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The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism

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A fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens

What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.

Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalism—R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.

Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.

Edition Number:
Rogan Tim

Tim Rogan is a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he teaches history.

Introduction 1

1 R. H. Tawney 16
The North 18
Idealism 22
Pluralism 25
Guild Socialism 29
Christian Socialism 40
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism 43
The History of the Present 48
2 Karl Polanyi 51
Hungary 57
Red Vienna 61
Fascism 65
“Beyond Jesus” 70
The Great Transformation 78
The History of Political Economy 83
3 Capitalism in Transition? 92
The Politics of Democratic Socialism 98
Welfare Economics 103
The Future of Socialism? 106
Planning for Freedom 112
The Education Act of 1944 117
Definitions of Culture 127
4 E. P. Thompson 133
Romantics and Revolutionaries 135
Stalinism 138
The Scrutiny Movement 143
Socialist Humanism 147
The Making of the English Working Class 157
New Lefts 167
After Marx 174
Conclusion 184
Small Is Beautiful? 187
Individual Values and Social Choice 189
Amartya Sen 194
Histories of the Future 198
Acknowledgments 201
Notes 205

Index 253

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