IPE’s strategic silence on capitalism and moral order

The study of how neoliberalism is remaking moral order in Africa reveals important insights for scholars of political economy

To-date, political economy scholarship has only cautiously engaged with matters of moral economy in contemporary society.  This is strikingly different from the recent surge in respective scholarship and debates in anthropology and sociology.  The moral properties of capitalist economy at a particular time and place have been barely investigated empirically from a political economy perspective, especially when it comes to matters of production, exchange, class, exploitation, accumulation, power and the state.  An exception to this is some of the literature on consumption, fair trade, corporate social responsibility or transition economies in Eastern Europe.  There are a very few International Political Economy (IPE) scholars who work on morality/moral economy matters and those that do  offer insightful analyses (e.g. Best, Brassett, Clarke, Holmes, Langan, Montgomerie, Sinclair, Tepe-Belfrage, Watson); yet, field work to collect primary data on the theme is negligible especially given the size of the empirical phenomenon of concern.

Against this background, I here introduce two new books that I have been involved in that contribute to the slowly emerging scholarship on the politics of moral economy.  In the collection on Neoliberalism and the Moral Economy of Fraud scholars from a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, political science, social policy and economics, employ case studies from the Global North and Global South to explore how particular values and norms rendered dominant by neoliberalism are encouraging the proliferation of fraud.  In this blog, I want to focus on my monograph titled Neoliberal Moral Economy: Capitalism, Socio-Cultural Change and Fraud in Uganda (the introduction is available for free here).  I introduce some of the key themes and arguments and highlight the importance of the topic for debates on neoliberalism and foreign interventions in the Global South.

The book follows up and investigates empirically some of the points made in the literature about neoliberalism in general and neoliberal Africa in particular, especially concerning the expected cultural (and especially moral) changes brought about by neoliberal reforms (I argue that we can see neoliberalism also as a cultural programme).  Graham Harrison’s idea of neoliberalism as extensive global social engineering, of a ‘project’ that aims at advancing capitalist market societies on the continent was a crucial inspiration behind the research; so was Stephen Gill’s notion of neoliberalism as advancing ‘market civilisation’ across the globe.  The book analyses the genesis and operation of a ‘market society’ in an African country, using the case of Uganda and in particular the phenomenon of fraud in agricultural trade there as an entry into some key aspects of the (cultural) political economy of such a market society.

To do this, I had to overcome the common use of the analytical terms ‘morality’ and ‘moral economy’ (that tend to restrict analysis to pro-social practices related to solidarity, reciprocity or altruism) and offer a take that allows for the investigation of the moral properties of economies and markets characterised by deception, intimidation, and physical violence. It also allows investigation into the moral outlooks of economic actors such as traders, middlemen, brokers and farmers who operate in these markets and engage in fraudulent practices themselves.  I have thus gone beyond the dominant scholarly take on and use of E.P. Thompson’s work on moral economy, re-interpreted how Thompson’s work could be used in research, and defined morality in a way that seeks to capture the broad range of moral dynamics and phenomena in contemporary capitalist society (and their political-economic drivers).  These would include the rise of self-interest as the core moral norm and the intensification (and routinisation) of fraud across many economic sectors as a way to make, increase or protect incomes and profits.  The moral economy concept can help to investigate and analyse the moral economy of fraud including the moral compass of the fraudster, and more generally, capture the political character of the dominant moral order (and respective changes) in capitalist society.  I am struck how little IPE (i) engages with Thompson’s work to launch a larger investigation into the IPE of capitalist moral order, and (ii) is concerned with economic fraud.  The collaboration between IPE and criminology seems negligible on this and other relevant topics, to the detriment of IPE.

Let’s get to some of the main arguments: first, whilst there is a body of research on the economic and political impacts of the neoliberal changes that swept through many African countries, from Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) onwards, there is less on the interrelated socio-cultural dimensions.  For years, scholars and debates explored how the reforms affected the economic performance of affected countries and issues such as poverty, employment or state finances, but relatively less attention was given to the reforms’ cultural effects, i.e. what sort of new moral orders they brought about.  Donors and governments have commissioned countless studies to investigate many aspects of the reforms but hardly any to explore the moral structures and dynamics of the ‘adjusted’ societies, for instance concerning the bundle of norms, values, ideas, beliefs, attitudes and orientations that shape ‘moral economies of earning a living’.  There are enormous gaps in data and analysis about  what sort of practices people in neoliberalised social settings consider to be normal, legitimate, acceptable or plainly necessary to make an income, a profit, to keep the job, beat the competition, survive, raise funds for basic or emergency household expenses, escape poverty and become wealthy.  Second, promoters of neoliberal reforms have underplayed, misconstrued and/or disguised key aspects of the socio-cultural effects of the reforms, especially the fact that the reforms promoted, directly and indirectly, a particular capitalist moral reordering (or what I call neoliberal moral restructuring).  This recalibration of the socially dominant norms, values and orientations on matters of economy, society and politics – from money, wealth, and profit making, the notions of proper life and conduct, to self vs. collective, public vs. private – has substantial (and often harmful) repercussions for society, as can be seen in escalating economic fraud and political corruption, to pick two of many societal phenomena in which neoliberal moral change manifests itself.  However, the link between reforms, socio-cultural change and fraud has only been minimally explored to-date especially given the empirical prevalence and size of the phenomenon of fraud, across classes and sectors.  Donors have of course commissioned researches into causes of corruption (far less into causes of corporate fraud) but these usually shy away from exploring the relevant wider neoliberal-capitalist social transformations of concern.

Third, many ‘adjusted’ countries in Africa experience substantial fraud and corruption, and have done for years.  To-date, the mainstream development debate, dominated by donors, hardly ever confronts the question of whether and how reforms have advanced a criminogenic culture, i.e. political, economic, and social structures that have turned out to be fraud-inducing than fraud-inhibiting.  Importantly, fraud and corruption are activities carried out by amongst others  (very) powerful  members of the ruling class and middle-class.  Again, much of the mainstream analyses and discourses are typically silent about ‘criminality’ of the middle class and respective aspects of middle class culture, psychology and character types, including prevalent moral outlooks and priorities (the respective links don’t get theorised and explored).  Yet, the crimes of the powerful is an established theme in criminology; the history of capitalist development across the world is rife with evidence that capitalism and (endemic) fraud are twins, from the colonial to the present period.  The warnings concerning the fraud and corruption (and generally crime and related social harms) that comes with capitalist development have been clear for some time.  However, those foreign and domestic actors in and with power on matters of social engineering in Africa for years have all too often ‘ignored’ them, probably for good reasons.

Fourth, imperialism has ravaged and restructured African societies for centuries, including their moral-economic structures.  Yet, we know relatively little about how exactly contemporary imperialism affects moral orders and milieus in particular societies, including moral structures and subjectivities in the economy (e.g. local markets).  Relatedly, we know relatively little about the links between political economy and moral economy, between political-economic and moral-economic change, or between political-economic and cultural domination.  We have yet to assemble more data and analyses concerning imperialist moral-economic interference and restructuring in countries in the South and related aspects of moral-economic sovereignty and resistance of the Southern countries and people concerned.

There remains a final question: if international finance institutions and Western donors have promoted reforms in Africa that have brought about societies characterised by high levels of economic fraud (and related significant social harm), should there not be a much more extensive and critical debate about donors, culpability and responsibility, reform experts and expertise, the legitimacy of dominant theoretical frames to debate and reform economy, state and society, and of course, about market society and capitalism in Africa?  This is both a key question for IPE and also an appeal for further investigation.