Moral Economies and the Shift to Modernity

In 2005, the American housing bubble unexpectedly burst, causing deep disturbance to the real estate market in the United States.[1] Thousands of American families ceased refinancing their household loans as their adjustable-rate mortgages got out of hand, causing a wave of foreclosures. A significant number of people lost their properties because the loans they had subscribed to were eventually subject to speculation on the stock market and to predatory lending, making them incredibly toxic. In the meantime, banks and insurance companies, which had not anticipated the bubble and the high number of failed payments, faced huge difficulties. Lehman Brothers Holdings in the United States, one of the most infamous investment banks, and one of the most important, could not avoid bankruptcy. Highly complex and sophisticated financial mechanisms, coupled with moral hazard, contributed to this situation and to the ensuing worldwide financial and social crisis in the following years.

In the meantime, the financial instability caused by this “subprime mortgage crisis” engendered the European sovereign debt crisis, one of its collateral effects. Several European countries not only encountered huge difficulties in repaying their public debts, they were also unable to bail out their indebted national banks. Many had to call for the assistance of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Austerity programmes were enforced to restore trust. New legislation was enacted to cut public spending and to facilitate the increase of fiscal revenues. And difficult negotiations with creditors opened.

Today, throughout the Western world, voices continue to protest not only against the current drift of capitalism, but also against the lack of morality in our financial system, calling for an overhaul and stronger ethics at the level of norms.[2] Criticisms pointed to the dramatic vagaries of a system that appeared to have reached its limits, and that affected people who had never thought they would have anything to do with the abstruse world of the stock market. Financialization is the designated culprit, embodying not only the de-personification and disembeddedness of exchanges but also an ever growing institutional distrust.

Social movements, such as the Occupy Movement, spread in many cities.[3] Since then, it has swarmed in other parts of the Western world with, for example, the recent occupation of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, or the place de la République in Paris with Nuit Debout. Even the movement of the Gilets Jaunes can be perceived as a later challenge to the crisis. These social protests did eventually mutate into political movements such as Siriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy to name but a few. The emergence of these parties underlined the critical social and economic situation, and ultimately their embeddedness. Political leaders promised their electors they would find an alternative to austerity, and to a lesser extent an alternative to capitalism.

Parallel to all of this, we have recently witnessed the development of crowd funding platforms and peer-to-peer lending (or P2P) in an effort to skirt around traditional banking/lending circuits and reduce intermediation. Crowd funding increasingly appears a serious threat to bank loans.[4] In Greece, we have even witnessed the revival of bartering practices.[5] People are looking for alternative circuits, not necessarily in a new fashion but they are, rather, I would argue, looking for greater diversity, less intermediation and less rigidity.

 

This interdisciplinary research program builds on all of this to revisit the concept of the moral economy with special reference to the notion of embeddedness/disembeddedness.[6] It intends to study changes pertaining to the moral economy in modern societies with special reference to the longue durée.

I am especially interested in the process of transformation of the moral economy and embeddedness in three areas, namely Financialization (1), Institutionalization (2) and Technologization (3) (see below). Often portrayed as a phenomenon at the heart of traditional and disadvantaged communities operating in informal markets, it is my contention that the moral economy’s set of norms and values have evolved, adapted and persisted in modern market societies operating with formal institutions.

 

This project has, therefore, three objectives:

 

  1. to analyse and explain the persistence of the moral economy in certain settings while identifying the conditions of this persistence (against market rationality for instance)
  2. to explore the mechanisms at work behind the changes pertaining to moral economies with special emphasis on the process of embeddedness/disembeddedness and its outcomes
  3. and to contribute to the theoretical tenets of the moral economy paradigm by highlighting its evolution, resilience and adaptability to modern societies

[1] See for instance Stout, Noelle. Dispossessed: How Predatory Bureaucracy Foreclosed on the American Middle Class. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.

[2] Lazzarato, Maurizio. The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. Los Angeles, Calif.: Semiotext(e), 2012.

[3] Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. 1st ed. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013.

[4] http://www.lesechos.fr/13/07/2015/LesEchos/21978-100-ECH_un-risque-a-11-milliards-pour-les-banques-americaines.htm#

[5]http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/business/international/trading-meat-for-tires-as-bartering-economy-grows-in-greece.html?referrer=&_r=0

[6]By embeddedness, I mean the economic action is embedded in structures of social relations.