Rice, Nikes and social justice: the moral economy under capitalism

Aish, horreya, adala egtema’eya’ – the sound of protestors at Egypt’s revolutionary Tahrir Square occupation, demanding ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ (Weinberger, 2011). Citizens shared an understanding and unrest over issues of increasing inequality, poverty and crackdowns on free speech and democracy propagated by Mubarak’s corrupt regime. Although the Egyptian revolution centred on a call to bring down the regime, increasing costs of grain and therefore bread prices meant access to bread was a clear catalyst of the revolution (Zurayk, 2011).

The purpose of this blog is really just a space to reflect on some questions I’ve been thinking about in relation to Tahrir Square and the 2011 London Riots.

  • What motivates rioters?
  • Why is there often some bread or other carby foodstuff involved?
  • Is it necessary to reinterpret Thompson’s notion of the ‘moral economy’ to create a new lens for understanding riots within the context of capitalist, consumerist and technologically driven societies?

Bread as a catalyst/conduit for unruliness

Photo credit: The Guardian
The famous ‘bread helmet’ of Tahrir Square. Bread was used as a visual instrument of protest by many people during the Arab Spring. 

Bread has, in fact, been the bread and butter of riots, uprisings and acts of unruliness throughout history. In a fascinating Netflix documentary series called Cooked, one episode educates viewers about bread, its history and its importance for human civilisation. Bread is essential and important to almost every culture globally (Nature’s Legacy, 2016). In Egyptian Arabic, the word for ‘bread’ and ‘life’ are actually the same word. For the income poor, in particular, bread acts as a cheap and filling foodstuff; a staple food in a family’s diet and a major sources of calories for those who might otherwise go hungry. For many people, the affordability of bread is the difference between having enough to eat and going hungry. Perhaps even between life and death. For this reason, spikes in the cost of bread are a catalyst for revolt and civil unrest (Nature’s Legacy, 2016), and with the doughy substance hailed by some as ‘the foodstuff of revolution’ (Potts and Conisbee, 2014).

Thompson’s ‘moral economy’

Thompson developed the notion of the ‘moral economy’  as a way to challenge historians’ incomplete explanations of rioting. He uses the example of 18th century English food riots to demonstrate the concept. While direct action was triggered by bread prices and hunger, they operated within the framework of moral legitimacy in the community. The moral economy of the poor therefore was constituted of ‘consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community’ (Thompson, 1971: 78-79). As such, direct action was not purely a result of material deprivation and hunger, but also an analysis by citizens of operation outside of the community’s moral assumptions and agreed upon economic functions.

He argues that the word riot fails to encompass the complexity of citizens’ passionately held notions of the legitimate and illegitimate economics of their community and their sense of ‘rights’ as a community above and beyond the right of merchants to make profit (ibid: 76). Egypt’s rebellion fits neatly into this model, with the community rallying together around popular ethics; although in this case there was no unified vision for change, there was a clear stand against political corruption and economic growth that failed to reach the poor or to alleviate poverty, and the rights of Egyptians to a fairer system.

But how can we use this notion to help us understand the motivations of rioters and looters whose motivations seem to be less based on ‘need’?

2011 London Riots: a moral economy?

ricePhoto credit: Daily Fail

@louisefeldridge’s blog on the 2011 London riots captures an alternative look at the riots in the context of the ‘moral economy’. She writes:

The media coverage portrayed the riots as a kind of war, a battle for law and order: young, materialistic, mainly black and Asian thugs versus the police, valiantly trying to protect innocent, by-standing, white business owners…But there’s a hidden narrative that challenges this portrayal. Subsequent reports have shown the riots not to be spasmodic outbreaks of senseless criminality, but a semi-coordinated outcry forged by unemployment, economic crisis and racialized policing
(Eldridge, 2017)

While the Daily Mail, for example, captioned the picture above ‘a youth poses with a large sack of Tesco Value Basmati rice on the third night of rioting in London, proving that items need not be valuable to be targeted by looters’ (Daily Mail, 2011), understanding this act through the lens of the moral economy may offer an alternative take on the motivations of this man (and perhaps other people involved). For starters, most accounts of the riots focused on the looting of electronics and luxury items, but in fact rioters did steal inexpensive, mundane and essential items, with women in particular seen looting washing powder, nappies, baby food, pints of milk and bags of rice (Phillips, 2015; Topping et al, 2011). Where people were shown looting inexpensive or non-valuable items such as value rice, they were called stupid. Rioters were simply categorised by the media as either greedy or senseless, wanting to just smash things and cause chaos up either way. As a 17-year-old living in Tottenham at the time, I completely took in this narrative and was scared and irritated that precious days of my last summer in London before going to university were getting eaten up by purposeless looting.

Although my perspective of the riots has changed over the years, it is probably a bit of a stretch to suggest that this man was stealing the rice to feed his family, but perhaps less so to use the image to understand the more latent motivations of rioters. Recent research has linked the riots to economic inequality and distrust of the police (Phillips, 2015). The murder of Mark Duggan by the police was the event, perhaps the final straw for some, that saw peoples’ rage and frustration at the inequality they faced reach a critical point.

I think a re-imagining of the different facets of Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ is needed for us to interpret the complexities of the crowd beyond those delivered to us by the press. There are enough similarities to the Bread Riots, but they require some level of imagination. While the smaller crowds of 18th century England gathered the ‘consensus of the community’ within their local towns and villages, rioters in 2011 organised across the UK using Blackberry Messenger. While the economic functions of the community were clear within the 18th century, and protestors targeted the millers and bakers responsible for the unfairness, our nameless and faceless system of capitalism leaves people frustrated but unsure of who is responsible and where they should direct their anger. What seems to be a theme in the realisation or tipping point is an event which makes visible a material and palpable reality, be that dearth or structural violence. While hunger may have triggered a reaction to economic functions that caused hunger and starvation, for the predominantly young black men who rioted in London, Mark Duggan’s murder triggered a reaction to the complex social, political and economic systems that perpetrate structural violence against black men in the UK. From this perspective, it is clear to see that many of those involved in the riots shared a sense of rights to things which others are entitled to and a right to freedom from state violence. In the context of neoliberal capitalism, notions of fairness and entitlement seem to have shifted from carbs to more luxurious items.

I saw this somewhat unrelated tweet yesterday, and it prompted me to think of peoples’ reactions to the riots:

When middle-class people pamper themselves, we call it “self-care”, when the poor do it to ease their suffering, we call it irresponsible…If we only evaluate things through the lens of fiscal responsibility, we miss what chronic trauma, anxiety and scarcity do to people
(@judydominick, 2017)

The same sentiment of this tweet applies to the contempt attached to these riots as a completely apolitical act of greediness. The lens of contempt for those involved in the riots complete fails to account for capitalism; both as a cause of economic subjugation, and for its affect on the moral economy and notion of legitimation of those who participated. After all, if we create a society built on greed and consumerism alongside a misleading notion of meritocracy, while instead sustaining neoliberal economic systems that keep people in poverty, why would we not expect that the ‘popular ethics’ of the group will have transformed to entitlements and rights to Nike trainers, TVs and Macbooks? Why do we demand that those with nothing must only meet the breadline and not feel they have a right to those things that they are ceaselessly advertised and told they need? Really, what on earth do we expect to happen?!

In today’s world – very different from both the 18th Century, and the 1970s in which the text was written – a new understanding of the moral economy is needed to analyse rioting and looting in all its complexities of motive, behaviour and function (Thompson, 1971: 78). If we only evaluate things through the lens of instinctual behaviour, we miss what chronic trauma, anxiety and scarcity do to people.

N.B. I am sure that of course there were probably loads of people who just went for out for a laugh, and lots of peoples’ livelihoods were destroyed and people were injured. I don’t mean to revolutionise or romanticise something that was not so, but I am merely trying to offer an alternative perspective.


Daily Mail (2011) ‘They stole EVERYTHING! Shelves stripped bare and shops ransacked as looters pillage London high streets’, Daily Mail, 9 August [Online]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024012/LONDON-RIOTS-2011-They-stole-EVERYTHING-Enfield-Clapham-shops-stripped-bare.html (Accessed: 8 May 2017)

Eldridge, L. F. (2017) ‘The English riots of 2011: moral economy at work?’, WordPress, 22 March. Available at: https://unrulypolitics.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/the-english-riots-of-2011-moral-economy-at-work/ (Accessed: 13 May 2017)

@judydominick (2017) Twitter, 9 May. Available at: https://twitter.com/judydominick/status/861940662924705793 (Accessed: 13 May 2017)

Nature’s Legacy (2016) ‘Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” | History of Bread’, Nature’s Legacy, 7 March [Online]. Available at: https://natureslegacyforlife.com/micheal-pollans-cooked-history-of-bread/ (Accessed: 8 May 2017)

Phillips, B. (2015) ‘I was one of the London rioters. In 2011 we didn’t know how to express our anger’, The Guardian, 11 March [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/11/london-rioters-2011-anger-inequality-distrust-police (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Potts, R. and Conisbee, M., (2014) ‘The politics of bread’, Red Pepper, 2 January [Online]. Available at: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-politics-of-bread/ (Accessed: 8 May 2017)

Thompson, E. P. (1971) ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 50, pp. 76-136

Topping, A., Diski, R. and Clifton, H. (2011) ‘The women who rioted’, The Guardian, 9 December [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/09/women-who-rioted-english-riots (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Weinberger, D. (2011) ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: A Report From Egypt’, Huffington Post US [Online]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-weinberger/bread-freedom-social-just_b_1114936.html (Accessed: 8 May 2017)

Zurayk, R. (2011) ‘Use your loaf: why food prices were crucial in the Arab spring’, The Guardian, 17 July [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/17/bread-food-arab-spring (Accessed: 8 May 2017)

Day of action: the event and our reflections

On Friday 29th April, a group of students from the Unruly Politics module took over IDS to start a conversation, and to expose our hidden transcripts as staff and students at the institute.

This short video aims to give you an insight into our day of action at IDS: why we did it, what happened and how people reacted.

Below is the literature which we used during the day to explain the event 


One week later we gathered together to discuss our reflections of the event, the effect we think it had on staff and students, and what this type of action means for unruliness.

In Solidarity,
Mariah Cannon
Carolina Neu
Tina Sondergard Madsen
Olivia Marston
Lusungu Kalanga
Diana Ceci
Sunhee Cho
Sanaya Sinha
Rianna Gargiulo
Geneva Costopulos
Catrin Hepworth
Matt Williams
Louise Eldridge
Charis Reid
Luke Stannard
Satomi Koroki
Salahuddin Isa
Yasmine Zeid

‘Code switching’ and the hidden transcripts of British women of colour

As one of my dearest and oldest friends and I made our way into a talk at the Women of the World festival a few months back, I joked with her about the headscarf she was wearing. It was Friday, we’d both booked the day off work and this, the second talk of the day, was entitled ‘Code Switching: How Women of Colour Survive in the World of Work’. Today, outside of her white and male-dominated office environment, she was able to wear her headscarf without fearing comments from her colleagues.

As the talk began, I was shocked to see that one of the panellists begin to cry while introducing her experience of working in fashion journalism. She apologised and said that it ‘breaks her heart’ to get messages from young black women who ask if it’s even worth bothering getting into the industry. She went on to talk about a boardroom of white men and women deciding which skin tone was the darkest they could possibly use on the front of their magazines, with a tanned white woman quickly deemed the cut-off point. She described the internal conflict of wanting to voice her disgust at the unabashed racism within the room whilst knowing her ‘place’ as a young, black and less experienced woman in a cutthroat industry. Another panellist spoke of a picture of a black bear unzipping a white suit and emerging from inside, and I instantly thought back to Fanon and Scott.

Code switching: Understanding today’s ‘hidden’ and ‘public’ transcripts

Although ‘code switching’ is generally defined as alternating between two languages, within this context it is meant as switching your language, attitude, expression, dress and appearance depending on the context. Dr Nicola Rollock, another of the panellists and a Black British academic, gave a tangible example of code switching in her work environment as having to dress much smarter than other academics so she is not assumed to be the cleaner.

This term is used colloquially among people of colour in the UK, and bears similarity with Scott’s notion of the ‘weapons of the weak’. He refers to the strategic power of using forms of etiquette and politeness in a public interaction between the powerful and the subordinate – i.e. the ‘public transcript’. The ‘hidden transcript’, on the other hand, is that which takes place ‘offstage’ and outside of the observation of the powerful (Scott, 1990: 4).

While Scott’s analysis of the public transcripts of the subjugated illustrates a performance of humility and deference, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, on the other hand, highlights the need of ‘the colonized man’ to assume a certain syntax, to assimilate the culture and grasp the language as a means of keeping a firm hold of one’s ‘white mask’ (Fanon, 2008: 8). Fanon’s ‘white mask’ of assimilation and mastery of the white man’s language affords greater power to the black man (ibid: 9). Alternatively, Scott’s understanding of the ‘mask’ is one of a black mask: a ‘credible performance’ of stereotypical relations between weak and strong. Both masks are a public display aimed to please the dominant and powerful, and, from what I have gathered, today’s everyday acts of code switching encompass both of these elements.

Code switching for women of colour means both changing one’s vernacular, behaviour and appearance in order to assimilate to the more ‘acceptable’ white modes of these, as well as complying with the powerful and keeping quiet regardless of the injustice you may face or witness (as the example of the tanned model suggests). All of the women on the panel recounted how hard they had needed to work in order to be considered competent at their jobs. Overwhelmingly, the panellists echoed that black women needed to work much harder than anyone else will ever have to in order to be valued within their industries.

Weapons of the weak

‘So, what do you advise we do about this?’ asked a young black woman of the panel. ‘Surrounding yourself with supportive black spaces’, ‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘sharing’, were the suggestions and the closing remarks of the talk. While these suggestions provide a space that is undoubtedly valuable and much needed, I wonder where merely reciting hidden transcripts gets us with regards to challenging power and recapturing the self (ibid: 181), as Fanon puts it. I am, of course, speaking from a position of immense privilege in that this is not a part of my lived experience and not something with which I have to contend, however, thinking about unruliness, I would liked to have heard more about how to be your true self, how to challenge the public transcript and how one can reveal imbalances of power through the vocalisation of the hidden transcript.

Scott writes, ‘the first open statement of a hidden transcript, a declaration that breaches the etiquette of power relations, that breaks an apparently calm surface of silence and consent, carries the force of a symbolic declaration of war’ (Scott, 1990: 8). If we recognise that most hidden transcripts remain hidden from public view and never ‘enacted’ (ibid: 16), surely we should be encouraging a politics of defiance within the workplace?

Sadly, despite the need for a politics of defiance, there is an unfortunate reality and reason why hidden transcripts often remain hidden.

‘Realms of freedom’ and conduits to unruliness

With social media, its increasing ubiquity, and the factions that have evolved over time through hashtags and online communities, such as ‘Black Twitter’, we are seeing a new means of making public the hidden transcript, in a way that not only speaks truth to power but also creates a space for voicing the hidden transcript with those who relate to it. From this perspective, is the hidden transcript more in the public realm now than we may realise? Online sharing of once hidden transcripts through Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, blogs and magazines such as gal-dem, are the modern day equivalent of a public disavowal and rupturing of the ‘realm of necessity’ and a vital space within the ‘realm of freedom’ (ibid: 5). This experience of online solidarity and public exposure typifies the positive experience of technologically mediated society that Donna Haraway envisions in her Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway, 1991: 154).

While neither private nor public transcripts are entirely ‘truthful’, in that they only exist in relation to one another, the online public exposure of the hidden offers a more truthful insight into understanding power than we have had access to until now. Although speaking prospectively from 1985, Haraway’s vision of ‘transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities’ (ibid: 154) perfectly captures the spaces created by people of colour online. The dangerous possibilities of dropping the mask, created by new spaces online and in person, give way to a new form of unruliness, with an anonymity, safety and a far wider reach than old-school unruliness and ruptures could have hoped to achieve.

N.B. Please be aware that as a white woman I am talking from my own limited perspective, and not personal experience, of code switching and my interpretation of this in relation to Fanon, Scott and Haraway’s writings. I am not attempting to speak on behalf of women of colour about their own experiences, there are already plenty of first-hand accounts of this and I would have nothing to add to the debate!

Here are a couple of great blogs on the topic of code switching


Fanon, F. (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp.149-181

Scott, J. (1990) ‘Behind the official story’ in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 1-16

Confessions of an unruly bureaucrat

I am a little bit obsessed with personality tests. They give me a sad thrill, a little peek into a part of myself and others that often seems unclear. My favourite personality test is called ‘True Colours’, and neatly boxes the population into four distinct categories: gold, orange, green and blue. Broadly, greens are logical, blues are driven by emotion and feeling, golds like order and structure, and oranges are spontaneous. I fall into the category of ‘blue-gold’, making me an empathetic and compassionate stickler for detail. Although personality tests need to be taken with about a tablespoon and a half of salt (of course there aren’t only four types of person in the world!), they do offer some insight into how peoples’ brains work and how we as individuals function. Unfortunately, my blue-gold tendencies also put me into the category of depressive realist, and bureaucrat.

Reading Van De Sande’s article on prefigurative politics in the context of Tahrir Square left me with a number of thoughts about elements of my ‘gold’ nature, and the prejudiced attitude I have had both towards others opting for a more ‘orange’ – or unruly – approach, and in terms of assessing my own ‘successes’ in my political activism. I like order, I like objectives, I like clear sets of goals and plans that have escalating and logical steps. I’ve always seen protest as a last resort because attempts at ‘playing the game’ have not been sufficient. The blue in me has always been overwhelmingly worried about fracturing relationships with people who I actually cannot stand, and who constantly make my life difficult. The gold in me tells me to build strategy and objectives for change. The bureaucrat in me was shocked by what felt instinctually like a severe misuse of the term ‘strategy’ by Maeckelbergh. How, I thought, could he possible conceive of strategy as something that seemed so diametrically opposed to my understanding of ‘strategy’?

I am also unruly though. My mind is unruly. My politics are unruly. I don’t believe in hierarchies, and I think the inequitable structure of of society needs to be radically transformed. I don’t eat meat and I do think that Tony Blair is a bad thing. I love demonstrations and protests, and I have always valued the space created by protest in and of itself. But, until now, I’ve never really thought to question how the means of my activism are linked to the ends. To be totally honest, I’d never even considered that the means by which you choose to oppose an action or institution can either tacitly reinforce, condone and legitimise existing power structures, or alternatively, expose and offer a challenge to these. It seems really bloody obvious now and I feel slightly grossed out by how many meetings with the University I turned up to in my officer year with an excellently-written paper proposing a radical idea which I’d diluted and translated into ‘white men in suits’ management-speak. No wonder I was never happy with the outcome of anything I did! I wasn’t communicating my unruly ideas in the unruly way they were intended to be understood.

Photo credit: The University of Sussex
My little unruly action of wearing a ridiculous outfit to an important meeting of white men in suits. I can’t quite remember what the point was that I was trying to make.

Unruly bureaucrats, like myself, are not only showing unnecessary critique and causing yet more fractures between potential allies, we are also not giving ourselves enough credit for what we achieve. I think there’s a need to shift from a focus on bureaucracy to put the spotlight more on our unruliness; seeking change within a structure that is fundamentally at odds with what we believe in may present a short-term, tick box ‘success’, but such success undoubtedly maintains and legitimises the existing social order and power relations, more often than not, at the root cause of the problem. While the orange can learn something from the gold about precision and tactics, the gold certainly can learn a lot from the orange; this may be crucial not only in achieving radical and principled change, but in allowing fair self-reflection and to minimise the overwhelming feelings of despair and hopelessness that seems to be submerging many of us on the left. We need to teach golds to value efforts that don’t result in ‘demonstrable outcomes’ (Van De Sande, 2013: 226). I should not find working in a café more rewarding than my activism, but a part of my nature is soothed by serving a cappuccino, watching the customer drink it, washing the cup and putting it back on a shelf; sometimes it is easy for golds to feel that the completion of the task and a tangible outcome is of absolute importance. In recognising strategy as non linear (Maeckelbergh, 2011), and the constant chipping away in our struggles – through the method of the ‘crack’ (Van De Sande, 2013: 230) – we are able to value our efforts for what they are; honest and non-compromising activism which stands alongside those who fought before us and those who will come after.

So, where does this leave us? We are in what feels like a crucial moment in political time and space; a moment in which we desperately need to grasp at making change and must organise to develop ‘strategies’ for overcoming fascism globally. I can’t help but feel sceptical and confused all at once. I overheard a conversation between two Unrulistas in the pub the other day; one argued that in this moment, what we desperately need is prefigurative politics, the other claimed that what we need is the opposite – to come back to reality and build a real ‘strategy’ for change. While, of course, we need to organise and develop a strategy, there’s no reason why that strategy must look the way our masters are expecting it to look. This current moment shows just how little ‘playing the game’ has resulted in the radical change we want. I think we’ve got to think outside of the box this time and let our true colours shine.

N.B. If you fancy finding out what ‘colour’ you are you can take a similar test here: https://lonerwolf.com/true-colors-personality-test/


Maeckelbergh, M. (2011) ‘Doing is believing: prefiguration as strategic practice in the alterglobalization movement’, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 10(1), pp. 1-20

Van De Sande, M. (2013) ‘The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square: an alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions’, Res Publica, 19(3), pp. 223-239