Over the past 25 years or so, the former Labour MP turned writer and academic David Marquand has written a series of books anatomising Britain’s distinctive political economy. His work has always been characterised by broad historical range and philosophical depth. Marquand’s latest book, “Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now”, manages to be both a tearing, furious polemic against the “Mammon worship” to which he thinks this country has succumbed and an elegant analysis of the “tacit political understandings” that have shaped British political discourse during the last three decades.
Britain’s political-economic settlement—Marquand calls it “state-supported financial-sector primacy”—is not new. He traces its roots back to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, which helped the British state to “mobilise credit on a scale none of its Continental rivals could emulate.” The London-based financial services have always had more political clout in Britain than any other economic sector, Marquand writes. And that’s been true in spades since the late 1980s. Underpinning the primacy of the City of London and of financial capital more generally, he argues, is a distinctive kind of “moral economy”. When I spoke to Marquand recently, I began by asking him to explain what he means by the “moral economy”.
DM: It’s an idea I borrowed from E.P. Thompson. Thompson has this fascinating suggestion in one of his essays that the so-called “bread riots” that occurred in times of dearth in the 18th century were not just products of blind despair; they reflected what he called a “moral economy” which said that it was morally wrong to profit on the exceptional sufferings of the poor in times of dearth, and that something other than pure profit and loss should govern the behaviour of people who have means. Now, Thompson seems to be saying, in my reading at any rate, that this was a moral economy of the crowd, but he doesn’t allow for the possibility that the millers and sellers of bread who the crowd were attacking may have had a moral economy of their own, which was opposed to the moral economy of the crowd. And from that I develop the idea, which I think is new, that you can have more than one moral economy in a society at a given time, and that they can be at war with each other. I suggest that in the 20th century, in the postwar period, there was a solidaristic moral economy that prevailed. Of course, there were dissenters from it; not everybody accepted it. But that has now given way to the moral economy of market fundamentalism. And that’s the one that has reigned ever since the collapse of the postwar consensus and the arrival of Mrs Thatcher on the scene.