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#2: Exploring the ideas of John Bellers

by Carl Stieren

Ottawa, Sunday, April 20, 1997


A number of Quakers from the Quaker meeting in Ottawa, Canada, met for our third "Meeting for Social Science", called "Quaker Cafe" for short, at Patty and Cliveís house in the Glebe, a few blocks from the Meeting House. We had all read a selection from the writings of John Bellers, which I had distributed the day before. Patty had bagels and cream cheese for us, and cake and coffee with hot milk. Ahhh!


Carl:

John Bellers, 1654-1725, was an English Quaker economist whose ideas on job creation for unemployed Englishmen and women inspired Quakers of the 18th and 19th Century, and also inspired Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein. Bellers even impressed Karl Marx. Thereís a bit of irony here, because Tatiana Pavlova of the Moscow Meeting learned about Friends when the Soviet authorities of the day gave her permission to go to England to research the writings of John Bellers. After reading Bellers, she became a Quaker, and today she is the driving force behind the emerging Russian Yearly Meeting, the national association of Quakers in Russia. I met Tatyana, as did 200 other Canadian Quakers, in the summer of 1990 at the Canadian Yearly Meeting sessions at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario.

But what I found important - and totally ignored - about Bellers' ideas is that they were put forward by a businessman, who had no objection to owners making profits, but who saw a way to put human values first by using capitalism to pull make productive the weakest members of society. Many of these unemployed people were driven out of the economy by the very changes which benefitted the new businessmen.

[ Tatiana Pavlova ] [ John Bellers' signature ]

Tatiana Pavlova (l.)

Patty: I donít want to contradict what you said, Carl, but Bellers sounds like a social conservative. Heís saying, "Letís raise these people beyond the level of their misery, and all the surplus (earned by the residents of the Colleges of Industry) will go to the investors."
Ed: But each (unemployed) person was guaranteed three acres to raise food.
Peter: This (idea of three acres per person) came out of the old system (feudalism), when you gave a portion of your crops to your landlord, to keep three acres for your own. The Enclosure acts were going through Parliament, which represented only the landowners, so out of Lockean ideas that if your property was your own, you could do with it anything you wished.
Carl: So it was the transition from feudalism to capitalism, (when the Enclosure Movement let ) you get rid of the last vestiges of a feudal responsibility for the land you owned (and on which your tenants lived).
Peter: At this time, because of the Enclosure Act in Britain, there were emerging, in the country and in London, people whom Hobbes referred to as "masterless Men".
Patty: When was the Enclosure movement?
Peter: Throughout the 1600s, and culminating in the Scottish Highlands in 1745 after the defeat of the Highland Scots at the Battle of Culloden. There, people said ďthe sheep ate the menĒ, because if you travel through the Scottish Highlands today, people will say, "Oh, there was a cottage there, one man lived there, and there was a cottage here, a family lived here," The landowners turned the lands on which the people lived into huge sheep runs, and sheep grazed there instead of men living there raising oats and grain.
Andrea: They also turned the oats and barley into whiskey, as the best way (get their money from grain in order to) to sell it.
Ed: Bellers mentions turning rotten oats into whiskey.
Andrea: What I found interesting here (about the era in which Bellers lived) was that Dissenters (Protestant Christians other than members of the Church of England) werenít allowed to go to university, so they had to go into the trades, itís similar to what happened to the Jews (from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century), when they werenít allowed to go to university, so they had to go into trade, into retail.
And then (uniting the strands of social reform and education for those excluded from university), there was a movement in the 19th century for education of women, Mechanicsí Institutes, Womenís Institutes, and adult education.
Ed: Much of it came out of Nonconformism and the Wesleyan movement.
Peter: What was interesting to me was that these are the real roots of (two social movements): the Reform Liberal movement and of social democracy.

Later Reform Liberals, like John Stuart Mill, T.H. Green, John Dewey, made similar arguments that you need the welfare state, because if you are hungry, you canít be a good citizen. Similar to Bellersí - and all Quakersí - belief in that of God in everyone.
Andrea: I think of Henry Ford (who paid his workers enough that they could buy his cars), and that if you arenít paid, you canít consume.
Ed: (We shouldnít forget that) Bellers also included communal health care, so it wasnít just economic reform. And it was before the Industrial Revolution.
Andrea: Robert Owen says Bellers wrote 150 years before he (Owen) wrote about the same principles.
Peter: (The important point that the neoconservatives conveniently ignore is that) ďthe economy exists to serve us, we donít exist to serve the economy, and what Bellers is pointing out is that we donít have to keep people at the immiseration level, and, as Andrea says, it looks forward to Fordism, (the recognition that) that if people earn nothing, they consume nothing.
Andrea: There is a whole movement today to small credit structures, to develop small microsystems outside of the swings of the banking and finance economy. It started with the Gramine Bank in Bangladesh, and this is making its ways back into Western Europe and North America.

(With current government cutbacks to social services,) what weíre losing is our civil society, because of the globalization, the fracturing of government structures, weíre losing our infrastructure, (the very thing) that keeps people in community.
Peter: The problem I have with Bellers is that ďthe rich shall rule the poorĒ, the responsibility of privilege, that the "rich shall make sure that everybody is provided for."
Andrea: Like Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harperís Magazine, we should admit that we have a class structure, so that those who have done well are responsible to help those who have been disadvantaged.
The idea (of individualism) was that we have been rewarded and are rewarded on the basis of merit. It goes back to the Marxian idea of people seeing themselves as part of a class, rather than seeing themselves as a part of the amorphous middle, (which was) the idea (of) the postwar 40s to the 80s.
The idea was that you were all middle, and you advanced on the basis of merit.
Bellersí had a proposal for a law prohibiting people who were profane from getting into office or public trust, but thereís never (a prohibition ) for greed. He hasnít made the next step to admit that thereís a problem with greed.
Peter: What heís saying is that crime comes from lack of food, education, health, and that you can do something about these needs, and prevent honest people from becoming criminals.
Andrea: Itís like Abraham Maslowís hierarchy of needs - his six levels - even though his analysis doesnít prove completely true in research, you canít think of abstract ideas if you donít have a roof over your head.
Patty: Itís amazing how long these ideas have been around.. Competition: The idea is to win, and to the winner goes history, and women and the private sphere tended to be more co-operative.

Thomas Hobbes, Immanual Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche - bachelors all their lives! Hobbesí childhood in particular was devoid of affect. Iím not taking away from what they wrote, but (their writings) are missing stuff. Whatís interesting to me is how contending ideas got weeded out of their writings.

Thomas Hobbes (l), Immanuel Kant (r.)

Ed: Bellers was writing before the income tax: duty of rich to help the poor in a sense is a policy of equalization.
Patty: We need institutions to work for people. The sick need to be looked after, children need to be raised.

(National) governments canít change the nature of the global economy, but they can change how itís distributed in their own country.

Goods for export are exempt from Canadaís Goods and Services Tax (the oft-despised GST, at 7 per cent in 1997), so this tax (is really) the return on social capital, (the return on having) healthy populations, safe streets, not having to fight off terrorists, Thatís all social capital thatís paid off by all of us. So (the 7 per cent GST which is not paid on exports) all goes straight drain from our money to capitalist profits. The worker gets a return on labour, the owner gets a return on capital, but thereís our social infrastructure - and that gets no return.
Peter: The GST is actually better than the Manufacturing Tax (which the GST replaced) because the Manufacturing Tax gave a 13.5 per cent subsidy on imports. (Since imported goods were not manufactured in Canada, they were not taxed under the Manufacturing Tax.)
Ed: (But Canadaís other taxes, such as ) the Imposition of payroll tax gives returns back to health insurance, as does employment insurance tax.
Peter: The cause of the deficit was not an increase in social spending, but a declining amount coming from corporate taxes and an increasing amount of total taxes now coming from our personal tax.
Patty: Iím sick of journalists buying the businessmenís line that government produces nothing, that government is not a producer. Itís a producer of our social infrastructure, and a damn efficient one at that.

Journalists (and many Canadians) have bought the line of corporate capital, that this is the only way.

Theyíve bought the line that says:

  1. Corporations donít need to pay
  2. Weíre paying too much taxes
  3. We canít afford social services
It turns the extreme disparities of wealth into a virtue, not a vice.
Peter: Antonio Gramsci put forth the idea that the way in which society cons the rest of us is through common sense: when we think about social capital, we think as if corporations here have rights to all the profits from their goods, that they have somehow earned and deserved it. We donít consider it in terms of the social investment that has gone into making their profits.
Andrea: (What is accepted for common sense today ignores what has been built as social infrastructure.)
Peter: (In society,) thereís a continuum between coercion and persuasion. You go too far and the cops are going to get you. You could wind up with a Latin American solution where you go for a ride over the ocean in a helicopter without a door If there are no other choices, youíve been conned-by persuasion or by coercion.
How did they con people into the enclosure movement? They conned people into believing that their landowners owned the land (despite centuries of a common law definition of land tenure).
Ed: Sometimes corporations - and everyone - can pay more than the cost of a social investment than it costs - thatís the case for roads (in Ontario).
Peter: (The difference between the Nineties and say, pre-1960 economies, is that ) corporations are (now) saying, ďunless you give me a better deal, Iím going to move away. Before corporations could move more easily, they had to pay taxes. Now that theyíre transnational, theyíre saying theyíre doing the country a favor to come in there.
Ed: In one sense, itís a question of how government gets its taxes. Prior to the GST, government got more taxes from the industries. (When the GST replaced the manufacturing tax), they transferred the tax from industry to the individual consumer, they pay less for the good.
Peter: (But) the corporate income tax, the corporate share of the national taxes, has gone down.
Ed: But when corporate taxes were reduced, the firm could reduce their prices, and I paid less. Before , I had to pay more taxes, but my goods were cheaper. I donít care what pocket gets picked if itís going to get picked..
Patty: (What we need is international regulation of the corporations, so they don't escape paying their share of the costs of the social infrastructure.)
Ed: The UN is making Codes of Conduct for international corporations, theyíve introduced UNCTAD, theyíre addressing the problem of North-South inequalities. [ Peaceweb found a summary of the of UN Codes of Conduct at the Dutch Clean Clothes Campaign, for clothing workers rights in developing countries. ]
Carl: (But until those codes are effective, we've got no way of making sure the corporations pay their fair share of the costs of the social infrastructure.)
Ed: (There are remedies available to national governments. For example, ) income taxes and progressive taxation are was of equalizing income. Governments have talked about guaranteed income.
Patty: I think the Guaranteed Income is the only point on which the philosophy of the Left and the philosophy of the Right could agree.
Ed: I agree that the day of the nation state is finished, and we have to delegate the United Nations and the institutions to cope with the decay of the nation state.
Patty: Iím fine about letting the nation state go as long as there are international institutions that make sure the values that we collectively adhere to are (protected).

Without the nation state, and without any national regulations, the corporations are going to reign supreme. Theyíre accountable to no one at all.
Andrea: (Ontario Conservative Premier Mike Harris, who is so drastically cutting health and social services and merging municipalities and school boards, ) is a reflection of Margaret Thatcher. Harris is trying to change the structure of the Ontario economy so radically that it canít be changed back. His management is not just mismanagement, itís an actual intent..
Peter: (What Harris has done) is to destroy of any sense of collective responsibility, of collective decision-making. Itís an expression of von Hayekís ideologies (or Hayek as he was before he made himself "von").
Itís become very unfashionable to talk about social responsibility any more.
Patty: Itís not enough t discuss it. Is there a role for churches, religious institutions, to push for international codes of conduct for corporations?
Peter: You can turn to Bellers. He says that you are called by God to obedience to help your fellow women and men,, and that includes the right to work, and the right to eat, but also the right to a useful and productive life, or we all suffer.
Patty: Should ( each Quaker meeting in Canada) write a letter to governments to say that we have to have international codes of conduct for international corporations?
Ed: There are (right now) Canadian Yearly Meeting representatives on the interchurch coalitions. (These interchurch task forces include) the Economic Council for Economic Justice (currently CYM doesnít have a representative there), and the Task Force on Churches and Corporate Responsibility. .
Patty: We should be getting more information back, not just a single Quaker who goes to the meetings and reports back once a year to Canadian Yearly Meeting sessions.
Ed: If thereís a report to CYM, it should go to a number of us, rather than just one person who reports once a year.
Andrea: This (sense of social responsibility) is what motivates me intellectually and politically. Iím involved in creating "Investing in Womenís Work", a project of the Ottawa Womenís Credit Union. Itís bringing together (corporations and banks) in the Ottawa area, to help women create businesses. Statistics show that women are creating businesses at (twice the rate of men) and employ four times the number of workers that men do when they create businesses.
Ed: (The problem with putting social responsibility into practice today is that ) values come from religion, and with a secularized society, (much of that basis of common values is gone).
Andrea: Jeremy Rifkin writes (in The End of Work that with our economic system structured as it is today), people are being driven out of the economy.
Patty: And faith must not be buried in creeds. I have the impression is that there has been a greater emphasis among Quakers from an international, Human Rights, refugee perspective, and less work at a local level, less work standing up and saying that this particular government policy is evil.
Peter: Have you seen Toronto Monthly Meetingís statement on social justice? The one that Gordon McClure introduced to oppose the social service cutbacks? (Gordon McClure was for many years in Ottawa Monthly Meeting, and was the founder of the McHugh School).
Ed: Thereís a vigil in Ottawa each Thursday noon against social service cutbacks, held by the Faith Partnersí Group at the Human Rights memorial beside the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton building at Elgin and Lisgar. Garth Bulmer of St. Johnís Church is a contact for this group,

We agreed (as amended) that the next Meeting will be Sunday, May 25, at Vittoria Cafe on Bank Street, after Meeting for Worship. [Note: Anyone wishing to join us should meet us at Ottawa Friends Meeting, 91A Fourth Ave., over coffee at around 11:35 a.m. in case we change the locale.]

The subject will be "The influence of Quakers and Quakerism on doing things in organizations". Andrea will send us all email on this subject, and will try to get hold of the book that the person she quotes in her email has written on the subject.


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