Capitalist Moral Economy in Africa

By Jörg Wiegratz

Regular readers of may be aware that we run a blog series on the topic of Economic Trickery, Fraud and Crime in Africa. The launch of this series in late 2015 was meant to give the social phenomenon of economic fraud more analytical attention than it usually receives in academic debates on contemporary Africa. As the coordinator of the series I am pleased to let our readers know that another contribution to this discussion on fraud in Africa is now available, this time my own book, titled Neoliberal Moral Economy: Capitalism, Socio-Cultural Change and Fraud in Uganda (the introduction to the book is available for free here). I review here some of the key themes in my book and highlight the analytical importance of the overall topic for debates on contemporary Africa (and beyond). 

The book engages with a range of disciplines and fields, especially political economy and International Political Economy, economic sociology, criminology, economic anthropology, moral psychology,  and of course, African studies. Regarding the latter, it dialogues directly (and indirectly) with the works on neoliberalism in Africa put forward in particular by Tom Young and David Williams, Graham Harrison, James Ferguson and Jean and John Comaroff. For instance, Harrison’s idea of neoliberalism as extensive global social engineering, of a ‘project’ that aims at advancing capitalist market societies on the continent was a crucial inspiration at the launch of the research; so was the notion of Stephen Gill of neoliberalism as advancing ‘market civilisation’ across the globe. The book tries to follow up and investigate empirically some of the points made in the literature about neoliberalism in general and neoliberal Africa in particular, especially concerning the expected cultural changes brought about by neoliberal reforms (I argue that we can see neoliberalism also as a cultural programme). In other words, it offers a field-work based take on the genesis and operation of a ‘market society’ in an African country, using the case of Uganda and in particular the phenomenon of fraud in agricultural trade there as an entry into some key aspects of the (cultural) political economy of such a market society.

Outside a primary school, Mbale, the major town in Eastern Uganda (Jörg Wiegratz, 2008-09)

In addition, to be able to offer an account of the moral changes brought about by neoliberalism and how this relates to the high levels of fraud in Uganda, I had to overcome the common use of the analytical terms ‘morality’ and ‘moral economy’ (that tends to restricts the analysis to pro-social practices related to solidarity, reciprocity or altruism) and offer a take that allows us to investigate the moral properties of local economies and markets characterised by deception, intimidation, physical violence, and the like, and the moral outlooks of economic actors such as traders, middlemen, brokers and farmers who operate in these markets, engage in fraudulent or hard practice themselves etc.

In other words, I have tried to go beyond the dominant scholarly take on and use of E.P. Thompson’s seminal work on moral economy, re-interpret how Thompson’s work could be used more fruitfully in contemporary moral economy research, and define morality in a way that, again, allows us to capture the broad range of moral dynamics and phenomena in contemporary capitalist society (and their political-economic drivers). These would include the rise of self-interest as the core moral norm and the intensification (and routinisation) of fraud across many economic sectors as a way to make, increase or protect incomes and profits.

A motivational poster on sale in Kampala (Jörg Wiegratz, 2008-09)

In addition I had to construct an analytical understanding that allows to speak of and unpack the moral economy of fraud, or the moral economy of harming others, i.e. a moral economy concept that can analytically capture the entire range of human relationships, interactions and practices in the economy (not just the so-called pro-social). In short, I employ a moral economy concept that can help investigate and analyse the moral compass of the fraudster and the morals of fraudulent practice, and more generally, capture the political character of the dominant moral order (and respective changes) in capitalist society.

I want to finally introduce some of the main arguments that the book makes. First, there is significant research, as we know, on the economic and political but less on the interrelated socio-cultural dimensions of neoliberal changes that swept through many African countries over the last three decades, from SAPs onwards. For years, scholars and debates explored for instance how the reforms affected the economic performance of affected countries and issues such as poverty, employment or state finances, relatively less attention was given to the reforms’ cultural effects, i.e. what sort of new moral orders they brought about. Donors and governments have commissioned countless studies to investigate many aspects of the reforms but hardly any to explore the moral structures and dynamics of the ‘adjusted’ societies, for instance concerning the bundle of norms, values, ideas, beliefs, attitudes and orientations that shape ‘moral economies of earning a living’, i.e. what sort of practice people in neo-liberalised social settings consider to be normal, legitimate, acceptable or plainly necessary to make an income, a profit, to keep the job, beat the competition, survive, raise funds for basic or emergency household expenses, escape poverty, become wealthy etc. The gaps in terms of data and analysis of what took place in this respect across African countries are enormous (where is the oral history of these aspects of neoliberal reform?). Much of the data about the details of moral changes in the early reform periods can (soon) be considered lost for good, as many crucial historical participants who worked in relevant ministries and state enterprises and witnessed neoliberal restructuring in their respective organisations will have passed away (the same applies to post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe).

Second, reform-promoters have underplayed, misconstrued and/or disguised key aspects of the socio-cultural effects of the reforms, especially the fact that the reforms promoted, directly and indirectly, a particular capitalist moral reordering (or what I call neoliberal moral restructuring). This recalibration of the socially dominant norms, values and orientations on all sort of matters of economy, society and politics – from money, wealth, and profit making, the notions of proper life and conduct, to self vs. collective, public vs. private, and so on – has substantial (and often harmful) repercussions for society, as can be read about in daily news about escalating economic fraud and political corruption, to pick just one of many societal phenomena in which neoliberal moral change manifests itself. However, the link between reforms, socio-cultural change and fraud is only minimally explored to-date especially given the empirical prevalence and size of the phenomenon of fraud, across classes and sectors. Donors have of course commissioned researches into causes of corruption (far less into causes of corporate fraud) but these usually shy away from exploring (say via qualitative research) the relevant wider neoliberal-capitalist social transformations of concern. 

Books on sale in central Kampala; this was a stationary shop that had books for sale outside (Jörg Wiegratz, 2008-09)

Third, many ‘adjusted’ countries in Africa experience substantial fraud and corruption, and have so for years. To-date, the mainstream development debate, dominated by donors and the like, hardly ever really confronted the question whether and how reforms have advanced a criminogenic culture, i.e. political, economic, and social structures that have turned out to be rather fraud-inducing than -inhibiting. Importantly, fraud and corruption are activities carried out by amongst others the (very) powerful, i.e. members of the ruling class and of course middle-class. Again, much of the mainstream analyses and discourses are typically silent about ‘criminality’ of the middle class and respective aspects of middle class culture, psychology and character types, including prevalent moral outlooks and priorities (i.e. the respective links don’t get directly theorised and explored). And yet, the crimes of the powerful is an established theme in criminology; the history of capitalist development across the world rife with evidence that capitalism and (endemic) fraud are twins, from the colonial to the present period. In other words, the warnings concerning the fraud and corruption (and generally crime and related social harms) that comes with capitalist development has been on the wall for some time and yet those foreign and domestic actors in/with power on matters of social engineering in Africa for years have all too often ‘ignored’ them, probably for good reasons.

Fourth, imperialism has ravaged and restructured African societies for centuries, including their moral-economic structures. Yet, we know relatively little about how exactly contemporary imperialism affects moral orders and milieus in particular societies, including moral structures and subjectivities in the economy (e.g. local markets), including the moral economies of fraud. Relatedly, we know relatively little about the links between political economy and moral economy, between political-economic and moral-economic change, political-economic and cultural domination, or physical, structural and cultural violence of the global, regional, national and local political economy. We have yet to assemble more data and analyses concerning imperialist moral-economic interference and restructuring in African countries and related aspects of moral-economic sovereignty and resistance of the African countries and people concerned.

It is worth quoting the conclusion of the book, which summarises some of the principle arguments: ‘Arguably, Uganda is the country that has seen one of the highest levels of Western intervention (per capita/p.a.) on the African continent in the neoliberal period. It might even be the biggest African case of Western investment into society-change in the post-colonial period. The resulting neoliberal ME [moral economy] is to a significant extent a product of this material and ideational intervention that is always both, a political-economic and socio-cultural including moral-economic interference in the operation of a country. This point applies to Uganda, as it applies to other countries that are in the ‘sphere of influence’ of the top Western powers of the global PE [political economy]: from Kenya, South Africa and Greece, to Poland, Egypt, Iraq, Chile or Indonesia and others. And while full moral-economic sovereignty and autonomy of a country (let alone a people) is non-existent in the neoliberal age, neither in the periphery nor core of the global order, the extent of foreign-induced moral-economic re-ordering is more severe in some regions and countries than others. Neoliberal Africa, and neoliberal Uganda in particular, have been a high intensity zone of moral-economic interference of foreign, especially Western actors. It might thus only be a slight exaggeration to see the cultural interference of the West in this zone of their imperial influence not just as acts of cultural meddling, but attempts of cultural domination on key matters……Uganda’s ME would look different today – that is not to say better or worse – without the interfer­ence of the Western power block. The study thus demonstrates that the ME of a country is not just made by domestic but also foreign forces; a local ME always is a function of structures, factors, actors and agendas external to the local setting, or country of concern.’ There remains, however, a final question (and appeal): if IFIs and Western donors have promoted reforms in Africa that have brought about societies characterised by high levels of economic fraud and trickery (and related significant social harm), should there not be a much more extensive and critical debate about donors, culpability and responsibility, reform experts and expertise, the legitimacy of dominant theoretical frames to debate and reform economy, state and society, and of course, market society and capitalism in Africa?

Jörg Wiegratz is a lecturer in the Political Economy of Global Development at the University of Leeds and a member of the editorial board of RoAPE. He is author of Neoliberal Moral Economy (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016) and Uganda’s Human Resource Challenge (Fountain, 2009), and co-editor of Neoliberalism and the Moral Economy of Fraud (with David Whyte, Routledge, 2016) and Neoliberal Uganda (with Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco, Zed, forthcoming 2018).

Featured Photograph: Taken in Mbale, the major town in Eastern Uganda. It was in Mbale where much of the material for the book was researched (Jörg Wiegratz, 2008-09).



  1. The title of this book is self-contradictory. Capitalism is not Moral and never will be.

    Capitalism is about the need to get ahead by competing with others. This is due to the true nature of the associated macroeconomics of our social system. However, it contains nothing about refraining from offending one’s competitor, which may actually be an advantage in some situations.

    Morality (or ethics) is many things, but at absolute base it is about refraining from causing offense. So polluting the atmosphere in order to keep warm is offensive but may be justified. Burning fuel in a car in order to visit a friend within walking distance, is not.

    Consequently we need laws that keep us on the moral path and reduce the degree of offense and this opposes capitalism which does not care.

  2. Dear Wiegratz, this is a great piece of work. Where can I find a copy? Thank you for being consistent in unearthing the many aspects in our economy that require us to have extensive debates on the way forward. I think as academicians we need to explore more of the socio -cultural factors that direct our economy.

  3. I agree with David for Capitalism as I have experienced it in Uganda is never moral. But from reading the introduction of the book I think the book will be an interesting read from whence one can deduce the immorality of capitalism.


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