This essay seeks to understand the “moral confusion” (to use David Graeber’s term in Debt) that surrounds thrift. It argues that thrift emerged as a moral imperative in the mid-nineteenth century as urban economies centered on mass consumption expanded, provoking fears of national degeneration in a working population enslaved by their own desires for immediate gratification from the panoply of food and fashion outlets. In response, a popular political economy emerged with tips on navigating the temptations of department stores and leisure complexes and avoiding the moral hazard of indebtedness by exercising restraint. These tropes imagined national regeneration, a stable economy, and a civilized society emerging from the saved capital generated by individual thrift, which could then be invested in solid, enduring businesses. At the same time, writers on the margins of conventional economics realized that a thriving urban economy, one able to provide employment for a growing population, was built on consumption: the survival of many small businesses depended on local people spending money in local shops, bars, and restaurants. This paper discusses these visions of the economy to explore the roots of an enduring tension in performative moral economy of thrift: while thrift was (and still is) associated with a morally responsible and sustainable capitalism, an everyday economy built on mass consumption depends on shopping and spending to keep capital moving. It argues that then (as now?), this contradiction was resolved through a moralized political economy that focused blame on the consumption habits of the urban poor rather than the structural inequalities resulting from the temporalities of capital investment.

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