The moral of the story

Primary, well-established and original research: the anthology “Economics and Morality in the Long Twentieth Century” by Jürgen Finger and Benjamin Möckel

Soenke Abeldt

Peer-reviewed books / references

Appeals for austerity, calls to buy “honest” products, ideas about who is allowed to have little and to whom a lot, the scourging of greed, exploitation, social envy and – very often – praise for hard work and a frugal life … Indeed, newspaper readers can it is easy to guess that economic concepts abound with moral considerations.

This is nothing new – a look at history shows that economic activity has always been associated with moral beliefs. You can read more about this in the anthology Economics and morality in the long twentieth century Experienced. Edited by historians Jürgen Finger (Paris) and Benjamin Möckel (Cologne), the book contains 20 historical case studies on many moral stories economy. It covers a long period from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, that is, from the beginnings of capitalist modernity to the modern world economy.

The book assumes that economics and morality should not be interpreted as separate spheres – even if abstract econometric models would like to believe this and thereby underpin their scientific authority. Here, market mechanisms that seem to be natural laws (supply, demand, price, production and distribution, utility maximization, consumption) – there, moral debates about “market failure” or “excesses” of capitalism. Finger and Möckel against this dualism point to the sociological traditions of thought (e.g. Émile Durkheim, Max Weber) and works on economic and social history (Karl Polanyi, Edward P. Thompson), which think about economic action and social norms together and about aligning or a conflict between the two.

In addition, the editorial staff is taking advantage of the impulses from the recent sociological discussion on the “social embedding of the economy” and “moral economy”. The goal of their efforts is to work out hidden ideas of normative economic decisions, to track down influential rules, institutions and social attributions.

This approach is based on the theory of conflict as it focuses on moralizing debates about economic (but also social and political) interests. The focus here is on strategic discourses on economic concepts and negotiating responsibilities and expectations that must be accepted in all cases. The disciplining, pedagogical, and often discriminatory character of morality understood in this way becomes apparent. It is also interesting to ask how individual and collective actors (with their respective motives, goals and strategies) use normative arguments to legitimize or enforce their own positions.

On the one hand, the methodological program developed in the introduction ensures broad communication. On the other hand, it is a moral and sociological bracket for individual studies presented in the anthology. Historians enter media res. Each article focuses on a specific source – texts, images, artifacts, brochures, films, everyday objects – and examines moral undertones, social and interpretation conflicts, as well as biographical backgrounds from a historicizing perspective.

For example, the question of whether the very understanding and use of money as a “universal” means of payment should be culturally relativized is raised, for example, by ethnological research on the “economy of others”; Timo Luks refers to the 1950s socio-anthropological field research by Mary Douglas (1921–2007) on textiles as a medium of exchange (money from fabric) in Congo. Sören Brandes shows that John Bates Clark’s (1847–1938) model of marginal productivity, which appears to be “objective”, contains “the moral justification of capitalism by scientific means.” An in-depth analysis of the text by Catherine Davies of a press article on American stockbroker James Fisk (1834–1872) explores how the German critique of stock market speculation in the late 19th century was associated with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Marc Buggeln adopts the vision of a “respected businessman” that is often emphasized today, and using a caricature from 1918, a business newspaper from 1923 and a program document from 2009, he will problematize the ideological conservatism and reluctance that it is an imaginary figure to feel. from then until now. Matthias Ruoss points out that husbands placed mass advertisements in newspapers in the second half of the nineteenth century to warn others not to lend money or goods to their wives; these threats show how a nascent capitalist (credit) economy coexists with gender conflicts and attempts to discipline what a wife can and cannot do. The 1938 Legal Commentary on the “Maintenance Obligation of a Guilty Divorced Husband” encourages Christians of Annemone to reconstruct the family and divorce law of the time; Marriage was thus structured as an institution of the National Socialist “Volksgemeinschaft”, and the dependent and deteriorating role of wives in the Nazi system is revealed in terms of subsistence.

The claim that economics should be understood not as a detached but as a historical and social practice involves considering political tensions: for example, when the European Community wanted to oblige companies to a code of conduct to deal with the apartheid regime in South Africa from the late 1970s ( Knud Andrews); when the social protest of the “yellow vests” in 2018, referring to democratic ideals, shook French society (Jürgen Finger); or how the US government’s statistics on global arms spending around 1970 were strategically placed and used in the North-South foreign policy conflict over “military” and “development aid” (Daniel Stahl).

Presumably because capitalist management affects all walks of life, the volume covers a wide range of topics; includes examples from Germany, USA, UK, France and the Netherlands – see the table of contents only. The editors did not compose texts that are only about ten pages long (in two columns), either by time or by topic, but in alphabetical order by author. The previous ‘user manual’ with the eight key categories (community, development, need, duty, use, price, innovation, merit), which are highlighted in red in the individual inputs, should allow for intertextual reference. The People and Keywords Index – which is unfortunately missing – does not replace that.

The originality of the book is already noticeable when browsing 36 different, partially colored source illustrations. The authors extract material that is not necessarily well-known, and some of them are really interesting. One can smile, for example, at the photo report from the GDR “3 buckets of mortar – fast and not bureaucratic” (1963); These step-by-step instructions on how to obtain materials for repair should be understood in the context of the scarcity economy and the really socialist state structure (Reinhild Kreis) – and that is where the laughter certainly ends. Or look at the enlightening 1952 West German film Putzke Wants to Know (also available on the Internet); With its help, the Ministry of Finance wanted to raise the tax morale of West Germans – in context re-education, tax education read as an attempt to influence public opinion by the media, it emphasizes the moral constitution of the post-war state (Korinna Schönhärl).

Overall, the book offers a well-established theoretical-strategic setting and inspiring source interpretations that go beyond the telling of a historical story – a treasure trove to open up as well-established patterns of thought as possible in economic and historical disciplines and to initiate further fruitful research work. The band is to be wished by a large audience.

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