Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday, 21 November 2014

Religion and the rise of capitalism - Rediscovering Tawney in a neo liberal age


 Times are hard for the shopping centres of the North of England, and the shopping malls of places like Preston have numerous empty units. One of the biggest vacant properties was vacated about three years ago when the T.J. Hughes chain of discount stores went out of business. But rather than being left empty it has been offered to an enterprising charity called "Healthy Planet" who use it mainly as a "shop" for recycling pre-loved books free of charge. I'm not sure this alternative economic model represents the route to future prosperity for our community, but as a volunteer managed operation it is both socially useful and environmentally friendly. And as far as I am concerned it is the best form of retail therapy, for you can wander in, donate volumes that are clogging your bookshelf, and pick up two or three good books which best of all cost nowt.


Recently, I was browsing through the shelves and came across a 1948 hardback edition of Tawney's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism"  and decided this was something I must have.  I first read this book 45 years ago when I was studying for my History A level and have not looked at it again since then. I found I was in for a real treat and the rediscovery of ideas that are relevant to Christian socialists in the contemporary wilderness of neo-liberal hegemony.  


So who was R.H. Tawney? As I quipped recently he must have been a really wise guy to have both an owl and a vintage port named after him.  According to a recent biography by Goldman  R. H. Tawney was the most influential theorist and exponent of socialism in Britain in the 20th century and also a leading historian.  A hundred years ago


he was given a rifle and sent out to France to kill Germans. As an act of egalitarianism he refused a commission, choosing to join as a private soldier, and progressed no further than sergeant. …..Tawney fought in the Battle of the Somme, and was shot through the chest in the early stages of the battle.  (Labour List blog by Paul Richards)


He survived the Great War to and became a tutor travelling the country for the Workers Education Association and eventually an academic, writer and  professor of economic history at the LSE. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament for the Labour Party and turned down the offer of a peerage.  He was a committed Anglican Christian, though with a degree of distaste for the Church of England as a class ridden institution.  




In the 1940s along with his old school friend Archbishop William Temple, and fellow Balliol student (and brother-in-law) William Beveridge, a Liberal he identified five "Giant Evils" in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, and went on to propose widespread reform to the system of social welfare to address these.  As a child of poor working class parents growing up in those early post war years I benefited from the cod liver oil, the free prescriptions and the free grammar school education that had just become available under the welfare state. My whole generation continues to gain much from the social and economic conditions that ensued, though today we look round with sadness and often anger at the way this great achievement is being destroyed under the influence of neo-liberal economics and the cult of individualism.



So what do we learn from his greatest book, a study of the development of British capitalism from the late middle ages to the 18th Century in the context of the theological upheaval of the Protestant Reformation? Covering some of the same ground as Max Weber in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" Tawney takes a different view, in that he sees Christian ethics, both of pre Reformation Catholicism and of the early Protestants as resisting the growth of individualism and of the autonomy and supremacy of economics. His starting point is the Biblically based and Church enforced condemnation of usury as mortal sin.   Church Councils in the 13th and 14th centuries declared that usurers were "excommunicate and were to be refused confession, absolution and Christian burial until they had made restitution."  Usury was not simply about lending money at high interest, but was identified as a wider sin of avarice, so that merchants who hoarded supplies to produce shortages and higher prices, or who charged unfair prices, or exorbitant rents were also found guilty.


Inevitably there were bankers and merchants who sought to justify themselves, and roundabout ways of providing financial services, most notably by allowing the Jewish bankers to lend at interest to rulers who wanted to finance wars or public works. Tawney himself accepts the wisdom of a distinction that allows the provision of credit at interest as a form of investment, as long as the financier shares some of the risk of the venture. Like the church throughout the ages his ire is turned against those who lend to the poor who need to sustain their livelihood, then demand in return much more than the principal of the loan, and cruelly extort or foreclose on the debtor. One does not need much imagination to see how this might be applied to the Wongas, Brighthouses, Money Shops and Providents of the present day.


Tawney shows how the Protestant Reformers for the most part fully endorsed the traditional view of Christian economic ethics, though they were struggling against a tide of mercantile activity triggered by the navigation of the oceans that opened up trade with the east and European pillage of the New World, bringing with it a crisis of inflation.  In the 16th Century in England, Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries was a cynical land grab, which opened the way for the nobility to run rampant in their enclosure of common land and destitution of the common people. To their credit the new Protestant bishops appointed by Henry and his young son Edward spoke with prophetic fire against the oppression of the poor.  To quote Tawney:


During the greater part of that period, from Latimer in the thirties of the sixteenth century to Laud in thirties of the seventeenth, the attitude of religious teachers had been one of condemnation. Sermon after sermon and pamphlet after pamphlet—not to mention Statutes and Royal Commissions—had been launched against depopulation. The appeal had been, not merely to public policy, but to religion. Peasant and lord, in their different degrees, are members of one Christian commonwealth, within which the law of charity must bridle the corroding appetite for economic gain. In such a mystical corporation, knit together by mutual obligations, no man may press his advantage to the full, for no man may seek to live outside "the body of the Church."


The social character of wealth, which had been the essence of the mediaeval doctrine, was asserted by English divines in the sixteenth century with redoubled emphasis, precisely because the growing individualism of the age menaced the traditional conception. "The poor man," preached Latimer, " hath title to the rich man's goods ; so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help and to comfort him withal."



However, after the short reversal of the reign of Mary, during which not only the hopes, but the defenders of the poor, were reduced to ashes, the Protestant settlement under Elizabeth involved a process of secularisation. Ecclesiastical courts lost power to judge on economic matters. Puritanism focussed on the individual's spiritual walk with the Almighty, and in its train established a new orthodoxy of individual property rights.



it is perhaps not fanciful to detect in the ethics of Puritanism one force contributing to the change in social policy which is noticeable after the middle of the century.


The loftiest teaching cannot escape from its own shadow. To urge that the Christian life must be lived in a zealous discharge of private duties—how neces­sary. Yet how readily perverted to the suggestion that there are no vital social obligations beyond and above them! To insist that the individual is respon­sible, that no man can save his brother, that the essence of religion is the contact of the soul with its Maker, how true and indispensable ! But how easy to slip from that truth into the suggestion that society is without responsibility, that no man call help his brother, that the social order and its consequences are not even the scaffolding by which men may climb to greater heights, but something external, alien and irrelevant—some­thing, at best, indifferent to the life of the spirit, and, at worst, the sphere of the letter which killeth and of the reliance on works which ensnares the soul into the slumber of death! In emphasizing that God's Kingdom is not of this world, Puritanism did not always escape the suggestion that this world is no part of God's Kingdom


New forms of welfare provision asserted that the rich should contribute the very minimum to the common good, and that the poor should work, indeed do any work to support themselves to avoid destitution. Only in extremis should they have any claim on a residual safety net provided by the local parish.


In England, after three generations in which the attempt was made to stamp out vagrancy by police measures of hideous brutality, the momentous admission was made that its cause was economic whip had no terrors for the man who must either tramp or starve. The result was the celebrated Acts impos­ing a compulsory poor-rate and requiring the able-bodied man to be set on work. ……………But the Elizabethan Poor Law was never designed to be what, with disastrous results, it became in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the sole measure for coping with economic distress. While it provided relief, it was but the last link in a chain of measures—the prevention of evictions, the control of food supplies and prices, the attempt to stabilize employment and to check unnecessary dis­missals of workmen—intended to mitigate the forces which made relief necessary. Apart from the Poor Law, the first forty years of the seventeenth century were prolific in the private charity which founded alms-houses and hospitals, and established funds to provide employment or to aid struggling tradesmen. The appeal was still to religion, which owed to poverty a kind of reverence.



In an age of welfare cuts, the demonization of the poor as Chavs, and benefits sanctions it is not hard to see the relevance. It seems that only Christian believers (and not all of them at that) have the desire and the courage to speak up alongside the voices of those who are now made destitute by our welfare stateless society.


The Civil War period was one where Puritanism and Parliament were in a holy alliance against a King who asserted his Divine right to rule as a paternalistic despot. While Cromwell and his friends were undoubtedly sincere in their Christian faith, they represented the interests of the property owning and merchant classes.  Tawney quotes a contemporary source who wrote that in Bristol:


The King's cause and party were favoured by two extremes in that city; the one the wealthy and powerful men, the other, of the basest sort, but was disgusted by the middle rank, the true and best citizens.


It comes as no surprise then, that Cromwell and his army commanders, when faced with the radical claims of the Levellers and Diggers, for a popular democracy that would give voice to and represent the interests of all of the common people, ruthlessly suppressed the challenge. Maybe the relevance for us is that we now are at a time of renewed constitutional debate, and in Scotland at least of widespread popular engagement with political issues.  As Christians on the Left perhaps we need to be ideologically sceptical of those who belong to the political class, and represent the economic interests of business, even if they wear the respectable clothing of Parliamentary Democracy, or use the language of Zion as spoken in the  pamphlets of the Centre for Social Justice ---  and maybe even when they are in control of the institutional levers of power  within the Labour Party and Trade Union movement..


The grand narrative of Tawney's historical account is for me an account of the struggle between a powerful economic individualism that removes God from politics and society and a resistance movement which values equality and solidarity and which can best draw authority and inspiration from the Biblical tradition and our response to the Christian gospel.  Secularisation as a concept has many meanings, and we can argue as much as we like as to whether Britain is a Christian, a secular, a plural or a post-secular society. However, I am convinced that Tawney would see the extreme form of secularised capitalism in the global neo liberalism that surrounds us today.


The rise of a naturalistic science of society, with all its magnificent promise of fruitful action and of intellectual light ; the abdication of the Christian Churches from departments of economic conduct and social theory long claimed as their province ; the general acceptance by thinkers of a scale of ethical values, which turned the desire for pecuniary gain from a perilous, if natural, frailty into the idol of philosophers and the mainspring of society—such movements are written large over the history of the tempestuous age which lies between the Reformation and the full light of the eighteenth century. Their consequences have been worked into the very tissue of modern civilization. Posterity still stands too near their source to discern the ocean into which these streams will flow.


Though as a historian Tawney from his time did not want to predict our present, or indeed our future, I think he would be disturbed at today's world but not surprised. In reading his work again, we can find help for our understanding and inspiration for our political struggles. He calls us to a political struggle for a democratic and ethical form of socialism, building on solidarity with the poor and excluded and offers from the Christian tradition a politics which should be attractive to citizens of all faiths and none.


As Christians on the Left what then is the place for spirituality and what form should it take?  Tawney quotes a wonderful prayer written in 1551, probably by Bishop Hugh Latimer at a time of economic crisis and the enclosure of common land.  It pulls no punches in the way it talks about landlords who exploit the vulnerable"We heartily pray thee to send thy holy spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures, and dwelling-places of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their. houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes, after the manner of covetous worldlings . . . but so behave themselves in letting out their tenements, lands and pastures, that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places."..  Maybe we should pray like that today.





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Monday, 17 November 2014

Tip of an Iceberg: A Christian Response to Winter Homelessness


My new blog post for William temple Foundation on responding to homelessness blog post is now live here:


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