The Moral Economy of Development: Mauritius 1948-1968

The measures which brought about the welfare state – the moral economy of the people – formed the basis of our development

The success of post-independent Mauritius is widely acknowledged. One of its remarkable features has been the construction and consolidation of the welfare state. Obviously, consolidation is an on-going process despite the onslaught of globalization and neo-liberalism. What is often overlooked is that the welfare state and its institutions, in fact, the overall development of the island is the result of institutional translation of the moral economy of the people, not from 1968 onwards, but right from 1947.

Why 1947? It was in this year that a new constitution was put in place. It increased the electorate from 11,000 to 72,000, and this enabled an overwhelming majority of progressives to be elected for the first time in the new Legislative Council of 1948. A few progressives had been in the Council of Government before 1948 – Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Dr Maurice Curé, Renganaden Seeneevassen and, for a very brief spell, Jules Koenig, but they were nominees and not elected members.

Before 1947, every effort to reform the constitution of 1885 had failed, and the conservative forces were so well entrenched in power that they could veto any reform that went against their interests. Consequently, it was the progressive members elected in 1948, and subsequently the Mauritius Labour Party, that pressed for a number of reforms and measures from which emerged the welfare state in the colonial period.

The moral economy

The measures which brought about the welfare state reflected the aspirations which people had nurtured over a long period of time, from the time their first ancestors set foot on the island. In fact it was the moral economy of the people which formed the basis of our development in that period and thereafter.

We have borrowed the concept of ‘moral economy’ from the English historian, E.P. Thompson, who describes the norms and values of the English crowd to oppose the market forces in pre-industrial England. It was a set of attitudes and norms of justice that was legitimated by the wider consensus of the community. This concept has since been used liberally by social scientists in other contexts.

We employ it here to express the aspirations, values and modes of thought of the people who laboured under the slave regime and plantation capitalism; in Mauritius they fought in particular against the onerous and horrific conditions prevailing in those times.

In Mauritius, a nation of migrants – whether they arrived here as slaves, settlers, free workers or migrants of any other kind – carried with them their cultural baggage from their countries of origin comprising various moral economies. Notions of the self, community solidarity, reciprocity, sense of justice, fairness, obligations and deference, attitudes to land and nature informed these moral economies. Over time, out of this admixture, and as result of living in a multi ethnic set-up, emerged a new moral economy with a set of values, representing the core aspirations of the people: mainly an assertion of their self-identity and community, a sense of rights, justice, reciprocity and fairness. Just to give an example, marooning and desertion in our history expressed the aspirations of the slaves and indentured labourers to free themselves from the shackles of oppression.

In colonial times, this moral economy of the people had been suppressed, driven underground and reduced to the periphery; however it did not die away but remained latent only to re-emerge after 1948. It found expression and implementation in an array of measures which promoted the well-being of the people after the elections held in 1948, 1953, 1959 and 1963. Many of these measures, variously labelled as democratic, socialist or Fabian, constituted the moral economy of development that became entrenched before and after independence.

Such measures like universal old age pension in 1951, universal suffrage obtained in 1958, free trade unions under the Trade Union Ordinance of 1954, decent and minimum wages through a series of wages councils, security of employment in the sugar industry, and in the public sector through the famous PPS (Permanent Pensionable Service) for manual workers, low-cost housing, family allowance to combat poverty, free primary health care and access to education, and many more, constituted the welfare state in the 1960s.

Some of these measures were inspired by welfare measures in other countries, such as the British welfare state or even the European Commission of Human rights, which were themselves the institutional expression of the moral economies in their respective countries.

If the measures in the 1960s look grossly inadequate, it was because not all measures could be implemented under a colonial regime operating a open economy based on plantation capitalism. Throughout the period, the Governor’s veto, budget restraint and allocations and limited resources imposed severe restrictions on government spending and limited further measures in favour of the people.

Moreover, the moral economy of the people had to contend with plantation capitalism, and the people had to struggle hard to safeguard their minimum rights and their notion of reciprocity and redistributive justice. The progressives, largely represented in the Labour Party and its allies, maximized spending on social policy and public expenditure. They ensured that a duty on sugar export be used for the well-being of the population, and when unemployment reared its head the public works programme ‘Work for All’ provided 19,281 jobs in 1966.

Institutionalisation of the moral economy

The institutionalization of the moral economy was made possible thanks to the impact of the trade union movement, which exercised a lot of influence on political parties, to incorporate in their programmes the demands of workers and the people at large. Strikes, protest marches and close collaboration between the trade union movement and political parties enabled politicians to remain in contact with the people. Grievances of workers and the public were regularly discussed at the executive meetings of trade unions and political parties, and figured prominently in political manifestoes of the time.

Since the demands of the electorate had to be always kept in view, parties competing for political power finally reached a consensus on social policy measures. These measures, once established, became naturalized and sometimes even depoliticized so that the socio-democratic model of government became the accepted form of government as a compromise with capitalism. In this model, it was the trade union movement that played a major role to safeguard the interests of its members and that of the people in general.

When Mauritius became independent in 1968, governments inherited a powerful tool that contributed significantly to the social, economic and political stability of the country. The welfare state was further consolidated and it has explained to a great extent our success as an independent country during the last fifty years. Social and political stability minimized tensions resulting from economic development.

In modern times and in periods of economic crisis, there have been a lot of tensions when a neo-liberal model was imposed from outside by foreign institutions like the world Bank or the IMF. The moral economy was itself open to continual contestation. Conservative elements have blamed the welfare state to be a nanny state which had wrongly assumed universal responsibilities for its people and created the impression of an all-problem solving state.

On the other hand, trade unions have sustained the struggle to defend workers and ensured the protection of the population. Only when trade unions became weak did the moral economy of the people whittle away in the face of the excesses of capitalism. In the end, as a result of compromises between the economic imperatives of capitalism and the moral economy of the people, the post-independent state has survived successfully in the 21st century.


* Published in print edition on 2 February 2018

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