Anti-Saccharite Cultures ii) Moral Capital

27 Sep

In this second post on anti-saccharite cultures I situate the sugar boycott at the juncture between economic necessity and individual and collective forms of religious sacrifice and purging.

Moral capital and hegemonic cycles of capital

Questions surrounding the sense of personal responsibility and morality felt by the anti-saccharites have been raised by several historians. Christopher Brown argues that a variety of political actors felt that they could accrue moral capital from framing “anti-slavery initiatives as an emblem of national character” (2006:27), as a way of sustaining the reputation of an empire perceived to be declining. Drawing from Arrighi and Braudel’s work on the longue durée and hegemonic cycles of capital accumulation, and with a historian’s keen eye for hindsight, Brown suggests that creating moral capital by vindicating British liberty was a seductive way of extending the British hegemony of capitalist relations before the transition to the American cycle of dominance.

Arrighi’s cycles of capitalist accumulation based on the temporal development of Money-Capital-Money phases (1994). Diagram B  outlines M-M phases that mark the transition from one  global hegemon to another. Brown argues that the abolition of the slave trade was one of the means to ‘civilize’ power and lengthen the British dominated long nineteenth century.


Quakers and moral economies

Moral capital worked on many scales within anti-saccharite networks. In her work on Quakers, Elizabeth Isichei (1970) with reference to Adam Smith, preempted Brown’s argument. Quakers, well versed in the nuances of self-sacrifice and denial, encouraged an economy out of thriftiness and morality, and carefully fostered an “environment of mutual trust and confidence in which a private invisible hand could accommodate the advantages of each member with the benefit of all” (1970: 183).  Prominent anti-saccharites such as Clarkson, Sharpe, Wilberforce and Equiano used market thinking to develop a moral economy of scale and complicity (national, regional, regional group, individual), whilst faith based groups such as the Quakers and Methodists sutured the purity and well-being of the soul to economic activity. Brown (2006) argues that the transition of Quaker ethos and politics from quietism and isolation to activism and public recognition in the 1780s enabled the anti-slavery movement. This shift in Quaker practice relied on the identification and accruement of moral capital both within different strands of Friends networks based on both sides of the Atlantic, and in relation to outside governments, networks and faiths. The momentum for the internal transition came from Philadelphia Quakers; in 1772-3 over a dozen prominent Friends visited meeting houses in Britain to advocate political activism over anti-slavery quietism. Indeed, when the Anti Slavery Society formed in London in 1787, over half of its committee members were Quakers.

Quakers, capitalism and causation over distance

Other historians have emphasized the moralistic potential of expanding capitalism itself; an ideological framework of which Brown (2006) dismisses as merely describing the conditions, and not the causes for anti-slavery activism. Haskell’s (1985) thesis on the relationship between capitalism and humanitarianism opines that the contractual mechanisms of capitalist relations over increasing distances and boundaries of the eighteenth century led to a greater understanding of trust and causation between spatially disparate peoples. According to Haskell, distantiated chains of will and responsibility are part of capitalism’s ‘recipe knowledge’, which in the right hands, prepared ‘scrupulous’ individuals for humanitarian action (Micheletti, 2006). The writings of the Quaker activists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman partially support Haskell’s thesis. From the 1760s, both were penning pamphlets and letters to plantation owners and the London and Philadelphia Society of Friends on how to become free from complicity in slavery by partaking in the marketplace (Hope-Bacon, 1994; David, 2007). John Woolman, disassociated himself both economically and socially from slave owners and their houses; and according to Haskell (1985b), was among the first people to preach the importance of recognising causation over distance in relation to the slave trade.

Quaker tapestry depicting the life of John Woolman (From the Quaker Tapestry Exhibition, Kendal Cumbria)

Perhaps research on the moral capital of the anti-saccharite boycott could provide an interesting historical trajectory to the relatively new discipline of cultural economy? According to Amin & Thrift (2003) three of the subfields of the cultural economy are moral sentiments, knowledge and evolution. Amin & Thrift go on to suggest that Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments has been overlooked in comparison to the Wealth of Nations, and they argue that the practice of the economy was, for Smith,was also the practice of moral judgment and worth. So, Adam Smith argues that capitalist society is as an entanglement of a moral order of sympathy with economic individualism. For Quakers (who were barred from most professions and positions of public office in the UK while also having to answer to a strong individual and collective social conscience), these entanglements are particularly illuminating.

The intersection of Quaker faith and business ethics is at the crux of much anti-saccharite activity. On a practical level many of the printers, book binders, and places of activism for the anti-saccharites were owned by Quakers, and it was the internal change in British Quakerism from quietism to activism during the 1770s and 80s that gave the anti-saccharite movement impetus and funding.

In a future post I will show how by the time of the Sao Tome cocoa crisis of 1900-1909, the concerns and contradictions of Quaker business ethics had been elevated to the level of statecraft and national inquiry.

Recommended further Reading

Amin, A., Thrift, N. (2004) The Blackwell Cultural Economy Reader. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell

Arrighi, T (1994) The Long Twentieth century: Money Power and The Origin of Our Times. New York: Verso

Braudel, F (1979) Civilization & Capitalism 15-18th Century – Volume 2, The Wheels of Commerce. New York: Harpers & Row Publishers

Brown, C  (2006) Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of Northern Carolina Press

Glennie, P (1995) Consumption within historical studies, in Miller (Ed) Acknowledging Consumption. London: Routledge, pp 164-204

Haskell, T. (1985) Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1. The American Historical review, 90: 2, 511-46

Bacon, M H (1999) The Quiet Rebels. Wallingford, Pennlsylvania:Pendle Hill

Isichei, E (1970)Victorian Quakers. London: Oxford University Press

Micheletti, M (2006) Anti- Sweatshop & Anti- Slavery. The moral force of capitalism. Paper for the conference of Citizenship & Consumption. Unpublished

Smith, A (2004 [1759]) The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Kessinger Publishing

Trentmann, F. (2007) Before “fair trade”: empire, free trade, and the moral economies of food in the modern world. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 25: 1079-1102

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