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The moral economy

The moral economy

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Available at: http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/5.2

Global capitalism is contradictory

The globalization of capitalism does not mean that once isolated societies become integrated into a single global system. We have already seen how gift systems adapt to their contact with global markets. Global capitalist firms and the global system as a whole also depends on the maintenance of this alternative as a means of reproducing labor it can exploit.

  • Maimafu villagers will never be able to earn enough from coffee; Campos needs Maimafu to keep growing sweet potato
  • At the Signature Fashions factory, workers need to be willing and able to change jobs and hours fast. The firm depends on them having side jobs and being generally familiar with all the jobs at the factory. That means it depends on having workers who help each other make extra clothes for each other.

The morality of economic activity

One of the ways societies respond to market forces is by placing limits on individual choices

  • Wamira (Papua New Guinea) taro gardens can't be tended with metal tools (Kahn 1986)
  • When Luo (Kenya) people sell land, they earn “bitter money” (Shipton 1989)

Market-driven societies also place some kind of moral limit on profit as well

  • Human tissue cannot be sold in Australia
  • Prostitution is illegal in the United States, except Nevada

Certain kinds of value remain embedded in social relationships while other kinds are able to be commodified, bought and sold. Is M-C-M' itself immoral?

Fordist surveillance and moral proletarian resistance

We can apply the same kind of thinking to the relationship of wage labor, which is based on exploitation. Workers often find ways to collectively resist the extraction of surplus value

  • Cleaning one's wool-spinning machine promptly at the end of a shift - a clean machine usually doesn't get turned on again until tomorrow (Shehata 2009, 68)
  • Breaking machine counters, which meant that operators and not supervisors had to determine when a machine's spindles were completely full and could be replaced (Shehata 2009, 69)

Many of these and similar tactics were also used by workers in socialist firms so that they could subvert the control of managers.

A good work ethic

Of course, from another perspective, resisting control of labor or limiting market forces are bad for moral reasons:

  • Peasants are lazy; they only produce what they need
  • Factory workers are irresponsible; they don't care if the compant meets its quotas
  • Indigenous people are backward; they think their territory is more valuable than having enough food.
  • Workers who “thief” time and material are stealing, and stealing is immoral (Prentice 2015, 95)!

Capitalist mass production is a culture. It has its own moral values which contrast with those found in gift-based societies.

Dichotomous thinking

An either-or distinction is a dichotomy.

An opposition between individual self-interest and the collective force of a social norm, like reciprocity, is one example of dichotomous classification.

Many societies see their own involvement in markets in terms of this dichotomy. Their ideology focuses on the dilemma - a choice between opposed ends - posed by trading: Do I earn for myself or give help to my neighbors and kin?

The informal economy

  • Making gin in Frafra slums, in Accra, Ghana (Hart 1973)
  • Selling betel nut around PNG (Sharp 2016)
  • Selling tobacco in Auhelawa

Women's work

  • Informal enterprise looks different when we apply gender as a lens.
  • Informal enterprises are often “women's work,” done alongside or part of women's roles in families.
  • Both labor markets and gift systems are male dominated.
  • Women fill in the gaps and make the whole system hang together, but don't get recognized for this.

The breakdown of the Fordist social contract

  • Fordism is a method of organizing production, but Fordism also sustained a social contract between the ruling class and society: High wages and general affluence in exchange for private profits through mass production.
  • When Fordism fades, women must work a “second shift” - first wage labor then housework and child care (Hochschild 1989).
  • Hence, informal economies matter more for making ends meet.
  • Poor single mothers have to find work and care for children, so they exchange labor with each other (Stack 1974).
  • Welfare activism has often argued that women's informal exchanges of care are unpaid labor and should be supported (e.g. Mazelis 2017).

A middle-class informal economy

  • The gig economy: Is it also partly sustained by informal support?
  • Family-based aged care?
  • Can you think of other examples of needs which middle-class wage-earners could once meet through the market, but now involve gifts and informal support?


  • The encounter between social forces and market forces is not simply collective constraints on individual behavior. (That's a false dichotomy!) Rather, social forces and market forces are driven by two distinct value systems.
  • These value systems conflict, but they also interact in not-so-obvious ways.
  • The formation of informal economies is not a breakdown of capitalism. It's an unintended, but inevitable, side effect of the contradictions in capitalism
  • The value created by informal ties not only helps people survive, but can be exploited by global capital. We shall discuss this again in detail next week.


Hart, Keith. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11 (1): 61–89. doi:10.2307/159873.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell, and Anne Machung. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books.

Kahn, Miriam. 1986. Always Hungry, Never Greedy: Food and the Expression of Gender in a Melanesian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2017. Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor. New York: New York University Press.

Prentice, Rebecca. 2015. “'Is We Own Factory:' Thiefing a Chance on the Shop Floor.” In Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad, 87–110. Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado.

Sharp, Timothy L. M. 2016. “Trade’s Value: Relational Transactions in the Papua New Guinea Betel Nut Trade.” Oceania 86 (1): 75–91. doi:10.1002/ocea.5116.

Shehata, Samer S. 2009. Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Shipton, Parker. 1989. Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

Stack, Carol B. 2008 [1974]. All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community. New York: Basic Books.

Voltaire. 2006 [1759]. Candide, or Optimism. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19942/19942-h/19942-h.htm

A guide to the unit

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