Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture
Democracy is reportedly in its death throes and political polarization is ripping societies apart, but large areas of popular political consensus still surface periodically. Already this short 21st century has seen massive, consequential movements against rising costs of living and price spikes in everyday basics. People have protested across the world, in rich and poor countries, in democracies and authoritarian systems. Each protest enacts a shared belief that governments are responsible for protecting everyday life from the shocks to which global capitalism is prone, and that their legitimacy depends on their actions.
Following EP Thompson, the great social historian of capitalist transformation, Naomi thinks of these ideas as ‘the moral economy’, because they define ethical limits to market forces. Contemporary moral economy thinking is not notably radical or overtly anti-capitalist, but it does make a political diagnosis: corrupt elites collude to create crises of subsistence, and to prevent their resolution in ways that benefit the majority. Most of these protest episodes do little more than hold governments to a rough kind of account, or reaffirm popular principles about how the economy ought to be run. But governments and regimes have also fallen in their wake, which have birthed new movements on both right and left. Development studies typically fails to help us make sense of such periods of global protest, reducing them to the angry rebellion of hungry people individually stimulated by relative price changes. This lecture will analyze cost-of-living protests as properly political acts, varied in their specifics and contexts, but driven by common principles regarding the basic right to protections of everyday life. The lecture will argue that the distractions of high-level political drama aside, the global crowd is more united than it is divided on the political question of how to respond to economic crisis.
This is an event arranged jointly with the Department of Politics and the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC).