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.
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.
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?
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 — 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.