, , , , , ,

If a sharecropper grows food on a landlord’s land, how are the profits split between them? How should they be split? And what is the effect of those moral expectations when things go wrong, and there’s not enough food to go around? (And how can we exploit such conflicts in our fiction?)

I’ve mentioned James C. Scott before, and will probably mention him many times to come. His early book The Moral Economy of the Peasant discussed this issue in detail, in the context of the peasant societies of Southeast Asia. In these societies, peasants could be roughly divided into three groups: those who had their own farmland, those who were impelled to sell their land to landlords and become sharecroppers, and those who were pushed out of even this position and were reduced to landless laborers.

Over time, more and more peasants lost their land and became sharecroppers, as the ups and downs of agricultural life caught farmers in dire straits and allowed those with surplus capital to benefit. But for our immediate purposes, the interesting action occurred with the sharecroppers. The “traditional” system was to sell your land to some magnate in your own village or a village nearby, who would take a large chunk of the harvest—say, 30 or 40%.

But in exchange for such a large share, the peasantry expected something in return. This magnate was more than your landlord; he was expected to be a patron as well, protecting the welfare of the sharecroppers when times were bad and harvests poor. Depending on how bad things got, landlords might be expected to reduce their share of the harvest, extend low-interest loans to the sharecroppers to tide them over, or even to open their storehouses and share out some of their accumulated grain.

That is, landlords were expected to insure the subsistence of the sharecroppers, and only their commitment to do that would justify their taking so much of the harvest in good times, and their claimed social position as landlord and patron. This is what Scott called the “moral economy of the peasant.”

Sometimes, landlords reneged on their social obligations and withheld food during bad times. Or worse, landlords actually increased their demands on the peasantry, in order to stabilize their own incomes at the expense of the peasants. (This was a particular hallmark of the colonial European regimes that took power in Southeast Asia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.) Doing so was hazardous, since starving peasants with nothing to lose would sometimes rise up and massacre the landlords, and seize what food they could find. They would feel justified in doing so: the landlords had violated the moral economy. They had broken the bargain.

But in the early 1900s, excessive demands on the peasantry in Southeast Asia became more and more common as two things changed in tandem:

  • local patrons were gradually replaced by absentee landlords who lived in the cities, away from the villages; and
  • regime security forces became stronger, and better able to repress peasant uprisings.

For more on what happened in that case, read Scott’s book. (And in writing this post, I came across the article that apparently inspired Scott, a nice discussion of food riots in 18th-century England, which the author argues were undergirded by a similar moral economy; summary here.) For our purposes, we should focus on the key question: in bad times, whose position is stabilized at whose expense? And what moral system or expectation is being upheld, or violated, in the process?

This shows up frequently in “modern” society. Insurance companies, for example, collect money from us every month based on the promise of making us whole if some catastrophe happens. If we suffer a loss but the insurance company denies the claim, we feel betrayed, as if we had been robbed. On the other hand, if (say) a massive hurricane sweeps through an area and wipes out all the housing, property insurers may face the prospect of bankruptcy and go running to the government for a bailout. The bailout, in turn, would ultimately be financed by taxpayers, so the justness of the bailout would partly depend on the how just the tax system is. And so on.

The government itself taxes us a great deal, but we only acquiesce if we think that the government is seeing to our wellbeing in return. In bad times, the government is supposed to protect us from harm, or at least cushion the blow. If it does not, then the government will have a hard time justifying its taxation. And taxpayers will feel a moral right to object and demand better, perhaps at gunpoint.

In general, we tend to have a moral expectation that the wealthy and the powerful protect the welfare of the poor, especially if the wealthy became so on the back of the poor. This is a moral economy, a set of expectations that are overlaid on “normal” economic relations and help to constrain them. (You can imagine other types of moral economy rather than the patron/client model. For example, what if rather than guaranteeing subsistence, the economy was “supposed” to guarantee opportunity? Or provide a pure meritocracy, in which the unmeritable deserve to suffer?)

Unfortunately, it often happens that the powerful elites stabilize their own position at the expense of the weak masses, as happened in Southeast Asia during the Great Depression. This causes great suffering or even starvation; and it can also sow the seeds of revolutionary violence, if the weak are able to rise up. In the very worst case, as Joseph Tainter teaches us, it can lead to entire societies collapsing: if elites make greater and greater demands on their societies even when times are bad, eventually the societies are unable to meet those demands and the society implodes. (What will arise in its place is a different question. Sometimes the answer is “nothing,” if the society wipes itself out via starvation and violence.)

To recap, in your worldbuilding, it is worth asking these questions:

  • What moral expectations do the weak have of the powerful, especially if the powerful become so on the back of the weak?
  • Whose income, wealth, or social station is being stabilized at the expense of whom?


Addendum: The posts in this series are intended to go into books of my planned series Politics for Worldbuilders, the first book of which is already published. I had initially planned the second book to be Tyranny for Worldbuilders, which would discuss various techniques of state rule and how they are resisted. But as I’ve been writing out these posts, I realized that I was trying to mash too many concepts into the same book (state capacity, and authoritarianism, and political economy, to name a few), and they didn’t coexist nicely. So I’ve decided to split off the discussions of political economy into their own book, which will be the new Book Two in the series. At present, the plan is that this book will start with the concepts discussed in this post, and build on them with the other “Building the Economy” posts as well as other posts on political conflicts revolving around economics. I think that the book writing will go a lot faster now that I have a more focused plan.

Watch this space!


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)