Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Foundations of a True Social Order 1918

I have been studying The Principles for a New Economy (PNE)  It quotes two passages from 23.16 of Quaker Faith & Practice, the second as follows:

Our rejection of the methods of outward domination, and of the appeal to force, applies not only to international affairs, but to the whole problem of industrial control [ed: what we might now call economic injustice and ‘structural violence’ ]. Not through antagonism but through co-operation and goodwill can the best be obtained for each and all.

I believe that interpolation in square brackets by the editors of PNE shows the lack of historical perspective which has tended to characterise the debate about the New Economy.


The Foundations Of A True Social Order 1918

According to the notes in the appendix to QF&P, passage 23.16 is taken from Foundations of a True Social Order approved by London Yearly Meeting in 1918, the year which saw an armistice ending the First World War and the start of post-war peace negotiations. The interpolation in square brackets by the editors of PNE equates paragraph vi of the original, 1918 document and its reference to the ‘whole problem of industrial control’ with economic injustice and structural violence. I believe that this interpretation of 23.16 is a mistake and that we need better to understand the 1918 passage in its historical context.

The reference to the problem of industrial control is a reference to the troubled relations between labour and capital in the period before the First World War. 1910-1914 were years of great industrial unrest in Britain, as were the post-war years 1919-1926. Evidence for this is the comparative number of days lost to industrial disputes then and now  Similarly, the years before the outbreak of the First World War were a period of widespread political unrest, in Ireland and on the streets of London in agitation for women’s suffrage.  The 1918 call is for political and industrial peace, for no return to the violent suppression of strikes and dissent which had marked the pre-war period.  Above all, the 1918 document is a call for an end to, and no resumption of, world war. The Foundations of a True Social Order was written in the context of a fear of a return to pre-war industrial violence and, more importantly, of a fear of actual, devastating global war.  It is wrong to see the Foundations in terms of structural violence; the issue concerning the Quakers of 1918 was actual violence – on the streets, in workplaces and, above all, on the battlefield.

Structural Violence

There is little justification for equating paragraph (vi) of the Foundations with the modern notion of structural violence. Structural violence refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.  The term is a sociological one dating from 1969 used to label selected social structures and institutions as detrimental to human rights and well-being.  The social sciences have their place in Quaker discourse but human and spiritual relationships are not reducible to the structures which may manage or constrain those relationships, be these structures churches or government departments.  The term 'structural violence' needs to be used cautiously, because it can be a lazy way of stigmatising agents with whom one has a political disagreement. Ultimately it does not sit well with the Quaker commitment to the equality of persons and to answering that of God in everyone in love and truth.  The term was not one known to Quakers of 1918 who, had they wanted to proclaim a new socio-economic order, could have looked to the Bolshevik Revolution of the previous year. Instead, the 1918 Foundations proclaimed the brotherhood of man and called for peace on earth and harmonious industrial relations, the antithesis of the Bolsheviks’ commitment to class struggle with its related modern notion of structural violence. (If one wanted to find good examples of structural violence one need look no further than to the institutions of the former USSR).  London Yearly Meeting of 1918, rather than calling for a new social and economic order and the overthrow of established institutions, upheld the ethical capitalism which is in the Quaker tradition. Indeed, the Foundations can be read not as a revolutionary manifesto but as a conservative, even reactionary, document, as a call for a return to the peace and progress of the nineteenth century before the breakdown in political, industrial and international relations of the early twentieth century.

The fundamental Quaker value

In carrying forward the work on The principles of a New Economy it would be worth our while considering how far, a hundred years on, the world has changed since 1918 and how far the aspirations in The Foundations of a True Social Order may have been met.  Such consideration gets us to focus on the fundamentals of Quaker principles enunciated in the Foundations.  Attention needs to be paid to paragraph (ii) which says that the social order should be directed towards the growth and personality truly related to God and man; (viii) similarly says that the ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be directed towards the need and development of man.  This is a humanist, not a socialist value.  What counts is not socio-economic equality as such but the opportunities for each and everyone of us to flourish.  In 1918, Friends saw that harsh working conditions, long hours and the lack of welfare provisions and of educational opportunities were not conducive to the spiritual development of the individual, but they did not seem to believe that socio-economic inequality was per se a  bad thing.

Readers will want to ponder the social progress that has been made in the UK since 1918.  The key statistic is life expectancy, which was about 50 for men in 1918 (disregarding the statistic impact of WW1 which put male life expectancy at less than 45 in that year) and is now about 75.  Life expectancy is now half as good again as it was when the Foundations were drafted.  This is a crude but highly significant measure of social and physical progress.  Other examples of progress in the UK that spring to mind include: full franchise for women (1928), National Health Service (1948); homosexuality decriminalised (1967); Open University (1969) and growth in tertiary education based on information technology; Equal Pay Act (1970) and subsequent equal opportunities legislation; same-sex marriage (2013) etc etc.  None of these may have reduced socio-economic inequality by strict financial measures but they will have greatly advanced human rights and increased quality of life and the scope for the personal growth of the individual.

Outside the UK, the aspiration in the Foundations for the brotherhood of man has been largely fulfilled in the founding of the International Labour Organisation (1919) the United Nations (1945), the European Union (1993 and earlier) etc etc.

Simplistic leftism

Something seems to have happened to Quakers after the discerning of the admirable FTSO, with erosion of the traditional notion of social justice as social solidarity by an ingress of simplistic leftism.  QF&P 23.21 contains some of the same strictures as we find in the Minute 36 of BYM 2015, with talk of anger - whatever happened to unity, love and truth as in QF&P 1.01? - and of Quakers being "at odds with the priorities of our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country".  There is no recognition that there might have been progress since 1918 or gratitude for such progress; there is much negative talk about the evils of affluence; there is nothing about how further progress is possible through quiet processes rather than oppositionistic campaigning and there is little international perspective or talk of the brotherhood of man or the growth of liberal values.  On the contrary, QPSW's campaign against TTIP has been one of tacit economic nationalism.  None of this is to say that the world is perfect - how would it ever be possible to say this? - but it is to say that we need to maintain some perspective otherwise we will drift into a delusive pessimism.


I was pleased to learn from the 2016 annual gathering of British Yearly Meeting that the importance of FTSO has been recognised by two Quaker academics, Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant, who have embarked on a research project.  I wish them well with their efforts and look forward to hearing about their progress. Follow this link

Assisted Dying

Assisted dying is a major public issue which evokes passionate responses from people on both sides of the argument.  Assisted Dying: A Quaker Exploration is a collection of essays published this year by Leeds Area Meeting (  This topical and thought-provoking collection explores the issue from various standpoints, whether professional or deeply personal.  Contributions from a theologian, criminologist, philosopher, sociologist, nurse, doctors and Quaker thinkers challenge the reader.  The book is for a Quaker readership but will also help others consider this important issue.

The background to the controversy of assisted dying is that people are living longer, medical advances mean that people can be kept alive much longer than previously, and consequently the health and social care services are under increasing pressure.  Assisted dying is already a legal practice in various places outside the UK.  Here, however, the law is complicated.  Suicide itself is not illegal, unlike the act of assisting a suicide, which is against the law but will not necessarily get prosecuted.   A reader of this compilation will conclude that, as with most issues of bioethics, it is impossible to take an absolutist position.  On the one hand, there is much force in the slippery slope argument from those against legalising assisted dying but, on the other, these voices cannot be allowed to prevail if progress is to be made to meet a growing moral dilemma.

My own, humble opinion is that, as Bill Clinton said of abortion, assisted dying should be legal but rare.  However, what I particularly liked about this book was not the subject matter per se, as it is not a topic in which I have a strong opinion, but the example it provides of the Quakerly way of discerning the truth.  A collection of essays, edited by Quakers but with contributions by non-Quaker experts, is an excellent aid to deep opinion-forming.  So many of the issues of the day which may come before Quakers in Meetings for Worship for Business are very complex, technically and morally, and rarely lend themselves to an easy answer.  The response of simplicity in the face of complexity must be patient inquiry rather than a leap to judgement.  (I say this as someone who constantly battles his own violent prejudices.) Quakers should be cautious in forming a strict position on a matter of controversy and be on their guard lest they are led by inadequate or biased information or by ministry which is more strident than wise.  The quality of Assisted Dying (2016) reminds me of the forward-thinking and influential A Quaker View of Sex (1963), which lead to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.  This balanced, comprehensive and commendable work by Leeds Area Meeting is a model of its kind.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Quaker tradition and inequality

It is not clear to me that Quakers have a traditional objection to social or economic inequality. The principle of eldership and church discipline, which as I have said in my blog about Farnsworth dates from 1666, is not consistent with a strict equality. In addition, consider the words of Isaac Pennington (QF&P 23.74) "This is the true ground of love and unity, not that [...] a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way." Pennington's talk of ranks and orders is feudal not socialist.  Too much can be read into the refusal of hat honour, which is best known through Thomas Ellwood's acts of adolescent rebelliousness recounted in Quaker Faith & Practice (19.16, 19.40).  If we look at Fox's 59 Particulars, which I have blogged about separately, we find Fox objecting to fines for the refusal to doff the hat in court rather than insisting, as Ellwood seems to have done, on giving offence for its own sake.  Fox's objection to hat honour seems more to do with his objections to corrupt law courts and to the vice of extravagant dress than to an insistence that everyone should be equal in all social and economic respects.  Objections to vice and corruption are commonplaces of religious discourse and, in the case of the early Quakers, reflect the influence on them of contemporary Puritanism, however much the Quakers may have differed with the Puritans in political and theological matters. In his Journal Fox recounts how he took action in the courst against employers who were 'oppressing' their servants in their wages.  Again, his concern seems more with legal justice and equality before the law than with strict financial equality.  His favourite target, apart from 'physicians' (whom these days we would call scientists) and paid clergy are lawyers, who are 'out of equity, out of the true justice and out of the law of God'.  Equality before God and equality before the law are for Fox related notions.  He extolls help for the poor but out of traditional ideas of charity and philanthropy rather than justice, which he conceives in legal rather than socio-economic terms.

Like their Puritan contemporaries, Quakers had no objection to the possession of wealth per se as long as riches were used ethically. The testimony of simplicity is not a vow of poverty.  Margaret Fell, Robert Barclay and William Penn were all well to do.  The genius of Fox and Fell lay not just in their spiritual energy but in their practical work, in their protecting and promoting Quakerism by acquiring land, building meeting houses and setting up administrative structures. They and the other early Quakers were religious and social entrepreneurs, not proto-socialists.  I have blogged elsewhere about how the work of the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill has tended to lead to an over-emphasis on the political radicalism of the early Quakers.  In religious terms they were in a long line of reformers, who sought to revert the church to the simplicity and communitarianism of the early Christians.  Despite Fox's provocative behaviour, the Quakers' exalted religious language was metaphorical and spiritual rather than a call to political revolution.