Monday, April 9, 2012

Civil Society and Empire

I met James Livesay, the author of Civil Society and Empire, when I was on a flight back from Ireland. He was ego-free enough to suggest that I read not his book, but one by a colleague of his: Citizens of The World: London Merchants and theIntegration of the British Atlantic community 1735-1785.   After reading and reviewing that book, I tracked down a book written by Jim, ordered a copy, and am glad I did.

Being new to the study of Irish history, I can be counted on to get much of it wrong. The tales of slaughter, first by people on one side of the religious divide, and then by another, can be so riveting that it is easy to lose sight of the progress being made beneath the radar. One such development that I hadn’t clued into, before I read Jim’s book, was how civil society was developed in part because of the need for more tools for managing the British Empire. England was forced to wrestle with what to do with the issue of governing Ireland, while Ireland had to deal with England’s powers over them.

Civil society can be a slippery concept, and like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. It isn’t business, and it isn’t government, and yet both would be hamstrung without it. I see it as a flexible kind of space that business, government and citizens can all inhabit, and where they can all share some degree of power. Some people refer to it as the third sector, an aggregate of institutions such as clubs, churches, labour unions, NGOs, and advocacy groups. Some would also include educational institutions, as well as an independent judiciary, and a free press. Although the concept of civil society is not to be confused with the concept of democracy, it does create the kind of space that often saves democracy from itself.

It would be impossible to imagine life today if the only legal, political and moral space we had to act in was a polarized combination of family-based connections, buttressed by the expectations of inheritance and land rights; and on the other hand, the rights and duties of governments and monarchs with unchecked powers. That was the way that Europe had been governed for centuries, but in a global economy, there also needed to be a space where merchants, legislators, dissidents, or artists could thrive, and where individuals could seek meaningful redress, and also have a voice that could be heard.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment bent their mind around this conundrum, and in the decades that followed, the concept of civil society took root. The need for such a space became urgent in part because of the difficulties of managing the affairs of the ever-expanding British Empire. It was being challenged by the yeastiness of American entrepreneurs and politicians, as well as the special needs of Ireland, and the not totally unrelated needs of the slave trade. In the absence of the buffers and protections of civil society, the best option that the early international merchants had was to hire brothers, cousins, uncles, or whoever else could carry on trade in remote regions and not risk cheating them. After all: Distance was a strong solvent of trust.

Enter the invention of the coffee house. In 1650, an entrepreneur known only as “Jacob” opened the first coffee house in Western Europe at the Angel Inn on High Street, Oxford. Its noveltie was multilayered. A wide range of classes were free here to mingle and exchange ideas and information. Merchants absorbed the latest gossip from sea captains; students threw off the yokes of the received wisdom of their professors and intellectual sociability replaced academic discourse as the focus of many.

England was fertile ground for germinating the seed of a new idea of civilization. The ground had been broken and tilled by the Civil War; old habits and assumptions had been shaken. The collapse of controls on printing and publication in the 1640s allowed a new kind of contestatory print politics to emerge, particularly in the form of the “mercuries”, regularly published newspapers.

The thinking that percolated in the early coffee houses was not unlike that which centuries later would fuel many of the dissidents in Eastern Europe - men such as Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, and the poet Czesław Miłosz. In both instances, men acted as if they were free, and the longer they did that, the as if started to melt away, and new freedoms emerged. The early United Irishmen of the late 1700s were also part of this continuum. Although the freedom did not last, they were initially free to think and act because of the space carved out a century earlier:

Dublin had a newspaper, the Dublin Newsletter, from 1685, through which Dunton [editor of the Athenian Mercury] could advertise his wares. He could conduct his book sale at Dick's in Skinner's Row, circulate the catalog to coffeehouses in provincial cities like Kilkenny and Cork to find buyers, and even conduct a pamphlet dispute with the bookseller Patrick Campbell from the new vantage point of Patt's coffeehouse on the High Street.

Much of what occurred at these coffee houses was practical, not theoretical. One of them became a market for marine insurance. Why not? Asymmetrical information is a well known recipe for exploitation, and coffee house gossip balanced the stories put out by vested interests. By hearing about the latest crop failures in America, shipwrecks in the West Indies, or the price of butter being shipped from Cork, even the smaller merchants could minimize their risks.

Coffee house chat also went hand in glove with the political and social changes that were in play by the end of the 1600s. One of the most effective weapons in William of Orange’s arsenal was not the skills of his pike men, but the effects of his printed propaganda, distributed through the mails and the coffee houses of England and Ireland. By then, it was clear that the informal connections of the coffee shops had begun to be co-opted by various kinds of power brokers, and had become a necessary part of the toolkits of governments and Empires. At the same time, trade and mercantile connections were becoming as valuable as title to land had once been.

As the 18th Century evolved, the coffee house societies began to be supplanted by private clubs - a new social institution perfectly adapted to the needs of the governing elite in the new British Empire. The atmosphere of such clubs is well known to watchers of period dramas. Their private coffee rooms were “on a large scale, and fitted up in the style of superior splendor to what is usually observed in our more fashionable taverns”.  Add in the ever-present smoking rooms, as well as the libraries, and the Morning Room where men could read newspapers and magazines in peace and quiet, and the ruling elite were now well positioned to run the Empire as well as their own interests in the company of like-minded and like-funded movers and shakers.

At this time, social power in Ireland, which had been mostly based on land tenure, was shifting in ways that differed from the economic and political changes in England. Ireland had no coal, or major industries, aside from the linen trade. They had been bludgeoned in the Civil War in ways that England had largely avoided, and as a result a much militarized countryside had become polarized into opposing camps.

Civil society was supposed to be the key that allowed Irish thinkers to understand the complexities of Irish life in a more insightful and powerful manner and so to master them. The surprise of violence in Ireland, particularly of scale, and the re-emergence of old ethnic and sectarian forms of political allegiance confounded all expectations and forced thinkers and practical politicians to reconsider the most fundamental categories they used to explain and guide their experience. The appeal to civil society, which was supposed to end conflict, instead was found to drive it. Eventually all parties had to abandon the classic interpretation of civil society as an understanding of the polity and embrace new ideals.

This tragedy didn’t only hamstring legislators and citizens, it also kneecapped traders. Merchants at the port at Cork may have exported more beef than any other port in the world, and had organized markets for supplying this beef, pork, and butter from the hinterland but they were powerless when they came smack up against the economic interests of the Empire. Catholics were the most disadvantaged. Irish Protestants had no difficulty in negotiating complex identities. Their social position as landowners integrated them into local societies governed by norms of deference, influence, and privilege. These Irish Protestants, people like my ancestors, even used theological precedents to buttress their case:

The biblical image of the justified remnant, set apart amidst danger and providentially delivered, was a powerful representation of the community. It was even capacious enough to be extended to dissenters when the latter events of the Williamite wars demanded interpretation. After the siege of Derry, dissenters could, if necessary, be included within the central mythic narrative identity, while continuing to be excluded from political representation by the Test Acts.

We might think that the equating of religious obligations with commercial actions is a thing of the past, but then again, listen to much of the language used in contemporary American politics. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Then, just as now, the commercial wolf becomes the religious lamb in the blink of an eye. My favourite example from Civil Society is how the 1700s subscribers to the Bank of Ireland were encouraged to invest:

If the universal consent of all civilized nations in all ages has placed charity at the head of the moral virtues; if Christ himself has given at the preference of all Christian as well as moral virtues; let us then try whether erecting a bank here, that will take no higher interest than 5%, will not be the most charitable undertaking that private men can set about, or the Legislature enact into a law.

In writing this piece for my blog, I cannot do justice to all the themes explored in Lindsey’s book. Even so, I should at least mention the chapter on the Black family who lived in Co. Antrim,  Co. Down, Co. Armagh, America, and Bordeaux. Their story will be of interest to many of my readers. It also explains why so many Irish traders used the Isle of Man as a smuggling base. The Irish sensibilities and affiliations of the Blacks, and other such merchants, were simultaneously an asset and a liability. They were both rooted, and rootless. One of them, John Black - who died in 1767 – named his home Blamont after his earlier home in Bordeaux. He had it built at Ballintaggart, Parish of Kilmore, Armagh. As I follow his story, I appreciate how his Presbyterian Irish family ties enabled him to prevail in trade for as long as he did.

Stories such as this also leave me wanting to learn more. For example, this John Black recalled: “After the break of Dromore the Irish were coming sparing neither age nor sex putting all of the sword without mercy myself carried in the dark night aboard my father ship”. The convergence of faith and place makes me wonder if he might be connected to a much later James Black (d. 1828) of Woodford, Dromara, Co. Down. James was a chandler who married a niece of Thomas Ledlie Birch aka Blubbering Birch, who was the famous or infamous United Irishman who was deported for sedition. James’ son, Rev James Birch Black, served as a minister at 1st Dromora until he was suspended for drunkenness, and died 5 months later in 1823 leaving a widow and children. A connection here is likely.

All this aside, what matters even more than the particulars of these Blacks, is that their story is one of those that shows us how the fortunes of such Irish merchants rose and fell with the tides of the British Empire, and how such outcomes challenged the thinkers of their time.  Fortunately, we are the beneficiaries of their radical thinking, and all because:

[They were]... hopeful that they could describe the life of a modern commercial Empire in a way that would save the local traditions of civility. In order to accommodate themselves to commercial empire they were given to reconsider notions of moral excellence and identity, even of fundamental theology, that had provided the common languages of moral experience for hundreds of years. Their seemingly modest claims for the “common life” or the everyday made them unfit for their old moral and political habitats and drove them to seek to adapt the environment to fit their new expectations. The consequences of that effort, its successes and failures, still structure our ideas of civil society.

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