Friday, 23 June 2017

The Role of Markets in the New Economy


Britain Yearly Meeting has published a further document in the New Economy Series, this one being entitled The Role of Markets in the New Economy.  In my opinion it has three shortcomings:


Bias against the present.

The paper itself says the UK has well funded and organised public services, raising the question why entirely new economic principles are needed at all.  The UK is a mixed economy in which private enterprise and public services are in a dynamic balance.  This balance is, by the paper’s own implicit admission, not fundamentally awry. No doubt adjustments, by political or administrative means or through market mechanisms, are needed from time to time, but this is not a matter for the Religious Society of Friends nor one on which the Society has any expertise.  It also needs to be remembered that it is the job of governments to make difficult decisions and that there is no magic money tree.

Bias against corporations

 There is a bias is against corporations and in favour of the anti-corporatist  lobby.  This is manifest in dark talk about for-profit organisations and double-talk about increasing democratic participation in the economy. Private corporations need to make a profit in order to pay their investors, and they make an immeasurable contribution to modern life.  Where would we be without Google and Amazon?  Of course, some behave badly and don’t pay their taxes, but that is true of other people too.

Double talk about democracy

As for democracy, there is a lot of it about – too much some would say, in the wake of the EU Referendum. The pamphlet relies on the campaign group We Own It, which consists of left-wing academics with no experience of government or business, and trade-unionists.  Their call for greater democratic and community involvement in the economy is largely double-talk for trade union power.  Even the apparently innocuous word 'community' can be a cover for self-serving parochialism if not outright xenophobia. Trade unions' proper concern is their members’ interests and they do not speak for citizens, consumers or the electorate.  Community leaders admittedly have their place but it is below that of elected representatives such as local councillors.

The New Economy Project

I continue to believe it is wrong of BYM to have embarked on the left-wing New Economy Project.  Quaker socialists already have their own special interest group within the Society, as well as being free to act in secular organisations such as the Labour Party or Green Party.  Too often BYM seems a univocal organisation in which the liberal political tradition of Quakers goes unrecognised.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Are Quakers systemically racist?

Understanding White Privilege

My attention has been drawn to Understanding White Privilege by Frances E. Kendall, who is an American and writes about her own country, but her argument has been used to suggest that British Quakers are systemically racist. The argument runs that we inhabit a culture of white privilege that is systemically racist, in that there are many subtle ways we all operate that privilege white people over people of colour. This isn’t limited to the issue of race;  we inhabit a system that privileges men over women, straight people over LGBT+ people etc. So this broader definition of racism, related to white privilege, makes all white, privileged men racist, who have a responsibility to look inside themselves and work to heal the ways in which they unconsciously perpetuate a system that disempowers non-white people (as well as women, LGBT+ people, temporarily able-bodied people etc.).

What is a systemic discrimination?

A system to me is more than a loosely understood pattern of human behaviour; it is something objective like the tribalism of ancient Israel, the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South (which have informed Kendall's work),  the apartheid laws of former South Africa, or an overt social convention like the caste system in India.  Against these examples, modern Western liberal democracies, which enshrine equality in law (by, for example, legislating for same-sex marriage) are the least systemically discriminatory societies there have ever been.

Beware the sociologist with an agenda

To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own biases and values.  I am white, educated and middle class but I am also far below average height for a man and have problems with my behaviour and mental health. By one set of measures I am privileged, by another not.   What Kendall seeks to do is to classify people, which is what sociologists do, but it runs counter to the non-judgementalism enjoined on us by Jesus (Mt 7:1); by George Fox, who told us to should walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; and by Isaac Pennington in his beautiful words of about not laying accusations one against another (QF&P 10.01).

A further point on the danger of labelling people is that I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So by the standard of the Kendall school of thought, I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says. According to the report 'Our Faith in Action: Quaker Work in 2016' (p.8),
Quaker communities are loving, inclusive and all-age. In a Quaker community all are heard, valued and supported in their needs and leadings.  Everyone's contibution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.

People not sociology

It's true that some people are more favoured than others, for a host of reasons, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on the circumstances. We should be aware of the subtle play of power between people and we should be open-minded about ourselves and others. However, Quakerism is about spirituality not sociology.  There is nothing wrong – indeed, it is positively desirable – that we congregate with like-minded people, which is what the sociologist would call affinity bias.  Affinity is the glue which holds people together.  The Quaker calls it fellowship, even love.

Plain speech not jargon

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language.  More seriously, as I say above, it is being used to turn Quakers against each other.  Before the words of BYM quoted above, Edmund Harvey wrote in 1928:
In the name of Friends the people called Quakers have set before them a great ideal.  Men are separated one from another by ignorance, by selfishness and by fear; the Light and the love of Christ draw them together to become a society of friends. (Quaker Language p.29)


Monday, 12 June 2017

Edmund Harvey: Quaker citizen, catholic and cantor


Thomas Edmund ‘Ted’ Harvey was born in Leeds of a prominent Quaker family in 1875.  A leading figure of his time, he was a politician and social reformer as well as the author of poetry, fiction and of religious, biographical, historical and spiritual works.  It was said that his spoken ministry was profound yet simple.  He was educated at Bootham’s School and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he got a first in Literae Humaniores.  He worked briefly for the British Museum and then was a local government councillor in London and Warden of Toynbee Hall, a university settlement in the East End of London.  During the First World War he was an MP for the Liberal Party and in 1916 was one of two Quaker MP’s who successfully pressed for conscientious objectors to be (conditionally) exempted from military conscription.  He then helped administer the system for placing conscientious objectors in alternative work of national importance. Later he wrote of how ‘a state in the midst of a great war recognised the right of conscience, at any rate in principle, for its individual citizens’.  He was involved in Quaker relief work on the continent during and after the First World War. His Swarthmore Lecture of 1921, The Long Pilgrimage, is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope and echoes many of the themes in his A Wayfarer’s Faith of 1913.  The vision in the Lecture is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the value of human ‘personality’ (a term in widespread use amongst thinkers at the time).  Harvey returned to Parliament as an Independent during the Second World War and died in 1955.

I am starting a research degree on Harvey.  The aim is to produce a comprehensive biography covering his life and work as a Quaker politician, activist and author, attempting to show how his faith informed his story and to illustrate the description of him as a Quaker citizen. In addition, the aim would be to show how his religious writings expressed what I am tentatively calling catholic Quakerism.  I want to explore how far Harvey exemplifies the pragmatic insider and the notion of the Quaker citizen. The Quaker citizen (as a working definition) discerns the difference between corporate faith in action sanctifying the person, which Harvey himself seems to have thought the essence of the Religious Society of Friends, and involvement in secular politics, which on one view is not faith in action as such.  Harvey’s words at 23.88 of QF&P are thematic  and the idea of Quaker citizenship also finds expression in Advices & Queries 34 .

He was influenced by the catholic tradition as well as by his classic education.  For example, the preface to The Long Pilgrimage is a quote from St Augustine, and the body of the lecture shows the influence of von Hugel, the Catholic theologian, the early Fathers and the medieval saints.  He hardly ever mentions George Fox.  His interest in European Christianity is further and delightfully expressed in Stolen Aureoles (1922), which I would describe as a collection of fabulist hagiographies. Indeed, his literary style is such that I wonder whether I could call him the poet or cantor of Quakerism

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Domination Systems

That some Quakers and Christians have been seduced into being crusaders in a class war may be due to the influence of the writer, Walter Wink (1935-2012). Wikipedia says Wink was an American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist who was an important figure in Progressive Christianity. Elsewhere in the internet I learn that Wink argued that humans live under domination systems, the powers that be. These are structural and ideological institutions that manipulate our minds, lives and activities, reduce our freedom and retard our flourishing. Christians are called to resist them, said Wink, who seems to have been a liberation theologian.  One may argue against the liberation theologian that we live under systems of service, not domination, which educate and entertain us, enhance our freedom and permit our flourishing; and to the extent they do not we should work with them to change this.  A further objection to Wink is that the domination systems that he had in mind seem to be those of Western capitalism in his life-time.  One wonders whether the domination systems of the old Soviet Union or modern-day China - or a fortiori those of China under Mao or terrorist groups like Daesh or Boko Haram - stand in comparison.  On the other hand, it is probably true to say that, partly from the opposition of people like Wink but also partly because of improvements in the governance of business enterprises, Western capitalism has grown more sensitive to ethical and environmental considerations.  It is also worth pointing to the improvement in human rights and the treatment of minorities including women and members of the LGBT community.  Accordingly, Wink's work, which continues to be influence some writers such as Richard Rohr and self-styled neo-Anabaptists, is looking if not wholly false then rather out-of-date. It also has an angry, accusatory and prejudiced tone which sits ill with the Quakers' commitment to love and truth.

A counter to Wink can be found in the work of Roger Scruton (b.1944).  In his essay What is Right? (1986), Scruton has the following to say about left-wingers' misguided yearning for a powerless world.  He says people are bound to each other by emotions and loyalties and distinguished by rivalries and powers.  (This is very evident amongst Quakers). There is no society that dispenses with these human realities, nor should we wish for one, since it is from these basic components that our worldly satisfactions are composed.  He goes on to quote another conservative thinker, Kenneth Minogue, who has said:
...the worm of domination lies at the heart of what it is to be human, and the conclusion faces us that the attempt to overthrow domination ... is the attempt to destroy humanity.
Our concern as political beings should be, not to abolish these powers that bind society together, but to ensure that they are not also used to sunder it.  We should aim, not for a  world without power but for a world where power is peacefully exercised and where conflicts are resolved according to a concept of justice acceptable to those engaged in them.

The theoretical base and practical effect of Scruton's philosophy is the legal notion of corporate personality, for it is noticeable that the followers of Wink are emphatically anti-corporatists.  By the device of corporate liability, the capitalist world ensures that, where there is power and agency, there is also liability, in contrast with the communist world where, as in modern-day China, the communist party is the supreme agent which is not held to account through democratic or market mechanism.  I think Scruton is not quite right here, because I believe that power relations between people are just too complicated to be ultimately reducible to legal or ideological abstractions, useful though these may be in decision-making.

Scruton concludes that Marxists and radicals are poor at explaining in detail what sort of society they envisage, since they do not see political systems as persons with their virtues and vices and movements in their intrinsic life.  We can know nothing of the socialist future save only that it is necessary,  desirable and different from whatever we have now.  The left-wing concern is with the case against the present, a negative bias against an admittedly and necessarily imperfect reality that leads radicals to seek to destroy what they lack the knowledge and skill to replace.  The leap into the kingdom of ends is a leap of thought that can never be mirrored in reality. The burden of proof should fall on the revolutionary not on the conservative.

That an ideological rather than a pragmatic position is out with traditional Quaker thinking, which properly focuses on the person, is evident from the Message from the All Friends Conference held in London in August 1920. The fine words are drafted by John Henry Barlow (1855-1924), who has been called the outstanding Quaker statesman of his generation.  One might add to his examples of depersonalising words such popular, present examples as 'domination systems', 'multinational corporations' or even 'inequality', all of which tends to reduce the relationship between people to matters of measurement and classification.

As nations and as individuals we have been thinking too much of possessions and power, too little of service and mutual helpfulness.  The one thing that matters in all our social structure is human personality, yet often we lose this essential fact in abstractions.  We speak of a nation as the “enemy”, we talk of a group as “labour” or “capital,” and we forget the men and women who make up the group and who are the only realities there, each of them different, yet each bearing the impress of the Divine and capable of a new birth into a new social order.
This new order, the Kingdom of God, is being built up silently here and now.  Its laws are revealed at work in many a simple life, in the trust and the joy of a little child, in the pure love of a mother for her babe, in the faith that binds friend to friend, in every act of honest unselfish service.