Those Bourgeois Quakers! Class, Community, and Politics

Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat….  The Communist Manifesto

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. – A Plea for the Poor, John Woolman

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By almost any definition, I am working-class. While I don’t work in a factory, my service industry jobs have never earned me much money. As a 3-time college drop-out, I’ve never been able to escape the economic powerlessness and narrow occupational choices of my class.

Most Quakers – my chosen religious community – are middle-class, if one defines that by educational level. This brings with it cultural and economic privileges that form into interpersonal barriers. From one perspective, this class divide is even more troubling as a political chasm.

One wrinkle in my class position is that my family of origin was more middle-class. My mother was a public school teacher and my father was a minister. We always lived in parsonages, so growing up I never experienced living in working-class neighborhoods or apartment complexes.

As an adult, I did experience more of those class deficits and perhaps my activist and socialist convictions derive from that “status inconsistency.” Among the reasons I never completed my college education were that my family of origin was not quite financially well off and my mental health was impaired due to childhood traumas. While I did overcome depression through therapy and medication, some elements of post-traumatic stress syndrome trouble me to this day.

I do worry sometimes about whether my involvement with Quakers will weaken my class consciousness. I find capitalism to be an inhumane and exploitative system that undervalues creative human endeavor in favor of profitable mass production. Since most of the middle-class find their way into occupations and professions that return some level of personal satisfaction, they often don’t resonate with my visceral hostility.

For me, the problem isn’t about “classism,” the prejudices and interpersonal issues that make genuine understanding and respect for the life conditions of the working-classes so hard. The problem is those conditions themselves. It isn’t that my bourgeois friends don’t understand the deprivations that are constant conditions of life for me, it is that those conditions exist at all.

The only escape from the privations of working-class existence that exist in our society is either advanced education or mastering the art of profiteering off the labor of others. The socialist movement exists as a militant project of overturning those conditions collectively, not for the limited numbers who might work their way out of the working-class. While many Quakers are bourgeois, our history has included Socialists and other partisans of the poor, such as John Woolman quoted above.

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2 thoughts on “Those Bourgeois Quakers! Class, Community, and Politics

  1. The difficulty of being a leftisr Quaker is one of reconciling the inherent violence of leftism with the inherent pacifism of Quakerism.

  2. I reject the idea that leftism is inherently violent or that Quakerism is inherently pacifist. I tend towards pacifism, but do not believe all violence is unjustifiable. Most Quakers do not advocate abolishing the police force, for instance. Early Quakers were quite clear that the British State was allowed to use force according to Romans 13.

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