dRoad to the Middle Class: Chapter 8 Mutual Aid - by Christopher Chantrill
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Chapter 8:
Mutual Aid

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ACCORDING TO THE MYTH of the modern welfare state, the nineteenth century was a lethal battleground in which the poor and the unskilled wandered unprotected and forlorn against the power of employers and landlords, men who occupied the commanding heights of the economy through their two-pronged strategy of laissez-faire economics and Social Darwinism.  It was an age of take the meager wages or starve; pay the exorbitant rent for a slum tenement or sleep out in the streets.  There was no social safety net, no compassion, no recourse.  The common people were naked before their oppressors. 

There is a germ of truth to this.  When immigrants to the industrial city first arrive, either as peasants direct from rural idiocy, or as emigrants from a far away land, they lack, initially, the social support system enjoyed by those who are born to the city or who have already struggled their way up from indigence.  And there are a lot of them.  The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the worldwide human migration to the city that continues to this day.  It was a flood tide that engulfed and transformed the cities of the world.  The first people to experience it on the receiving end were the nineteenth century middle classes who had learned to live in the city in previous centuries.  Hardly indifferent to the plight of the poor, they understood that the flood of immigrants represented an enormous challenge that called for answers.  They started responding with answers almost before they knew there was a question; if they didn’t, they knew, the immigrant tide might inundate the whole city.

But the immigrants were not helpless.  They had not risked their lives in a hazardous ocean crossing or abandoned their scanty livelihood on the farm to molder in the city in helpless victimhood.  They were determined to thrive, and thrive is what most of them did.  In every city they planted and tended dense underbrush of social service agencies of all kinds, from local government, churches, mutual-aid societies, ethnic associations, labor unions, and service organizations.  There was a safety net, and it developed spontaneously, in response to the actions of millions of people.  It just wasn’t the system of the modern welfare state, a safety net consciously spun and woven by a national political elite and maintained by a national government’s laws and functionaries.  It was something else.

At the center of this social safety net, in the United States and the United Kingdom at least, was a system of fraternal organizations, descended indirectly from medieval guilds, that brought ordinary people together on the basis of some affinity, real or imagined, in which they could organize and deliver mutual-aid and social benefits to each other in a social framework of brotherhood and reciprocity.  Because they were not trying to impress anyone, they could indulge themselves with fanciful names and titles: Irishmen could come together in the Ancient Order of Hibernians; blacks in the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen; Jews in B’nai B’rith.  The British working classes came together in friendly societies, most prominently in the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters.

These institutions of fraternity and mutual-aid do not enjoy the respect and reverence given to that other institution of medieval origin, the university.  The medieval guilds are considered in retrospect to be centers of monopoly and privilege, and the fraternal organizations have been attacked both as dangerous secret societies and laughable talking shops where men behave like boys playing dress-up and giving themselves comically overblown titles.  And there hovers like a ghost the white sheet of the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal organization of less than perfect report.  But we moderns do not give these venerable organizations their due.  The great institutions of fraternity and mutual-aid were integral to the rise of the middle class. 

At the turn of the twenty-first century in the United States, most people have forgotten the colorful Moose, Elks, and Masons; they drive past their moldering lodges in incomprehension.  A century before, at the turn of the twentieth century, nobody wondered about the lodges and their purpose, for everybody in the city belonged to a fraternal organization.  No political philosopher called them out of the ether; no political activist demanded a comprehensive and mandatory subsidy for fraternity.  They did not blaze across the nation like itinerant preachers.  And yet they grew from nothing in the sixteenth century to ubiquity in the early twentieth century.  Nobody has done more to bring this uncelebrated phenomenon to attention than David T. Beito in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State. As he shows, the penetration of these institutions at the height of their success was remarkable. In the United States in 1924 it was estimated that 48 percent of working class men in the United States belonged to a fraternal organization. (Beito 2000 p222)  In the United Kingdom fraternal organizations were just as ubiquitous. In 1910, it was estimated that 9 million of the 12 million adult males belonged to a friendly society (Green 1993).  And then they were chopped off at the knees, and replaced by the government welfare state.  But in 2004, finally, a Harvard sociologist took notice of the fraternal association.  In Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol noted that the humble First Sergeant Durgin who was a pallbearer of Abraham Lincoln was a member of no less than three membership organizations, as recorded on his gravestone:

William Durgin was a “G.A.R. Commander” —that is, the elected head of his local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the post-Civil War association of Union veterans.  The next line of the stone indicates Durgin’s affiliation with the “P. of H.,” the Patrons of Husbandry, of Grange... Finally, in an oblong rectangle at the very top of the gravestone appear three intertwined loops—a sure signal to those in the know that Warren Durgin was affiliated with a leading U.S. fraternal association, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. (Skocpol 2003 p4)

Guilds, fraternal organizations, and labor unions seem to have thrived in all cities during the second millennium.  They represent the general instinct in all men to join together in social fellowship, the propensity that de Tocqueville found in the universal American spirit of organizing and joining voluntary associations.  They were, and are, as their names frequently advertise, benevolent and protective organizations, a way for people to join in good works, both for each other and for others less fortunate, and also to defend themselves against the vagaries of earning a living in the uncertain market of the city, usually by attempting to regulate the behavior of their members and attempting to reduce competition from outsiders. 

Before the Reformation, these fraternal organizations were integral to city life.  They included mercantile guilds, associations of merchants, traders, and shopkeepers, craft guilds, associations of skilled craftsmen, and confraternities.  These associations began as combinations to protect the business and working interests of their members, but almost all expanded their activities beyond purely practical interests to more general social activities that might include the sponsorship of an altar in the local church, participation in local festivals, and paid-up funerals for members. 

In some cities, as in Florence, the fraternal organizations became deeply involved in the machinations of power politics, but in the great commercial centers of the era, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and London, the guilds formed a social fabric, a weave of colorful and spontaneous organizations that ranged in function from religious societies to employers’ associations, to mutual-aid societies, and to workers’ labor unions.   Wise governments regulated and encouraged them in this intermediary role between government and individual.  Other governments used them as tools of power politics. Venice enjoyed a particularly vibrant and beneficial mix of these organizations that provided a rich mediating structure between the government of the ruling merchant aristocracy and the individual Venetian families and individuals.  In the Netherlands, the guilds formed one of the great interests engaged in the perennial struggle to preserve Dutch independence from the greedy embrace of European monarchs.  In London, the livery companies became fully integrated into the power politics of England’s capital city, extracting privilege and status for the City of London from their royal masters further up the river Thames in return for the eternal requisite of government: money.

In cities like Florence, rich merchants developed guilds around commercial interests in order to have their interests addressed and as a base for political struggle.  But Venice was already a purely commercial and manufacturing city that existed as a trading entrepot and a center for production of textiles, glass, and ships.  Its rulers were merchants and they made the merchant interest their chief concern.  The guilds that grew up in Venice represented the group interests of the craftsmen and shopkeepers that proliferated as the wealth of Venice and regulation of business grew. (Lane 1973 p104)

Although most Venetian guilds were organized to represent an occupational interest, the earliest, the scuole, were “associations for religious devotion and mutual aid.” Each “had its own special place of worship... and a meeting place” in a church or monastery.  “These religious fellowships included both rich and poor and gave aid to members who fell into misfortune.  There were at least fourteen such religious fraternities active in the city before the end of the twelfth century.” (Lane 1973 p77)  A later development was the arte, an “association for maintaining craft discipline” (Lane 1992 p72) and for other jurisdictional disputes, training of apprentices, and also for delivering labor services to the Venetian government, particularly supplying oarsmen for the Venetian galleys.  From the earliest times the guilds were regulated by three Justices; their primary job was to prevent the guilds from increasing their influence enough to become political players.  A key role for the Justices was to “enforce standard weights and measures and to police markets generally.”  On the other hand, the Justices had little interest in regulating the religious and charitable activities of the guilds, except to make all members liable for the payment of fees and fines.  But they were interested in supervising the economic activities of the guilds, and “did not hesitate to legislate on industrial questions and to cancel any measure taken by a guild [that was] deemed contrary to public interest.”  Thus when the tailors’ guild in the early thirteenth century attempted to boycott customers who would not pay their cartelized prices, the Justices “forbad unilateral price-fixing and boycotts by the tailors guild.” (Lane 1973 p106) 

In their intermediate position between government and people the guilds developed their own self-government, rule-setting meetings, and banquets.  They participated prominently in city festivals, supplying color, floats, and marchers.  They “possessed chapels, tombs, and altars” to discharge their religious functions, and each had their own patron saints.  For instance, the ship caulkers’ guild

by contract with the monastery of San Stefano in 1454 acquired in the refectory of the monastery a place of meeting and in the church the site of an altar and of a tomb.  In 1455 a special tax was laid on the members to be used in building the altar and decorating its chapel.  For the honor of God, the praise of the guild, and the good reputation of the men of the craft, it was added to the duties of the gastaldo (the master of the guild) in 1461, that on the day of San Marco he was to call all the men of the guild to Mass, solemnly prepare the altar, and hire trumpeters and two pipers for the celebration of that Mass. (Lane 1992 p77)

Members were required to attend upon the memorial ceremonies of departing members, and they ministered to economic needs and to the unfortunate with sick benefits, death benefits, and care for the families of needy members.

In the Netherlands and in London, the guilds developed in a similar manner to Venice.  They began mostly as religious and charitable fraternities, and then developed into craft or employer associations that focused on the economic needs and privileges of their members.  Like modern labor unions, they squabbled frequently over jurisdictional issues, experiencing economic life as a zero-sum game.  But they were also more active in politics.  The kings and princes of the land were less interested in greasing the wheels of commerce than the merchants of Venice, and found themselves trading powers and favors with the guilds in exchange for loans and banking services.  The result was that the guilds obtained patents of monopoly that were never permitted in Venice by its commerce-focused merchant princes.  In general, cities where the merchant guilds dominated maintained a flexible policy towards trade; cities where the craft guilds dominated often throttled the growth of their cities by protection and restriction of trade (Cipolla 1994).

Between the medieval guilds and the nineteenth century fraternal movement is the linking phenomenon of freemasonry.  In a process still shrouded in mystery and speculation, the lodges of medieval stonemasons became fraternal organizations of middle-class men with nothing to do with the building trade.  But it appears that the craft guild fathered freemasonry, and the Masonic lodge became the model of modern fraternal mutual-aid.

Medieval stonemasonry was a unique craft.  Stone buildings were unusual and expensive.  Thus masons were itinerant workers, moving from town to town and from one project to another.  They became detached from locality and built associations with each other that transcended place.  But they still needed to replicate the usual institutions of a craft guild: apprenticeship, transmission of craft skills and mysteries, and defining a circle of trust: those craftsmen who were competent and trustworthy.  They also needed a meeting place at the job-site.  All these factors combined the stonemasons by the seventeenth century into a loosely associated set of societies that had a strong sense of history, with a Masonic myth that intertwined the craft with Biblical narrative and various historical characters who “loved” masons, a set of rituals and secrets, and an extension of membership beyond actual practicing masons to others, “non-operatives,” who also participated in membership. 

The elucidation of the history of freemasonry has suffered from a unique combination of factors.  There has been the tendency for freemasons themselves to construct a heroic myth of freemasonry; there has been the tendency of conspiracy theorists to spin fantastical webs of intrigue and conspiracy out of the traditional Masonic interest in ritual and secrets.  There has been the reluctance of academic historians to tackle the subject.  And there is the difficulty of teasing out the story of a movement that has never particularly desired publicity or glory.  Although there have been many eminent men who were Masons, the movement itself has never desired eminence.

Masons were first organized from above into a federation of lodges.  William Schaw, master of works for the Scottish crown, issued a set of statutes to supervise and regulate the various lodges of masons in Scotland in the 1590s.  In this way the Scots followed the Venetians in appointing officials to supervise the operations of the guilds.  In the sixteenth century, when the widespread fashion of hermeticism legitimized hidden knowledge, the secret rituals and the secret Mason Word attracted gentlemen who were not operative masons, and the Masonic lodges began to develop away from their function as craft guilds (Stevenson 1990 p34).

What was good for the middle classes in freemasonry was also good for the working classes.  In England, the friendly society developed to afford the protections of death benefits and rudimentary life insurance to the respectable working class.  In the United States, a complex culture of fraternal organizations provided death benefits, widows’ assistance, life insurance, job referral networks, and a social gathering place.  Immigrant groups were quick to develop mutual aid organizations.  The Jews in the Lower East Side of New York had such a large network that social workers were unable to disentangle the extent of its web.

Today, the friendly society has dropped off the radar of British society, except for an occasional reference in some Labour politician’s speech praising the contribution of “friendly societies and trades unions” to the socialist movement.  In the United States, the great ugly buildings of the fraternal organizations echo with the activities of sub-tenants, the old meeting rooms converted for dance classes.  The Oddfellows and Foresters in England, the Elks, the Masons, the Eagles, and the Moose in the United States: what was the point of them?  Fifty years to one hundred years ago, such a question would have been unnecessary.  Everyone belonged, and everyone understood.

Friendly societies entered into British politics in 1793 with the Act for the Encouragement and Relief of Friendly Societies, but had flourished long before they had registered on the radar of Parliament.  An early society was the Incorporation of Carters in Leith, Scotland, founded in 1555, but rapid growth did not occur until the eighteenth century.  “By 1801, an authoritative study by Sir Frederic Eden estimated that there were about 7,200 societies with around 648,000 adult male members out of a total population of about nine million.” (Green 1993, p31)  Most societies are thought to have started as informal groups of working men who met in public houses and made regular contributions which gave them an agreed right to benefit.  But many of these “dividing societies” were limited in their utility.  Distributing their surplus every year, they refused to re-enroll very sick members, and could not provide more sophisticated benefits beyond the basics of sickness and small death benefits.  Eventually federations of friendly societies emerged in which surpluses could be accumulated and members retained their rights to benefits so long as their contributions were kept up.

The origins of modern American fraternalism are also difficult to establish.  Most likely, they began in the late seventeenth century.  The first official Masonic lodge in the American colonies opened in Boston in 1733.  Beginning as a club for the upper crust, the Masons gradually extended to a less exclusive membership after the revolution.  The societies seem to have arisen as a response to urbanization.  In Massachusetts, according to David T. Beito, “voluntary associations generally arose after communities reached population thresholds of between 1,000 and 2,000.”  The societies provided the ability to extend brotherly relations beyond actual blood relationship, for “biologically unrelated individuals thus used kinship to construct the solidarity necessary to accomplish a variety of tasks.” (Beito 2000 p8)  These tasks included funeral benefits, life insurance, health benefits, “employment information, temporary lodging, and character references.” (Beito 2000 p6)

The Masons appealed more to merchants and professionals, but still included, if discreetly, a commitment to mutual aid.  But other, more downscale, societies modeled themselves directly upon the friendly societies of Britain and focused on the provision of sickness and death benefits. 

Since members were expected to help each other, to favor their brothers over others, it was clearly beneficial to all that members maintained a good character. This made economic sense in an age when actuarial science and risk evaluation were still embryonic, so the societies developed rules and sanctions to help weed out (or straighten out) the poor risks.  Many societies maintained specific sanctions against misconduct—such as expulsion for being a common drunkard—while benefits were more informal. 

The first American lodge affiliated with the Manchester Union of Oddfellows was founded in Baltimore in 1819.  Eleven years later, the Oddfellows had lodges in four states and 6,000 members; eleven years after that, they seceded from the British and formed the Independent Order of Oddfellows, the IOOF.  They began as a working class association that only later began to appeal to commercial and professional men.

The Oddfellows were the first to move from the informal delivery of benefits to a more formal schedule of guaranteed benefits.  They also talked not of “charity” and “relief” but of “benefit” and “right.”  Still, the rights were not unconditional.  Oddfellows vowed to “withhold aid for habitual drunkenness, profanity, adultery, or disruptive behavior.” (Beito 2000 p10)  Between 1830 and 1877 the Oddfellows increased from 6,000 to 475,000 members, and disbursed over $69 million in aid and benefits.  There was a parallel black Oddfellow movement.  Founded by Peter Ogden in New York City, it was refused a charter by the IOOF, and affiliated instead with the British Grand United Order of Oddfellows, the renamed Manchester Unity.

The United States pioneered in 1868 a new form of fraternalism, the mutual life insurance society.  The Ancient Order of United Workmen, founded by master mechanic John Jordan Upchurch, offered a life insurance policy to its members, a $1,000 death benefit funded by a $1.00 per capita assessment.  This reversed the normal emphasis of lodge benefits, which before the Civil War had featured sick benefits and a small death benefit.   The life insurance benefit proved highly popular, and the Workmen grew to 450,000 members by 1902.  The popularity of life insurance encouraged other orders to offer the same benefit, and by “1908 the 200 leading societies had paid out well over $1 billion in death benefits.” (Beito 2000 p12)  According to Beito, quoting Everybody’s Magazine:

The ranks of fraternalism had become an “enormous army”... of “the middle-class workman, the salaried clerk, the farmer, the artisan, the country merchant, and the laborer,” all attempting “to insure their helpless broods against abject poverty.  Rich men insure in the big companies to create an estate; poor men insure in fraternal orders to create bread and meat.  It is an insurance against want, the poorhouse, charity, and degradation.” (Beito 2000 p12)

The fraternal orders developed a highly colored and heroic narrative to advertise and proselytize their fraternal ideals.  They were, of course, immensely proud of what they had built, ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things.

By the peak of the fraternal movement in 1920, it was estimated that nearly 50 percent of working class males belonged to a fraternal lodge, participating in its menu of mutual aid.  Of course, Americans joined fraternal societies for a variety of reasons, from sick and death benefits to expanded social ties.  But most of all, the fraternal lodge represented a set of values.  Writes Beito:

Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character.  These values reflected a fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, gender, and income. (Beito 2000 p27)

Nor was the boss necessarily the leader, and the employee the follower.  Because of the rotation of offices, the roles of leader and follower could often change, and the business owner might be an ordinary member when his employee served as Grand Master of the local lodge.

The associations were, however, rigidly segregated by race and by sex.  Almost all societies that catered to white males contained prohibitions against non-Caucasians.  Immigrants formed their own ethnically-based fraternal organizations and blacks developed parallel institutions of their own. 

Whig histories of the welfare state commonly track the involvement of government in the provision of relief and of social services where an expansion of government service is progress and a contraction of government service a retreat.  Public provision of service is equated with modernity and with compassion; lack of government provision is equated with primitive conditions and meanness.  In contrast, conservative and libertarian accounts celebrate the private and the voluntary. 

The Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, which reported to the British government in 1909 on the reform of the Poor Laws of 1834, issued two reports: the Majority Report, championed by followers of the British Idealists, like T.H. Green and F.H. Bradley, and the Minority Report, which reflected the views of the Fabian Society and its leading lights, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. (Green 1999 p64)  The supporters of the two reports believed that their solutions to poverty were radically different.  But the difference was mainly in how the top-down supervision of the poor would be organized.  Should the poor be assisted through a “friendly army of trained social workers” in a network of existing charitable institutions, backed up by the government as a last resort, as the Platonic majority proposed, or should the existing structure be broken up and new specialist government committees, to the Webbs “an elite of unassuming experts,” be charged to deal with social problems?  In the end, the British got both, but the army of trained social workers turned out not to be very friendly, and the Webbs’ experts turned out not to be very unassuming.  Given power to intervene in the lives of the poor, they have taken full advantage of it.

The vast reach of the welfare state in the century since the Poor Law report of 1909 has obscured the fundamental issue in the relief of the poor.  How helpless are they?  Could today’s poor find the ability to form organizations of mutual aid like the lower orders of the nineteenth century, when all traces of mutualism have been erased by the plans and programs of the trained social workers and the experts?  There is, in fact, ample evidence that the poor possess rough-and-ready skills to do exactly that, as we shall see in a later chapter.


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 TAGS


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill