Wealth, Power, and Woolman’s Words

Arnie Alpert on December 22, 2014

Wealth and power, bargains and proceedings, worldly policy and order.  That pretty much sums up the way our public officials get chosen, the way laws get made, and the way judges determine what is acceptable.  We can throw up our hands and accept the status quo as inevitable, perhaps even clothe it in the name of justice.  Or we can find a way to use of lives and our voices.

 

When I need to explain links between government policy and reasons why the economy doesn’t work for ordinary people, I often turn to the words of John Woolman. 

Woolman, who was born in 1720 and died in 1772, is best known as a quiet champion of the movement to end slavery and as one who tied his actions to his words and beliefs.  Refusing to wear cloth with dyes produced by enslaved and oppressed workers, refusing to accept services from enslaved people without paying them, traveling from household to household to speak to Quaker slaveholders about the evils of slavery, Woolman made his mark on the 18th century and deserves substantial credit for the movement of Quakers away from slavery well before the ideals of abolition reached other white, North American Christians. 

This passage, from Woolman’s 1793 essay, “A Plea for the Poor,” keep coming back to me:

“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 soil.  And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout, and grow, and become strong, until much fruit is ripened.”

Two centuries later, Woolman has helped me understand international trade policy, widening inequality, and more recently the corporate-directed and money-fueled political system.  

The New Jersey Quaker’s language might be somewhat archaic, but it’s hard to come up with a better explanation for judicial acceptance of “corporate personhood,” the notion that artificial entities crated to preserve and perpetuate property relations have the status and rights accorded to human persons by the Constitution.  It would not have escaped Woolman’s notice that the Constitution’s 14th amendment, written to affirm that former slaves were persons with civil rights under law, was quickly perverted to affirm that corporations, too, were persons with a right to protection equal to that of flesh and blood human beings.  

I don’t know if Woolman had an appreciation for irony, but I hope he would have detected it in the 2010 US Supreme Court decision which ruled in a case named for a group called “Citizens United” that corporations have in some ways as much right as actual citizens to influence our election system.  

Woolman drew a direct line from the joining of wealth and power to the causes of war.  That, too, we can still see. Last year the five biggest military weapons makers invested at least $53 million on lobbying and $13.5 million in candidates, for which they received $142 billion in contracts from the Pentagon.  When President Obama announced the re-escalation of US attacks in Iraq, Bloomberg news reported, “Defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world.” 

Wealth and power, bargains and proceedings, worldly policy and order.  That pretty much sums up the way our public officials get chosen, the way laws get made, and the way judges determine what is acceptable.  We can throw up our hands and accept the status quo as inevitable, perhaps even clothe it in the name of justice.  Or we can find a way to use of lives and our voices. 

In Iowa and New Hampshire, ordinary people have an opportunity to make sure the candidates running for president hear from us.  That’s the point of AFSC’s Governing Under the Influence project. 

Woolman didn’t care much for politics and likely would have shied away from the technology we now use for communications.  But his example of direct communication with people who sit at the junction of wealth and power is one we can follow.

Author

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, which he has led since 1981.  In that time he has been involved in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia.