disputes in eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century Europe were defensive. Smith, discussing English workers' strikes in 1776, recognized the existence of "offensive" strikes intended to take advantage of favorable situations in the labor market to increase wages or otherwise improve workers' conditions. In such actions allied artisans frequently employed strategies more explicable in the modern language of industrial relations than in that of an industrial moral economy. However, that not all disputes can be explained by moral economy does not mean that the concept does not apply in some measure to a significant population of conflicts at points where innovating capitalist employers were breaking down the ingrained traditions and expectations of occupational communities and trades. No more than in the food market was customary culture in the labor market the simple antithesis of market culture. The culture of the wage-dependent artisan, cloth worker, or miner presumed that the labor market was not fully free but operated under the restraints of custom and claimed rights. In short, the workers understood as "fair" a market that recruited only from those with an entitlement to a particular trade and that employed neither unskilled labor, especially female, nor machinery simply to enhance the profits of capital.


In England. The best-known example of such community-based resistance is the Luddite disturbances of 1811–1813. The machine-breaking activities of workers across much of England's industrial north and Midlands seriously alarmed the government and gave a new word, "Luddism," to the language. Luddism can be linked to the moral economy in at least two ways. First, it was based on the resistance of occupational communities, where networks of kin and neighborhood interlocked with those of employment to provide a rich texture of customary expectations about ways of working and living. Second, it came at what Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, called the "crisis point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation and in the imposition of the political economy of laissez-faire upon and against the will and conscience of the working people" (1968, p. 851).

Machine-breaking and other attacks on employers' property had a long history in the repertoire of workers' actions against employers in times of dispute. Eric Hobsbawm called this "collective bargaining by violence" (1964, p. 7) in his article "The Machine Breakers." At times the attacked machinery was seen as a grievance for bringing unemployment to skilled workers and hunger to their families. At other times machines were broken as a means of putting pressure on employers or as acts of revenge.

The English disturbances of 1811–1812, however, were without precedent in their extent and seriousness. They seemed to pose a threat not just to capitalist employers but to government itself. A prelude had succeeded in the woolen industry of the west country, the same area of manufacturing where Randall claimed to identify an industrial moral economy behind the strike of 1756. The shearmen, who cut the nap from a woven piece of cloth with heavy hand shears, a vital role in finishing cloth, had attacked the newly introduced shearing frames that threatened to displace their skill. Their action effectively deterred clothiers in that region from persisting with their innovations.

The name "Ludd" first appeared in the stocking manufactures of the East Midlands, where framework knitters produced hosiery on stocking frames. In 1811, a time of market contraction due to the war with Napoleonic France, the capitalist hosiers, who employed the framework knitters by putting-out the yarn to their homes, began a series of measures to reduce labor costs. Essentially they resorted to "colting," that is, to the employment of young unskilled labor to make stockings by the cheaper method of "squaring." Squaring is knitting on wide frames a square of cloth from which stockings were subsequently cut and sewn instead of knitted in the traditional fully fashioned way. Work was the issue, not new machinery as such. A Nottinghamshire folk song of the time, "General Ludd's Triumph," expresses the grievances of the trade and of the community in which it was enmeshed along with the determination to continue the struggle:

Till full-fashioned work at the old fashioned price
Is established by Custom and Law.
Then the Trade when this arduous contest is o'er
Shall raise in full splendour its head.
And colting and cutting and squaring no more
Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.
(Hammond and Hammond, 1979, p. 212)

At first the knitters concentrated on traditional action within the context of a paternalist state. They petitioned Parliament for an act of regulation to preserve just wages and fair employment. This produced nothing, and local magistrates refused to intervene when hosiers continued to cut wages. Attacks on knitting frames began. The framework knitters were no more indiscriminate in their targets than were the food rioters. Their attacks by night were said to be led by a mythical "Captain" or "General Ludd," whose name appeared at the bottom of a host of threatening letters. But as another verse of the ballad points out, "His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames/and to those that old prices abate" (Hammond and Hammond, 1979, p. 212). At its most active phase in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, from March 1811 to February 1812, the movement destroyed one thousand wide frames in one hundred separate attacks. A worried government reacted, making machine breaking a capital offense and dispatching six thousand troops to Nottingham.

The name "Ludd" appeared elsewhere. It spread to woolen manufactures of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where shearmen, or "croppers" as they were known locally, began a series of attacks on newly introduced shearing frames. As conflict intensified, an organization formed that was capable of attacking larger mills, and lives were lost. The fears of the skilled croppers were not unfounded. By 1817 only 860 out of 3,625 croppers had full employment. Ludd also appeared in Lancashire and adjacent parts of Cheshire, where the development of cotton weaving by power looms created a machinery issue. But few manufacturers were at that time attempting power cotton weaving, and the disturbances were part of a medley of protests that included the food riots of 1812.

Luddism is not an easy phenomenon for historians to accommodate within traditional labor history. Its early historians, especially J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond in The Skilled Labourer (1927), called it a regrettable but understandably desperate response by workers who, in the face of the growing influence of the economic ideology of laissez-faire, had failed to persuade government to redress their grievances by invoking paternalist regulation. Machine breaking was the final act in the traditional craftsworkers' struggle to maintain or revive customs and laws that the new breed of capitalist employers was eager to evade. Increasingly the state seemed on the side of capital rather than labor. For the Hammonds and some others the true line of descent for the labor movement in Britain was through the "constitutionalists," who had organized the petitioning of Parliament. Without any strong evidence, they insisted that the constitutionalist movement developed parallel to but entirely separate from the direct actions of the machine breakers.

Such compartmentalization of protests works even less well for Yorkshire and Lancashire than for Nottingham. Government spies reported that the Luddites in the northern counties were moving beyond industrial protest into political action and were even linking to an underground Jacobin revolutionary movement. The Hammonds dismissed these reports as the fabrication of self-interested professional spies. In 1964 Thompson, in The Making of the EnglishWorking Class, was the first modern historian to argue that the government was right to take the threat of revolution in the Luddite districts seriously.

Some historians agree that Luddism or its failure convinced at least some of the artisan population that the old regime was no longer willing to play a paternalist role and intervene to redress the balance of power between employer and worker. This view was reinforced by actions outside the Luddite areas. Calico printers, cotton workers, and others petitioned fruitlessly over working and hiring conditions. Possibly the Luddism of 1811–1813 was the last major episode of industrial protest that can be accommodated within the idea of an industrial moral economy and hold parallels to actions in the food market. Indeed in The Question of Class Struggle (1982) Craig Calhoun suggested that the events of 1811–1813 were in essence a "populist reaction" legitimated by the senses and beliefs of community rather than a revolutionary movement based on the concept of class conflict. The innovating capitalist was viewed less as a person exploiting labor than as a person breaching the norms of the occupational community. In fact the protest had elements of both.

The community basis of resistance to machinery was evident in earlier periods. The introduction of spinning jennies into the cotton districts, threatening the traditional cottage-based wheel spinning, led to attacks on the machinery of the inventor James Hargreaves at Blackburn as early as 1768. Much more widespread and serious were the disturbances that erupted across Lancashire in 1779, when not only the jenny but carding and roving machinery were coming into use. The most notable attack was on the factory at Chorley of the inventor and industrialist Richard Arkwright. An idea of the social justice expectations of the moral economy clearly emerges in this episode in the protesters' distinction between large jennies of twenty spindles or more, which were taking the site of yarn production from the cottage to the workshop or factory, and the smaller, hand-operated jennies, which were considered fair. Although smaller jennies displaced the wheel, they had been accommodated within the cottage economy and had offered enhanced earnings. What was fundamentally at issue was the viability of the family economy, which was the economic and moral building block of the community.

Women carried out domestic spinning, and as the ratio of spinners to weavers was 6 to 1, more women than just the wives of hand-loom weavers were employed. In addition to male and female cloth workers, colliers, nail makers, joiners, and general laborers were among the eight thousand or more who participated in the disturbances of 1779.

In France. Moral economy protests and equivalents of Luddism characterized many early industrial settings. In 1788, when the spinning jenny was introduced into the Rouen district of France, the resulting disturbances suggested the existence of an industrial moral economy. The reduction of the rates paid for hand spinning had severely lowered family earnings when food prices were beginning a rapid rise. Protestors claimed that "machines had stolen the bread." Industrial protests merged with food riots by the summer of 1789. In July a mob composed mainly of women attacked a grain store at Rouen, then attacked the workshop of an English artisan where jennies and carding machines were manufactured. After it was fired on, the angry crowd scattered the broken parts of the machinery in the same manner that food rioters sometimes scattered seized grain. In the following weeks protesters frequently attacked workshops where new jennies were in operation in Rouen, Paris, Lille, Troyes, and Roanne. Attacks continued sporadically until 1791. Another round of protests against machinery occurred after 1815, when French industrialization was gaining speed.

The machine breakers of the English north and Midlands gave a generic word to the language with revealing speed. "I have not been able to discover any symptom of 'Luddism,' " the mayor of Preston advised the government in 1816. The following year the cutlery workers from Sheffield were reported to have a "complete system of Luddism." By then the meanings had been conveyed to France, where the prefect of a woolen-manufacturing district urged that manufacturers should consult with him before introducing shearing frames, saying, "It is prudent to spare ourselves the disorders which the Luddites have committed in England." To some extent the events of 1811 and 1812 in the West Riding were repeated in the older woolen districts of France, including Sedan, Reims, Carcassonne, Lodève, and Clermont, in 1816 and 1817. A few manufacturers were introducing shearing frames and gig mills, and they expected the support of the authorities. Earlier the threat of violent protest had been a deterrent, as it had been in the west of England. In 1803 a Sedan merchant explained that the authorities would undoubtedly punish workers who resisted machinery, but "who will return to us our murdered families and burned workshops?"

The more determined introduction of shearing frames in 1816 and 1817 brought resistance from shearmen and from the woolen-working community as a whole. Women again were prominent, reportedly urging the men to be even more vigorous. According to a Vienne police report the crowd shouted "down with the shearing machine" as they removed one from its crates and threw it into the river. Ballads expressed the same moral outrage that had legitimized English Luddism. A petition to the government accused the machinery of offering the "pernicious means of shearing, glossing and brushing 1000 ells of cloth, while being directed by only four men." It was an "evil" that would destroy and divide the community because it would be "beneficial only to the owners." The prefect of Hérault, while recognizing his duty to suppress riots and protect manufacturers' property, called the machines "an inevitable and almost irreparable evil." Whether as part of a strategy or as a persistence of belief in the old moral, regulated economy of the ancien régime, the protestors appealed to the recently restored king, hoping, "If he knew this machine would reduce many of us to begging he would not let it be introduced."

The episodes of 1816–1817 involving shearmen and established woolen centers are the closest parallels in French labor history to English Luddism. However, attacks on machinery remained endemic if sporadic in France for another three decades, whereas in Britain, with the noted but idiosyncratic exception of the attacks on threshing machines in the name of "Captain Swing" by the agricultural laborers throughout southern England in 1830–1831, machine breaking did not pose a significant threat in the years after 1820. The slower pace and different character of industrial change in France allowed both artisan attitudes and domestic manufacturing to persist longer, underpinning notions of traditional entitlements to work and to bread.

From the episodes of 1816–1817 to the Revolution of 1848, more than one hundred major incidents of Luddism were recorded, with distinct peaks at times of high food prices and political upheaval, such as 1828–1833 and 1846–1848. Both urban and rural workers were involved. As well as serious food rioting, for example, Paris in 1830 and 1831 experienced Luddite-type actions among female shawl workers and tobacco workers as well as an attack on printing machines at the government's Royal Print workshops. In 1830 around two thousand cutlers were involved in destructive disturbances in SaintÉtienne, as were other workers in Toulouse and Bordeaux. In the period of the political and hunger crises of 1848 silkworkers and tobacco makers attacked machinery in Lyons. River boatmen attacked steamships in Lyons, while at Rouen they damaged railway lines.

In Germany. Such early forms of industrial protest persisted at least as long in Germany, although frequency there was affected by the fact that German states were policed more effectively and determinedly. Traditions went back to the early modern period with attacks on ribbon mills by embittered laceworkers. Other Luddite outbreaks included those of the metalworkers of Solingen in 1826, the silk weavers of Krefeld in 1827, Saxon weavers and Leipzig printers in the 1830s, and most serious and best-known, the linen weavers of Silesia in 1844. During 1848, the "year of revolutions," Germany had episodes with textile workers, as did Italy, especially in Campania.

In The Rebellious Century (1975), Charles Tilly, Louise Tilly, and Richard Tilly argued that food rioting, machine breaking, and the protection of rights over woodlands or commons belong to a "reactive" era of European popular protest due—after the mid-nineteenth century, or two decades earlier in Britain—to give way to a "proactive" modern era of organized trade unions and political movements ready to negotiate in different ways with the power of the state. How far notions of moral economy assist in understanding a transitional stage associated with resisting the increasing encroachments of capitalism is debatable. What is clear is that, wherever groups feel traditional entitlements, whether to food or to the right to work as a resource controlled by the members of a particular trade or community, they inevitably legitimized their protests in moral terms. Usually those terms pose at least some measure of opposition to the workings and rhetoric of the "market." It is far too easy to offer the moral economy as a simple antithesis of the market economy, but to a significant extent the former only has meaning when considered against the growth of the latter.

See alsoModernization; Technology; The Industrial Revolutions (volume 2); and other articles in this section.


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