Moral economy, the Foundational Economy and de-carbonisation.

AuthorSayer, Andrew

Political economy has become divorced from normative political theory, resulting in an uncritical economic science and a political philosophy that has little critical purchase on actually existing economic practices. The Foundational Economy Collective works within a framework of moral economy and uses the concepts of capabilities and use-value to radically reorient our conception of how our economy - or economies - should work.

At a time when there are hundreds of publications on the ills of neoliberalism - often only gesturally defined - but few concrete or novel proposals for alternatives, the work of the Foundational Economy Collective - in their 2018 book, Foundational Economy: The Infrastructure of Everyday Life, and elsewhere - is most welcome. (1) The group's prescriptions don't simply call for the re-establishment of the old relationships between state, market and civil society that were current in the high period of welfare state capitalism but seek to reconfigure them in novel ways that avoid some of the problems of that model. They challenge both common policy assumptions and economic goals, prioritising well-being rather than economic growth. This is vital given that we know that, after a certain point, additional income does not improve individuals' well-being, and that chasing GDP growth endangers the planet itself. (2) Unlike the vast majority of left-leaning critical research on political economic matters, Foundational Economy poses questions by reference to a specific normative framework, that is, the capabilities approach and the concept of moral economy. These provide a powerful framework within which to redesign our economy, and rethink its actual purposes. But, at this time of climate crisis, I argue that such an approach must simultaneously find a way of tackling climate change in order to render life on our planet sustainable.

Moral economy and the Foundational Economy

'Moral economy' has been defined in many ways, whether as an object of study ('the' moral economy) - that is, as something that might or already does exist - or as an approach to thinking about economic matters. In the first case, some commentators - most famously E.P. Thompson - have argued that only very specific economic practices that meet certain moral criteria can be called a moral economy - usually those which protect people from market forces and provide them with enough to live on. For other commentators, all economies are moral economies insofar as they depend on the upholding of certain norms about what is legitimate and illegitimate - for example, concerning property rights - regardless of whether one agrees with them. (3) These norms underpin particular economic practices and their respective social relations (e.g. producer-user; buyer-seller; employer-employee; lender-borrower; landlord-tenant, carer-cared for; state-citizen); indeed they might be called constitutive norms.

As an approach to thinking about economies, moral economy can be both descriptive and evaluative, addressing how economic activities affect and are affected by moral sentiments and norms, but also, more fundamentally, exploring the constitutive norms of economic practices and assessing their moral legitimacy. Are they socially just? Do the usual justifications of them stand up to scrutiny? For normative moral economy, the point of economic activity is to provision societies - to provide them with the wherewithal to survive and flourish. But here it is not only outcomes in terms of the distribution of income that matter, for the fairness or otherwise of the constituent practices and social relations are also important. Given that these relations typically involve inequalities in power, we should not assume that their constitutive norms were arrived at by free and democratic deliberation among equals. We should certainly not...

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