Tanzanian Peasant Intellectuals and Thompson’s English Crowd: Discourse, Reappropriation, and Subaltern Resistance

(crossposted at Videri)

E. P. Thompson’s “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” marks a departure from earlier “spasmodic,” or purely reflexive, conceptualizations of period food riots. This older view stresses the role of discrete economic events, and reduces the complexities of “motive, behaviour, and function” in subaltern direct action tactics to nothing more than “rebellions of the belly.”1  By exploring a series of food riots in eighteenth century England, Thompson argues that these uprisings, far from being the desperate, instinctive expressions of starvation, were surprisingly disciplined actions.  These riots, he stresses, occurred within a broader framework of popular economic propriety and a set of traditional norms and obligations. Collected, these norms and values mediated marketplace interactions and constituted what he labels the “moral economy.”

Customary practice and the norms of the moral economy served as the conceptual backdrops for economic direct action. Faced with the vicissitudes of the new market economy, common people reacted by selectively reappropriating elements from an older, paternalistic economic model, particularly those features which stressed the obligations, especially in times of scarcity, of farmers, millers, and bakers. This was not, however, a complete reconstruction of the paternalistic model. Thompson notes that “the popular ethic sanctioned direct action by the crowd, whereas the values of order underpinning the paternalist model emphatically did not.”2 These direct action tactics were numerous, but usually involved a crowd “setting the price” through intimidation when the economic price set by farmers and dealers exceeded what was seen to be the “moral price.” As the author puts it elsewhere “we can read much eighteenth-century social history as a succession of confrontations between an innovative market economy and the customary moral economy of the plebs.”3 Thompson’s subalterns used the frayed customary and discursive edges of the unraveling paternalist model as a site to mount a challenge to the cultural innovations of the new free market economy.

Taking a similar point of departure, Steven Feierman’s Peasant Intellectuals explores issues of continuity and novelty in Tanzanian peasant discourse. Noting that “[w]hen people select a political form of discourse, when they shape a political argument in a particular ways, this is by no means a passive act,” Feierman argues that peasant intellectuals used long-standing indigenous tropes like “healing the land” and “harming the land” to alter “their position in the framework of domination.”4

Although it was probably not intended as a corrective (Thompson does not appear in Feierman’s bibliography and the two authors are obviously dealing with very different contexts), Feierman’s study supplements some of the shortcomings of “The Moral Economy.” In Thompson, for instance, it is unclear, outside of a period of cultural and ideological transition (such as the liminal period between the paternalistic and free market economic models), whether or not the degree of agency exhibited by Thompson’s subalterns would be possible. The shift between two cultural epochs offers privileged position; the juxtaposition of two ideological perspectives exposes the contradictions of both and allows for selective appropriations from either. As the historical “traces” deposited by previous periods begin to vanish and the “common sense” of a hegemonic outlook begins to be internalized and reified, the degree to which customary practice could serve as an ideological wellspring of resistance would seem to diminish.

Of course, Thompson does not subscribe to a view of hegemony as an “all-embracing view of life” instead, he argues that “it imposes blinkers, which inhibit vision in certain directions while leaving it clear in others.”5 Still, it would seem that as a hegemonic worldview became more entrenched, that the opportunities for counter-hegemonic agency (at least non-political manifestations of agency) would become more circumscribed. Feierman shows why this is not the case. Metaphors like kuzifya shi (“healing the land”) and kubana shi (“harming the land”) had enormous staying power in Tanzanian, remaining in use for over a hundred years, even though the structure of the political system changed several times in the intervening period. Beyond that, Feierman is able to show how organic, peasant intellectuals were able to create their own counter-discourse in the face of colonial authority and local forms of hierarchy.

A second problem that arises with a reading of Thompson is that his focus on “the crowd” as a basic unit of analysis leaves open the question of individual agency. While Thompson does an excellent job recovering the voice of a collective subaltern, the voices of individuals and even the variegation of viewpoints within the crowd remain elusive. Furthermore, by concentrating on the collective and ignoring questions of individual agency, Thompson’s work does not fully succeed in its aim to counter a “spasmodic” view of eighteenth century food riots. By focusing on customary practice and the “moral economy,” Thompson risks overemphasizing the role of structural factors in food riots.  By portraying these episodes as events following generic social scripts (e.g. setting the price) the role of structure looms large, but the role of individual agency is unclear. In Customs in Common, Thompson goes some way to bridging the gap between the crowd and the individual, specifically where he explores the motivations for engaging in the mob form of direct action, however, a direct historical analysis of individual action that probed the interaction between structure and agency would provide a more complete demolition of the spasmodic outlook.

Steven Feierman’s Peasant Intellectuals provides such an account. Arguing that “when we study the practical interests and the consciousness of intellectuals, we move beyond the assumption that structure is form and agency is formlessness.”6 Transcending the old debates over structure and agency, Feierman’s work shows how agency and consciousness “can be located within a structure historical framework—structured through the historical continuities in particular varieties of discourse, and structured according to the positions of historical agents.”7 All of this is not simply a repetition of Marx’s famous claim at the opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “[M]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,” Feierman offers us an understanding of how peasant intellectuals were able to adapt old (and create new) forms of discourse and praxis to meet the challenges of present political circumstances.

Feierman ends the introduction to his work with the bold assertion that “[t]he history of peasant intellectuals and their discourse refutes the claim that a resisting peasantry inevitably looks backwards, trying to recapture the past rather than move toward the future.”8 Here Feierman seems to be sharing Thompson’s concern to save the subaltern from “the enormous condescension of posterity.”9 By showing how ordinary peasants selectively used motifs from the political vernacular to construct a novel understanding of their rights and personal dignity, Thompson and Feierman have done more than rescue them, they have made them admirable.

1 E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50, no. 1 (February 1, 1971): 77–78.
2 Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” 98.
3 E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New Press, The, 1993), 12.
4 Steven M. Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 3, 4.
5 Thompson, Customs in Common, 93.
6 Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals, 34.
7 Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals, 34.
8 Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals, 44.
9 E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, 7th ed. (Vintage, 1966), 13.

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