OccupyOurHomes—Bankruptcy, the Beatitudes and Quaker Economic Testimony

December 1, 2011 § 7 Comments

Colder weather and newly aggressive police pressure have been driving some Occupy settlements out of the public spaces that they have claimed as public commons. (These settlements, by the way, closely resemble those of the Diggers who, beginning in 1649, occupied common land on Saint George’s Hill, Weybridge, in Surrey, under the leadership of Gerrard Winstanley. See the section “Correlate movements for radical economic change and their influence on Quakers” from Quakers and Capitalism. Quite a few Digger writings are available online; I believe I found them through Google Books.) As reported by Nation of Change, the Occupy movement has responded with a new focus on bankruptcy, calling for a National Day of Action to Stop and Reverse Foreclosures on December 6.

Bankruptcy is another of those areas in which Friends can draw from the teachings of Jesus to present a radical, coherent and moral argument for progressive change that ought to speak to the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, if not to other nominal Christians everywhere, and especially on the boards of the note-holding banks. Bankruptcy was a central theme of Jesus’ ministry and his teachings on bankruptcy are embodied in some of his most familiar and popular sayings—the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are a midrash on inheritance law in Torah, with a special focus on bankruptcy. Every one of the Beatitudes addresses these concerns. We’ve never been taught this because the common translations either ignore or are ignorant of the technical legal language they contain. Having abandoned the law under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the radical reinterpretations of the law in Jesus’ teachings and we are the poorer for it. Having embraced the spiritualization of redemption under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the concrete and practical implications for community life in Jesus’ teachings.

I have treated this subject at some length in my other blog, Biblemonster.com, which has been languishing for lack of attention for quite some time while I’ve focused on this blog. I have found it virtually impossible to maintain two blogs at once; one is hard enough. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read those entries under the Category of “The Beatitudes.”

Here, I want to raise up the Beatitude that is perhaps most familiar and that also most directly addresses the suffering that bankruptcy entails:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (BibleMonster link)

This familiar translation totally misses the thrust of what Jesus is saying. It’s not a cosmic (“the earth”) and fantastical promise to those who passively accept their suffering; it is a radical promise to return families that have lost their family farms—their ‘portion’, their inheritance—to foreclosure.

“Meek” is a technical legal term for those who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy, who, because they no longer own property, can no longer sit in the assembly of the elders in their village or town and must seek an advocate (Paraklete) to represent their interests in court—some elder who will speak on their behalf, to recover debts owed or to defend them against suit by others.

“Earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) does indeed mean ‘the earth’ in some contexts, but it can also mean the land, either the land of Israel, or simply soil or dirt—or one’s farm, one’s land, one’s ancestral inheritance. That’s what it means in this context. So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard when he spoke this Beatitude:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion—their family farm—and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

Jesus is promising to return the landless to their land.; that is, to end their poverty, for “the poor” means specifically those who have lost their farms and must support their families as day laborers on someone else’s land (or even, most oppressively, on their own land), or—worst case scenario—as debt slaves, working off their debt as indentured servants.

The Beatitudes (and other passages as well) offer a religious and moral argument for doing our utmost to protect homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure and for returning those who have been swindled out of their homes back to their homes, or at least to compensate them from the massive profits of the foreclosing banks. I think we should bring this message to the events on December 6.

(As a side note, it’s worth noting here that the ninth and tenth commandments do not prohibit grasping thoughts about one’s neighbor’s property—they prohibit fraud. Jewish law is consistently practical in its perspective and punishes acts rather than motives. The word translated “covet” means to swindle, not to harbor thoughts of possession. It’s basically a companion to “thou shalt not steal,” except that “steal” means outright theft, robbery. Coveting is thievery by deceit.)

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.

Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Fulfillment

February 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

How does a covenantal community focused on debt relief and ministry to the poor work?

I said in the earlier posts in this series that, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God by declaring a Jubilee, a general redemption of debt and of debt slaves. How did he plan to make good on his claim to be fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy? Jesus himself raises this question in the course of the story, but he doesn’t answer it. Luke shows us how the first disciples implemented the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God in Acts, chapters two and four. Presumably they did so according to Jesus’ teachings. There are hints elsewhere in the gospels, notably in the story of Zacchaeus and of Mary and Martha, that Jesus had already begun to organize his household churches along the lines described in detail in Acts. In Acts four and five, Luke actually gives us two case studies of how this was supposed to work, one positive and one negative. In the positive case, Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:37).

The negative case study (Acts 5:1-12) is an astounding story much overlooked by everybody, I suspect because it’s so bizarre. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, like Barnabas, sell a piece of property, but instead of bringing all the proceeds to the apostles, they agree to secretly withhold half the proceeds. They naturally, I think, fear that they’ve joined a cult whose future looks pretty shaky—their leader has already been executed, their present leaders have already spent time in jail, the secret police are hunting them down. We can speculate that Ananias and Sapphira are hedging their bets, leaving themselves an exit strategy.

Peter knows what’s going on and challenges Ananias. Ananias denies the fraud, and then Peter says he’s lied to God and the man drops dead. Young men wrap him up, carry him out and bury him. Later, Sapphira shows up and Peter challenges her to own up to the subterfuge, but she lies too, and she drops dead. She’s buried next to her husband.

What’s happening here? What’s their crime? Was the punishment really death? Did Peter utter a death-curse? Did God really strike them dead? And what is Luke trying to tell us with this incredible story?

I believe this story encodes the first excommunication in Jesus’ community, defining both the rationale for taking action and the process for expulsion. We know the Essenes excommunicated members by performing a burial ceremony, and even today, some very conservative Jews will say that relatives who have married Gentiles are “dead to me”. This rests on the passage in Deuteronomy that famously says, “choose life”—a theology of life in the covenant and death outside the covenant (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). The first few chapters of both of Luke’s books are full of Essene influence; especially relevant in this context is the mass conversion on Pentecost recounted in Acts 2, which was also the holy day used by the Essenes to admit new members and expel unwanted members.  Especially suspicious as a detail in the story is the note that the young men wrapped up Ananias’s body and then carried him out for burial—did they really prepare the body for the grave right there in the midst of the day’s ritualized distribution of money to the poor? Or was this part of the ritualized ceremony for expulsion, which would have been a public event?

So why were Ananias and Sapphira excommunicated? For filing false financial statements. More specifically, for “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9) by undermining the community’s commitment to care for the poor. That is, for defying the Spirit of the Lord that had anointed Jesus as the Christ, whom the Father had sent to bring good news to the poor.

So, to answer our question about how our meetings would function if we tried to follow Jesus’ intention with the good news, we would first seek to find out who among us suffers under a crushing burden of debt and who among us possesses surplus wealth that could be used to relieve this suffering. This would probably mean that financial disclosure would be an obligation of membership, for this would be the most transparent way to know who has need and who has resources. And we would set up a system for distributing the welfare.

Several of Paul’s “gifts of the spirit” (ministry, giving, leading, and showing compassion—Romans 12:6-8) seem to represent various offices in the welfare distribution system that he had set up in his churches, each one inspired by the same Spirit that Ananias and Sapphira had defied. These offices are only hinted at in the gospels and Acts, specifically, Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” all of which took place, if I’m not mistaken, at the time of the day’s main meal. “Fellowship” here is the Greek word koine, which means sharing, the sharing of food and money as well as each other’s presence.

Can you imagine organizing your meeting around these principles?

Such a radical covenant of governance, in which discipleship meant this kind of disclosure and discipline, would need to stand on a sure and clear foundation of authority. For Jesus himself and his followers—and for the early Friends—that authority was the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the Christ. Where would today’s liberal, mostly post-Christian meetings turn to for a foundation of authority that could carry such a weight? More importantly, perhaps, why would liberal meetings organize themselves this way, having mostly abandoned the teachings of Jesus as authoritative? Without the authority of the gospel, without the example of the first disciples, a meeting would realign itself toward the poor in this way only if deeply moved by the Holy Spirit—as, indeed, the first Christians were. But this is no less true for mostly Christian meetings. Would they be willing to recover the economic heart of the Christ’s teachings? Would they be any more willing to reorganize their meetings around the good news for the poor?

I propose that the gospel message of Jesus the Christ does, in fact, offer us a powerful place to start in experiencing, articulating and proclaiming a revitalized testimony on economics. But would such a testimony languish at the doorstep of action?

Here the traditional faith and practice of the Quaker testimonies comes into play. The testimonies are not, properly speaking, social action positions to which we are encouraged to subscribe as Friends. They are in theory the natural and even inevitable expressions of movements of the Spirit within and among us. The ‘written testimonies’ are the shadow and not the substance of a testimonial life, empty forms without power, until and unless the spirit of God anoints us. Once we are in-spired with compassion for the poor, the actual words of the testimony and the concrete actions of the testimonial life will follow. Without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the good news for the poor is just a notion, an intriguing radical ideology, a matter for study and discussion.

When it comes to the poor, I myself hold only a shadow in my hands. I am the rich young man who walked away (Luke 18). I could not live in such a meeting, for a bunch of reasons. I have not surrendered authority over my life to Jesus the Christ (though he hasn’t yet come to claim it).

We believe—I believe, having experienced it myself—that each of us is called to direct inspiration by God, and that the meeting as a community is also so called, and that God is always trying to reveal to us new truth and lead us into renewed life (and by ‘God’ here I mean the Mystery Reality behind our experience of being inspired and led, however that experience manifests). This much I can do: try to open myself to God’s inspiration and revelation and guidance. Try to be faithful to the call when I hear it.

I have answered several calls; I have tried to remain faithful to them. One of them has led me to spend decades studying Jesus’ economic teachings, to write a book about them, to become something of an authority on them. Yet I’ve never let them overwhelm my own desires. I have never truly sought the fellowship of the Spirit in the sharing of wealth and the ministry to the poor. I am Ananias. I guess I am running from the shadow of the cross.

Seebohm Rowntree on NPR’s Marketplace

December 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

On Tuesday, December 21, American Public Media’s daily financial news radio magazine Marketplace featured a piece on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), a member of one of Britain’s three great chocolatier families. I feature this extraordinary man quite prominently in my book on Quakers and Capitalism and was tremendously excited to hear him profiled on this program. I highly recommend listening to it and/or reading the transcript of the story. Here is the link.

Rowntree exemplifies and was a major force behind momentous changes in both Quaker culture and in social, political and economic policy, especially in the UK. His book, published in 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, literally changed the world, a little bit. And yet, as with John Bellers, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post about our economic history amnesia, Seebohm Rowntree is virtually unknown to Friends, at least here in the US. Poverty is available from Google Books for free as a download here.

Poverty launched Rowntree on an exceedingly prolific writing career; Amazon lists 26 books. (Here’s a link to Seebohm Rowntree – A Bibliography.) He resurveyed York in two follow-up studies to Poverty. 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. The story on Marketplace claims that it’s the first, but this in incorrect. Rowntree based his own research on the methods first used in London by the early sociologist Charles Booth, who interviewed tens of thousands of people in London’s slums and wrote a massive, 17-volume report in the years between 1889 and 1893. (The new social science of sociology was just then being developed by a handful of thinkers.) Booth’s study was, however, too huge, too dense with statistics, and too ploddingly written for many people to actually read. Rowntree saw how important it was, as did some other intellectuals in London, and he decided to do something about it. He used the same survey methods in his own hometown of York (interviewing more than 11,000 people), where there were only two industries—the Rowntree chocolate factories, and the railroad. Where Booth’s work was unreadable, Rowntree’s book was short and compellingly argued, with just the right balance of facts, figures, and exposition. It became a huge best seller.
  • 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 1930s 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. Someone recommended it to Winston Churchill, then a young Conservative Member of Parliament, who could not 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 all the time, and ultimately joined the Liberal government that formed in 1906. Lloyd George became Rowntree’s friend and would brandish Poverty as he spoke to large crowds all over Great Britain campaigning for the New Liberalism that he, Churchill and others were inaugurating. In 1911, Parliament passed the National Insurance Act, providing 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 this earth-shaking advance in human welfare.
  • 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 1891. 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 charged with trying to determine what underlying causes had led to the war and with proposing ways to act that would prevent such a cataclysm from happening again. The resulting Eight Principles of a Just Social Order stirred intense debate in the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting, because the Committee had essentially blamed capitalism. The Principles carried over into the first Friends World Conference held in London in 1920. (We’ll revisit this fascinating moment in Quaker history in a future 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.

After writing Poverty, Seebohm Rowntree continued to bring innovative thinking to industrial relations, social welfare and management. He became a true liberal. Nevertheless, he was himself a transitional figure. Liberal and forward-thinking as he was, he still held on to some of his paternalistic past. For instance, though he saw clearly that a labor movement was essential to economic reform on behalf of the working poor, he resisted the organization of unions in his own business. He took it personally. He also adjusted his company’s wage system to guarantee a ‘living wage,’ a wage above the poverty line that he had himself defined. But he also established a rigorous system of quarterly employee review designed to ensure that his workers were performing well enough to deserve it. Under-performing employees were counseled, reassigned, and/or dismissed.

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.

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