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Whittington, Valerie Anne.pdf (4.26 MB)

Acting upon a concern: British Quakers, democracy, utopia and the Republican Tradition

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Version 2 2023-09-24, 08:49
Version 1 2023-06-10, 00:43
posted on 2023-09-24, 08:49 authored by Valerie Whittington

This thesis examines the political engagement of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain through a study of secondary literature and interviews with Quakers and Attenders at Quaker Meetings in England. The contribution to knowledge offered by the thesis is an examination of British Quaker political engagement, through Quaker concern* and the Quaker decision-making method of discernment†, in the light of theoretical material drawn from social and political thought.

Whereas in extant Quaker studies, British Quakerism is described primarily as a theologically liberal, or a liberal-Liberal religion, this thesis reappraises that description in the light of current Quaker political activism and the democratic republican tradition.

The republicanism referred to is associated primarily with radical and utopian socialist politics. It is identified firstly, in the kinds of left-green politics that predominate in British Quaker activism and secondly, in the decision-making process undertaken by Friends, individually and corporately, in identifying concerns and in testing them.

This process of discernment, which takes place within a Quaker ethical habitus of interpersonal respect, is found to be a critical-historical process, responsive to the political reality of the present. It exposes a gap perceived by Quakers, between the world as it is, and as it should be in the light of Quaker discernment and testimonies. While decisions require ‘unity’, in theory a single dissenting voice can prevent this. The role of ‘hope’‡ in Quakerism mediates theological and political ‘certainty’ in that the ‘rightness’ of all decisions is subject to ongoing discernment. This leads Quakers to treat their decision making (and their faith) as non-coercive. In light of this, it is claimed that British Quakerism is prefigurative of a ‘community of all individuals’ as posited by French political theorist Miguel Abensour.

Despite decision-making without votes, Quakers are an example of a non-coercive community, engaged in a form of strongly deliberative democratic self-governance, imbued with republican virtues. This non-totalitarian form of governance enables and upholds utopian political endeavours aimed at achieving collective goods. It offers a counterexample to the decline towards totalitarian forms of governance regarded by some theorists as inevitable when radical republicanism embraces utopian projects.

* see page 1.

† see pages 2-3.

‡ see pages 42-45, and Chapter 6.


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Darrow Schecter Sarah Sawyer

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