Joys of the Quaker Way: One More Branching—Quakers & Capitalism

November 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

One more branching—Quakers and capitalism


So I have laid out the general outline of my joyful experience in unfolding of ministry as a Friend. This has followed a pattern:

Openings, the flaring of bright moments of insight that come as gifts of the Holy Spirit, which I experience as moments of joy that are sometimes quite sublime. Furthermore, some of these openings have led to . . .

Leadings, specific tasks laid upon me by G*d that, even when they have become a burden, and sometimes they have, still in their pursuit I have found fulfillment, a sustained joy in knowing what I am to do and joy in the doing of it. And then, blessing upon blessing, sometimes these leadings have given birth to . . .

Ministries, calls to service that are broader in scope, deeper in demand, and longer lasting than individual leadings—and even more fulfilling, more full of the joy of service to the community and to G*d.

There is one more layer to this onion—what I call my calling. But I have one more branch in my personal story to tell, another instance in which a leading and the study it required uncovered a new door into service, a new opening that led to a new leading and then to a new ministry.

The opening. I was rummaging through Pendle Hill’s library—i forget what I was looking for—when I “happened upon” the book of proceedings of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920. This book was in amongst other books related to the other world gatherings. I knew nothing about this first gathering, or any of them, for that matter, so I sat down to read for a while. And here was a new discovery: the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order and accounts of the debates that it evoked at the Conference, plus hints about an even more intense debate at the 1918 London Yearly Meeting sessions.

London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) had convened a Committee on War and the Social Order in 1915 whose charge was to explore the causes of the Great War. It came back to London Yearly Meeting with its final report in 1918, with a thoroughly-thought out critique and the Eight Principles. The Committee blamed the industrial system—capitalism—in part for the war and the first draft of the Eight Principles, which had been watered down in the final draft after they had been sent to the quarterly meetings for consideration, were quite critical of the economic-industrial system of the time. Meanwhile, the Friends receiving the report were captains of industry in the very system being criticized. In a sense, these Friends were criticizing themselves.

The leading. I was hooked. I now wanted to learn everything I could about Quaker attitudes toward the capitalist system, given especially the tremendous wealth of British Friends through the centuries. Soon, I felt led to write a history of Quaker economics—a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, Quaker economic attitudes, and an economic history of the movement. The resulting research and writing became the unfinished book published in installments as the first posts of this blog (available as pdf files from the link in the sidebar to the left labeled Quakers & Capitalism).

It felt so natural. I had already been studying biblical economics for years. Also I worked at the time as the marketing communications person for a high-end speakers bureau that represented many of the most important thought leaders in the business world and many of the world’s first-tier economists. it was my job to know what these people were thinking and writing and saying, and then present it to the business speakers market. So i was learning how the system worked from the inside, while I was simultaneously learning how Jesus had reformed the economic instructions of Torah.

And I discovered that the history itself, of Quakers and capitalism, was not only fascinating but also virtually unknown to Friends. As I like to put it, the industrial revolution would have taken place without Quakers—but it didn’t. Friends developed most of the foundational, indispensable industries, businesses, infrastructure, and financing of the British industrial revolution, and they became fabulously wealthy as a result. Yet almost no Friends I have ever met know much about it. Every time I give a presentation on this material, it blows my audience members’ minds.

The ministry. Then, following the pattern I was used to now, the leading to write this book led to a ministry of teaching about not only our economic history and our contributions to capitalist culture, but also a prophetic ministry of awakening to economic testimony.

We stand in a similar relation to the capitalist system as we do to the prison system—we helped create something that has become a monster. And not only are we nearly oblivious of this relationship; we are weirdly neurotic about it. Our amnesia in this area is very strange for a community so obsessed with its own history, and so proud of it. i feel that the collective consciousness of modern Quakerism is neurotic about money and economics.

My ministry is to explore why this is so and to call Friends to “stand still in the light” until the shadow we live under in this matter burns away, and we come up through the flaming sword into a new relation to money and our economic system, until we are open to G*d’s wish for us regarding the economic system we helped launch.

Meanwhile, however, the openings, the leading to write the book, the ministry of writing and teaching about Quakerism and capitalism—all this has been a ceaseless cascade of passion, discovery—and joy. I thank G*d for it.

Gift Exchange Economies—An Alternative?

August 28, 2014 § 5 Comments

Well, I’ve been ranting and railing against the capitalist economic system for several posts now, using strong words like “evil” (which I didn’t bother to define) and “dung”. I find it brings out the vitriolic in me; it tempts me to a righteous and poetic indignation. Not so good. Not very constructive, anyway.

So it’s time to own up once again to the fact that our economic system is not only evil—not only hierarchical and anti-democratic; competitive, if not actually violent; deceitful and manipulative; inherently anti-worker and effectively anti-consumer; carcinomic, rapacious, and unsustainable; oh, and anti-biblical . . .

It is also good, in that it has raised the standard of living for huge numbers of people, arguably in fact everyone on the planet—except for indigenous peoples. It is an extremely creative engine of technological advance, and many of these advances serve the greater human good. Not so much the good of whales and frogs.

But more to the point—what else is there?

When I first started talking and writing about these predicaments of capitalism and Quaker testimonies, the Soviet Union still held sway over millions of people, and inevitably, Friends would respond with: “So, what—would you have us all become communists? Look how well that’s working out.” As if there were only two economic systems in the world. Now, many Americans anyway, think there is only one.

But what about socialism? Some democratic quasi-socialist states, like Norway, are doing quite a bit better than we are by virtually every measure. Many countries have vital socialist parties and manage, mostly, not to fall into chaos or hell, as the true believers in capitalism fear would happen here.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten that fascism is also an economic system, featuring private ownership of capital but state control of the economy. Also basically a failed experiment.

But the economic systems that I find most attractive are the gift-exchange economies that most indigenous peoples have. Had. Virtually all the traditional gift exchange economies on earth have been destroyed by the market economy.

In a gift exchange economy, one gathers power, not by amassing wealth, but by giving it away. Those gifts obligate the receiver to reciprocate in some way at some time. Because people are different, as are circumstances, places, luck, and a host of other factors, some people end up with more power than other people—they have wider networks of obligation owed to them than the complex of obligations they owe to others. They often become chiefs.

The classic case is Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was the first and only man to be the traditional chief of all seven tribes of the Lakota people. He achieved this status by providing many gifts, but one especially—the (temporary) salvation of his people. Sitting Bull saw that the American military strategy was to cut off the annual, seasonal, north-south migration of the bison, kill them off, and starve the plains peoples into submission. Military power wasn’t doing so well, at least not until the invention of the carbine, a short-barreled repeating rifle that could be cocked with one hand and used in close quarters, and thus was suitable for use by cavalry. William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous for his reign of terror across the deep South during the Civil War, and named, ironically, after one of the greatest Indigenous warriors of all time, commanded the Indian Wars for a time; he called the Plains Indians the best light cavalry on the planet, with the possible exception of the Cossacks, another indigenous horse-people.

Anyway. Sitting Bull’s counter-strategy was to cut off the southern bison migration himself and keep what was left of the bison herds in the north. He talked all seven tribes, the Northern Cheyenne, and several other tribes, into cooperating to achieve this. This delayed the conquest of the Northern Plains for almost a generation. Among his own people, he was called He Feeds the People. The Lakota gifted him with this name in recognition of his great gift to them.

In gift exchange economies, you gain power by feeding people. Or by giving them hides, for clothing, shelter, containers, bedding, etc. Or by giving them rights to one of your fishing camps. Or by gifting them with horses, or basket rushes, or . . . You get the idea.

Now, you feed people and provide all these other necessaries, in many traditional indigenous life-ways, by being very good at living with the land, by really knowing it and understanding it, by possessing a sublime eco-intelligence, by possessing valuable skills, by possessing powers of organization and persuasion, by caring about future generations. By giving.

Gift exchange economies elevate social roles, instead of giving people jobs. Instead of working for a wage and then buying your life in parts and assembling it at home, like we do, in a gift exchange economy, you trade goods and services, tasks and labor, favors, songs and dances, names, reputations and loyalties. You sing at my daughter’s wedding; I give your whole family meat that lasts a week; or maybe, two winters later, I take you in when your own hunters can’t find a herd.

Gift exchange economies work for small groups who live in partnership with the land. Scaling one up to serve 300 million people would be a challenge. When everyone lives three or ten degrees of separation from basic production of basics—of food, building materials, energy sources, clothing materials, medicines, etc.—the chains of exchange would become extremely complicated; only computers could keep track. When everyone in the system has quite specialized skills and jobs, trading services would be impossible. When the only thing you could trade is things, you are still locked into the mass production-mass consumption economy to acquire the things you might trade in the first place. So—elegant idea, maybe, but totally impracticable.

The market economy has won. It’s like kudzu: it soaks up so much of the sunlight that no other economies stand a chance.

What to do? We are left with the project of radically reforming capitalism.

We could start with usury laws. These were deregulated under Ronald Reagan, so many of us remember a time when interest rates were regulated more or less equitably, though I doubt that many of us were really paying attention. I know I wasn’t. But you can draw a straight line from Reagan’s policies on interest rates to the Great Recession. And here, unlike with many of our modern problems, the Bible really has something to offer as a starting point.

So let’s start there. Next time.

Capitalism and the Peace Testimony

August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Capitalism is predicated on competition: competition between businesses for markets, resources, capital, research breakthroughs, and labor; between labor and management for the terms of contract agreements; between workers for jobs; between industries for government support; between corporate nation states and other economic macro-systems for all of these things.

Competition assumes shortages or limits—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. Competition within the context of limits, real or assumed or artificially imagined or created, often leads to conflict, and conflict sometimes leads to violence. Capitalism is inherently, if not necessarily in any given instance, violent.

A classic historic example is the violence against unions in the early days of labor organization, a violence that has never really ceased, except that businesses no longer hire paramilitary organizations like the Pinkertons to murder and assault workers. And God help you if you’re a teacher, or work for any level of government.

Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners, labor leaders, and political leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims, and we do have a fairly robust infrastructure of negotiation and arbitration, from the United Nations to the National Labor Relations Board. Cooperation is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. But the system does have these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when we reach them, when oil becomes really expensive or when job shortages make dependence on military spending attractive. And the disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom—between economic classes at home or between the overdeveloped and the developing countries of the world, for instance—these disparities create a distance of experience and worldview that undermines understanding even when intentions are good, making conflict and violence more likely.

For a truly eye-opening and compelling look at how the unbridled global expansion of capitalism—what we call globalization—often collaborates with superficial democratization to unleash ethnic violence, I highly recommend Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. She describes how, when elections finally give power to an ethnic majority that has historically been dominated economically by an ethnic minority, that majority tends to turn on their minority oppressors. That is part of what is happening in Iraq right now, with a majority Shiite-dominated government paying back the Sunni minority for decades of oppression and disenfranchisement, except that in Iraq the religious identities are even more important than the ethnic ones.

This dynamic has played out in country after country, in the Balkans, in Indonesia, the Philippines, in Rwanda, and southeast in Asia, just to name a few. We have even seen it in the United States sometimes, as in the occasional tensions between Asian small store owners operating in mostly African American neighborhoods.

It’s true that business competition is extremely creative. It drives innovation. But even this dynamic is destructive. “Creative destruction” is the term of art for the fate of established businesses that can no long compete against upstart innovators—Kodak, for example, or the manufacturers of floppy disks, or the publishers of printed, multi-volume encyclopedias. This creative destruction almost always hurts workers; they lose their jobs to the technological advance. And it almost always disadvantages the lower-wage workers most, because they are the most easily replaced by technology. In this way, and in many others, the system tends to increase inequality, especially in mature economies that have more or less finished the process of industrialization.

We value—and measure—this destruction of jobs. We call this measure “productivity”. Productivity tracks how much work a worker can do in a given period of time. Increased productivity means that human energy has been replaced by technology. Economists and politicians love high productivity numbers, gleefully glossing over the fact that it means fewer human jobs, fewer humans needed to do the same work.

R. Buckminster Fuller defined another measure that economists seem to have ignored—the energy slave—which measures goods, services, and processes in terms of how many years of human labor have been replaced by technology. The energy slave is the only economic measure that, if only indirectly, acknowledges capitalism’s debt to the Atlantic slave trade. In places that can’t come up with enough energy slaves, they tend to come up with human ones.

Most importantly, perhaps, the moral system that is capitalism has no inherent interest in the fate of those who suffer at its hands, those whom it grinds down or even out of the system. The system has never done even the obvious, basic thing of providing for those who lose their jobs to layoffs or technological advance. That it leaves to government; that is, to you and me.

More importantly, it actually takes unemployment as a given and accepts 3–5% of the workforce trying to live without an income as a “good” number. This reflects the fact that the capitalist system needs at least a modicum of unemployment, of competition between workers for jobs, as a means of keeping wages and benefits down. And the system leaves it up to external actors to care for these victims, making the government and even the workers themselves pay for the human cost of this inherent competition. And we all accept this as normal, as a given, even as appropriate. We are all praying for an unemployment rate below five percent, as if that would be a great thing.

Furthermore, the competitive genes in capitalism’s DNA have always driven it to expand its influence beyond its own spheres of activity in the market, to seek to distort the behavior of external actors in its interest. Capitalism corrupts the political class, especially, and the entire social fabric, as well, with the ideology of the market as god, as the preeminent, most pervasive, and most valuable social system we have, as the “creator of wealth” and the pathway to, and even guarantor of, democracy (ironically, given its own quasi-feudal structure), and as the set of values and needs that should trump all others in social policy. That is the message of, and the reasoning behind, the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision: the legal “personhood” of a corporation is even more valuable and important than democracy itself, certainly more valuable than real human persons.

And, of course, capitalism corrupts other systems, especially the political system, directly sometimes, through outright graft. Companies seek advantage, and inevitably, some politicians are willing to give it to them. For some people in high places, being a slave to capital, being ideologically captive to the system, is not enough. They want to remodel their house or go on an expensive vacation, too.

Back to the creative effect of capitalist competition, because this is a credible and compelling argument for it. We humans are going to compete, especially when faced with shortages. Furthermore, this competition has historically driven incredible advances in human well-being over the last three centuries or so. That’s the trade-off for the destruction and subjugation of indigenous and traditional societies, the rape of the earth, the infection of all other social systems with market values. And yes, the social-economic systems of the past have also been unequal and oppressive, though none has been as rapacious. And meanwhile, we see no clear alternative. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Nevertheless, I believe that capitalism historically and inevitably, if not necessarily, has and does lead to violence. That Spirit that leads us to avoid all occasions of war calls us to bring peace to our economic system, as well as to all other theaters of conflict.

I might pose the queries for Friends regarding competition thus: Is the trade-off between innovation and technological advance and the violence the system does to everyone, but especially to workers, worth it? How can we promote cooperation in a system that is adversarial to the core? How do we protect the weak and disadvantaged when shortages heighten the competition to the point of violence, whether physical or “just” economic, especially since we are approaching severe shortages of some basics around the globe—food and water, particularly, and many other resources regionally? How can we make economic “households”, especially corporations, inherently careful of the needs of all the stakeholders in the system—workers, consumers, and non-workers—and not just careful for owners and stockholders, while retaining the innovative energy that competition provides rather than chasing after them with regulators and economic ambulances after the fact of their violence?

How can we speak to that of God in the men and women who run our economic households? To that of God in those who find themselves the victims or the adversaries of these people and the systems they manage? To that of God in those who set social and economic policy? How do we speak to that of God in the legal “person” that is a corporation, if there is such a thing? What if there isn’t such a thing? How do we bring the gospel of peace to our economic institutions?

Evidence-based Politics and the Rich as “Job Creators”

October 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

If it’s true, as the Republicans claim, that the rich are the “job creators,” then where are the jobs? For years, we’ve been giving them all the tax breaks and bonuses they could have wanted (well, I guess that’s probably not true). What are they waiting for?

Quakers & Capitalism: A Brief Recap

September 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

It’s been a while since I published an essay in the Quakers and Capitalism series, in which I’ve been digesting a book in progress, a sketchy and rather schematic history of the influence that Friends and capitalism have had on each other. Because of the piecemeal nature of blog posting, I have found myself losing track of my progress and of the arc of the whole; I imagine my readers may have, too. Also, I had fallen behind in creating pdf files of these postings. Thus, before I go on, I’ve decided to offer a brief (well, medium-sized) recap of the project so far.

I have also finished and reorganized the pdf files for each ‘chapter’ in the book. The summary below has links to the respective files and they are also listed as links on the page labeled Quakers & Capitalism—The Book, accessible from the navigation column to the left of the posts. Reading those pdf files in order will give you the main thread of the book. Note that there are several appendices. I’m not satisfied with their style and formatting—I think they’re ugly, in fact, though properly Quaker plain, I suppose—but I did not want to delay while I experiment with style.

I have divided this history of Quakers and capitalism into three main periods: the 1650s, 1700 to 1900, and the 20th century. These are separated by major periods of transition, periods lasting roughly a generation in which external forces collide with forces within Quakerism to transform both capitalist culture and Quaker culture in a symbiotic relationship. During these periods of transition, Quaker fortunes and their relationship with the world around them completely change. Here’s the sketchy outline, with links to their respective essays:

  • Introduction — Introducing John Bellers as perhaps the second most well-known Quaker in history, a man of extraordinary talent and intelligence who had a tremendous impact on Western culture, yet is almost completely unknown among his own Quaker community. Why? Introducing the idea of cultural amnesia regarding economics among Friends, the almost utter lack of meaningful economic testimony (until very recently, at least), notwithstanding our almost indispensable role in creating and developing the capitalist system, and the need for a ministry of teaching and prophetic examination of Quaker economic history.
  • Quakers & Capitalism — Introduction

    • The 1650s — Early Friends (who were mostly yeoman farmers and small trades people) assail the world order with revolutionary fervor in the Lamb’s War, challenging some aspects of economic life, notably in the practices of plain speech and refusing hat honor, but somewhat indirectly, as their focus was essentially religious and aimed primarily at the church. Friends absorb the leaders and members of both the Diggers and the Levellers, more radical egalitarian social movements, but do not absorb their ideas.

    Quakers & Capitalism — The 1650s

      • First major transition (1661 – 1695) — Externally, the persecutions, and internally, the establishment of gospel order, completely transform Quaker culture and Quaker economics. After the Restoration, the state tries to stamp the movement out and seizes vast amounts of Quaker treasure over roughly thirty years. Friends respond to these external pressures by reorganizing—or perhaps organizing would be a better description—instituting structures and processes for internal discipline. Notwithstanding the intense economic assault, however, Friends emerge from this period as a class of wealthy merchants poised to create not quite single-handedly the first truly new platform for creating wealth since the invention of agriculture: industrial capitalism. This extraordinary feat—not just thriving in the face of economic oppression, but ending up in a position to change the world, after all—was a cultural miracle.

    First Transition: Persecution and Gospel Order

    • 1700 – 1900: The Double-culture Period
      • The 18th century — During the 18th century and on into the 19th century, Quakers make many of the indispensable technological innovations upon which industrial capitalism depends, including coke smelting, cast steel, and the railroad. They build many of the key industries, establish many of the most important companies, build its financial infrastructure, develop new modes of organization, and pioneer humane treatment of workers. At the same time that they are engaging the world of business, industry and commerce with incredible energy and invention, they are withdrawing from engagement with the world in virtually every other area of life. Friends maintain this double culture for two hundred years. In England, they become fabulously wealthy; in America, they do pretty well.
      • John Bellers and Quaker responses to Industrial capitalism — Already by 1700, the new industrial economy was creating a new class of the poor: industrial workers, people who had left the land or their village to work in the new urban factories. One extraordinary Friend, John Bellers, saw the problem and proposed a solution: Colledges of Industry. In several pamphlets over 25 years, he brought his ideas to Friends and to Parliament. Both declined to act on them. He made many other significant contributions to Western civilization, as well, only to be virtually forgotten by his own people for two hundred years.

    Quakers & Capitalism — The Double-culture Period

    Quakers & Capitalism — Quaker Contributions to Industrial Capitalism

      • Minor transition (1800 – 1828) — Two new ideologies, or domains of western thought, are born as fraternal twins around 1800— evangelical theology and the new ‘science’ of political economy. Thomas Malthus, in particular, was both an evangelical minister and one of the first progenitors of political economy; in his work, the two are fused into one approach to wealth and poverty. Evangelical political economy dominates economic policy in competition with classical economics; Malthus, the evangelical minister, and David Ricardo the investor, (and married to a Quaker, though a Jew converted to Unitarianism himself), embody this rivalry in the early 1800s, though they are personal friends. Joseph John Gurney and Thomas Chalmers make the most influential connection between evangelical Friends and evangelical political economy; these hugely influential figures also are friends.
      • The 19th century — Quakers fragment under the influence of evangelicalism and some evangelical Friends partially reengage with economic/social issues, notably becoming leaders in the philanthropical movement that is the signature response to capitalism’s collateral damage in the Victorian period.

    Quakers & Capitalism — Evangelicalism and Political Economy

      • Major transition (1895 – 1920) — A number of external forces combine with new trends in Quakerism to end the double-culture period and usher in the spirit of liberal engagement with the world that characterizes much of Quaker culture in the 20th century. Quakers had cut a deal with the powers that be: leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. Now the deal was off.

    Second major transition: The Corporation, the Great War, Liberalism and the Social Order

    This last transition period is a complex one and deserves a little more treatment. For one thing, the fragmentation of Quaker culture in the 1800s means that the forces unleashed at the turn of the century affect different communities differently. You can’t really tell just one story, as I have been trying to do so far. And these forces are so many and so complex that it’s hard to treat them properly in a format like a blog. But here goes:

        • The rise of corporate capitalism — The laws governing the limited liability corporation are finally settled definitively in the 1890s in both America and Britain and the modern corporation is born—a business owned by shareholders rather than private families and so big as to require management. Over time, this innovation deconstructs the great Quaker fortunes in Great Britain.
        • The emergence of the social sciences, including the science of economics — New kinds of thinking are brought to bear on social problems. The Quaker Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree of the Rowntree chocolate dynasty plays a central role in proving scientifically that the poor are not poor because of poor character but because of structural inequities in capitalism itself. In England, the rise of New Liberalism gives birth to a new political party and inaugurates the welfare state, in which, for the first time, government tries to protect the citizenry from capitalism’s downside.
        • Classical economics takes the field — Classical economic theory eclipses evangelical political economy, which was already in decline. However, the spirit of evangelical political economy—the blame for poverty on character (sin), the reliance on private and faith-based solutions for social ills, and the dread of government intervention—lies dormant.
        • The rise of liberalism — The Richmond Conference in America in 1887 and the Manchester Conference in England in 1895 mark the beginning of ‘liberal’ Quakerism, in which ‘liberal’ ideas, especially the scientific study of the Bible, transform and galvanize British Friends and the Hicksite branch of American Quakerism. FGC and FUM (then Five Years Meeting) are born. Rufus Jones introduces a new historiography of Quakerism in which the faith is recast as “mystical” and Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” is understood anew as a kind of neo-Platonic divine spark; it becomes over time the central tenet of liberal Quakerism.
        • The Great War — For the first time in two hundred years, Friends are persecuted for their convictions of conscience. This helps to decisively pull Quakers, especially young adult Friends, back into engagement with the world. AFSC is born.
        • The rise of ‘social concerns’ — London Yearly Meeting explores the relationship between war and the social order and, in 1918, approves the Foundations of a True Social Order, a decisive departure from the hands-off attitude toward the social order maintained during the double-culture period and a fairly radical indictment of capitalism as one of the factors leading to the Great War. The document and the debate are carried forward into the first Friends World Conference in 1920 in London. Quaker culture enters the modern era.

    I’ve not yet written one of these transition essays, on the rise of liberalism. I have a lot of new notes from recent research that I need to digest first. And I’ve only just begun to research the economic history of Friends during the twentieth century. In a subsequent entry, I do want to outline the subjects and the people who I think figure prominently in 20th century Quakerism, and I invite any readers who know any of these subjects or people in some depth to contribute. It’s going to take me a while, a long while, to finish this project alone. I welcome collaboration.

Quakers & Capitalism — Transition: Seebohm Rowntree and the Awakening of ‘Liberal’ Economic Consciousness

June 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

The second major transition in Quaker economic culture caused a dramatic shift away from the double-culture period of the 1700s and 1800s, in which Friends had withdrawn from the world around them in virtually every sphere of human activity but one—industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. In these areas, they played a truly significant role. Beginning around 1895, however, external forces combined with trends within Quakerism to draw (or even force) Friends out of their shell and reawaken them to responsibility for the wider social order.

In historical moments like these, key individuals often serve as a bridge into the new culture and its ethos. These Friends respond to the changes going on around them with new sensibilities. They speak and act and live in ways that lead the rest of the Society in a new direction. In this second major transition period, a number of extraordinary individuals shine out in this regard: Rufus Jones and John Wilhelm Rowntree are perhaps the best known. Less well known but equally important, at least in his influence on Quaker economic history, is Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.

The external forces to which he responded include the plight of the industrial poor, whose conditions remained awful, in spite of efforts throughout the 19th century to deal with the problem: the New Poor Laws of the 1830s in England, the rise of organized philanthropic giving, and attempts at reform by individual business owners, in which Friends often led the way. By 1895, these efforts at reducing poverty and helping the poor were no longer new, but something else was: the emergence of what we now call the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and the discipline of economics itself. In the field of sociology, especially, brilliant new thinkers published groundbreaking work during this period of intense social change.

Karl Marx is sometimes called the true father of sociology, though Auguste Comte and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes independently coined the term in the 1830s, and Herbert Spencer pushed the science along in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was Emile Durkheim who laid the foundation for the discipline as a science and set up the first sociology department in a university in 1895. Max Weber (1864-1920) began writing prolifically in the late 1880s about social policy and began work on his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904. Weber was keenly interested in economics throughout his career. But it was a man named Charles Booth (1840-1916) who inspired Seebohm Rowntree.

Booth conducted the first scientific sociological statistical study in history, ultimately interviewing thousands of households of the poor in London, beginning in the East End. He published the first fruit of his research in 1889 and went on to publish a total of 17 volumes through 1903. He invented the concept of the ‘poverty line’ and proved that 35% of Londoners lived in abject poverty and that the vast majority of them worked. Here was scientific proof that the poor were poor, not because of their moral character, as had been assumed for centuries, but because they did not earn enough in their work. Poverty resulted, not from moral failure but from systemic failure. They may have had too many children; they may have spent some money on drink, gambling and other vices or diversions, but the real problem was that they didn’t have enough money in the first place.

However, Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People of London was inaccessible, too huge and too dense to reach any but the most interested intellectuals. Among the intelligentsia, it sparked intense debate. Were these problems confined to the capital, or were the provinces beset with similar conditions? Put another way, was capitalism the problem, or was it London? Seebohm Rowntree set out to answer this question by applying Booth’s new statistical, sociological methods to his own home town of York, where only two employers controlled most of the economy: the railroad and his own family’s chocolate business.

Rowntree surveyed 11,560 families, representing 46,754 of York’s population of 75,812, roughly 60% of the city. He defined two classes of poverty: “primary poverty,” affecting people who lacked the financial resources to provide for themselves even the basic essentials—10% of the total; and “secondary poverty,” in which earnings would suffice for basics, except for “other expenditures, either useful or wasteful”—18%. In other words, close to one third of York’s population was poor. More importantly, half of the people living in primary poverty had regular jobs!

Like Booth, Rowntree concluded that poverty resulted, not from bad character (though gambling, drink and other bad habits were often aggravating the problem), but from low wages. The traditional Quaker virtues that had helped to make Quakers so successful, like prudence and thrift, simplicity and moderation, and Puritan abandonment of the world’s pleasures, would help these people hardly at all. And philanthropy could hardly touch their condition, let alone change it. Poverty and its ills were inherent in the character of capitalism itself, not in the character of its workers. The poor were victims, not causes, of their suffering. And paternalistic attempts to solve the problem by morally elevating the poor were ill conceived and failed to address the causes of the problem.

Rowntree’s book had a tremendous impact. It was well organized, well written, it was short and accessible, and it struck a chord. It spoke to the liberal-scientific worldview that was emerging at the time and it resonated with other reformist forces at work in English and American society. Other well-received books and Parliamentary reports had sparked a lively debate about poverty and social reform in society and in the press. The suffragette movement was on the rise and so was labor and socialism and, in America, Progressivism. Reaction to the labor movement was becoming violent; the police riots against strikers in Chicago’s Haymarket Square had taken place in 1896. The troubles in Ireland, too, had people wondering where society was going. The book became a bestseller.

Someone recommended it to Winston Churchill, then a young Conservative Member of Parliament, who couldn’t get it out of his consciousness, calling it “a book which has fairly made my hair stand on end.” He wrote and spoke about it repeatedly and reviewed it for a military journal. It ignited both his moral conscience and his creative imagination and redirected his political career. Ultimately, he joined the Liberal government that formed in 1906.

In 1908, Churchill became President of the Board of Trade and Lloyd George became Chancellor. The two men joined forces to bring sweeping reforms to the political economy and Rowntree’s book, and Rowntree himself, figured prominently in their work. George, who had been an MP since 1890, had risen from humble beginnings himself and devoted his whole career to alleviating poverty. George and Rowntree became friends and George would brandish Poverty as he spoke to large crowds all over Great Britain campaigning for the New Liberalism that he, Churchill and others had inaugurated in 1906. Though their People’s Budget and the social legislation it funded provoked a short-lived constitutional crisis in the House of Lords, in 1911 Parliament passed the National Insurance Act, providing for state-funded insurance for unemployment, sickness and old age. The modern welfare state had been born and Poverty: A Study in Town Life had provided much of the prevailing argument for radical systemic change, with its clear exposition, demonstrable evidence and straightforward, scientific approach.

The book inspired more such studies in other regions of the country. It heavily influenced Churchill’s own 1909 publication, Liberalism and the Social Problem. Rowntree was named to a government committee to study land, land tax and housing issues. The committee applied Rowntree’s methodology to these problems in the years 1912-1914. Thus Rowntree became an expert on land reform and this remained an abiding concern throughout his life. He championed the creation of garden cities, in particular, in order to diversify the agricultural system and relieve some of the pressures threatening both the health of workers and the dwindling rural areas. Beginning in England in 1910 and soon spreading to the U.S., the garden city movement favored relatively low-density planned communities with lots of open space, including, usually, a green belt encircling the housing and areas with flexible zoning that could support local industry and commerce. He also came to believe that the labor movement was an essential part of economic reform.

But what did the Rowntrees do about the subject of Seebohm’s book, poverty in the city of York and Rowntree’s own family business? Poverty encouraged Seebohm’s father, Joseph Rowntree, to build new rental housing, what we would call today low- and moderate-income housing. Despite his efforts to provide acceptable accommodations at the lowest possible cost, however, these apartments remained beyond the means of the very poor, the people for whom he’d intended them. According to James Walvin (The Quakers: Money & Morals), the welfare services provided by the company represented 0.8% of gross selling price in 1908. Joseph Rowntree kept improving the company’s benefits, adding profit sharing, better sick pay, paid vacations, and convalescent facilities. But the basic problem remained: wages.

Rowntree laborers were paid by the piece. Joseph Rowntree set up a process for wage review every three months and he monitored wages. If someone fell below the ‘poverty line’ that his son’s book had so popularized that he often is credited with its invention, rather than Booth, the company moved the worker to different work or encouraged them to work harder. Those who couldn’t make it were dismissed or encouraged to find another job. Departments were evaluated according to the percentage of employees that were making more than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, although Seebohm Rowntree agreed with labor unions in principle, in practice, he resisted them in his own plants. Quaker paternalism was not dead yet.

Nevertheless, in both his book and his long and distinguished career in public service, Seebohm Rowntree helped lead Friends through the transition into the twentieth century and its liberal engagement with social problems. By ‘liberal’ I mean an optimistic faith in the ability of society (meaning, mostly, government, but also civil society) to change things by studying them, proposing solutions, developing programs, and creating institutions for implementing the programs. Rowntree came to believe in state regulation of aspects of the economy “to over-ride the immediate interests of the employer by imposing on him (sic) obligations which are to the advantage of the nation rather than his (sic) own.” This was a fundamental break from the double-culture compromise forged in the persecutions of the first transition period, that Friends would leave the state and the foundations of the social order alone, as long as they were left alone in turn. Under the leadership of Seebohm Rowntree and other young reform-minded Friends, Quaker religion once again became a public, and not just a private, affair.

Poverty: A Study of Town Life launched Rowntree on an exceedingly prolific writing career; Amazon lists 26 books. Poverty itself is available from Google Books for free as a download here. And here’s a link to a bibliography of Rowntree’s writings, to give you a sense of the range of his interests. Four main themes dominate his work: He returned again and again to the problem of unemployment and he wrote several books on housing. He wrote about the Christian and the Quaker responses to social problems. And he wrote several books trying to humanize business and industrial relations. He also applied for a patent in chocolate manufacturing.

This extraordinary man deserves our thankful remembrance for the following landmark achievements:

  • Groundbreaking work—understanding poverty. Poverty is the second attempt in history to use a sociological survey (and statistical analysis) to understand a social problem (poverty) and to shape a meaningful policy response.
  • Defining the “poverty line”. Rowntree is widely credited for inventing the idea of the “poverty line,” an income level below which a person or a family can no longer provide for the basics of food, clothing and shelter. I believe, however, that again we can thank Charles Booth for this innovation. However, Rowntree put it on the map and I believe he revised Booth’s calculations to make them reflect reality a little more accurately, though most economists today agree that it still needs to be redefined. The current formula for the poverty line (at least in America) comes originally from an American economist from the Roosevelt administration named Mollie Orshansky, who based her own work on Rowntree’s. The idea really caught on with the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Once a ‘scientific’ way to define poverty had been established, Rowntree (and before him Booth) came to a revolutionary and truly startling conclusion:
  • Groundbreaking conclusion—the poor are poor through no fault of their own. Rowntree’s research proved that poverty was not primarily the result of personal moral failing, but was rather a systemic, structural problem endemic in the capitalist system itself. It proved that the vast majority of the poor actually worked, worked hard, too hard; they just didn’t make enough money to survive—their wages were too low. It was not indolence, drink, gambling, sex (too many kids), and general wantonness that had cast them into poverty, as most people believed until then, though these factors often made things worse. The real problem for the poor was not at its root moral; it was structural—it was low wages. The poor wanted to work, they did, in fact work. It just wasn’t enough to lift them up out of poverty.
  • Groundbreaking paradigm—social science and technocratic solutions. This helped to usher in the modern social scientific approach to understanding and treating social problems. Poverty showed that scientific methods yielded results that you could not arrive at using moral philosophy, and it helped to pinpoint where and what the problems really were. This did not put an end to moralizing, as we well know. Conservatives, especially, have continued to cite moral failure as the cause of social ills up to the present day. Now, however, they must also downplay, discredit, bypass and obstruct scientific arguments that clearly point to structural evils in the system. Rowntree’s book ushered in an age of warring paradigms in social policy. One of them was rooted in 19th century evangelical theology and the political economics it had nurtured, focused on individuals, their choices and their ‘freedom’ from government intervention. The other paradigm was rooted in science and focused on communities, on systemic causes and solutions to social problems, and on the roles that only government was in a position to play in addressing these issues.
  • Groundbreaking policy—the birth of the welfare system. The book led directly to the modern welfare state in England and, by extension, everywhere else in Europe and North America.
  • The end of the ‘double culture’ period and the reengagement of Quakers. Seebohm Rowntree was part of the generation of modernist Friends that remade Quaker culture around the turn of the 20th century. They included his cousin John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and a number of others who had been energized by the Richmond Conference in 1887 and the Manchester Conference in 1895. They were the internal force for change within the Society of Friends that met the external forces that helped shape what I call the second great transition period in Quaker history, moving us from the double culture of religious and social withdrawal, on the one hand, combined paradoxically, on the other hand, with energetic engagement with the worlds of business, industry and commerce. They pulled us out of our isolation and insulation until both our feet were planted in the modern world.
  • Quakers discover capitalism as a system. Seebohm Rowntree’s landmark book and methods opened Quaker eyes to capitalism as a system. Until then, Quaker testimonial life had regarded the ‘social order’ as a matter for individual attention; that is, on the one hand, as a matter for the discipline of personal behavior, of “right walking” over the world, while on the other hand, individual Friends and Friends’ meetings had focused their efforts to address social ills like poverty on individuals. Recall Elizabeth Fry’s work in Newgate Prison raising up the educational and moral levels of inmates. With Poverty, Friends became aware for the first time of structural evil, of the way that systems caused suffering. This new awareness took a long time mature. It got major reinforcement, at least in the UK, during the Great War, when London Yearly Meeting convened a Committee on War and the Social Order and approved the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order in the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1960s that systemic thinking really began to shape Quaker testimonies in any meaningful way: Right Sharing of World Resources addressed global trade policy; AFSC turned increasingly from service to the suffering toward advocacy on behalf of the oppressed; and the War in Vietnam vividly illuminated the power and role of the “military industrial complex” in our economic life. The war also brought Marxism back to life; Marx and Engels had understood that capitalism as a system oppressed the working class way back in the middle of the 19th century. But Quakers never really warmed to Marxism, even though Das Kapital mentioned their own John Bellers by name, and even though a small, very active group of socialist Friends did emerge in the same period in which Rowntree was doing his work late in the 1800s.

For all these monumental contributions to the cause of a more just and compassionate political economy, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree is one of my heroes. He also is one of the unsung heroes in the history of Friends. And so I have become one of his modern champions.

Note: On Tuesday, December 21, American Public Media’s daily financial news radio magazine Marketplace featured a piece on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954). It’s not a bad introduction to this extraordinary man. Here is the link.

Quakerism & Capitalism — Transition: War and the Social Order

May 30, 2011 § 3 Comments

The second period of major transition in Quaker culture and economics began (as I have not-too-arbitrarily pegged it) in 1895 with the Manchester Conference and it ended with the first Friends World Conference in London in 1920. A number of significant events, both within the Quaker communities and in the world around them during this period, deserve fuller treatment than I have so far given them in my introduction. Here I want to focus on British Quakers’ awakening to the systemic evils of capitalism as it was brought to a climax by the Great War.

I do not say ‘evils’ lightly, for, as we shall see, that is the conclusion many British Friends came to. This story starts in 1915, when London Yearly Meeting convened a committee on War and the Social Order charged with examining the causes of the war and proposing actions the Yearly Meeting could take to try to prevent such a war from happening again.

The very act of convening such a committee was a mark of how Quakerism was modernizing and liberalizing in this period. Committees had been organized around a concern before this but, for two hundred fifty years, Friends had used the traditional faith and practice of Quaker ministry to pursue “concerns”: A Friend felt led, brought the “concern” to their meeting, traveled or served under the auspices of a minute, then laid down the work when they felt released from their call. In the early twentieth century, if I have my history right (it’s hard to research this kind of thing without combing through quarterly and yearly meeting minutes in detail, which I have not yet done), Quaker meetings increasingly turned to committees to act on behalf of the body in the way that the War and Social Order committee did, until we now take this mode of organizing corporate testimonial life for granted, and have almost totally lost the original mode of traditional Quaker ministry.

In 1916, the Yearly Meeting convened a Conference on War and the Social Order at Devonshire House that produced a remarkable document titled “Seven Points of the Message to all Friends”, asking all Friends to affirm its principles. The Seven Points were all positive in tone and offered no direct condemnation of capitalism per se. But it was strongly worded and, most importantly, it did directly address the economic system as a system. Notably, point number six read:

That our membership one of another involves the use of all our gifts, powers, and resources for the good of all. No system which uses these for mere money-making or private gain, alienating them from their true end, can satisfy.”

The Seven Points also focused special attention on workers and labor relations.

At its 1917 sessions, the Yearly Meeting sent the draft to the quarterly meetings and the General Meeting of Scotland for review and a new draft was presented to the Yearly Meeting in 1918. This final version consolidated the original seven principles into six and added two more. The new document, titled Foundations of a True Social Order, was more concise and, in some ways though not all, it was more forceful than the Seven Points had been.

From several different angles, the Foundations defined the purpose of an economic system: that it should express the Brotherhood revealed by Jesus Christ that “knows no restriction of race, sex or social class”, that it should further the growth of full personhood beyond material ends, that it should be organized around mutual service, not private gain.

The Foundations also defined how an economic system (the “social order”) should operate: it should apply “the spiritual force of righteousness, loving-kindness and trust” to industrial relations, not the methods of outward domination and physical force. The document was strongly anti-materialist and called for regulation of land and capital on behalf of “the need and development of man (sic)”.  And it clearly recognized that serious problems plagued the current social order, that these problems were ultimately spiritual in nature, and that they demanded action.

The adoption of the Foundations of a True Social Order and the actions that followed its adoption signalled a fundamental and decisive shift in Quaker culture. At the end of the first transition period in the 1690s, with the Toleration Acts, Friends had agreed to give up their claim on the social order in return for religious toleration. Now, in reaction to the persecutions of Friends for conscientious objection to the first world war—a breach of that tacit ‘agreement’ by the state—and in reaction to the war’s manifest horrors, the deal was off. The double-culture period was over. Friends came out of this second transition period once again determined to change the world, ready to fully engage with the social order, led to a large degree by young Friends who had already paid a heavy price for their religious convictions—an been strengthened by the experience.

London Yearly Meeting approved the Foundations, but debate was very vigorous. Many Friends on the committee blamed capitalism directly for the war. Some pressed for a clear socialist recommendation and a few Friends actually formed communes when the meeting pulled back from so radical a move. On the other hand, many were anxious that it went too far and they succeeded in tempering the stronger language presented by some quarterly meetings.

Friends dealt with this internal conflict characteristically by convening another committee, the Committee on Industry and the Social Order. This extraordinary group produced a series of very searching pamphlets on the topics of economic and social policy and labor relations throughout the middle of the century. I’ve not been able to fully research this body of work and I’m not sure when the committee was finally laid down, if it was at all. The last clear reference I have found is from 1955.

Besides the new committee, the other major outcome of London Yearly Meeting’s exercise in 1918 was the first Friends World Conference in London in 1920, for which the eight “Foundations of a True Social Order” became a central theme.

On a parenthetical personal note, I would add that it was while reading the proceedings of the 1920 Friends World Conference and its discussion of the Foundations that I first felt led to study Quaker economic history further. I believe I was researching Right Sharing of World Resources for a project I had proposed for the Albert Cope Scholarship at Pendle Hill; Right Sharing was first brought to Friends by Young Adult Friends at the Friends World Conference at Guilford College in 1967. The 1920 Conference document was right next to the ones for 1967 on the shelf and I just picked picked it up out of curiosity. The debate about the limited liability corporation caught my eye first: Quakers trying to discern whether it was morally correct to use a technology whose very purpose was to divest owners and managers of culpability for a corporation’s actions. Then there was the presentation and debate about the Foundations and references to the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting. I kept following this thread and eventually, the leading grew until I started writing Quakers and Capitalism in earnest.

Quakers & Capitalism — Transition into Modern Liberalism

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In this series on Quakers & Capitalism, I have divided Quaker economic history into three major periods separated by times of transition that lasted roughly a generation, during which external forces have combined with internal trends within Quakerism to completely transform the community’s culture and its economic life. During the first transition, from roughly 1661 to 1695, the persecutions combined with the establishment of gospel order to turn the movement away from its radical apocalyptic engagement with the social, political and religious institutions of the day into a culture that was paradoxically dualistic: quietist and peculiar, insular and withdrawn from virtually every area of social converse—but one: Quakers were intensely engaged in the worlds of industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. They entered this transition as mostly independent farmers and small trades people. They emerged as a people almost wholly engaged in commerce, poised to literally change the world, after all, by ushering in an all-new system for creating wealth—industrial capitalism. Not quite single-handedly, but not far from it, either.

The double-culture period lasted two hundred years, though 19th century evangelicalism weakened the intense dualism that had marked the 18th century, drawing Friends out of their isolation to a degree and helping to inspire paternalistic philanthropic attempts to ameliorate the suffering of the poor.

The first transition period had rather clearly defined boundaries, marked by the passage of new legislation designed to crush the dissenting sects, beginning in 1661, and by their repeal, concluding fairly decisively in 1695, and by George Fox’s efforts to establish gospel order among Friends upon his release from prison in 1661 and by his death in 1691. The second transition period is a little less clearly defined. I have chosen 1895 as the starting point and 1920 as the end.

Externally, 1895 saw the passage in Great Britain of the final legislation legalizing the limited liability corporation. This new technology would completely transform, not just capitalism, but Quakerism, as well.

Other forces emerged about the same time that created a fertile environment for dramatic change within the Society:

  • the origins of the what would soon become the Labour Party in Great Britain;
  • the rise in America of Progressivism as an alternative response to industrialization besides the conservatism and socialism and anarchism of the day;
  • the rise in America of Pentecostalism, often dated to 1901, and of the Social Gospel movement, which had a relationship with the Progressive Party much like today’s Christian right does with the Republican party; and
  • the articulation for the first time of Catholic social teaching, beginning with Pope Leo III’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.

All of these movements were to a degree responses to the downside of industrial capitalism, whose awesome wealth-generating capacity had outgrown society’s ability to control its excesses and its ability to protect its victims.

Then came the Great War, a cataclysm that, in Europe, anyway, would reroute virtually all social energies, decimate an entire generation of men, and transform the zeitgeist of the West.

The war also brought to a climax a new zeitgeist in Quakerism that had begun in 1895 in Britain, with the Manchester Conference, and in 1887 in America, with the Richmond Conference. The conferences marked a turning point in the course of evangelicalism among Friends and, for many Friends, a decisive move toward liberalism. Friends General Conference formed in 1900, Three Years Meeting (later Friends United Meeting) formed in 1902. In 1893, Rufus Jones became the editor of Friends’ Review (later, The American Friend), and began a lifelong effort to reunite divided Friends and modernize Quakerism. In 1897, Jones met John Wilhelm Rowntree, a kindred spirit who had played a major role in the Manchester Conference and the summer school movement that came out of it. A generation of young very gifted Friends began leading Quakers into the modern era and toward a level engagement with the world around them that had not existed since the 1650s.

Then, again for the first time in 250 years, Friends faced persecution for their faith, for conscientious objection to the war. After more than a decade of liberalization and increasing involvement with social problems and institutions, this experience finally closed the door on Quaker withdrawal from the world. The American Friends Service Committee was born in 1917.  In 1918, London Yearly Meeting heard and discussed the report of its Committee on War and the Social Order, charged with analyzing the causes of the war and proposing responses. The resulting Eight Principles of a Just Social Order became a major theme of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920.

In the meantime, Quaker economics also entered a new era. In a future post, we’ll start examining this major transition in our economic history with a look at Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and his landmark book, Poverty: A Study in Town Life.

Quakers & Capitalism — The Decline of Evangelical Political Economy

March 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

In 1832 and 1834, the debate in Britain over how to deal with industrial urban poverty took a decisive turn in the New Poor Law, whose policies and ethos more or less dominated Victorian poor relief for the rest of the century. The New Poor Law denied any able-bodied person money or help unless they lived in a workhouse and worked. It mandated that workhouses be built in every parish and living conditions were deliberately designed to be worse than conditions outside the workhouse in order to discourage people from seeking aid. Eligibility requirements were set very high.

The laws were a decisive triumph for evangelical political economy, codifying the mostly predetermined conclusions of the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws 1832, two of whose four members were staunchly evangelical (Bishop John Bird Sumner and its economist, Nassau William Senior). They reflected a weird convergence of Thomas Malthus’s population theory and evangelical moral philosophy, David Ricardo’s classical economic theory of wages, and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Sumner saw Malthus’s theory of geometric population growth and its threat to national security as part of the Divine Plan and agreed that, by removing some of the poor’s suffering, the old assessment system tended to remove the incentive for moral improvement. The law therefore embraced suffering as a deterrent to the moral vices believed to cause poverty and as an incentive to repentance. It also embraced Benthan’s utilitarian faith in the free market system to provide the “greatest good for the greatest number,” in terms of wages, and also his assumption that people choose pleasant options over unpleasant ones, and would therefore choose to work rather than to live in the workhouse, if conditions in workhouses were bad enough.

Around mid-century, however, evangelical thinking began to lose its hold on the discipline of political economy and on the distinctive middle class piety that it had fostered in British society, though it remained a dominant force in Quakerism (both British and American), especially among the Society’s leadership, until almost the end of the century. The causes of this decline of evangelical influence on economics were its failures on several fronts:

  • As economic theory, it failed to keep up with the more effective economic tools of classical economics, as represented especially by the genius of John Stuart Mill, who mastered the entire field by the age of 13, in 1819, but only wrote his masterpiece, Principles of Political Economy, in 1848.
  • As public policy, it failed to deal effectively with the intensifying problems of industrial capitalism and eventually gave way to organized philanthropy in the private sector and more liberal policies in British government.
  • As moral philosophy, it collapsed in the face of a terrible social and moral calamity—the Irish famine of 1845-1852..

Political economy matures.

Political economy cut its teeth on a series of economic crises in Great Britain. The first major collapse, in 1825-26, was comparable in its severity to the crash of 1929. This was the depression that so exercised J.J. Gurney, which we mentioned in an earlier post.

Evangelical political economists seized on this devastating and totally unexpected event as an example of divine retribution. One radical journalist (William Cobbett) remarked: “Will the Quakers and Unitarians now venture to deny that there is a God?” meaning a retributive, evangelical God. Cobbett’s remark leads us to believe that most Quakers were not prepared to see the crash as divine retribution; even Gurney seems to have thought it more a test than a judgment.

More shocks followed the crash of ‘25, however, with severe recessions occurring in 1837, 1847-8, 1857 and 1866. The sheer regularity of these events called for a more rational explanation than divine wrath in response to greedy speculation and over-investment leading to bubble formation and collapse. The evangelical Malthus had first defined—and predicted—economic collapses, but he ascribed it to middle-class avarice outpacing the natural limits of consumer demand, over-extending itself in debt, and collapsing in bankruptcy. However, as the understanding of business cycles advanced with real experience, the moral argument for recessions began to lose its weight. Morality still figured, of course—there was no denying the role of greed—but the mechanism was revealed as a mechanism, increasingly understood as independent of causal moral factors that could be cured with moral condemnation.

The return of organized giving.

As the industrial revolution became an industrial regime, neither personalized individual, voluntary giving nor the state’s New Poor Laws were up to the job of taking care of the poor, whose ranks were swelling and whose plight was worsening, and not just in the cities but also in the countryside, where the ‘new economy’ was shaking down the old land-based, agrarian rentier economy. Organized giving came back with a moral vengeance in mid-century in Great Britain, becoming a badge of moral probity for the middle and upper classes (think A Christmas Carol, published in 1843) and a requirement for social esteem in the mid-Victorian period. Friends provided tremendous leadership by example in the rise of philanthropy, becoming the signature examples of how and why it should be done.

Moral philosophy.

The great Irish famine proved something of a turning point in the fortunes of evangelical political economics. As a set of ideas, evangelical political economy dominated public intellectual discourse and the minds of key government actors and policy makers through much of the first half of the 19th century and society as a whole in England adopted its moral tone. This consciousness and the policy of strictly limiting governmental intervention on behalf of the poor shaped the early British response to the Irish famine in the beginning. As the crisis intensified, so did the rhetoric of divine visitation. Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British administrator of relief to the Irish, limited his government’s efforts because “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson. . . a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence [designed to reveal] the deep and inveterate root of social evil.” The public works that had been organized were deliberately structured so as to produce no profit, leaving starving men to pay their own expenses while doing pure make work. Then, for a time, all relief was suspended. Meanwhile, the costs of the Poor Law fell on local landlords, who simply evicted their tenants in response, and the Law denied anyone with at least a quarter of an acre of land any relief; it also forced tenants to forfeit their land to their landlord if they couldn’t produce enough to pay rent and taxes. Nearly 200,000 people were driven off the land in 1849-50.

Eventually, however, the suffering became so visibly overwhelming (perhaps a million people died and another million migrated) that it prompted a backlash of moral revulsion against the moralizers. As both human and national sympathies were awakened in England, so was a sense of outrage at the cold-hearted blamers, who were all pointing in different directions at a bewildering multitude of sins that seemed hardly up to the job of justifying such violent wrath from the Almighty. And it became clear that the government had to act much more forcefully.

More importantly, the laissez-faire policies that the British government applied to the problem, from an explicitly evangelical worldview, made things worse. Even Chalmers, who died not long after, admitted that this crisis was an exception and called for intervention. In the face of this moral failure compounded by policy failure, and lacking Chalmers, its guiding light, evangelical political economics fell swiftly from favor.

Quakers, to their credit, were famously heroic in their response to the Irish crisis. They were present in Ireland already in numbers large enough to form a yearly meeting and had already been ministering to the poor of Ireland for generations. They laid no blame, gave abundantly from their hearts and their purses, made no conditions, abided no corruption in the administration of their relief, and they were fair.

One more factor turned the tide against evangelical political economy in mid-19th century—in a word, optimism. Evangelical political economy was, in its essence, pessimistic because the human battle against sin was a losing battle. One looked to the cross for victory, not to markets, the government or social programs. Eventually, those whose hopes rose on the new economy chose the optimism of the classical economists over the ineffectual moralizations of the evangelicals.

Science was taking off, and so was its brother, technology—solving problems, improving living conditions, promising and delivering on a new idea: progress. The Origin of the Species gave progressives the theory of social evolution, a framework for understanding progress. Quantum mechanics seemed to deepen the old Newtonian laws of physical determination with a new language of energy. Dr. John Snow proved that the horrible cholera epidemic of 1854 in London had scientifically definable causes, where the terrible cholera epidemic of 1830 had prompted the same kind of evangelical moralizing that had labeled the crash of ’25 a divine visitation.

In the late 1850s, two other events helped to redirect economics and Quaker culture during the second half of the century. In the economic sphere, the Limited Liability Act of 1855 allowed limited liability to companies of more than 25 members. This made large amounts of personal financial capital available to build large-scale industrial companies without needing charters from Parliament. The United States had always been more friendly to the idea of limited liability and it gained momentum from Jacksonian populism in 1830s, which saw it as a mark of economic democracy. However, since corporate charters were regulated by the states, laws clarifying limited liability moved forward in a more haphazard fashion than in the UK, but by mid-century, the practice of limiting liability for shareholders was widespread.

Meanwhile, in 1859, John Stephenson Rowntree, then just 24, submitted Quakerism Past and Present as an essay for a prize offered to the Friend who could most effectively address the problem of Quaker decline. Within a year, London Yearly Meeting began revising its discipline along the lines he had suggested, ending, among other things, the practice of disowning members for marrying out of meeting and a host of other infractions. British Quakers were finally emerging from their quietist shell.

The New Poor Law stayed on the books for decades, however, and the basic assumption that the poor were responsible for their own plight remained unshaken until the Quaker Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree published his landmark book, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, in 1901.

Evangelicalism in America.

Things were somewhat different in America. Here, the evangelical movement lagged behind that of Great Britain in terms of when it really took hold. Moreover, Friends in America had never become the huge economic force that they had in England and had always been much more diverse in their economic pursuits and status. Many American Friends were still farmers through the 19th century and many were small business tradespeople. Philadelphia had its very rich Quakers and many of them turned evangelical, but the main current of evangelicalism flowed west among Friends of much more modest means. Also, because social welfare was the responsibility of the states, national public policy toward poor relief did not really take shape until the New Deal.

This diversity has made it much more difficult for me to follow all these trails to outline the history of Quakers and capitalism in the U.S. This is one of the areas in which I would hope other Quaker historians might fill in the gaps.

The next transition

In the next post, we will look at the second major period of transition in Quaker economic history, which began with the great conferences in Richmond, Indiana, and Manchester, England, in the early 1890s, and ended with World War I and the Conference of All Friends in 1920. In economics, Seebohm Rowntree’s book ushered in a new understanding of the causes of poverty and the structure of capitalism, and the last and decisive step was taken in legalizing the limited liability corporation, a technology that was destined to deconstruct the great Quaker fortunes of the past two hundred years.

Quakers & Capitalism—Friends and evangelical political economics

March 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

Joseph John Gurney and Thomas Chalmers

England has had three legal systems for taking care of the poor since Queen Elizabeth I reformed the punitive Tudor system, which was breaking down in the face of the decline of monasticism and the wider medieval social structure. Her reforms (1597 and 1601) created a national poor law system for England and Wales that used the parish as the administrative structure and supplied funds through a compulsory land tax levied at the parish level. It put people who couldn’t work into poorhouses, subsidized the labor of the able-bodied poor, put vagrants in a House of Correction, and arranged apprenticeships for pauper children. The British colonists brought this system with them to North America.

The assessment system itself began to break down in the face of industrialization, which drew large numbers of rural poor into the cities to work in the new factories, straining the urban parishes with heavy taxes and overwhelming responsibilities. By the time of the depression of 1825, which I mentioned in the previous post, the assessment system was ramping up to meet the growing demand and spreading on the heals of increased poverty to areas like Scotland, while its shortcomings were becoming more and more unacceptable. Thomas Malthus, the extremely influential evangelical minister and early political economist, had published his landmark work An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 and had added five more editions by 1825. David Ricardo, the classical economist, published his hugely influential Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817, having been inspired to enter the field after reading Malthus.

The debate about how to care for the poor and reduce or eliminate poverty was on. Pressure was mounting to act and the nation was becoming ready to embrace radical reform. Many looked to greater state intervention because local resources were so inadequate, and many agreed that a national system was required to help smooth out the vagaries of local organization. Evangelical political economists like Malthus resisted this trend, however, believing that aid to the poor only encouraged the very sins that had made them poor in the first place—laziness, vices like gambling and drink, and sex—having more kids than they could support. They also felt that mandatory taxes and a state-sponsored distribution system undermined the moral character and opportunities of the rich. They insisted that the spiritual needs of the giver—that is, themselves—were at least as important as those of the receivers—the poor. Each act of charity, to be a genuine act of conscience, had to be voluntary, spontaneous and discriminating. You had to be involved for benefit to accrue. The real obligation was to God, not to the poor. Institutionalizing charity denied the rich the blessing they might receive and denied the poor the opportunity for the kind of personal contact that could ignite a conversion.

Into this exciting environment came the Reverend Thomas Chalmers, a brilliant, charismatic, innovative and energetic man who’d become a zealous evangelical after a personal conversion experience. Of his character, the Wikipedia entry says this: “He was transparent in character, chivalrous, kindly, firm, eloquent and sagacious; his purity of motive and unselfishness commanded absolute confidence; he had originality and initiative in dealing with new and difficult circumstances, and great aptitude for business details.”

Like Malthus and his other evangelical peers, Chalmers believed that poverty resulted from flawed moral character and that private voluntary charity was the solution. Already famous in Great Britain for his theological writings, he solidified his reputation as a political economist by testing his ideas in the field in what amounted to an early 19th century faith-based initiative. When the Scotsman took over the very poor parish of St. John in Glasgow in 1819 after four years at another church, the British system of compulsory tax assessment for the poor was gaining ground in Scotland. Chalmers believed that this approach actually made things worse and proposed a voluntary approach involving radically reorganizing the parish and applying a rigorous program of family visitation, counseling and monitoring to enforce moral rectitude. In four years, he reduced annual pauper relief in the parish from ₤1,400 to ₤280. The astounding success of his program greatly impressed the rest of the political and political economic elites, especially when they looked at the numbers rather than the huge organizational effort involved. Chalmers himself burned out from the work load and, in 1823, having ‘made the numbers,’ left his extremely demanding life running this operation and accepted a chair in moral philosophy at St. Andrews. This was the seventh academic offer made to him in his eight years in Glasgow. His lectures and writings influenced political economic thinking and policy for the next 25 years and beyond.

Where do Friends fit in all this? So far, my researches have found little to indicate specifically what Quakers, and especially, evangelical Quakers, thought of evangelical political economy. It seems that Friends shared their moral-economic worldview to a large extent, but not its harshness of tone or cold-heartedness in practice. Wealthy Friends were morally paternalistic themselves and they shared with these evangelical thinkers a commitment to personal and spontaneous giving. And I know that Chalmers became friends with the Gurneys and other Quakers, whom he called “the most serviceable philanthropists we met with.” [The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865, Boyd Hilton, p. 59. This book is the source for much of my thinking in this area and is a great resource.] Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry accompanied Chalmers when he testified before a Select Committee on the State of the Poor in Ireland in 1830, presumably because they shared his views. Evangelical Friends also shared these men’s extreme nervousness about their own spiritual health and the moral dangers of wealth. J.J. Gurney claimed that the most “salutary chastisements” he had received from God had “arisen out of being . . . a ‘monied man,’” [Hilton, p. 116 n.3, quoting Gurney’s journal] and, as I said in the previous post, he reported “feeling the Lord to be near to us” during the severe economic crisis of 1825, expressing the belief that market collapses could be times of visitation.

The clearest evidence that Chalmers and his ideological brethren spoke to the evangelical Quaker condition that I’ve found is a book published in 1853 by Joseph John Gurney titled Chalmeriana, or, Colloquies with Dr. Chalmers (available from Google Books). Gurney speaks very glowingly of Chalmers in this little book, praising his modesty and religious humility, the earnestness of his faith, his stellar character as a man, the effectiveness of his poverty program, and, especially, the intellectual power and moral force of his extraordinary mind. They clearly had a deep regard for each other.

I think it’s fair to say that at least they shared many of the essentials of evangelical faith and its general implications for economic practice. And I don’t think it goes too far to say that Gurney represents in large degree his evangelical Quaker peers in these matters.

One crucial area of difference does peek through, however. Chalmers is preoccupied with judgment and with justice as the primary attribute of God, and he was a self-avowed predeterminist. Gurney gives equal weight to God’s goodness. Chalmers looks at the cross and the Atonement and sees God’s judgment.. Gurney sees a divine gift of love. In one section of the book, the two men are discussing the work of several other writers on the moral attributes of God. Chalmers is warning against reducing God’s character to the single quality of benevolence when justice (that is, judgment) is (to Chalmers) obviously more important. Gurney, though, argues: “Surely, that [the atonement of Christ; emphasis is Gurney’s] is where justice and benevolence meet; where God has displayed at once his abhorrence of sin and his mercy to the sinner.” In the dialog Gurney records, Chalmers veers away from Gurney’s point without responding to it.

To generalize, though acutely conscious of sin and of the sinner’s desperate need for Atonement, evangelical Friends remained more optimistic, more open to God’s goodness. Precisely in the Atonement did they see God’s goodness most clearly demonstrated. This, I think, made evangelical Friends much less willing to leave people in their suffering as the necessary road to contrition and conversion, and made them much more willing to minister to sufferers in their need. The work of Elizabeth Fry, J. J. Gurney’s sister, is instructive here. Once awakened from her life as a rich, unreligious, even frivolous (in her own eyes) ingénue, she ends up in the Newgate prison wards trying to help real people. Her tools are the classic evangelical ones: literacy, moral exhortation and the Bible. But her hands are dirty and her heart is burning with care.

Non-evangelical Friends, on the other hand, in their quietist passivity, had not the motivation of the missionary to get them into the world with the same fervor. Their inwardness tended to keep them out of philanthropy and movements for social reform. At the other extreme, super-evangelicals, especially leaders in America of the pre-millennialist holiness movement that emerged in the 1870s and ‘80s from the evangelical awakening of mid-century, these Friends saw relief work as the devil’s work and abandoned the poor to the wrath of God’s judgment. According to Professor Hamm in The Transformation of American Quakerism, this point of view was quite influential among American evangelical leaders for quite some time, though Friends in the benches tended to be more moderate in their theology and compassionate in their views.

Evangelical political economics dominated discourse and policy in England into the middle of the 19th century. By then, several factors had began to erode its influence over policy, with the horrible Irish famine as a crucial turning point. We will turn to this history in the next post. But the moral philosophy of evangelical political economic thinking has never disappeared and has periodically regained the allegiance of some politicians in America, as we well know. In the hands of Herbert Hoover (a Quaker), Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, this moral economic philosophy has played a major role in American public policy.

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